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Beverly's Nelson Fish
< A friend of mine called me to say he had something for the historical society that he thinks came from Beverly. As soon as I saw it I said “we’ll take it.” It was a carpenter’s plane with the name N. Fish stamped into the side. My antique tool collecting friend Jamie told me it was a transitional plane manufactured between 1869 and 1943 (1917) fabricated from wood and metal. The name caught my eye because I knew Beverly once had a resident named Nelson Fish who joined the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteers. and later was transferred to the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers during the Civil War.
That was only the beginning of what I would soon learn about Nelson Fish. I sent out an email looking for information from some of Riverfront’s research specialists. Alice Smith of Delanco/Delran responded right away with obituaries of Nelson and his mother.
A 1910 issue of the New Jersey Mirror contained this entry; Mrs. Eliza Fish, mother of ex-Mayor James D. Fish, died at the home of her grandson Reuben, on Graw's extension about 8 o'clock on Saturday evening(presumably a reference to February 19, 1910). The deceased was 97 years of age and had resided here the greater part of her life, where she raised a large family. She is survived by two sons and two daughters, James D. Fish and Nelson Fish, and Mrs. Julia Lay and Mrs. Garret D. Logan. Up to within a year past she had enjoyed the best of health, her intellect being quite clear. She could converse on the happenings of the past eighty years. Mrs. Fish descended from a family of great longevity.
The second obituary faetured Nelson passing on February 19, 1934. Then I heard from Kathy Karn, another well respected genealogist who grew up in Delanco and married Ed Karn from Edgewater Park. I knew her husband Ed from Beverly Little League. Kathy happily helped me with the history mystery and soon sent census records, pension reports and an article from the February 23 1934 edition of the Beverly Banner. Most of the ensuing article I derived from Kathy’s research information.
Nelson was born in Haddonfield, New Jersey on February 1, 1842 to Charles and Eliza Fish. He was one of five children, four boys and one girl. Nelson was a descendant of Sir Robert Sutton, an English nobleman. Both his grandfathers fought with the colonists during the Revolutionary War and two great-uncles were veterans of the War of 1812. His brother James D. Fish, also fought in the Civil War who later served as Beverly’s mayor for nine years.
During the 1860 census, the enumerator recorded Nelson living in Baltimore, Maryland with George and Emily Williams and working as a farm laborer. In 1861 he joined the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company P. staying with them until their term ran out then was transferred to the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers during the Civil War. He received a gunshot wound to the head on June 16, 1864 during the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia. Throughout his time in the service Nelson took part in combat at nearly forty engagements such as Fair Oaks, Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, Cold Harbor and the siege of Petersburg.
The 71st Brigade was one of the four Pennsylvania brigades to take the brunt of Pickett’s Charge at the “Bloody Angle” at Gettysburg. The Confederates had broken through the Union line and engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Back behind the first line, the 69th, 72nd and 102nd opened fire to finally stop the assault from advancing any further. Inscribed on the soldiers monument at Gettysburg is the name “Nelson Fish, Beverly NJ.”
According to the 1870 census, Nelson had returned to Beverly and resided with his mom and his two brothers. The census taker listed Nelson’s 1870 occupation as a huckster. By 1880, Nelson had married Pauline Halbert, fathered three sons and worked as a carpenter and a Beverly constable. During those times, veterans would seek to have their military pensions increased to help them keep up with their bills. A veteran would have two witnesses testify to his condition and the problems they had to deal with. Nelson testified to help his step cousin, Judson Bowers who became wounded while a member of the New Jersey Volunteers 23rd Regiment, Company C.
Sometimes the witnesses needed testimony to their character and along comes another important Beverly citizen, Abel H Nichols. A prominent businessman, Mr. Nichols also served as the quartermaster for the 23 Regiment. His signature can be seen on the Beverly Bank Civil War dollars that some Beverly collectors own. The state commissioned Mr. Nichols as a notary public so in 1883 he provided testimony for Nelson Fish to the Department of the Interior.
Beverly NJ Apr 30 1883 Sir: Nelson Fish named within is a carpenter by trade living in this place. I have known him from boyhood. He was a soldier in the War of the Rebellion & I believe a good one. He has sometimes held the position of Constable but is a steady worker at his trade at other times when he can get it to do. He is a little inclined to strong drink, but not to such an extent as to neglect work (or duty as a police officer.) He is rather of the "hail fellow well met" order but I should rely upon his statements under oath as truthful & believe that such is his general reputation in this community. The affidavit was read to him Very respectfully, A.H. Nichols, Notary Public
In the 1900 census Nelson and Pauline had four sons, Walter H. (28yrs), Robert M. (27yrs), Howard (23yrs) and Charles H. (19yrs). Nelson 57 years old still worked as a carpenter. By the 1930 census Pauline had died, leaving Nelson as a widower living with his son Walter and his wife.
Nelson was well known and respected throughout the Beverly area when he passed away at age 92. He was the last survivor of the Joseph R. Ridgeway Post 21 GAR and was possibly the last member of the 71st Pennsylvania regiment to pass on. His body was on view in his son Walter’s home and many townspeople came to pay their respects. Delegations from the American Legion, both Beverly fire companies and the Jr. O. U. A. M. called to pay their respects.
The Rev. James Hawley Randall of the Beverly Presbyterian Church conducted the funeral service. The William A. Cortwright, Jr. Post American Legion also held a brief service, ending with six members serving as pallbearers:Frank W. Parsons, B. Franklin Perkins, Lewis M. Rotenbury, Frank H. Smith, Reuel Steinmann and Frank H. Wing. At Monument cemetery a firing squad from Company K, New Jersey National Guards fired their three volleys and then a bugler sounded taps.
Who would have thought that one carpenter’s plane could generate all that history?
Anyone who would like to see the Nelson Fish carpenter’s plane and commemorative booklet should visit the Riverfront Historical Society’s museum at the Coopertown Meeting House. A big thank you to Alice Smith and Kathy Karn for their research in helping me bring the Nelson Fish story to light for a new generation of local residents.
Beverly Bee May 2009 by Dennis Rogers .
I have written before about our area’s Nelson Fish, a Civil War veteran who was raised in Beverly, joined the Pennsylvania’s Volunteers 71st regiment and had quite an experience. I came across Beverly Banner articles about Nelson Fish written by local historian David Pettit in 1934. Mr. Pettit had spent a good amount of time talking with Nelson and recording his memories. The core of the officers and men came from local Philadelphia neighborhood militia units. They were originally called the 1st California and many of its members had served in the 24th Pennsylvania, a three-month volunteer regiment. They fought in many battles leading up to Gettysburg and were part of the Philadelphia Brigade. They were attached to the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac. When they were at the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 2 they helped defeat the attack by Wright’s brigade. On July 3, they were briefly sent to Culp's Hill but was returned to Cemetery Ridge and on July 4th the 71st was positioned at the famous Angle on Cemetery Ridge to face Pickett’s Charge. During Pickett's Charge, the left portion of the regiment was forced back from the wall and nearly routed. Brig. Gen. Webb managed to rally the 71st and they (and other regiments) pushed the Confederates out of the Angle. The fighting at the wall was very fierce, sometimes hand to hand combat and close range shootings. The 71st lost 98 officers and men during the attack, including nine out of fifteen officers. After Gettysburg they fought many other battles and skirmishes in Virginia. On July 12th 1864 their enlistment was time up, and many of the veterans were transferred to the 69th Regiment which had it’s own proudhistory. Nelson Fish mustered in on July 10, 1861 and participated in seven of the twelve major battles of the Civil war. “Nels” as he was called, was at Antietam (one of the bloodiest battles of the war) then three months later at Fredericksburg where his regiment suffered heavy losses. Nelson was there to help to turn back Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. At Ball’s Bluff in October 1861, with the company’s officers dead and wounded, they continued to fight led by their color sergeant. They were driven back to the banks of the Potomac, where they were to be killed or captured. Nelson told his comrades, “my name is Fish and that means water for mine. He jumped in the water to swim to the other side and many followed to escape capture. Another remembrance was his company being trapped in place, so he crawled through elder pine and birch to set fire to a meeting house so that his company could escape through the smoke from their predicament. One of his Gettysburg memories was being in charge of General Meade’s injured horse after the battle. Another story was a hungry Nelson snuck into a captains’ tent and ate his dinner to teach the officer a lesson about staying out too late. In 1864, the 71st 3 year enlistment was up and what was left of the 71st joined the 69th Pennsylvania regiment on June 12th. On June 16, 1864 Nelson was wounded near Petersburg by a gunshot in the head, while in the ambulance corps. Nelson was discharged from the Army on July 9th 1864 and sent home to recuperate. Reported by the Trenton Evening Times in 1910, Nelson told a story at the Beverly GAR about a battle where in the confusion, troops from other regiments and his 71st mixed together. He met and fought together with a soldier without introductions, routing the “Rebs” and capturing a cannon. While walking back towing the cannon, they were complimented by General Hancock. Nelson said he wished he had gotten the fellow’s name. William H. Zimmerman, a fellow GAR member sitting there said, ”Nels, I think I’m that fellow.” During his childhood in Beverly, he ended up on a large cake of ice floating down the river. He was spotted by someone on land and a fisherman rescued him. After the war, he learned the carpenter’s trade and was city marshal for many years. Through will and reckless bravery, a seriously wounded Nels entered into a battle with the notorious Gypsy Gang and routed them. During the 1880’s, he was described by Beverly business man, Abel Nichols as “a hail fellow well met ….and a little inclined to a strong drink.” Nelson passed away on February 19, 1934 after being sick for a month. At Gettysburg, proudly inscribed on the 71st monument is the name Nelson Fish, Beverly NJ. Our area has a Civil War hero that we can be proud of, who served his country well. Nelson’s family gravesite can be seen in the Monument Cemetery. The Banner article indicates that David Pettit talked with Nelson at great length and thoroughly enjoyed their conversations so much he wrote a poem about Nelson’s life adventures.. A few of Nelson Fish’s Battles in the 71st Pennsylvania Falls Church, Poolesville, Ball's Bluff, Fair Oaks, Peach Orchard, Savage Station, Glendale, Antietam, Fredericksburg (1862), Fredericksburg (1863), Gettysburg, Mine Run, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Bethesda Church, Cold Harbor. Present also at Yorktown, Malvern Hill, Bristoe Station and Totopotomoy Riverfront Historical Society has a note book of articles at our museum for researchers to read and Nelson’s carpenter’s plane. References: Beverly Banner Feb. 23, 1934, Beverly Banner ?? 1932, Trenton Evening Times Sept. 23, 1910 and the Pennsylvania Volunteers of the Civil War website
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