The Darkness Holds Nothing Back

Gershom Mott (1822-1884) was a brilliant individual with the heart of a lion. His strict Quaker upbringing; strong European ancestry that stemmed back to William the Conqueror; and character traits like discipline, motivation, and reliability that were inherited from his grandfather, shaped his destiny as a leader. Indeed, his grandfather, John Mott (1734-1804) was a soldier that gallantly demonstrated his military skills on the fields of battle during the French and Indian War and the War of Independence. It was during the latter that he rose to the rank of captain, achieving legendary status for action taken following General Washington’s famous Christmas crossing by guiding General John Sullivan’s division to Trenton in a preemptive strike against Hessian and British forces stationed there. Sadly, his epic tales of courage could only be passed down by word of mouth to his grandson.

Born in Lamberton (present lower Trenton) to Gershom and Phoebe Scudder Mott, Gershom was the youngest of five siblings. He received his education at the Trenton Academy until he was 14 years old. After that, he worked as a sales clerk in a dry goods store while living with a relative in New York City. It was a job that amplified his analytical and financial skills. Everything seemed peaceful until war with Mexico erupted in 1846. Known as the Mexican War, Gershom couldn’t wait to enlist his services for such an important cause. Moving swiftly in the ranks, he was appointed as 2nd lieutenant of the 10th Infantry. Witnessing few incidents, he was discharged from the army with the goal of moving back to Trenton. When he did, he worked as a collector of the port of Lamberton and the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company. He also found love and got married to a young local woman by the name of Elizabeth Smith. From 1855 until 1861, he was employed as a teller with the Bordentown Banking Company under its president, John McKnight. Needless to say, they became close friends.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the effects from its scope and magnitude were far larger than anyone could have ever imagined. At the same time, it wrapped our nation’s flag around its greatest catastrophe with our greatest achievement…ending racial slavery. During this epic struggle, the wrath of war destroyed homes and families. It exhibited no judgment pertaining to right or wrong. Just cruelty. The darkness never held back on the carnage that it inflicted. Even in daylight when the heavens were draped in black. Nothing in this world has ever been achieved without the grim reality of sacrifice. This weighed heavily on Gershom’s mind but he knew that he had a moral obligation to fulfill. Leaving Bordentown by train, he joined the Army of the Potomac. By August, he was appointed as lieutenant colonel of the 5th New Jersey Infantry and remained with the regiment until his promotion to colonel of the 6th New Jersey Infantry the following year for his decisive exploits and esteemed horsemanship at the Battle of Williamsburg. At the Second Battle of Bull Run, his regiment saw action again. Although he was a talented commander, Gershom rarely prepared himself for the stench of strewn bodies that awaited him in the mud and heat. Distractions such as this were proven costly because at some point during the fighting, he jolted back while on horseback. Grabbing his arm with intensity, blood smeared around the ripped sleeve of his uniform. Struck by a stray bullet, he stayed in control of the reins and his brigade for as long as he could before slumping to the ground from the pain. While recuperating from the severity of his wound, he was promoted to brigadier general. However, this also prevented him from participating in the Battle of Antietam. When he recovered near the end of the year, he was assigned to lead a brigade of General Joseph Hooker’s Central Grand Division.

On May 3, 1863, Union and Confederate troops rose with the dawn and unleashed multiple assaults against each other near a site called Chancellorsville. The smoke drifting from cannon and musket fire was so thick in the woods that the only way to see the enemy was from sparks emanating from hooves as the horses rode over the rocks. Fear was a chilling presence since nobody could indicate the directions where the bullets were coming from. They rattled like hail among the trees, tearing branches and leaves as they fell. In the middle of the fight was Gershom Mott commanding General Hooker’s division and the 5th New Jersey Infantry. Although the soldiers tried to hold their ground at a make-shift breastworks site, the persistence of the enemy was so strong that it escalated to the point that the woods appeared to be made of a solid wall of gray cloth. The 7th New Jersey Infantry responded to the chaos but mounting casualties forced the ranks to withdraw. Again, Gershom left the field in agony after the bones in his left hand were shattered by a bullet. As the day drew to a close, over 17,000 men on both sides made the ultimate sacrifice. It would be forever known as the second bloodiest day of the Civil War after Antietam. However, the battle continued for several more days with the retreat of General Hooker’s main army across the Rappahannock River. Confederate General Robert E. Lee lost a great friend and one of the greatest tactical commanders in history during the campaign with the death of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, but he took the victory in stride, reorganized surviving troops, and marched northward through the Shenandoah Valley in the hopes of invading the Union and ending the war.

With Gershom Mott incapacitated from his wound, his second-in-command, Colonel George Burling (1834-1885), a native of Burlington County, replaced him during the Gettysburg Campaign. Although also wounded at Chancellorsville, when he returned to duty a short time later, he was able to lead several different regiments, including the 6th, 7th, and 8th New Jersey Infantry. When the Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1st, he had six regiments attached to his brigade. On the second day, Burling called for the regiments to spread out and protect threatened areas from enemy advancement with names like the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard. Finding himself without an effective command as the battle raged, he conversed with Division commander major General Andrew Humphreys before gathering his surviving units near Cemetery Ridge. The following day during the massive assault led by Confederate General George Pickett, Burling supported the Federal batteries with unrelenting firepower from his brigade. As the smoke cleared and the battle ended, the Army of Northern Virginia knew that it had lost its last opportunity to gain a foothold in the North. The casualties from the war’s bloodiest multi-day battle were beyond comprehension. The Army of Northern Virginia lost 28,000 lives. The Army of the Potomac lost 23,000 lives. Both armies lost 5,000 horses and mules to the carnage. There was nothing civil about the war.

Burling thought that he would be recognized for his leadership role in the battle, but he was not, and resigned his commission out of protest in March of 1864. After a full year on leaving the service, he was brevetted Brigadier General, US Volunteers. He then worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad until his death in 1885.

Upon returning to his command in August of 1863, Gershom Mott led the 4th Division of the II Corps. He saw action in the Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of Spotsylvania but also saw soldiers flee in panic. He observed the arms of men tremble as they cocked their hammers and raised the gunstocks to their shoulders. There was in their eyes as they looked forward. Some never fired a shot as a barrage of returning artillery fire sent them running. Or becoming a casualty. The outcome of the battle was considered inconclusive and the 4th Division was ordered to disband. Gershom was able to correct this embarrassment as he performed well with troops during the Siege of Petersburg in which he was one of the few Union officers that was commended for bravery at the Battle of the Crater.

However, as fate would have it, on April 6, 1865, three days before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Gershom was wounded in the leg while in command at the Battle of Amelia Springs. This was the site where Confederate forces fled after the fall of Petersburg and Richmond. Over 200 men perished in the confrontation. After the war ended, Gershom was promoted to Major General.

Following his resignation as an officer several months later, he returned to civilian life with his wife and daughter. They moved into an Italianate home on Prince Street that overlooked Crosswicks Creek in Bordentown. Ironically, the home was once owned by William McKnight, the father of Gershom’s close friend, John McKnight.

Gershom’s prior background as a bank teller for McKnight and other financial positions served him quite well. His experience paved the way as paymaster for the Camden and Amboy Railroad briefly before spending the rest of his life in various New Jersey state government roles. This included the appointment as state treasurer in 1875, warden of the New Jersey State Prison from 1876-1881, and commander of the New Jersey National Guard with the rank of Major General from 1873 until his death in 1884. During this period, he was also the director of the Bordentown Banking Company and a pallbearer at John McKnight’s funeral.

On November 29, 1884, while visiting a friend in New York City, Gershom unexpectedly collapsed on a busy street and died. His body was transported to Bordentown by train that evening where it was received by his widow and daughter. With an outpouring of grief from friends and family, he was buried with full military honors in Riverview Cemetery in Trenton. Less than a year later, another warrior of Civil War fame, General George McClellan, also died of a sudden heart attack and was buried in Riverview Cemetery.

Gershom was not a stranger to the darkness. He had witnessed its extent during his military career and escaped from its grasp on more than one occasion. Since it couldn’t take him directly, it had to take him in his final moments by surprise. Although he never had any formal military training, he gave the last full measure of devotion to his country by making it stronger. He never held back.