We Might as Well Die Here

I feel like I’ve been on a roll with Civil War ancestors lately–sorry, not sorry. For the longest time, I had no connections to the Civil War, and my only knowledge of the years between 1861 and 1865 came from high school–and later, college–history textbooks. But then I started this blog–forcing me to comb through each generation for story after story–and I’ve found dozens of Civil War ancestors, including William Franklin Nation, Luther Strong Baker and Arthur and Wesley Cook. So here’s the next one–a story from my mom’s side of the family, this time–but, unfortunately, it’s more tragedy than triumph.

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State Flag of Pennsylvania, c. 1863 // This emblem appeared on the 53rd’s regimental flag

It’s a story about Adolphus Nelson: he was born in 1845 in Pennsylvania to George Nelson–a farmer who built the first water-powered saw mill in Allegany Township, Pennsylvania–and Abigail Cannon, who is still a mystery to me. Adolphus had an older sister and an older brother–Mary Helen (b. 1840) and Eli Holman (b. 1842)–and he would have grown up surrounded by extended family, attending Nelson Family Reunions every year since 1845. And that brings us to the Civil War (I haven’t found any articles or books or family Bibles detailing his childhood): on October 2, 1861, at the age of 16, he enlisted as a Private in Company G of the Pennsylvania 53rd Infantry Regiment. Their motto? We might as well die here.

A month later, the 53rd left Pennsylvania for Washington, D.C.; attached to the Army of the Potomac, Adolphus and his infantrymen were charged with the defense of Washington and Alexandria. But they kept moving; soon, they had advanced to Manassas, Virginia, had taken part in the Siege of Yorktown and had fought at the Battle of Seven Pines. The 53rd were present at Turkey Bend, Malvern Hill and Harrison’s Landing, and they fought bravely under the command of Colonel John R. Brooke, Lieutenant Colonel Richards McMichael and Major Philip Parisen. And on the morning of September 17, 1862, Adolphus ended up on a battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. The battle? Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American military history:

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At four A.M. of the 17th the regiment left its position on the Keedysville road, and moving a mile to the right, crossed Antietam Creek at a ford. It occupied the extreme right of the division. In front was the “sunken road” occupied by the enemy’s first line. His second line was protected by a stone wall on the hill beyond.

To the right and rear was an orchard, immediately in front of which was the cornfield where, subsequently, the battle raged with great fury. It was important to drive the enemy from this position, and the Fifty-third was chosen for the charge. Changing front to the rear, and advancing at double-quick, in a short but desperate contest it drove him from his well-chosen ground. The regiment was subsequently engaged in the hottest of the fight and shared the varying fortunes of the day.

The position gained was of great importance, and was held with tenacity until the regiment was ordered to the support of a battery. Lieutenant Weaver, of Company K, a brave young officer, was mortally wounded. The loss in killed and wounded was twenty-eight.

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Monument to the 53rd at Gettysburg

Brooke’s regiments “captured two colors and covered the ground with dead and wounded,” but at a cost: twenty-eight men, including Lieutenant Colonel Parisen, lost their lives in this tactically inconclusive fight. But it was a Union strategic victory, and it saw the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation five days later; although it was “the bloodiest day” of the United States’ deadliest war, it was a triumph of the Union Army. For my family, though, it would have been marred, in part, by tragedy: because on September 17, 1862, 17-year-old Adolphus Nelson–the youngest of George and Abigail’s three children–lost his life at the Battle of Antietam.

We might as well die here. Today, there’s an eighteen-feet-tall monument to the 53rd at Gettysburg–an infantryman wearing a greatcoat and carrying a knapsack, bedroll, canteen and cartridge box–that was dedicated on September 11, 1899. The Coudersport Soldiers’ Memorial has Adolphus’ name etched in stone, and he’s on every list of Pennsylvania infantryman I’ve found–he’s remembered. I’ve never come across anything like this motto, though, in all of my (eight) years of research: we might as well die here. It’s chilling, to think that a 16-year-old from a rural township of Pennsylvania enlisted under this motto–lost his life less than a year later under this motto. I’m thankful for Adolphus’ service, but I’m saddened by another tragic ending. Until my next Civil War story–Jamie

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