A full list of The Immigrants’ Civil War articles appears at the bottom of the page.
During the last week of June 1862 the Union Army of the Potomac stalled in its march to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. Union commander George B. McClellan had moved his army slowly west on the Virginia Peninsula during the previous three months, always convinced he was facing a numerically superior Confederate army. Now his delusions of inferiority overwhelmed his conviction that he was America’s foremost military mind.1
In the middle of McClellan’s crisis of self-confidence, Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched a brutal attack on the isolated right wing of the Union army. The Union right flank under Major General Fitz John Porter was separated from the rest of the army by a river and a maze of swamps. Over a seven-day period it would repeatedly be hammered by the bulk of the Southern army. In all, Lee hoped to hit Porter’s 28,000 men with nearly 56,000 Confederates. Fortunately for the Unionists, Lee’s subordinates were slow in executing his master plan and the first day of attacks sputtered. But, even though Porter drove the Confederates back on the first day, McClellan began to pull his army back from Richmond.2
The second day of Lee’s offensive, June 27, 1862, had all the portents of a great battle in store. Confederate Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, commanding the famed Louisiana Tigers, was a Protestant minister’s son who was loved by his mostly Irish Catholic immigrant soldiers from New Orleans. Wheat had presentiments of his own death the night before the battle opened. On the morning of June 27 he told his companions that he would die before sunset and one of his friends remembered that he began to “cry like a child” at the thought.3
Around 2pm, the Tigers were in position to attack Porter’s right flank. They moved into a swamp thick with entangling bushes and became disorganized. Wheat rode in front of them to push them forward but he was shot down. Wheat’s men became demoralized when they saw him killed, one shouting out, “They have killed the old Major and I am going home. I wouldn’t fight for Jesus Christ now!”4
The Irish 9th Massachusetts Regiment from Boston was among the first Union units to be hit by the renewed Confederate onslaught. The Ninth had been ordered in front of the Union line with two other regiments, but found that it was the only regiment to actually take up position. As the Confederates came on, the Ninth began to fall back, but one man was hit. He got up and tried to run away even though he was wounded. Dozens of Confederates opened fire on the easy target crying out, “Kill him!” but he managed to escape. Later, as the Confederates advanced, they found the wounded man collapsed from blood loss and exhaustion. They treated him with admiration as a hero for evading them for so long.5
The Ninth fell back to the main Union line where they held out all day against repeated Confederate attacks. General Porter would later call them the “gallant Ninth” in his report of the fighting because they so “obstinately resisted [the Confederate crossing of the Gaine’s Mill Bridge] and were so successful in delaying his advance.” The general credited the Ninth with keeping up a “prolonged resistance.”6
A final assault by the combined Confederate forces of three generals—“Stonewall” Jackson, James Longstreet, and D.H. Hill—finally drove back the bulk of the Union troops. M.H Macnamara, a veteran of the Ninth, recalled that horrible isolation they experienced alone against the Confederates: “[W]e perceived, to our astonishment, that our entire army had disappeared from view, and that we alone and unsupported were left to meet the advancing foe.” He writes that “the remnant of the Ninth stood in line, amid the chaotic dispersion that reigned around.”7
The commander of the Ninth, Col. Cass, was very ill and he turned command over to Lt. Col. Patrick Guiney. By now, Macnamara writes, the Ninth was a “little band, standing among the dead, hoping, longing, for support—though none came.” The Confederates reached the Ninth and fired a massed volley. “Two more such volleys” Macnamara wrote, “and the Ninth would have been a regiment of dead.”8
Lt. Col. Guiney took command of the Irish Ninth during the Battle of Gaine’s Mill. He would suffer terribly in the war and became a leading Irish advocate of the emancipation of the slaves.
The unfortunate regiment was left with little choice as to what to do next. In the words of Macnamara, “We must either go forward or retreat.” Lt. Col. Guiney ordered his men to charge the enemy. It worked, disrupting the Confederate attack long enough to let the other Union troops get away, but it came at a terrible price. The regiment was proudly led by the flag of its men’s adopted country. Ten men who carried that American flag were killed or wounded that day. In all, the Ninth would charge the Confederates more than half a dozen times to make good their escape.9
A Prussian officer with the Confederate army that day wrote later that the “Irishmen…offered heroic resistance…[They] held their position with a determination and ferocity.”10
As night fell, Porter’s corps was collapsing under the weight of superior Confederate numbers. Union commander George McClellan had chosen not to ride to them to try to save them and only sent two brigades forward to help. One of these was the now famous Irish Brigade under Brig. General Thomas Francis Meagher. Guiney, trying to drag his battered regiment away from its Confederate tormenters, saw the brigade’s green flags in the fading light. He called, “Hello General Meagher, is this the Irish Brigade? Thank God, we are saved.” According to the leading historian of the battle, “only darkness and the last minute arrival of the two…brigades saved [Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter’s] command from being…shot to pieces.”11
The regiment may have been saved, but many of the men were not. The Ninth lost 249 men, including 82 killed. This was the worst loss by any Union regiment in the entire Battle of Gaine’s Mill.12
The worst of it was, the men of the Ninth and the Irish Brigade still had more than half a week of hard fighting ahead of them, and their commander, George B. McClellan appeared to be coming unhinged.
Confederate attacks on June 26 led to the movement of Porter’s Corps, including the 9th Massachusetts, back to the position enclosed by yellow on June 27. This is where the 9th, part of Morell’s Division, was nearly cut-off from the rest of the army in the vicinity of Gaine’s Mill. (Source:Wikipedia)
1. The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War by Donald Stoker, Oxford University Press (2010), pp. 139-161; George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen Sears, Ticknor and Fields pp. 95-192 (1988); “McClellan Organizing the Grand Army” by Phillipe Comte de Paris inBattles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “The Peninsula Campaign” by Gen. George B. McClellan in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “Yorktown and Williamsburg” by Warren Lee Goss inBattles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “Manassas to Seven Pines” by Joseph E. Johnston in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “Two Days of Battle at Seven Pines” by Gustavus W. Smith inBattles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); Battle Cry of Freedomby James McPherson, Oxford; To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Ticknor and Fields (1992); McClellan’s War by Ethan Rafuse, University of Indiana Press (2005).
2. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Ticknor and Fields (1992) pp. 210-248.
3. Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginiaby Terry Jones, Louisiana State University Press (2002) p. 102.
4. Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginiaby Terry Jones, Louisiana State University Press (2002) pp. 103-104.
5. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Ticknor and Fields (1992) p. 222.
6. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Ticknor and Fields (1992) p. 230; Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Patrick R. Guiney (edited by Christian G. Samito) (1998) pp. 112-113.
7. The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle; or Virginia and Maryland Campaigns by M.H. Macnamara (1867) p. 97.
8. The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle; or Virginia and Maryland Campaigns by M.H. Macnamara (1867) pp. 97-98.
9. The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle; or Virginia and Maryland Campaigns by M.H. Macnamara (1867) pp. 98-99, Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Patrick R. Guiney (edited by Christian G. Samito) (1998) pp. 113-114.
10. The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle; or Virginia and Maryland Campaigns by M.H. Macnamara (1867) p. 103.
11. Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Patrick R. Guiney (edited by Christian G. Samito) (1998) pp. 113-114; To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Ticknor and Fields (1992) p. 245.
12. Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Patrick R. Guiney (edited by Christian G. Samito) (1998) p. 115.
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.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites