From our Archives - Augustus Perkins
Shared by Sandy Chamberlain
The Civil War was a dark time in our nation’s history. Many, many lives were lost, including some local men. Augustus Perkins was one of those men.
Augustus Simeon Perkins, son of Edward Henry and Susan Welles Perkins was born July 13th, 1838. He was the youngest of three brothers who all served in the Civil War. Augustus entered the Army at the commencement of the War in 1861, two days shy of Christmas. He mustered in as a 1st Lieutenant and by July gained the captaincy of Company I. While serving, he fell at his post of duty during the Battle of Fredericksburg, VA on December 11th, 1862. He was the only officer in the NY Engineers to be killed during the entire Civil War. He was just 24 years old.
From an article written by Ryan Quint: For a unit raised in the fall of 1861 and one that served the entire war, the fact that Perkins was the New Yorkers’ only officer combat fatality is simultaneously surprising, and, on the other hand, not at all. As engineers, it was not the New Yorkers’ responsibility to stand on a firing line and blaze away at oncoming enemies; they worked in the rear of the Army of the Potomac.
Perhaps their most important work was bridge building. Without pontoon bridges, the Union Army was stranded. And in the winter of 1862 that became especially clear as the Army of the Potomac sat idly by, waiting to cross the Rappahannock River into Fredericksburg.
On December 10th, the Army’s engineers met at Chatham, the colonial mansion on the heights overlooking Fredericksburg. Told of their mission, the engineers set off to prepare their men. That afternoon, Perkins joined Captain Wesley Brainerd, another officer in the 50th on a surveying of the position they would soon bridge over. Around 11p.m., the unit began to shuffle toward positions. About 2 a.m. Thursday, December 11, they arrived on the bank opposite Fredericksburg. To kick off the battle, first the engineers had to put up their pontoons, a task they had done countless times before. About 5 a.m. their work was interrupted by two cannon shots booming across the water. This time, the Confederates were dug in and waiting for the engineers. Instead of the rearguard, the engineers became the vanguard.
Sergeant Thomas Owen stated he was standing next to Perkins as Companies I and II began construction of the second bridge. “We were in the act of unloading a pontoon boat by sliding it off the hind end of a wagon that had been backed up close to the water. Captain Perkins was helping us, and was pulling on a small rope attached to the boat; and just as it slid off the wagon, the enemy opened fire on us.” Thomas wrote, “He had been killed instantly.”
From the Annals of Early Athens: “Gus Perkins was a Captain in Colonel Stuart’s 50th N.Y. Engineers. His company were laying a pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg. The Confederate sharpshooters on the other side of the river were creating such havoc that Gus orders his men to lie down, for protection. That brave six-footer remained standing, (heedless of the entreaties of his devoted Sergeant, that he also lie down), making an ideal target for a sharpshooter, who shot him through the neck. His body was brought home by that same devoted Sergeant.”
Through an email correspondence with John Hennessy, Chief Historian/Chief of Interpretation at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, we learned Captain Perkins had been interred temporarily at Chatham under a spruce tree. The information came from a notation in one of the notebooks kept by Clara Barton. It reads, “Captain Perkins buried underneath a spruce tree, on the left of the walk in front of the Lacy House. Fredericksburg is blazing in every quarter and one of the heaviest cannonades taking place which has occurred during the war. 4 o’clock PM 22 Dec. 62”
Mr. Hennessy then took the notation and researched historic photographs of Chatham and “Sure enough, there appears clearly a spruce tree, which allows us to locate pretty precisely the interim grave of Captain Perkins, just a few feet from the front door of Chatham.” On December 12, the body was prepared for shipment north for burial. From Fredericksburg, to Aquia Creek, then to Washington, D. C. for embalming, then home to Athens, Pa, accompanied by Thomas Owen. Staying for the funeral, Owen was thrown off-guard by the sadness of the affair, writing, “Up to this time I had not fully realized what war was. This was the first time I witnessed the great sorrow of friends at home over the loss of their sons and brothers killed in war, and it left an impression on my mind that I shall never forget; and I returned to the front realizing more fully the great sacrifice of the noble lives that was being made for this country of ours, and with a determination to continue to do my duty to the best of my ability, that their lives might not be lost in vain.”
From the Annals of Early Athens, someone recalled, “I well remember when Augustus Perkins’ body was brought home. The sergeant who brought it was the guest of my father and mother, and in the evening all the neighbors were asked to come in and hear his story of the great battle and his Captain’s death. The man had come right from the battle-field dirty and unshaven, and was abashed at the fashion of his entertainment. The funeral service was the first of a soldier in Athens and a sorrowful occasion.”
Again from the article by Ryan Quint: Brig. Gen, Daniel Woodbury, commanding the Army of the Potomac’s volunteer engineer brigade, noted that Perkins was a “fine officer, “ and Maj. Ira Spaulding, reflecting on losing the young captain, wrote that he was “a brave and efficient officer, and the service suffers a great loss in his death.” Perkins was widely respected by his men and in 1870 the local Grand Army of the Republic post in Athens, Pennsylvania was named in his honor (Perkins Post). It was to that post that Thomas Owen wrote eloquently, eulogizing his deceased officer some 35 years later. “We never had an officer whom we loved and respected as we did Captain Perkins. He was the nearest to my ideal of a perfect Captain of any man I ever saw.” Such was the reputation and memory of the only officer killed in action from the 50th NY Engineers.
Captain Perkins is buried in Tioga Point Cemetery.
To learn more about Captain Perkins and others who served in the Civil War, please visit Tioga Point Museum.
The Tioga Point Museum is open 12-8p on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the year. You’re invited to come and explore!