Into the Fire at Chancellorsville The Battle of Chancellorsville by Kurz and Allison. Library of Congress.
Richard H. Townsend was a 2nd lieutenant in Company C of the 12th New Jersey Infantry who met his demise at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863. Townsend was born in 1839 to William and Hannah Townsend of Cape May, New Jersey. He came from a large farming family and was the fourth of nine children. In 1859, he seems to have found employment as a seaman out of the port of Philadelphia, likely as a way to strike out on his own, earn his own wages, and escape the slow pace of the family farm. At the time of the 1860 census, Townsend is listed as residing with his parents on their Cape May, New Jersey farm, though it is fairly likely that he was not spending much of his time there due to his job.
On June 13th, 1861, Townsend married Mary Tomlin in the town of Goshen, New Jersey. On December 9th, 1861, about six months after his wedding to Mary, Townsend’s son, Edwin was born. Richard Townsend was not present for the birth of his son and likely never met him, as he had enlisted as a first sergeant in Company B of the 10th New Jersey Infantry Volunteers on September 30th of 1861.
Townsend seemingly joined the Army as soon as he could. He likely saw serving in the military as a way to provide for his family financially, as he had just gotten married and had a child on the way. Townsend was also very likely caught up in the excitement and patriotic fervor of the early war when he went to enlist in the army. Many northern men believed enlisting to be their patriotic duty, as by joining the army they would be helping to quash an illegal rebellion that was threatening to tear apart their beloved country, the United States. Many men also saw the war as a chance to embark on a heroic adventure that would allow enlistees the opportunity to see more of the country than they ever had before, the prospect of which Townsend probably also found appealing.
After leaving the state of New Jersey the day after Christmas, the regiment made its way to the nation’s capital. Upon their arrival in Washington D.C., the men of the 10th New Jersey were assigned provost duty, a job that they held until April of 1863. They did not see any combat during Townsend’s entire 18 month time with them, which probably came as both a relief and a source of frustration for the men. Instead of getting to enter the fight as many of them craved, Townsend and his 10th New Jersey comrades instead spent their time trying to stave off camp boredom while assigned to the monotonous job of provost duty.
On the same day that he was mustered out of the 10th New Jersey on April 9, 1863, Townsend received his officer’s commission in Company C of the 12th New Jersey Infantry. As a brand new second lieutenant who had not yet seen combat, Townsend experienced his trial by fire by being almost immediately thrust into the Chancellorsville Campaign with the 12th New Jersey. The men of the 12th New Jersey were just as new to battle as Townsend was, never having fought in a major battle before. The men of the 12th fought bravely at Chancellorsville, stubbornly holding their lines despite being positioned poorly and coming under heavy fire.
The Battle of Chancellorsville was an eye-opening experience for Townsend and the men of the 12th New Jersey. The men of the 12th keenly felt the embarrassment shared by the Army of the Potomac over their recent defeat, and they hoped that they would soon get the chance to redeem themselves. Their chance for redemption came swiftly in the form of the Gettysburg Campaign.
Perhaps Townsend went into the Gettysburg Campaign with some trepidation. At this point, Townsend was still fairly new to his role as a second lieutenant, as he had only been promoted three months prior. As a lower ranking officer, he would have been in close contact with the men he was commanding. He would have had a good idea as to what the general feelings of his men were at any given time, and likely shared many of their sentiments. Townsend probably felt that his men deserved a chance at redemption after they had fought hard but still ultimately lost the battle at Chancellorsville.
Despite likely having some reservations after seeing what war was really like at Chancellorsville, Townsend probably awaited his next battle with some level of excitement. Thoughts of his wife and young son likely weighed heavily on his mind as he went into battle for the second time, as Townsend probably hoped that he would simply emerge from the battle alive and mostly unscathed.
One of the Unlucky Few Pickett's Charge by Thure de Thulstrup, 1887. Wikimedia Commons.
Reverberations A bas relief commemorating the regiment's fight at the Bliss Barn. Fyre2387, Wikimedia Commons.
Richard Townsend had not been in the 12th New Jersey for very long when he was killed, but he had likely made a few friends in the three months he was with them. Townsend’s death would prove to be fairly conspicuous, as he was the only man from Company C and one of only two officers from the 12th New Jersey to be killed at Gettysburg. His death was noted by one of his fellow officers, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Thompson, in a letter that Thomson wrote home to his sister after the battle. In the letter, Thompson wrote that “Lieutenant Richard Townsend, son of William Townsend of Dennisville, was shot dead. He joined our regiment on the 30th of June.” Like Townsend, Richard Thompson was from Cape May, New Jersey, and may have known Townsend before the war, or at least may have been familiar with him or his family.
The loss of soldiers in battle often caused the communities where the men were from to come together and collectively mourn the loss of their ‘bold soldier boys.’ The war left behind many widows, orphans, and bereaved families creating new identities that effected individuals carried with them for the rest of their lives. Richard Townsend was just 24 years old at the time of his death and left behind a young wife and child, as well as a large extended family. Townsend’s family was almost definitely devastated by his loss. Like many families of soldiers killed on faraway battlefields, the process of mourning was made more difficult by the fact that Richard was buried in Gettysburg and not somewhere close to home. Unlike some families who went to great lengths to recover the bodies of their deceased loved ones, Townsend’s family did not choose to come retrieve his remains, likely due to financial constraints and the overall challenge of getting a body home from the battlefield.
Townsend’s family could, however, take comfort in the fact that because he was an officer, his body was likely treated with a greater level of care than most enlisted men. He was probably afforded a coffin, and, unlike many soldiers killed in action, was not buried without an identity in an unmarked grave somewhere on the battlefield. By ensuring that he was buried properly with his identity intact, Townsend’s comrades ensured that he was given some semblance of ‘the good death,’ a privilege that many soldiers were not afforded due to the nature of the war.
Townsend’s son, Edwin was just a toddler when Richard was killed and would grow up without the chance to ever really know his father except through stories told by others who had known him in life. Townsend’s young wife, Mary, had to find a way to support herself and her son following the loss of her husband. In 1870, she was listed as living with and keeping house for her aging father, John Tomlin. It is likely that Mary Townsend kept in close contact with her deceased husband’s family, as they all continued to live in the same small town and probably served as a support network for each other in their time of mourning.
While Mary Townsend’s life was not the easiest after the death of Richard Townsend, she seemed to be someone who was able to cope with what life threw at her. She appears to have had a decent network of people supporting her when times became tough, starting with her father, who took her and her son in after Richard’s death. She did eventually remarry and had several children with her second husband, Benjamin Springer, though her marriage may not have been entirely happy, as Springer seems to have suffered from mental health problems. After Benjamin Springer was institutionalized, Mary’s son, Edwin appears to have stepped in and taken over the operations of the family farm for her.
The 12th New Jersey went on to fight admirably in several other major battles, including the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. After the war, the men of the 12th New Jersey wished to commemorate the sacrifice made by their slain comrades in the form of a monument. As Gettysburg was the site of their first and proudest battlefield victory, the Gettysburg battlefield seemed to be a fitting location for such a monument to be placed. The 12th New Jersey Monument at Gettysburg was dedicated in 1888, standing as testament to the men of the 12th, including Townsend, who had made the ultimate sacrifice for the Union cause.
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“12th Regiment, New Jersey Infantry.” Union New Jersey Volunteers. National Park Service. Accessed March 10, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-battle-units-detail.htm?battleUnitCode=UNJ0012RI.
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Narrative and map by Laurel Wilson, Gettysburg College.