The Death of Col. John Williams Patterson in the Wilderness
by William A. Phillis III *
Colonel John Williams Patterson of the 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry (Wheaton's Brigade, Getty's Division of the VI Corps) was killed at the corner of Brock Road and Orange Plank Road on May 5th, 1864. Col. William H. Moody of the 139th Pennsylvania wrote of Col. Patterson's death, "Col. John W. Patterson, of Pittsburgh, commanding the 102d, was shot dead on that day. Poor Patterson! I shook hands and spoke with him just before the advance was ordered, and a moment afterwards he received a bullet through the brains. May Heaven console his stricken widow and children. "'After life's fitful fever he sleeps well"'. Colonel Patterson was my paternal great-great grandfather. Col. Patterson was buried at the 6th Corps hospital after the battle, his body was moved to Cemetery No. 2 on the southwest corner of Brock and Orange Plank after the war and ultimately his body was removed by his family to Pittsburgh in 1869. His wooden grave marker from Cemetery No. 2 was put on my dresser when I was born and resided there for 61 years until I loaned it to the NPS for display at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Museum.
Colonel John W. Patterson
Col. Patterson's death was a disaster for his family. Almira Wendt Patterson, the widow of the colonel, was orphaned at age 12, widowed at 29 and her youngest child, Mary Richards Patterson, died of scarlet fever at the age of 6. Almira and John's children, Fred Wendt Patterson (b. 1860) and Agnes Wendt Patterson (b. 1861) were made wards of the Orphans Court in Pittsburgh and the widow's house and belongings were sold by the court. The widow lived on a Widow's Pension until she died in 1908 and was buried in New Brighton, Pennsylvania in a grave marked "Almira Patterson, Wife of Colonel John W. Patterson". Chapter No. 151 of the GAR was named after Col. Patterson.
Patterson was wounded severely at the Battle of Fair Oaks on May 31st, 1862. He was shot through the left chest collapsing his left lung. The wound was listed by the attending physicians as "probably fatal" and "probably mortal".
He survived and following a partial recovery he rejoined his regiment the day before the Battle of Antietam. On September 14th he wrote from "Offut's X Roads Md." "I am somewhat better but the discharge from my lung more copious. I will get well and do my beloved country service. May God grant it." On Sept 22nd he wrote from the battlefield, "...the Rebs had enough...they recrossed (sic) the river to Virginia. They were terribly cut up. I rode over the battlefield on Thursday and Friday and never saw, or wish to again see, such a sight. They fought like fiends and lay in heaps in every direction. Around two pieces of Artillery of theirs, I disabled. They lay two deep in many places. This not only shows their daring bravery but their determination."
During the Battle of Fredericksburg he wrote from the battlefield on Sunday the 14th of December, 1862, "We were taken to the front yesterday afternoon and lay under fire until 9 oclock last night. We were then brought back to out old position. We are now lying under cover of a small eminence, shells bursting above and around us. Yet all is well."
Following the "Mud March" he wrote on January 26th, 1863, "Our move would no doubt have been successful but as usual we got stuck in the Mud. Ambrose may be a good man but he can't run this boat. Ambrose can run a division, or corps probably but the Army of the Potomac is above his caliber."
He was captured at Salem Church during the Chancellorsville Campaign. After being exchanged he wrote on May 25th 1863, "I arrived here this morning from Richmond, where I have been a prisoner since the 4th inst. I passed through the fight at Fredericksburg unharmed. It was the hottest battle I have ever witnessed. I was taken on May the 4th inst at 10 Oclock PM after the army had retired. We were "gobbled" I suppose. I would not leave the post where stationed and when the Rebs came they had an easy fray. I tried to get away but could not...94 men, including Jack our dog were brought in...." Rev. A. M. Stewart, the Chaplain of the 102nd, wrote in his book "Camp, March and Battlefield", "When the order to fall back was given, our regiment was in the extreme front, next to the enemy. By some oversight of drunken generals, cowardly aids, or ignorant orderlies we received no notice nor orders to fall back." ("Dog Jack", the regimental mascot was exchanged for a Confederate private.)
Captain David A. Jones of the 102nd Pennsylvania wrote to his father describing the Battle of the Wilderness. "We arrived at Brandy Station of the evening of the 3'd of May and on the morning of the 4th commenced moving in the direction of the Rapidan which stream we crossed without opposition about dusk on the same day. All was quiet but on the morrow (5th) the enemy began to show himself in large numbers in our front. Preparations were immediately made by us for an attack and out Brig ado had the honor (if any such there be) of opening a fight such as the world has never before seen and which has continued almost uninterruptedly every day since. Here our beloved Colonel (Col. John Williams Patterson) fell shot through the face the ball passing entirely through and lodging in his shoulder. Poor fellow he never moaned but ere his body touched the ground the immortal part had flown...but enough, the bones of one of the bravest soldiers that ever battled in the cause of freedom now lie mouldering (sic) beneath the cold colds of the narrow house. The heart that was once so warm towards all his friends has ceased to beat & his form once so manly is now food for the worms."
I believe the advance by three brigades of Getty's division (the 102nd Pennsylvania Regiment was one of Wheaton's Brigade) prevented the Union army from being bisected by A. P. Hill's Confederates. The Confederates were within 30 yards of securing the Orange Plank and Brock Road intersection when Getty's division arrived and opened fire. Warren's 5th Corps was on the Orange Turnpike engaged with Richard Ewell's Corps, Hancock's 2nd Corps was far to the south and if Hill had been able to take the intersection the Union army would have been cut in two parts. Hill could have then turned south and with Longstreet defeated Hancock and then turned north and driven what remained of the 5th and 6th corps back north across the Rapidan. It was this action of three brigades of Getty's Division that protected the Union army from possible destruction, cost Col. Patterson his life and plunged his widow Almira Wendt Patterson and her children into poverty.
I was taken to the corner of Brock Road & the Orange Plank Road when I was 10 years old and have returned many times thereafter. The Wilderness is truly hallowed ground.
This rare surviving headboard marked Patterson's first grave.
* Published in the Wilderness Dispatch Vol 8 No. 2 Summer 2003. courtesy of William A. Phillis III. © all rights reserved.
Written and submitted by William Phillis III - Colonel Patterson was Bill's great-great grandfather
Informational note: there is another article published in The Civil War News Vol XXVIII No. 1 January 2003 entitled Chancellorsville To Show Rare Family Artifacts by Deborah Fitts, in which Almira Patterson is pictured along with the photographs of Colonel Patterson and his first grave marker, shown above. The wood headboard as well as other artifacts & Photographs can be seen on display at the Chancellorsville unit of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.