The 12th New Hampshire Infantry at the Battle of Chancellorsville

The 12th New Hampshire Infantry was formed in the summer of 1862 and entered Federal service in September of that year. The regiment was under the command Colonel Joseph Potter, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War. Assigned to the Union’s Army’s 3rd Corps, the regiment first saw action at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, but was only lightly engaged.  

At the end of April, 1863, the 12th New Hampshire and the rest of the 3rd Corps remained across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg while the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General Joseph Hooker, concentrated three of his corps around Chancellorsville and engaged the Confederates on May 1st. Hooker then ordered the 3rd Corps to march to Chancellorsville, and it arrived on May 2nd, going into position near a local ironworks called Catherine Furnace.  At the same time, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was executing his famous flank march around to the Union right.

 At about 5:45 p.m., Jackson attacked the Union 11th Corps, catching it by surprise, and driving the Federals back in a rout. The 12th New Hampshire was in danger of being overrun as the 11th Corps retreated in chaos, but the New Hampshire men were able to safely withdraw.

The next day, the 12th New Hampshire was placed in position along a stream in a cleared area called Fairview. Major General JEB Stuart, in command of Jackson’s Corps after Stonewall’s wounding the night before, was attacking and pushing back the Federals that were in front of the 12th’s position. Even though the men of the 12th were lying down, several were killed and wounded as the battle moved closer to them. Finally, the regiment, and another one on the 12th’s right were ordered to attack.

The men of the 12th got up and advanced, but despite the best efforts of the their officers to get them up and going, few men in the other regiment moved. The 12th New Hampshire was on its own. The regiment moved up to the top of a hill.  Colonel Potter halted the advance, pointed to towards the enemy with his sword, and said “There the devils are. Give them hell”. 

The men of the 12th opened fire. Potter had been ordered to engage and hold the enemy in place either for “as long as possible” or “until the last man falls” depending on the witness.  The regiment stood its ground against Brigadier General George Doles’ brigade of the 4th, 12th, 21st , and 44th Georgia regiments. The outnumbered New Hampshire men began taking casualties immediately, with a disproportionally large number of officers getting hit. Colonel Potter was hit in the leg and carried from the field; he would be captured before the end of the day. Lieutenant Colonel John F. Marsh, who was directing the action of the right side of the line was also shot in the leg and had to retire from the field. Major George D. Savage was shot in jaw and seriously wounded; his brother, Company A commander Captain Moses H. Savage was killed.  Sergeant Richard Musgrove was standing near Company D’s commander, Captain Orlando Keyes, when the Captain has shot in the heart and killed, the blast sending Keyes into the air.

Despite its losses, the regiment held on, delaying Dole’s advance for an hour and a half. The men had been issued sixty cartridges each and many used them up and took more from the dead and wounded. As the fight continued, Confederate units were moving around the 12th, and the regiment was in danger of being cut off. By this time, the only officers left on the field were a few lieutenants, and one of them, Lieutenant Edwin E. Bedee, finally ordered the 12th to retreat. With more Rebels quickly closing in on the diminished regiment, it was a race to the rear for the survivors, who headed towards the new  Union line forming  near the  Chancellor House. After reaching the Federal lines, the badly cut up regiment was allowed to go to the rear. The 12th New Hampshire’s fighting at the Battle of Chancellorsville was over.

It had been an extremely costly day of fighting for the 12th. The regiment went into action with 558 officers and men and  lost 41 killed, 213 wounded, and 63 missing (most of whom were captured), for a total of 317 casualties. This was by far the most casualties of any Union regiment at Chancellorsville (another Third Corps regiment, the 141st Pennsylvania, was second with 235 total casualties). Thirty one of the wounded died later of their wounds, bringing the total number of dead up to 72.Twenty six of the 28 officers present were either wounded or killed.

The 12th New Hampshire had done its duty and delayed a portion of the Confederate onslaught that day allowing time for a new Union line to form, but at a terrible price. This would not be the last very costly battle that the 12th would fight in. The regiment would also suffer heavy casualties two months later at Gettysburg and again at Cold Harbor in June of 1864.

Sources:

The Autobiography of Capt. Richard W. Musgrove

Chancellorsville
by Stephen W. Sears

History of the Twelfth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion by Asa W. Bartlett

Men of Granite: New Hampshire’s Soldiers in the Civil War
by Duane E. Shaffer

Regimental Losses in the American Civil War 1861-1865 by William Fox

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