The Civil War veteran in my family tree

Since today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, I wanted to pay tribute to my very own Civil War ancestor – my second great-grandfather Samuel Davis Agin who served two separate tours of duty in the Union Army in 1862-63 and 1864-65.

Davis turned 20 a week before the April 1861 attack on Fort Sumter. The 1860 census shows he was living with his older brother Jacob and Jacob’s wife Mary in the little village of Wertsville in Amwell Township. Their father (and my third great-grandfather) John Agin, a 76 year old widower, was also living there.

Public opinion was divided in New Jersey when it came to the prospect of war with the Confederacy. The state had split its votes between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1860 election and Lincoln would go on to lose the state in 1864 to George McClellan. But after the outbreak of war, many young men rushed to enlist in the Union Army. One of these men was James Agin, Davis’s cousin, who answered the first (overly optimistic) call for three-month enlistments in April 1861.

Davis, notably, did not join that first wave of recruits. Perhaps he was reluctant to leave his elderly father (who seems to have died between the 1860 and 1870 census but I still can’t pinpoint the date). It was not until the summer of 1862, when the federal government started issuing calls for new enlistments for a war that was dragging on far longer than anyone had imagined, that Davis agreed to volunteer with the 21st Regiment of the New Jersey Infantry, signing up for a nine-month tour of duty. He was assigned to Company H.

The 21st Regiment was organized in Trenton and mustered in on September 15, 1862. The next day, it left for Washington, D.C. (I wonder if this was the first time Davis ever set foot outside his home state.) On September 18, the regiment then moved on to Maryland where it joined the Army of the Potomac on battlefield of Antietam.

Antietam, of course, was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war. On September 17, 1862 – the day before Davis and his comrades arrived – over 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing during 12 hours of savage combat. It was the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.

The fighting was over when Davis’s regiment arrived. But what must the scene have been like with the dead and the injured all about? One can scarcely imagine the sights and smells and sounds Davis would have encountered on his fourth day of military service.

Surveying the scene after the Battle of Antietam, September 1862.

After Antietam, the 21st Regiment was attached to Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Army Corps, Third Brigade, Second Division. Over the next nine months, these soldiers would move from Maryland into Virginia and play a role in some of the most famous episodes of the war, including the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862), the “Mud March” (January 1863), the Chancellorsville Campaign (April-May 1863) and the Battles of Marye’s Heights and Salem Heights (May 1863). The regiment was also reviewed by President Lincoln in the April 1863 “Grand Review of the Armies” at Falmouth, Virginia.

Fortunately for Davis, his nine-month commitment expired on June 19, 1863 when the regiment mustered out at Trenton. Otherwise he would have found himself heading for Gettysburg with the Sixth Army Corps.

Over that nine-month period, the regiment’s combat losses included its commanding officer, Col. Gilliam Van Houten, who died at Salem Heights, and 20 enlisted men. Another 30 men were killed by disease.

It’s not clear what Davis did after he returned to civilian life. He probably returned to his family and worked as a farmer. Fifteen months later, he would rejoin the Army, signing up this time with the newly created 38th New Jersey Regiment, Company I.

Why did he go back? In the summer of 1864, as the war continued to drag on, the federal government threatened to implement a draft in states that did not meet certain enlistment quotas. To meet this quota, the state of New Jersey gave counties and townships their own quotas to fill.

To help induce young men to enlist, the federal government gave Davis a $100 bounty or enlistment bonus and the local government most likely sweetened the pot. (I’m trying to research the exact amount.) The money was probably irresistible. Davis’s brother Jacob also enlisted in the 38th Regiment, Company F, leaving his wife Mary behind.

Davis and Jacob signed up for one-year commitments this time but their military service would end in June 1865 after only nine months. I have obtained a copy of Davis’s enlistment papers from the National Archives. It’s poignant to see that he had to sign the form with an “x.” It’s also interesting to see his name spelled as “Hagan” (it was Agin in the paperwork for his first term of duty). Since Davis couldn’t read or write, it’s not surprising that his name was spelled in varying ways over the course of his life. His brother Jacob signed up for the regiment under the name Agins.

When it left the state in September 1864, the 38th Regiment proceeded to Baltimore and then by transport ships to City Point, Virginia. For the duration of its service, the regiment was mostly assigned to garrison duty at Fort Powhattan on the James River. But toward the end of the war, in April 1865, the regiment did participate in the capture of Petersburg and in the final operations that forced the surrender of General Robert E. Lee.

The 38th Regiment was mustered out of service at City Point on June 30, 1865 and Davis and his comrades enjoyed a heroes’ welcome when they arrived back home in New Jersey on the Fourth of July.

I’m doing some deeper research on Davis’ experience in the military for future posts.

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7 Responses to The Civil War veteran in my family tree

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