1862: Joseph Newton Jenkins to Francis Irving Park

The Winter 2019 Issue of Military Images features “Sunshine Soldiers”

In a recently published article appearing in Military Images, Vol. 3, No. 4, Joseph F. Bilby explores the service of New Jersey’s Nine Months Regiments at the Battle of Fredericksburg (“Sunshine Soldiers”). New Jersey raised eleven nine-months regiments in the fall of 1862 but only the 21st through the 28th New Jersey Volunteers were present at the Battle of Fredericksburg where their combined losses amounted to 44 killed, 365 wounded, and 85 missing. Most of those losses were sustained by the boys in the 24th and 28th regiments. The 29th, 30th and 31st New Jersey Volunteers were guarding stores at Aquia Creek—some 12 miles from Fredericksburg—and not present at the battle. But apparently at least one young man in the 30th New Jersey was an exception.

This incredible letter, just transcribed, was written by Joseph Newton Jenkins (1841-1890), the son of Joseph Boice Jenkins (1812-1889) & Sarah (“Sally”) Ann Northrup (1811-1878) of Plainfield, Union county, New Jersey.  “Newton”—as he preferred to be called—was 22 years old when he enlisted on 25 August 1862 in Co. H, 30th New Jersey Volunteers. He was mustered into the service on 17 September and promoted to sergeant on 3 November 1862. The regiment was sent to Washington D. C. initially and then marched through Maryland to Aquia Creek where they were put to work conveying wounded soldiers from railcars to steam transports. Taking advantage of an opportunity to travel to the battlefield during the four day battle, Newton shared his observations of the battlefield that he witnessed on Saturday (13 December) as Burnside’s army attacked the Rebel defenses on Marye’s Heights.

Newton was discharged from the service on 27 June 1863 and afterwards settled in Plainfield, New Jersey, where he married Mary Stothoff (1843-1920) and raised a family. On-line biographical information—though brief— makes no mention of his nine month service in the 30th New Jersey Infantry.

Newton’s obituary notice was published in the 17 March 1890 issue of the New York Herald: “Mr. J. Newton Jenkins died at his home at Franklin Place and Sixth Street, Plainfield, New Jersey, at three o’clock yesterday morning, from injuries received a few days ago. He was forty-nine years of age, and leaves a widow and four children. He had acquired a fortune as a contractor and house mover. He was a member of Plainfield Council, No. 711 Royal Arcanum, and of the Methodist Episcopal Church of that city.” His monument in the Plainfield Cemetery is inscribed with the words, “I have finished the work such thou gavest me to do.” [Note: the facial image of Newton below is actual but he was dressed in post-war civilian clothes and I have dressed him in an Union frock coat.]

Joseph Newton Jenkins—eyewitness to Battle of Fredericksburg

Addressed to Mr. F. I. Park, Chatham 4 Corners, Columbia Co., New York ¹
Soldier’s Letter: W[alter] Cammann, Maj. 30 N. J. V.

Aquia Creek
December 29th [1862]

Uncle Frank,

bordI am very anxious to find out what regiment Harry is in. I wrote you long ago but have received no answer yet.

On December 1st at 4 A.M., we left our comfortable quarters at Washington & marched 4 days down through Maryland & crossed over here. We are doing guard & fatigue duty on the wharf. We could hear the cannonading before Fredericksburg very plainly as it is but 12 miles from here.

On Saturday [13 December]—when the fight was the hardest—I was up there most all day & could see our men drop & then close up, but could not tell who they were. The rebs honored our little party with 2 shells. One went off in the mud about 20 feet from me & the other buried itself in the bank & I dug it out. If you will pay the postage, I will send it to you by mail. It weighs about 9 lbs. & is charged yet. Not ½ of their shells explode & ½ of those that do explode, go off up in the air. I saw lots of them.

Our loss there was not a man short of 16,000 killed & wounded. We unloaded 3 trains every night for 7 days in succession & put them on board of transports & for the past 4 days we have been loading the sick that have been sent from the Hospitals up at the front. I suppose you have read the papers & have studied the maps in them & have the opinion that it is a very strong point & so it is—-but alas!! Those newspaper correspondents have very fertile imaginations & make things worse than they really are.

They had horn batteries like this [see sketch in letter clipping at right] mounting 3 guns each—just plain earthworks thrown up. But the hillside was full of rifle pits & filled with men who had nothing to do but load & fire just as fast as they wished & as our men come up 3 lines of battle deep, they could pick off our men with ease while we could see nothing of them at all. Wherever our men made a charge, the rebs held their fire till they were very close & then they would mow them down with grape & canister & then they would fall back again or lie down just as they were ordered.

If we had had 6 heavy siege guns there to up [end] their batteries with, we would have had better luck. But it looks now as though we were going to whip them by another way. They have cleared the Hospitals at Falmouth of every man—wounded & sick—which makes me think that our folks mean to go at them again soon & they are building 4 large Hospitals near here & building railroads & public buildings here which makes me think that we are to hold Aquia creek for the future. If you were here you could get $2.00 per day & your board at carpentering & you would save the money for you could not spend it if you wanted to.

I am very well & am 2nd Sergeant having been promoted at Washington. We are encamped just back of the hill where the rebels had what they called Cockpit Point Battery ² which hindered the navigation of the Potomac all last winter. Just back of us was Beauregard’s Head Quarters & I sleep on some of the shingles that formed part of the roof of the house. There are about 200 log houses there varying from 6 ft by 10 to 40 & 60 by 20 & 25. They are now pulled down—the logs sawed up & are now used by the engines to take supplies to our army.

It has been quite cool but on Christmas & ever since, it has been so warm that we have our coats off & have no fires except at night. I wish you all a Happy New Year not even forgetting “Humbug.” I am fatter than I ever was since I can remember & feel strong & do not mind being on duty 24 hours at a time, 4 days in a week. But I must close this as there goes tattoo. Hoping that some of you will write about Harry & the rest, I will close. Give my love to Grandma & all my friends.

I am yours respectfully, — Jos. N. Jenkins

Paper is very scarce & it is hard work to get enough to write a letter on & as for stamps, I cannot get one for ten cents so I must beg your pardon for making this a “Soldier’s Letter” as that is the extent of my pile just now. Apples are 3 for 10 cents & small at that. Pies 7 inches across 20 cents with 2 slices of dried apple in & tough crusts. We get enough to eat & hard work. We lost 1 Lieutenant & 3 privates last week by Typhoid fever. There goes taps & now my light must be out. Direct as before. — Jos N.

Rebel Batteries at Cockpit Point as seen from across the Potomac River at Buddy’s Ferry (1861)

¹ Newton was identified as a 19 year-old in the household of 42 year-old Daniel Mickle when the census takers enumerated the residents of Chatham Four Corners, Columbia county, New York in August 1860 but no occupation was given for him which fails to add explanation for his presence there. However, we do know that Newton’s Uncle Francis (“Frank”) Irving Park (1827-1913) and Aunt Mary Moore (Northrup) Park (1828-1901)—to whom he addressed this letter—lived in Chatham Four Corners during the Civil War.

² In October 1861, the Confederates constructed batteries at Evansport (now downtown Quantico, consisted of two batteries on the river bank, and another 400 yd (370 m) inland), a CSA field battery located at the mouth of Chopawamsic Creek where it empties to the Potomac (now the Marine Corps Air Facility), Shipping Point (now Hospital Point on Quantico, number of guns unknown), Freestone Point (a CSA four-gun battery on the shore of the Potomac River, now within Leesylvania State Park), and Cockpit Point (near the current asphalt plant, consisted of six guns (one heavy gun) in four batteries, a powder magazine, and rear rifle pits, on top of a 75 ft (23 m) high cliff known as Possum Nose). By mid-December, the Confederates had 37 heavy guns in position along the river.


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