Immigrant Regiments March Out of the Wilderness Into a “Wicked Roar” of Gunfire

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140-and-146th-ny
The 140th New York and 146th New York regiments in their colorful North African uniforms charged the Confederate entrenchments at the edge of Saunders' Field in the Wilderness.

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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

Saunders-field-mapThis 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

140th-ny-paintingThe 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

140-saunders-fieldThe 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

140-monument1This 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

irish-9thYou 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

Battle of The Wilderness – Saunders Field from Civil War Trust on Vimeo.

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.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

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.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

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.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

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.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

Cultural

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No Irish Need Apply: High School Student Proves Yale PhD. Wrong When He Claimed “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Never Existed

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No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

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Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War


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