Library & Archives
William T. Ackerson (1838-1923)
Papers, 1861 - 1914
Carla Z. Tobias
Monmouth County Historical Association
70 Court Street
Freehold, New Jersey
William T. Ackerson was born near Manalapan, New Jersey on March 19, 1838. The 1850 federal census of Millstone Township lists him as a resident of Perrineville, living with an 83 year old woman named Mary Ackerson, who was possibly his grandmother. He appears to have had relatives in Ohio. In June 1863, he wrote in his diary that he visited a cousin named Tom Ackerson who was serving with an Ohio artillery battery.
In April 1861, Ackerson was living in Ohio. With the outbreak of war, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months. Ackerson enlisted in the 2nd Regiment, Ohio Volunteers on April 17 and began recording his experiences in a small pocket diary. He rose to the rank of sergeant and was present at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 although he did not see action as his regiment was held in reserve. Following the battle, the 2nd returned to Ohio and was mustered out.
Ackerson made his way home to New Jersey and in September 1861 he travelled to Brooklyn where he enlisted in the unit that he would serve with until the end of the war, the 51st Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Though Ackerson gives no reason in his writings as to why he enlisted in a New York regiment, it may have been due to family connections, as the 1850 census notes that Mary Ackerson was born in New York. New Jersey may also have filled it's quota of men by the time he returned from Ohio. According to the Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of New Jersey for the Year 1863, New Jersey could have enrolled more troops in 1861 than it did, but the US War Department refused to accept any men that exceeded the state's quota.
The 51st New York was recruited for three years service and was composed largely of men from the cities of New York and Brooklyn. It's first colonel, Edward Ferrero, was a dancing school master and militia officer who would rise to the rank of major general and command the US Army's first division of African American troops. Two later commanders of the 51st, Robert Potter and Charles LeGendre, would also become generals. The regiment's original sergeant-major was George Washington Whitman, younger brother of journalist and poet Walt Whitman. Ackerson was enrolled as first sergeant of Company F.
The 51st Regiment's first experience of combat came at Roanoke Island, North Carolina on February 7, 1862 when they participated in one of the Civil War's few amphibious assaults as part of a force under the command of General Ambrose Burnside. They also took part in operations in the vicinity of New Bern, North Carolina. On June 23, 1862, Ackerson was promoted to sergeant-major, replacing George Whitman who had been made an officer.
During July 1862, Burnside's command was transferred to Virginia where it joined the Army of the Potomac and was designated the IX Corps. They participated in the Battles of Second Bull Run, August 29-30, 1862 and Chantilly, September 1, 1862. In early September, Ackerson was promoted to second lieutenant of Company F. It was in this capacity that he served at the Battle of South Mountain, Maryland on September 14, 1862 and at the bloody Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, which saw the 51st New York, along with the 51st Pennsylvania, participate in the successful storming of "Burnside's Bridge." Ackerson was wounded in the left shoulder during this engagement and was taken to a field hospital. He was promoted to first lieutenant in December. During the period that he apparently spent recovering from his wound, he made no entries in his diary.
In May 1863 Ackerson returned to duty in Kentucky where the IX Corps had been sent to guard against bands of Confederate guerillas. They patrolled the countryside, but saw little action.
June 1863 saw the 51st sent to Vicksburg, Mississippi where they, along with the rest of the IX Corps, protected the rear of Major General Ulysses S. Grant's force as it besieged the city. Following Vicksburg's fall on July 4, 1863, the 51st took part in an expedition to Jackson, Mississippi. The extreme summer heat caused Ackerson to collapse from heat prostration while on the march. He recovered within a few days and joined the 51st when they were sent back to Kentucky in August. During that month, Ackerson was assigned to detached duty in New York City, enlisting new men, arresting deserters and escorting groups of recruits and conscripts to their regiments in Virginia and South Carolina. He would be engaged in this work throught the winter and early spring of 1864.
In May 1864, Ackerson returned to combat in Virginia with the 51st during the Overland Campaign of May and June. He was involved in the fighting at Spotsylvania, North Anna and Cold Harbor. During the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, he was involved in the disastrous Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864, where he became separated from his regiment, not rejoining it until after nightfall. He was promoted to captain in August following the death of his company commander and friend Captain Samuel Sims, who had been killed during the fighting at the Crater.
Ackerson became a prisoner of war on September 30, 1864 at the Battle of Peebles Farm, Virginia when the 51st was surrounded and compelled to surrender. He would find himself sent initially to Richmond's infamous Libby Prison. He was later sent to the prison at Salisbury, North Carolina before ending up confined in a tobacco warehouse complex in Danville, Virginia. The officers of the 51st were exchanged, along with officers from several other Union regiments, in late February 1865. Ackerson rejoined the 51st Regiment on April 14, 1865 and was mustered out of the army on May 12.
Following the war, he joined the New York City Police Department, rising to the rank of captain of mounted police before retiring in 1887. He married Alice Ponder in 1873. They had no children, which may have been due to a case of the mumps that Ackerson had contracted in March 1862, mumps being a disease that can cause sterility in adults. He was active in Civil War veterans affairs. In 1887 he helped form the Winfield Scott Hancock Post of the Grand Army of the Republic in Hightstown, New Jersey. He was also a member of the New York City Association of Union Ex-Prisoners of War and the Elizabeth Veteran Zouaves drill team, a group organized by Congressional Medal of Honor winner James Madison Drake. Despite the rigors of his military service, he lived to the age of 85, passing away on November 29, 1923. He is buried in the Manalapan Presbyterian Cemetery, Conover Road, Manalapan, New Jersey.
DESCRIPTION OF COLLECTION
The William T. Ackerson Papers consist of the small diary that he carried throughout his Civil War service, two single page letters to his mother dated May 30, 1864 and September 3, 1864, a 1901 promissory note to Ackerson from Robert H.A. Adams for $214.00, and a one page synopsis of his wartime service written in 1906 and updated in 1911 and 1914 that he prepared for the benefit of his wife to ease the process of obtaining a pension after his death. Also included are four commissions, issued for three of his four promotions, along with an 1884 certificate of membership in the New York State Union Prisoners of War Association. The commission for his promotion to second lieutenant is missing from this collection.
The diary's narrative begins with an entry for April 17, 1861 and ends on October 10, 1864. Some of the entries are little more than the name of the place where Ackerson happened to be on a given day, others are detailed explanations of his activities that run for several pages. The enties for 1861 and 1862 tend to be brief with Ackerson providing few details on his involvement in the battles he participated in during those years. Following the final entry is a list of the men of Ackerson's company who were captured along with him, and a list of prices of items he purchased while imprisoned that runs from October 15, 1864 to January 26, 1865. There are several gaps in the narrative, the largest being from September 19, 1862 to April 30, 1863. Due to the fragile condition of the diary, a transcript is provided for the use of researchers. The contents of the transcript are arranged to appear as they do in the diary.
The Ackerson Papers provide an intimate glimpse into one man's experiences in the Civil War. They also are an excellent starting point for research into the 51st Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Among the notable people mentioned in the diary are Colonel Edward Ferrero, Colonel Robert Potter and Colonel Charles Le Gendre. Among the engagements in which Ackerson participated are First Bull Run, Roanoke Island, New Bern, Second Bull Run, Chantilly, South Mountain, Antietam, Vicksburg, Jackson, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and the Siege of Petersburg, including the battles of the Crater and Peebles Farm. His descriptions of his personal activities, as well as those of his regiment, will be valuable to both historians and Civil War reenactors.
Three photographs of Ackerson can be found in the Photographic Collection (photographs P-402, SEA-5 and US-1). For a complete list of the MCHA's Civil War holdings, please see the librarian for a copy of the MCHA Civil War collection guide.
Number of items: Fourteen, 1.5 inches
Folder 1. Diary, 1861 April 17-1865 January 26, one item.
Small pocket diary containing entries in Ackerson's hand describing his activities during his Civil War service. The back cover of the diary is missing.
Folder 2. Diary transcript, 1861 April 17-1865 January 26, one item.
Transcription of the diary, with contents arranged as they appear in the original.
Folder 3. Items found inside diary, 1864-1914, 5 items.
Two single page letters in Ackerson's hand written to his mother, each briefly describing his activities. A letter of May 30th states that the 51st New York have been detailed to act as engineers for the 2nd Division, IX Corps and that he has not had a clean shirt since he left Washington almost three weeks before. A letter dated September 3rd mentions a business deal that he was involved in.
On April 30, 1865, Ackerson wrote a letter to Captain Casey, Commissary of Musters for the IX Corps, requesting to be mustered out of the army. The request was passed along through channels and bears endorsements from other officers, approving Ackerson's request.
There is also an April 16, 1901 promissory note from Robert H.A. Adams to Ackerson, promising to pay Ackerson $214.00 in thirty days. Why Adams owed Ackerson the money is not mentioned.
Most interesting is his "Preliminary Report," a one page synopsis Ackerson prepared "to aid [his] widow in getting [her] pension." It lists the dates in which he was in the army, the dates during which he was held prisoner, along with the ranks that he held. Crossed out is a statement that mentions that he had received a "gunshot wound in the left shoulder." It also mentions his date of birth, the name of his wife and the date on which they were married. Ackerson's signature is at the bottom of the page.
Folder 4. Commissions, 1862-1864, 7 items. In oversize box.
Commissions from the State of New York authorizing Ackerson's promotions. Included are the commission promoting him to the rank of sergeant-major, dated June 23, 1862, the commission appointing him to the rank of first lieutenant, dated December 23, 1862, a "true copy" of his promotion to first lieutenant dated December 12, 1862 and the commission promoting him to the rank of captain, dated August 14, 1864.
Also found in this file is Ackerson's April 19, 1884 certificate of membership in the New York State Union Prisoners of War Association, along with a roster of members of the New York City Association of Union Ex-Prisoners of War.
Folder 5. Biographical information, collected for research.
Material collected during the course of research on Ackerson and the 51st New York. Materials were obtained from various newspaper, microfilm and World Wide Web resources.
1. Loving, Jerome M., editor. Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1975.
2. McElroy, John Harmon, editor. The Sacrificial Years: A Chronicle of Walt Whitman's Experiences in the Civil War. Boston: David R. Godine, 1999.
3. Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
4. "William T. Ackerson [obituary]." Freehold Transcript (December 7, 1923): 1. (see Folder #4)
This page last updated 31 July 2008.