After failing twice to destroy the Confederate army in its entrenchments at Spotsylvania in mid-May 1864, Union commander Ulysses Grant had to make a decision. As one Union private wrote later, “Every intelligent enlisted man in the [Union] Army of the Potomac knew that we could not wrest the Confederate entrenchments at Spotsylvania from Lee’s veteran army.” Grant had decided that the only way to get Confederate General Robert E. Lee out of his trenches was to march around him and force Lee to follow. On May 20, the Union army, a quarter of whose soldiers were immigrants, was on the move to the east around the Confederates, and then south towards the Confederate capital at Richmond.1
The badly bloodied Union men knew they were in grave danger as they headed deeper into Virginia toward the heart of the rebel government. They began to exhibit an indifference toward the lives of the Confederate civilians they encountered along the march. A Union artillery officer wrote with disgust to his wife that “pillaging and marauding” were “more characteristic of this campaign than any other I ever participated in.” The officer concluded “a shame and disgrace is all this to our army and cause,” and added that the depredations inflicted along the army’s march was “doing us no good, but working us great evil.” Civilians began to flee the rapidly advancing Union army, and a refugee flow of whites heading south and escaped black slaves heading north left many settlements depopulated.2
The Overland Campaign May and June 1864.
Among the scores of Union regiments in the line of march, the 114th Pennsylvania had two unique immigrants around its banner.
Charles Collis was an Irish Protestant who had come to America as a teenager in 1853 with his father. The Collises were not poor famine Irish. They were from the country’s educated professional class. While his father’s money bought the family some comfort on the trip, it could not buy safety. When Collis’s mother and five sisters and brothers left for America the following year, their ship was lost as were all 480 passengers. Although Collis arrived in the United States without friends or prospects, he studied law in the offices of John Read, an anti-slavery Republican who was prominent in Philadelphia. In 1859, Collis was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar.3
When war broke out, Collis volunteered as a private to defend the Union. After Bull Run, Collis returned to Philadelphia to recruit a company of Zouaves. He picked a French immigrant to serve as his second in command. Many of the men in the new company were immigrants. French immigrants were particularly well represented.4
In 1862, Collis was authorized to add nine more companies to his command and create the 114th Pennsylvania regiment. The immigrant colonel would go on to win the Medal of Honor for his gallantry leading his men later that year at Fredericksburg. Only 10 years in the United States and a citizen for only half a decade, Collis was a successful defender of his adopted land.5
This painting depicts the 114th Pennsylvania at Fredericksburg. Collis took the flag up to rally his men. The regiment dressed in the Zouave-style of French North African troops. Most soldiers in the regiment were native-born.
Marie Brose Tepe was a 27 year old French immigrant who joined the regiment as its Vivandière. The Vivandière was an adoption from the French revolutionary armies that had women serve in uniform in support roles for the regiment. The 114th Pennsylvania was a Zouave unit, modeled on French North African troops and it was organized according to the French style.6
Marie had come to the United States as a teenager and settled in Philadelphia. Called “French Mary” by many American soldiers, she was one of two women awarded the Kearny Cross for bravery. Marie Tepe was shot at Fredericksburg while caring for her men, carrying the bullet in her ankle for the rest of her days. Her later suicide may have been linked to complications from the wound. The regiment awarded her a commemorative cup after the battle inscribed “To Marie, for noble conduct on the field of battle.”7
Marie Tepe shown here with her Kearny Cross worn over her heart.
At Chancellorsville, Marie Tepe served so close to the front line that “Her skirts were riddled by bullets during the battle,” according to one witness. A nurse from Maine wrote after the battle that “[S]ince I left . . . for the hospital at Chancellorsville, I had not seen a woman, and I did not know that any other woman crossed the [Rappahannock] river at this place . . . excepting ‘Mary,’ the vivandiere of the 114th P.V., who was a brave and faithful worker.”8
Marie Tepe stayed behind to nurse the wounded after the Battle of Gettysburg. She was photographed several weeks after the battle on East Cemetery Hill.
In the hard fighting from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, Marie Tepe was a surprising sight to men new to the army. “I looked around,” a soldier at Spotsylvania wrote. “Sure enough there was a woman! She was about 25 years of age, square featured and sunburnt, and dressed in Zouave uniform in the Vivandiere style.” Frank Rausche, the regiment’s band leader judged her as “wonderfully courageous.” 9
On May 21, 1864 Collis was leading his regiment towards Richmond when he encountered Confederate cavalry blocking the Guinea Bridge. Collis was ordered to “drive the enemy from the bridge and hold it.” Collis took command of his own regiment, another nearby regiment, and some engineers and cavalry and soon began an assault. The first attack failed when Collis’s men came up against Confederate barricades, but a second assault routed them and the bridge was captured. 10
The 114th Pennsylvania Monument at Gettysburg.
The Union army would fight many small engagement like this in its massive movement towards Richmond. During this fighting advance, word came that Union troops under Ben Butler had failed to exploit weak Confederate numbers to capture Petersburg, a crucial rail link south of Richmond, and that German General Franz Sigel had been defeated by a Confederate force in the Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia. A Union army commanded by the know-nothing politician Nathaniel Banks that had moved up the Red River in Louisiana had done the worst of all and was falling back from a Confederate force less than half its size. Union troops in the Army of the Potomac understood that any chance that the war would end in the next year required that they suffer and die in a constant struggle with the best army and general that the Confederacy had to oppose them with. 11
Video: An examination of the ways the war’s increasing brutality impacted the soldiers who fought it in 1863
The Civil War Trust gives an in-depth description of the Overland Campaign from historian Gordon Rhea.
Sources [Complete list to be posted]:
1. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13—25, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea published by LSU Press (2000) Kindle location 4095-4099
2. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13—25, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea published by LSU Press (2000) Kindle location 4682
3. Collis’ Zouaves: The 114th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War by Edward Haggert published by Louisiana State University Press, (1997) pp. 2, 12, 14.
4. Collis’ Zouaves: The 114th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War by Edward Haggert published by Louisiana State University Press, (1997) p. 23.
5. Collis’ Zouaves: The 114th Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War by Edward Haggert published by Louisiana State University Press, (1997)
6. Civil War Nurses http://cwnurses.tripod.com/mtepe.html
7. Civil War Nurses http://cwnurses.tripod.com/mtepe.html
8. Civil War Nurses http://cwnurses.tripod.com/mtepe.html
9. Civil War Nurses http://cwnurses.tripod.com/mtepe.html
10. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13—25, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea published by LSU Press (2000)
11. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13—25, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea published by LSU Press (2000)
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites