Slaughter in Saunder’s Field: The 9th Massachusetts at The Wilderness

On the afternoon of 5th May 1864 Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick T. Hanley of the 9th Massachusetts Infantry stood with his men in the tangled and confusing wooded landscape that characterised the area known as ‘The Wilderness’ in Virginia. As battle raged, Hanley’s brigade commander Colonel Jacob B. Sweitzer came rushing up to confront the Irishman, loudly asked him ‘Why don’t you take your regiment in?’. Hanley retorted ‘We have been in, and just come out!’. Sweitzer informed him that he should take his men in again, at which the Lieutenant-Colonel turned to his few remaining soldiers with the instructions ‘Fall in, Ninth!’ (1)

Saunders Field, Wilderness

The Saunder's Field, where the 9th Massachusetts were engaged at The Wilderness (Library of Congress)

Hanley might have been excused for pointing out to his commanding officer that the absence of his regimental Colonel Patrick Guiney and many of the rest of the Massachusetts Irishmen was proof enough that the 9th had already been engaged. Nevertheless, he formed the men up in line of battle to prepare to enter the fray once more. Fortunately, the division commander Brigadier-General Charles Griffin appeared to have a better grasp of the situation than Colonel Sweitzer. He saw the 9th preparing to go in again and swiftly sent a staff officer over to countermand the order; their fighting was finished for the day. (2)

The Wilderness was not a location where Ulysses S. Grant would have chosen to fight Robert E. Lee. The heavily wooded terrain and thick undergrowth made command and control almost impossible, and worse still it negated the advantage in numbers which the Union army enjoyed. Indeed Brigadier-General Griffin and the rest of the V Corps had not even expected to encounter the Confederates anywhere near the Orange Turnpike along which they were now positioned. The fact that they were in close proximity became clear when skirmish fire erupted along the line. Griffin was ordered forward with his division, and he advanced with a two brigade front, with Sweitzer’s brigade, including the 9th Massachusetts, in support. (3)

Griffin’s lead brigades encountered the main Confederate line in the vicinity of Saunder’s Field, where the ground opened up somewhat from the dense forest. The initial Federal attack was met by heavy Confederate fire and repulsed, and in the process two artillery pieces of Company D, 1st New York Light Artillery were captured. Sweitzer’s brigade and Guiney’s 9th were the next brigade up, advancing along the turnpike. As they emerged from the woods into the Saunder’s Field the Irishmen were confronted by the captured guns, which the rebels had decked out with southern flags since securing them. Unable to endure this taunt, Colonel Guiney resolved to recapture the pieces and ordered his men into the field to take them back. (4)

Saunders Field, The Wilderness

Confederate entrenchments at the edge of the Saunder's Field, illustrating the wooded Wilderness terrain (Library of Congress)

What Guiney did not realise was that the Saunder’s Field was a killing zone, swept with Confederate fire. Indeed the flags were probably placed on the guns by the rebels in the hope that a Union force would be drawn out to try and recapture them.  The Irishmen began to drop quickly as they advanced, and Colonel Guiney was soon amongst the casualties, going down with a minie ball through the left eye. He would survive but would never again return to the front. As the 9th pressed on they were met with tremendous volleys of fire from concealed enemy positions in the woods to their front and flank. Daniel George MacNamara noted that if the volley had been repeated not a man of the regiment would have got away. Lieutenant-Colonel Hanley, now in charge of the Irishmen, saw that they were unsupported and had no option but to withdraw back to the woods from whence they had come, leaving the guns to the Confederates. (5)

The whole action had lasted but a few minutes. Indeed it had been so fast that Colonel Sweitzer had been unaware it had taken place at all. Despite the brevity of the fighting, the 9th Massachusetts had sustained appalling casualties; no fewer than 12 officers and 138 men lay killed and wounded. The next day, upon realising the extent of the 9th’s losses, Colonel Sweitzer sought out Hanley to apologise for his orders, stating that he did not realise the regiment had been engaged and taken such casualties. The battle raged on again on 6th May, but the Irishmen would not be seriously engaged. There was more bloodshed to come for them in the weeks ahead, but the end was in sight, with the regiment completing its service and mustering out on 21st June 1864. However, the number of men who did make it home to Massachusetts that June was greatly reduced as a result of those devastating few minutes in the Saunders Field. (6)

Daniel George MacNamara compiled a list of the men of the 9th Massachusetts who were killed and mortally wounded at The Wilderness:

Officers: Captain James W. MacNamara, Captain William A. Phelan, 1st Lieutenant Nicholas C. Flaherty, 2d Lieutenant Charles B. McGinniskin

Company A: Sergeant Thomas Fitzgerald, Corporal Paul McCluskey (died of wounds 15th July 1864, Andersonville, Georgia), Private John Coffee, Private Timothy Rahilly

Company B: Private Martin Sheehan, Private John Ferris, Private John Reagan, Private James Ward

Company C: Private Michael Dolan, Private John Flanagan, Private Edward Pettie, Private Erasmus D. Marden (or Madden)

Company D: Corporal James I. Healey, Corporal James McCann, Private James Walsh

Company E: Corporal Richard Condon, Private James Mullooney, Private Thomas Murphy, Private Bernard Conway (died of wounds 9th July in Philadelphia)

Company F: Private Patrick Shea (died of wounds 31st May 1864)

Company G: Private John Connors, Private Jedediah Bumpus, Private Richard Furfey, Private Peter Hughes, Private Patrick Mulloy, Private George L. Green (died of wounds 12th May 1864)

Company H: Private Francis Finnerty, Private William Peachy, Private James O’Connell (died of wounds in prison 7th October 1864)

Company I: Corporal Bernard Hayes, Private Stephen Blake, Private William Gillis (died of wounds 5th May 1864), Private Michael Garrity (died of wounds 17th June 1864), Private Lawrence Mathews (died of wounds 5th May 1864), Private Thomas Hackett

Company K: Sergeant James Hayes (died of wounds 5th May 1864), Private Michael Connell, Private Joseph Flynn, Private Patrick Kelleher, Private William Schmidt

(1) MacNamara 1899: 372; (2) Ibid; (3) Samito (ed) 1998: 243-245; (4) MacNamara 1899: 372, Samito (ed) 1998: 244; Rhea 1994: 169-170; (5) MacNamara 1899: 372, Rhea 1994: 169-170; (6) MacNamara 1899: 373

References & Further Reading

Guiney, Patrick R. (edited by Christian G. Samito) 1998. Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

MacNamara, Daniel George (edited by Christian G. Samito) 2000. The History of the Ninth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Second Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, June 1861- June 1864 (1st Edition 1899)

Rhea, Gordon C. 1994. The Battle of the Wilderness May 5- 6 1864

National Park Service Battle of The Wilderness Page

Civil War Trust Battle of The Wilderness Page

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Categories: 9th Massachusetts, Battle of The Wilderness, Massachusetts, Virginia

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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12 Comments on “Slaughter in Saunder’s Field: The 9th Massachusetts at The Wilderness”

  1. Paul Kelly
    February 9, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    A very good little tale of Irish bravery during the Civil War! My son was in the 69th Infantry( Fighting Irish) New York National Guard, when it detailed a platoon to serve with the 108th Infantry NYNG, in Afghanistan in 2007-08! His great-grandfather served with the 69th in World War I. The Irish, can’t have a war without us!

    • February 10, 2011 at 10:28 am #

      Hi Paul,

      Many thanks! That is a fantastic record of family service, and one to be proud of- it is great the 69th still going strong and still adding to its illustrious record!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. Leo Carney
    June 3, 2011 at 12:51 am #

    Since the mid 1970s I have walked by the grave of Captain James W.Macnamara ,killed May 5, 1864 in the battle of the Wilderness age 27 years,whom is buried across from my father in Holyhood Cemetery
    in Brookline Massachusettes. I found it fitting that 2 officers one being my dad a Captain also in the USMC where buried on a hill across from each other.
    As time went on I always wondered how this young brave Capt. died in Virgina and buried in this primarily Irish cemetery back in Boston area
    With the help of sites like these I have researched that Capt Macnamara gave his life in Saunders field.I plan to take a trip to this area this summer, does this battleground Saunders Field still exist to vist?
    Best Regards,
    Leo G. Carney Jr.

    • June 4, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

      Hi Leo,

      That does seem very fitting indeed. You will be glad to know Saunders Field does still exist so you will be able to visit the area- check out this link at the Civil War Trust site they discuss the Saunders Field and also ongoing preservation efforts: http://www.civilwar.org/video/battle-of-the-wilderness.html and also you can find out about driving tours etc. of the area at the NPS website here: http://www.nps.gov/frsp/index.htm I hope you have a successful trip!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

    • rick Guiney
      December 8, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

      Mr. Carney,
      I have not yet had the honor of visiting Hollyhood Cemetery. I have, however, recently visited Saunder’s field in September 2011. Even after reading many accounts of the battle, there is nothing quite like being there and seeing the terrain those brave men faced as they charged up the hill. The Confederate breastworks are still visable near the tree line and one can easily see how the brave men of “The Fighting 9th” were entrapped. You might want to read “The History of the Ninth Regiment”, written by James Macnamara’s brother Daniel, if you have not done so already. It is an excellent account of the Ninth’s contribution to the Civil War.
      I have a special interest in visiting Hollyhood Cemetery as my Great, Great Uncle, Col. Patrick R. Guiney, is also burried at Hollyhood. I would also be honored to place a wreath in honor of your Father.

      Best Regards,
      Richard Guiney

      • Leo Carney
        December 12, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

        Rick Guiney,
        Thank you for your comments .I was not aware that Capt.James Macnamaras brother Daniel as the author of that book about the ninth Massacusetts.If you happen to go to Hollyhood Cemetery the grave is near the front, from main gate entrance first right and first left 100 feet or so on the left heading up a hill maybe 50 feet up from the road. The limestone grave is next many Irish sur names. My father and now mother is a little further up 1row over. My great grandparents are also close by.I grew up on Heath St. same street as main gate close by. I have yet to come by any other grave markers from the cival war but im sure there are some.President Kennedy parents are buried further down the same road.
        I plan to get to Saunders field maybe this spring
        .

  3. Kevin Beaulieu
    January 28, 2012 at 1:46 am #

    My Great Great Grandfather was in the 9th Regiment, killed on May 5th. He’s listed in the post – Private John Flanagan of Company C. He left behind his wife and his only child, a son.

    Thank you for posting this, it’s a reminder of their bravery and sacrifice.

    • January 28, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

      Hi Kevin,

      Many thanks for getting in touch, it means a lot that you enjoyed the post. I find the 9th Massachusetts a fascinating unit- what they endured in those brief few minutes is beyond comprehension. Do you have much information on John’s life?

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  4. Kevin Beaulieu
    January 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    Damian,

    Thanks for responding…I know he was born in Ireland (not sure where as of yet), and he lived in Milford, MA. He was a bootmaker by trade, and he enlisted in August 1862. I just found out today while looking through an old family Bible that he actually had 3 children, I mentioned he had an only son in my previous post.

    I continue to do more research, and I hope to make a trip to the battlefield this summer.

    Kevin

    • January 29, 2012 at 10:58 am #

      Hi Kevin,

      I would be really interested in how you get on over the summer, and if you make the battlefield- if you were interested some of the photos and your thoughts on visiting the field would make a nice follow on post.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  5. February 7, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

    Thank you so much for this article. I’ve just recently discovered that my Great Great Grandfather John Ferris was killed in this battle. To read the account made my heart ache but coming from a family who have served our country I understand the sacrifices. I hope to visit Saunder’s Field soon. When I see the legacy he left behind (6 more generations) I’m amazed. Again thank you!

    • February 7, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

      Hi Jenn,

      I am really glad to hear from you and that you enjoyed the article. I find the 9th at The Wilderness one of the most affecting of stories (I have actually included it in my new book!). I find the regiment fascinating in every respect. Are you aware of the books available on the Ninth? Check out the ‘Resources’ page of the site and you will see a list of books, a couple of the histories of the Ninth are available online and have links there, you will get further details on John in the 1899 history. Thanks again for posting.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

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