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The Union retreat from Richmond was nearing its completion when Confederate forces again struck an isolated Northern corps, this time at Savage’s Station.
The lonely Union unit was the Second Corps. Sometimes called the “Democratic Corps” because its many urban regiments included the sort of immigrant workingmen who formed the strength of that party in states like New York and Pennsylvania, the Second Corps included the Irish Brigade and the Philadelphia Brigade commanded by General William Burns. Among the Philadelphia regiments was the 69th Pennsylvania.1
The 69th Pennsylvania was organized after Fort Sumter as an Irish unit and it took its number in tribute to the famous Fighting 69th New York Volunteers. On June 29, 1862, the Philly Irish would be among the first to suffer the Confederate onslaught. A little over a year after the battle, it would become the focal point of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.2
As the Confederates approached, General Burns found to his chagrin that the Union Third Corps, which was supposed to secure his flank, had mysteriously disappeared. Union General William Franklin described what happened next: “The enemy made the infantry attack with great fury and pieced the center of General Burns’s line.” Burns himself was badly wounded, but instead of seeking treatment, he stayed on the field organizing reinforcements. The first regiment he found was the 88th New York of the Irish Brigade. Although this regiment had been reduced by fighting to just 250 men, when Burns asked them to charge a Confederate infantry battery, Burns later wrote, “they went in with a hurrah, and the enemy’s battery fell back.” Two decades later, Burns still talked about “that gallant charge” by the 88th New York that preserved the Union line and helped keep the 69th Pennsylvania intact.3
The Second Corps was able to drive back the Confederate attackers on June 29, but Union Commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan continued his retreat. According to an unsympathetic biographer, by the fifth day of the Seven Days Battles, “George McClellan had lost the courage to command.” Although his army was deep in enemy country and under hourly threat of attack, he often was miles away from it. Historian Stephen Sears writes that “by Day Six the demoralization was complete; exercising command in battle was now beyond him, and to avoid it he deliberately fled the battlefield.” While other historians have reached less damning verdicts, McClellan’s moves undermined support from Lincoln for his strategy.4
On June 30, 1862, the Confederates again attacked the retreating Unionists, this time at Glendale. Again, the Irish Brigade’s arrival helped stabilize a Union line under sharp attack. It was only because of the aid of the Irish Brigade and the other reinforcements from the Second Corps that “the Army of the Potomac was not cut in half on June 30,” according to the principal historian of the battle Stephen Sears.5
After Glendale, the Union troops retreated to their last ditch, Malvern Hill.
Malvern Hill, a high ground next to the James River, looked like a good defensive position for the Union army. Confederate General Ben Huger warned his colleague General James Longstreet that “if General McClellan is there in strength we had better leave him alone.” The Union troops were “there in strength,” but unfortunately for them, McClellan left them shortly before the Confederate attack began. 6
When the Confederates attacked on the afternoon of July 1, one of the first units they came up against was the Irish 9th Massachusetts. The regiment’s two senior officers, Col. Thomas Cass and Lt. Col. Patrick Guiney were both sick. Guiney was so ill that he spent the battle in an ambulance. The Confederates came to within 60 yards of the Massachusetts men, but they were forced back when the Ninth charged them. After this success, Col. Cass was hit in the face by a bullet that tore out the roof of his mouth, destroyed six of his teeth, and came out the back of his head. He would soon die a painful death from the wound. Another officer stepped forward to try to keep the Ninth from disintegrating under a renewed Confederate push, but he too was seriously wounded. Junior officers organized continued resistance as best they could and one, Lt. John Tobin, was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in “rallying and reforming the regiment under fire” after the unit was left commanderless.7
The Irish Brigade, held in reserve behind the lines of the 9th Massachusetts, would soon be called on to reinforce the threatened Union defensive line.
Col. Thomas Cass’s statue in the Boston Public Garden. Cass was born in Ireland and immigrated to America as a child. He grew up in Boston’s Irish North End. After his wounding, Cass was sent home to Boston where he died on July 12, 1862, less than two weeks after the Battle of Malvern Hill. (Source: Wikipedia)
The 10th Louisiana of Semmes’ Brigade was positioned opposite the Fighting 69th New York at Malvern Hill. The Louisiana regiment was made up of men from a dozen different countries, many of whom did not speak English, recruited from the immigrant communities of New Orleans. Commands were issued in French even though roughly a third of the men were English-speaking Irish immigrants. When the order came to charge across 500 yards of open fields, the men of the Tenth faced one of the toughest units in the Union army. As they were racing across the fields, the Confederates were torn apart by Union artillery mounted on the heights of Malvern Hill as well as by the muskets of the 69th. When they finally collided with the New York Irishmen, the Louisianans were a depleted remnant, but they threw themselves against the Fighting 69th New York. While the men of the Tenth were the only regiment in the Louisiana Tiger Brigade to penetrate the Union lines, they were too weak to claim anything more than their own demise. By the end of the fighting, a quarter of the men of the 10th Louisiana were casualties.8
The Irish Brigade, which had been fighting all week, also suffered horribly at Malvern Hill. The experience of one Irish soldier shows the depths of human destruction they endured. Private Peter Rafferty was a 17-year-old soldier from County Tyrone enlisted in the 69th New York. After the battle, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for continuing to fight long after he had been seriously wounded. In his writings, Rafferty describes the extent of his injuries: “two bullets in the mouth and the lower part of the jaw…smashed the bones and carried away part of my tongue. Besides this another went through my foot entering at the top and coming out at the sole.”9
Private Peter Rafferty. Here is the text of his citation for heroism: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Private Peter F. Rafferty, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 1 July 1862, while serving with Company B, 69th New York Infantry, in action at Malvern Hill, Virginia. Having been wounded and directed to the rear, Private Rafferty declined to go, but continued in action, receiving several additional wounds, which resulted in his capture by the enemy and his total disability for military service.” (Source: Home of Heroes)
Many other Confederate attackers fared as poorly in the assault on Malvern Hill as the immigrant Louisianans had. The Confederates lost a total of 5,650 men killed, wounded, and missing to 3,007 losses for the Union. In spite of this victory, McClellan treated it as a defeat. His army would advance no more and would sit and rot by the James River in a stewing Virginia summer.10
On Independence Day, 1862, future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, then a young Union officer, described the Seven Days to his mother in a letter home: “marched all night-lain on our arms [muskets] every morn’g & fought every afternoon-eaten nothing-suffered the most intense anxiety and everything else possible…you can’t conceive the wear and tear.” The men of the Army of the Potomac had been through hell, and by mid-July they still could not see their way out.11
Battle of Malvern Hill
The New York Times recently published a narrative of the 10th Louisiana fight against the Irish Brigade.
One of the enduring legacies of the Peninsula Campaign was the composition of the bugle call “Taps,” which is still used at military funerals. This video explores the history of the call.
1. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books (1992) pp. 271-272.
2. A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteersby Anthony McDermott (1889).
3. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books (1992) pp. 271-272; “Rear-Guard Fighting During the Change of Base” by William Franklin in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II, pp. 373-374; “McClellan’s Change of Base and Malvern Hill” by D.H. Hill in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II; “The Seven Days Including Frayser’s Farm” by James Longstreet in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II.
4. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books (1992) p. 281; George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears, Ticknor and Fields (1988); but seeMcClellan’s War by Ethan Rafuse, University of Indiana Press (2005) pp. 230-231, which contends that McClellan’s moves during the Seven Days, far from being irrational, significantly improved his operational position, but caused significant offsetting political problems that he was foolish to ignore.
5. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books (1992) pp. 305-306.
6. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books (1992) p. 309, 314.
7. Commanding Boston’s Irish 9th: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick Guiney edited by Christian G. Samito, Fordham University Press (1998) p. 117; The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle by M.H. Macnamara pp. 106-107 (1867).
8. Lee’s Tigers: The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginiaby Terry L. Jones, Louisiana State University Press (2002) pp. 30-31, 109.
9. The Irish Brigade in the Civil War by Joseph G. Bilby, Combined Publishing (1995) Kindle Location, p. 498.
10. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books (1992) p. 335.
11. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books (1992) p. 341.
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.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites