The New Yorkers were running along a narrow turnpike through a Virginia woods so dense that it was called The Wilderness. They were the leading of a Union army of 120,000 men under the overall command of Ulysses S. Grant. That morning of May 5, 1864 had dawned wet and foggy, but temperatures had climbed into the 80s by the time the 140th New York Regiment passed through the trees to the edge of a large clearing called Saunders’ Field. 1
This map of the opening of the Battle of the Wilderness shows Saunders’ Field at the left of center.
The 140th New York was a mixed regiment from Rochester, nearly half of whose men were immigrants from Ireland and Germany. They had been commanded by Paddy O’Rourke, the first Irish immigrant to graduate from West Point, but the popular colonel was ten months dead, killed saving Little Round Top at Gettysburg. The canal men, industrial workers, and farmers of the 140th New York were now commanded by “Paddy” Ryan. They dressed in the colorful uniform of the French North African “Zouave” and they considered themselves among the saviors of the Union army at Gettysburg. 2
When the 140th New York came to the clearing, the men knew that this would be a place of suffering. One of them wrote later that, in the moments before the fighting began, the men, “for those few minutes lay there and faced the possibilities of tragedy then inevitable.” The memory of that foreboding would remain long after the war. The veteran said that the “suspense and dread and hope which possess men during such minutes cannot be adequately told in words.” The soldiers knew little about their opponents on a fortified hilltop in the woods at the opposite end of Saunders’ Field, but they knew, according to one of them, that they “were to advance against [the Confederates] in the open, and without firing a gun till we reached them.”3
Colonel Ryan shouted “stand up…forward, double-quick, charge!” recalled one of his men. The troops cheered and pushed out of the protection of the trees. 4
The charge of the 140th NY was led by Col. Paddy Ryan who waved his hat to lead his men on.
Without really knowing what was at the other end of the field, the men charged down into a gully. Before they could charge uphill, Confederate fire began making widows of the women of Rochester. One veteran wrote “down the slope we rushed…killed and wounded men plunging to the ground.” They hit a muddy stream at the bottom of the hill then raced up the hillside directly in front of the Confederates, towards the tree line that concealed their entrenched enemies. 5
The plan of attack, such as it was, was the localized manifestation of Union commander Major General Grant’s new strategy. Troops were to move fast and strike hard. Grant intended to destroy the Confederate armies here on Saunders’ Field, and across the South, by relentless attack. From Union Army of the Potomac commander George Gordon Meade, to Gouveneur Warren, the commander of the V Corps who oversaw the 140th, to division, brigade, and regimental commanders, all were operating under Grant’s pressure for action and victory. 6
As the regiments supporting the 140th New York were staggered by what one soldier called the “wild, wicked roar of musketry” on Saunders’ Field, the Rochester men continued their advance uphill. 7
Union artillery moved in behind the 140th, but when they opened fire they hit nearly as many Rochester men as they did Confederates. Confederates appeared not only in front of the regiment but on its unprotected side as well. Still, the New York Zouaves fought savagely at the hilltop, but their numbers were dwindling rapidly. Men disappeared as though they had been consumed by the earth. 8
The section of Saunders’ Field that the 140th New York occupied. The regiment charged down into the gully where the footbridge is and up the hill to fight the Confederates in the trees in the distance.
John McGraw, who had been one of the first men drafted into the regiment in 1863, had been forced to leave his pregnant young wife and his two small children behind in Rochester. Although draftees were treated with distain by many of the veteran soldiers, a good-hearted sergeant had protected McGraw when he first came into the army. The sergeant soon went down with a wound. Like many men unused to seeing human slaughter, McGraw was overcome. He wrote later “I was sorry to see him…the tears run out of my eyes and I could not stop them [until] I done all I could for him.”9
When the survivors of the 140th staggered back to the rear, their charge repulsed, only 261 men were still standing of the 529 who went into battle. In the span of twenty minutes 268 young men had been killed, wounded, or captured. Many of those taken prisoner would die slowly over the coming months at the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville. 10
This monument to the 140th is the only regimental monument on Saunders’ Field.
Paddy Ryan, who was without his sword that morning and who led his men into battle swinging his hat, was distraught as he searched for his men in the aftermath of the carnage. “My God,” he said, “I am the first colonel I ever heard of who came out of such a fight and couldn’t tell where his regiment was.” Tears began streaming down his face as he realized the magnitude of his losses. 11
Captain Porter Farley of the 140th would write later that, for all of the bravery of the New Yorkers, the “sad fact then became manifest that our effort had accomplished no real good, while it had cost the sacrifice of half the regiment.”12
At the opposite end of the Union line stretching out along Saunders’ field were hundreds of other immigrants in Boston’s Irish 9th Massachusetts Regiment. They were commanded by the 29-year-old Irish immigrant and lawyer, Colonel Patrick Guiney. Guiney had left behind a beautiful wife whom he adored, and a young daughter. When Guiney was ordered to lead his men forward out of the trees, one of his men described the scene:
the dense woods…suddenly broke into a valley-like clearing… The bullets were flying thick and fast from the unseen enemy in the woods beyond. Under this unexpected heavy fire the officers and men of the Ninth were quickly dropping. Our gallant Colonel Guiney fell, terribly wounded13
You are looking at Saunders’ Field from the Confederates’ hilltop position. The 9th Massachusetts came out of the trees in the distance and advanced across the open field.
The Union artillery that had earlier fired into the 140th were captured by the Confederates and decked with small Confederate flags which incited the 9th to try to recapture them. The Boston Irish rose to the challenge. “As the regiment went forward,” one veteran recalled, “they received a terrific fire from a large body of infantry concealed in the woods on front and flank, under which, if repeated, not a man would have been left.”14
The 9th fell back badly cut up after the attempt to take the guns, to the “shelter of the woods in [the] immediate rear,” wrote Daniel MacNamara of the regiment. Colonel Jacob Sweitzer, the brigade commander, “rushed up…from the rear and demanded of Colonel Hanley in a loud and insolent tone of voice, “Why don’t you take your regiment in?” 15
Colonel Hanley replied, “We have already been in and just come out!”
“Well,” said Sweitzer, “take ‘em in again,” according to MacNamara.
The 9th prepared to move back into the field when a message from the division commander halted them. “If Colonel Sweitzer’s irrational order had not been countermanded by General Griffin, but few, if any of the Ninth would have come out of “that hole” again…,” MacNamara wrote, contemptuous of the brigade commander who he believed had hidden so far in the rear that he had not seen his own 9th Massachusetts regiment’s brave charges.16
Guiney was not thinking of Sweitzer right then. He was badly wounded and his men feared he would die. Guiney was taken to a hospital in nearby Fredericksburg that would rapidly fill with men killed in other clearings in The Wilderness. Having difficulty communicating, Guiney tore off a piece of paper and wrote a note to his doctor that said, “I… ask a favor of you. Please send word to Mrs. Guiney… that I am in a fair way to recover—have lost my left eye.” The bullet that felled him had destroyed his eye, shattered the bone around it, permanently disfiguring his face, and left a bullet near his brain.17
The day after he wrote his note, Guiney was moved to a hospital in Washington. When she received word of his wounding, his wife Jenny immediately rushed to see him. She took him home to Boston where she would nurse the severely wounded man herself. Guiney would write to a friend a month after his near death that his horrible trauma had one golden virtue: “After an absence of three years, I am once more with my family.” 18
Although Colonel Guiney would recall his homecoming as a joy, his three year old daughter experienced it differently. As an adult, Louise Guiney recalled the scene: “It was my earliest glimpse of the painful side of the war, when he stood worn, pale, drooping, waiting for recognition with a weary smile at the door of the sunny little house we all loved.”
Instead of running to him, the little girl “slipped headlong, like a startled seal from the rocks, and disappeared under the table.” Louise wrote that she viewed the wounded man as a “most bewildering and appalling stranger.” She said that, “In vain my [father] called me by the most endearing names.”
Louise was convinced that the man was an imposter, a wasted ghost playing the role of her virile father. She wrote, “I shut my disbelieving eyes, and crouched on the carpet… What was this spectre… whose head [was] bound in bandages… What was he in place of my old-time comrade.”
Louise’s father had been “blithe and boyish,” she wrote, now he was replaced by this refugee from death.19
Video: Saunders’ Field
Video: Animated Map of the Battle of the Wilderness
Sources: (under construction)
1. The 140th New York Infantry by Brian A. Bennett published by Morningside (1992); Commanding Boston’s Irish 9th: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick Guiney edited by Christian Samito published by Fordham University Press (1998); The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle; or Virginia and Maryland Campaigns by M.H. Macnamara (1867); The Battle Of The Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea published by LSU Press (1994)
2. The 140th New York Infantry by Brian A. Bennett published by Morningside (1992). Col. Ryan was native-born.
3. The 140th New York Infantry by Brian A. Bennett published by Morningside (1992) p. 359.
4. The 140th New York Infantry by Brian A. Bennett published by Morningside (1992) p. 359.
5 .The Battle Of The Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea published by LSU Press (1994) p. 145.
6. The Battle Of The Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea published by LSU Press (1994)
7. The Battle Of The Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea published by LSU Press (1994) p. 143.
8. The Battle Of The Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea published by LSU Press (1994) p. 150-151.
9. The Battle Of The Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea published by LSU Press (1994) p. 279.
10. The 140th New York Infantry by Brian A. Bennett published by Morningside (1992) p. 373-378
11. The 140th New York Infantry by Brian A. Bennett published by Morningside (1992) p. 373
12. The 140th New York Infantry by Brian A. Bennett published by Morningside (1992) p. 373
13. The History of the Ninth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Second Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, June 1861- June 1864 by Daniel George MacNamara (1st Edition 1899) p. 379.
14. The History of the Ninth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Second Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, June 1861- June 1864 by Daniel George MacNamara (1st Edition 1899) p. 379.
15. The History of the Ninth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Second Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, June 1861- June 1864 by Daniel George MacNamara (1st Edition 1899) p. 372.
16. The History of the Ninth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Second Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, June 1861- June 1864 by Daniel George MacNamara (1st Edition 1899) p. 372-373.
17. Commanding Boston’s Irish 9th: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick Guiney edited by Christian Samito published by Fordham University Press (1998) p. 245.
18. Commanding Boston’s Irish 9th: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick Guiney edited by Christian Samito published by Fordham University Press (1998) p. 246, 248.
19. Commanding Boston’s Irish 9th: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick Guiney edited by Christian Samito published by Fordham University Press (1998) p. 249.
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