FULL MEASURE — Headstone of Lewis Wilcox at the Rome Cemetery. His story, and that of the 50th New York Engineers, are part of Rome’s rich historic past. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

Lewis Wilcox, the 50th New York Engineers remembered

Published Jul 30, 2017 at 9:00am

Walking the historic grounds of Rome Cemetery, you may find your way to a more well known monument of Francis Bellamy the author of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance , but tucked away in the back right corner, surrounded by other Civil War veterans, lays the body of a lesser know individual, Pvt. Lewis Wilcox of the 50th New York Engineers. His old cracked headstone reads “Lewis Wilcox Killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg”, thus providing the reader with little information about the individual.

According to the 1860 Census for Rome, Lewis Wilcox is listed as 36-years old, born in Connecticut around 1824, with $400 of personal assets and the professional title of a merchant. Under his roof lived his wife Margaret Wilcox, 28, a miller and had $300 of personal assets; his daughter, Cecelia Wilcox, age 8, and also an apprentice of his wife named Mary Cady, age 15.

Almost a year later on April 12, 1861 the Civil War would begin with the shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. President Abraham Lincoln would call to arms a force of “75,000 Volunteers” to subdue the rebellion in the Southern states. That number would then increase as the war dragged into 1862 through 1865.

The 50th New York Engineers would have a very different role in the war than many units raised. First, the 50th seems to have recruited out of the entirety of New York State. Many men can be found in its ranks as far west as Livingston County, to Oneida County, as well as men mustering into the regiment from New York City.

The 50th New York Engineers are also raised under impression that they will serve as infantry, initially being raised as the 50th New York Infantry. However, the Regular Army Corps of Engineers is so insufficient in numbers, General McClellan is forced to transfer the 50th along with the 15th New York to serve as engineers alongside the U.S. Regulars Corps of Engineers. The 50th New York would serve in most major campaigns of the Army of the Potomac.

The role of engineers during the Civil War was that of building. Essentially, these troops would be used to lay bridges, build fortifications as well as design them, clear roads for troop movement and among other things establish evacuation routes and hospitals for the wounded. Any structure built by the Army involved the work of Engineers.

Lewis Wilcox is listed in the 50th NY Engineers roster as mustering in with Company C Sept. 11, 1862. Exactly 3 months to the day later, Lewis Wilcox would meet his fate at Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

As 1861 turned into 1862, Southern victories in the east were prolific The Confederacy was pushing the Army of the Potomac back all over Virginia. It wasn’t until a run of bad luck that General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland in September would bring his trail of success to a halt, for a short time. A new sense of hope had risen for the Union cause and with that a new commanding officer to replace the ever cautious General McClellan.

President Lincoln was in search of a imminent resolution to this terrible war and its form came in the shape of General Ambrose Burnside. General Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac in November of 1862. His plan, essentially, was to build up troops in Falmouth, VA and a fake staging point of troops at Warrenton, Va.

Once ready, the Army of the Potomac would cross the Rappahannock River toward Richmond in a hope that Lee would concentrate on Burnside’s troops in Warrenton and his advance would go untouched toward Richmond. Burnside had been aware of the build up of Confederate forces in and around the town of Fredericksburg as early as November of 1862. President Lincoln urged him to move quickly toward Richmond.

However, with any large army supplies are often slow to arrive when needed. The use of pontoon bridges would be used to cross the Rappahannock river from Falmouth into Fredericksburg. Those materials wouldn’t arrive until Dec. 11, 1862. By that time Confederate forces had already occupied the town and had dug into fortified positions outside the town as well.

On the morning of Dec. 11, 1862, Pvt. Lewis Wilcox and the men 50th and 15th New York Engineers were ordered to build five pontoon bridges across the river for the army to cross into Fredericksburg and secure it. As the fog cleared, confederate soldiers could make out blue figures in the distance building pontoon bridges to cross. With careful aim, men under the command of General William Barksdale opened fire on the engineers. Major Ira Spaulding was commanding the 50th New York Engineers at Fredericksburg and wrote a description of the their tasks in his field report dated December 12, 1862 it reads:

“At about 6 a.m., when one of the upper bridges and the lower bridge were two-thirds completed, and the other about one-fourth built, the enemy opened a galling fire upon us at the upper bridges, from the houses near the shore and from behind walls and fences, killing one captain and two men, and wounding several others. One bridge had approached so near the south shore that the men at work upon it were within 80 yards of the enemy, who were under cover, while the infantry supporting us on the flanks were at long range, and could do little damage to the enemy. My men were working without arms; had no means of returning the enemy’s fire, and were driven from the work. We made two more unsuccessful attempts to complete this bridge, and were each time driven back with considerable loss in killed and wounded”

Lewis Wilcox would not make it through the day. He would be shot dead in the opening shots of the Battle of Fredericksburg while crucially laying pontoon bridges the morning of Dec. 11, 1862. He is one of; if not the first, casualty of the Battle of Fredricksburg that would claim a staggering 13,353 Union casualties to follow. His body would be recovered and returned to his family and Rome for burial a few weeks after the battle. A small article in The Roman Citizen dated Friday, Jan. 2, 1862 titled “The Patriots Fallen” reads:

“The bodies of Lewis Wilcox, and W.P. Butts, of this town, and Byron Nesbit of Lee, arrived in this village on Wednesday evening last, at 7 1/2 o’clock. They were expected on the noon express, and the Gansevoort Light Guard, Capt. Rowe, turned out during the day to furnish an escort for the bodies of the gallant dead, but for some cause they did not arrive until evening. The friends of the deceased were present, and the honored dead were taken that their dust might be deposited with that of their kindred and friends. The funeral of Mr. Wilcox was attended at the Court Street M.E. Church ( of which he was a member) yesterday. The services were of highly solemn character, and many a moistened eye attested the sympathy for the dead soldier and his bereaved family. The Gansevoort Light Guards were present as a military escort, and accompanied the body to the grave, and fired the usual number of volleys at the close of services.”

The story of Lewis Wilcox is but one of the many thousands of personal struggles that men, families, and communities endured during the great American struggle known as the Civil War. It is important that we today, as Americans, do not let their stories of bravery, sacrifice, and devotion to their cause and country be lost to the pages of history.