‘Before the Reaper’s Sickle': The 9th Massachusetts at Gaines’ Mill

It is the 27th June 1862. Colonel Thomas Cass and the 9th Massachusetts Infantry have just retraced their steps under orders, marching back towards their old camping grounds near a mill and millpond that empties into Powhite Creek, Virginia. The men have fond memories of this pond, a spot where they have enjoyed relaxing swims on quieter days. Now they have orders to hold the bridge over the mill creek, and Brigadier-General Charles Griffin has told them that two more regiments will soon arrive to support them. But the Irishmen still stand alone when the lead brigade of the advancing Confederate army, led by Brigadier-General Maxcy Gregg, looms into view across the water. It is just after noon, and Colonel Cass throws out his flank companies as skirmishers at the double quick. Each man had been issued with 80 rounds of buck and ball earlier in the day- they will need each one. The 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment are about to fight the greatest battle of their war. It will be named for this area where the bloody struggle is about to commence- Gaines’ Mill. (1)

The Battle of Gaines’ Mill was the third of what became known as the Seven Days’ Battles during the Peninsula Campaign. Confederate General Robert E. Lee was engaged in a series of attacks to beat back Major-General George McClellan’s advance on Richmond. The Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, under Brigadier-General Fitz John Porter, was isolated from the rest of the Federal army on the north bank of the Chickahominy River when the Rebels struck. Lee would continue to throw repeated ferocious assaults against Porter’s line throughout the 27th June as he attempted to drive the Yankees back across the river.

The ruins of Gaines’ Mill, Virginia. (Photographic History of the Civil War)

For now the 9th Massachusetts found themselves far in advance of their Corps’ main line, as Gregg began to deploy elements of the 1st South Carolina and 12th South Carolina as skirmishers to contest the crossing of the mill creek. As they approached the bridge, Captain McCafferty’s Company I shot buck and ball into them from their front, while Captain O’Leary’s Company F poured an enfilading fire into their right flank. With the Irishmen protected behind trees, the Carolinians were forced back, but they would continue to contest the crossing. Colonel Cass sent forward Companies A and D under the command of Major Hanley to reinforce his skirmishers. Eventually Gregg was compelled to fully deploy the 1st and 12th South Carolina to meet the threat, and managed to force his troops across the creek in column of companies. As the Rebels formed on the east bank the skirmishers under Hanley continued to pepper them with buck and ball. Soon after Gregg had deployed his entire brigade in front of the Irishmen, and the 9th had no choice but to begin a controlled retreat in the direction of the Union main line, halting at intervals to fire into the advancing Rebels. One such halt during the retreat was beyond yet another small creek, where Hanley shouted instructions at his skirmishers: ‘Now boys, let us give them one more shot, and then fall back as fast as we can.’ Many of the men, heedless of the imminent danger, took the opportunity of the stop to supply themselves with fresh pairs of stockings from an abandoned cart nearby. As more and more Confederates streamed forward the Irishmen fired their final shot, and then made for the safety of their own lines. (2)

Lieutenant Frank O’Dowd was now in command of Company I (Captain McCafferty and 1st Lieutenant Nugent were already amongst the fallen), when the skirmishers started back. As he turned for the rear an enemy shell exploded beside him, breaking his leg above the ankle. Unable to move, he desperately shouted after his friend, Sergeant J.W. MacNamara, ‘For God’s sake, Jim, don’t leave me!.’ MacNamara was not about to leave the man with whom he had served in the ranks and shared a tent. He called on two of his men, Jerry Cronin and William Winn, to help him with the Lieutenant. Winn took the officer on his back while Cronin and MacNamara supported him on either side. The air was now filled with lead as the four men dashed for the rear. Their luck didn’t hold. A bullet slammed into MacNamara’s calf striking the bone, disabling him. At the same time a bullet passed through Lieutenant O’Dowd’s body, killing him, before continuing on to tear through William Winn’s chest, causing a mortal wound. Sergeant MacNamara roared at Cronin to leave them where they were and save himself. The Confederates were on the position within minutes, and one of the Rebels charged his bayonet at MacNamara, shouting ‘Get up, Yank!’ MacNamara told him he couldn’t move and requested water. The enemy soldier threw his canteen at the Irishman and moved on- the Sergeant was now a prisoner. The survivors of the 9th eventually reached the main line and the remainder of their brigade. Maxcy Gregg knew who he had been fighting. In his official report the General would grudgingly state: ‘Among the troops driven from the ground the Ninth Massachusetts Regiment was noticed.’ The 9th Massachusetts were in fact the only troops Gregg’s men had encountered. The Irishmen’s Corps commander Fitz John Porter had noticed them too. After the war he would write: ‘At Gaines’s Mill, Colonel Thomas Cass’s gallant 9th Massachusetts Volunteers of Griffin’s brigade obstinately resisted A.P. Hill’s crossing [Gregg's Corps Commander], and were so successful in delaying his advance, after crossing, as to compel him to employ large bodies to force the regiment back to the main line.’(3)

Colonel Thomas Cass, 9th Massachusetts Infantry. He was mortally wounded at Malvern Hill on 1st July, 1862. (Library of Congress)

Despite this heavy fighting, the day had barely begun for Colonel Cass and his Irishmen. It was now about 2 p.m., and they were finally back on the main Fifth Corps defensive line, where they were positioned near the Corps centre in a wooded area behind Boatswain Creek. Brigadier-General Griffin placed them on the right of his brigade, supporting Captain Martin’s 3rd Massachusetts Battery. The artillery gouged huge gaps through the advancing Confederates who were now approaching down the road from New Cold Harbor. Sometime around 2.30 p.m. the Rebel’s launched a fierce attack to try and capture the deadly guns. The 9th bore the brunt of the onslaught, and although the left of their line wavered for a moment they succeeded in driving the enemy back. But the Confederates weren’t finished. They came on again and again as the afternoon wore on, while the 9th supported by the 62nd Pennsylvania, 14th New York and 1st U.S. Sharpshooters desperately tried to hold on. The Irishmen ran out of ammunition and were forced to strip the dead and wounded for more rounds, but they and their brigade succeeded in repulsing the attacks. The Confederates were now beginning to surge forward up and down the Fifth Corps line in a desperate attempt to break through. As 9th Massachusetts veteran Daniel George MacNamara described it, ‘men fell dead and wounded on both sides like grain before the reaper’s sickle. Guns were captured and retaken by desperate charges and counter- charges. Confederate regimental colors were snatched and taken from their bearers in hand-to-hand encounters. Prisoners were captured in the dense smoke of battle as they became lost and bewildered and separated from their broken and defeated battalions.’ (4)

A lull fell over the battlefield as afternoon turned to evening, but it would prove only a temporary respite. The Confederate’s were simply manoeuvring for a renewed assault, which they launched around 6.30 p.m. Finally, as the light began to fade, the Union defensive line broke, and from left to right Porter’s men tumbled back towards the Chickahominy. Still the desperately thinned ranks of the 9th Massachusetts did not break pell-mell for the rear. As the New York Herald put it: ‘To break and run was not for the men who had covered themselves with glory during the entire day.’ Colonel Cass, who had been suffering from an illness before the battle, was now completely exhausted and unable to continue, so he passed command of the regiment to Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Guiney. The Irishmen, having been the extreme advance of the Corps at Gaines’ Mill earlier in the day, now found themselves acting as its rearguard. (5)

As the Fifth Corps position crumbled, Guiney withdrew his men, who were now being subjected to a galling enemy fire from the front and flanks. Deciding that attack was the best form of defence, Guiney, extolling his men to ‘follow your colors!’ halted the retreat no less than nine times. Each time the Irishmen turned on their pursuers to fire and even charge towards the enemy, buying time to continue the withdrawal. Finally two brigades of the Second Corps which had crossed the Chickahominy to aid the Fifth Corps appeared. One of these units was none other than Meagher’s Irish Brigade. Meagher approached Guiney, and mistaking him for Colonel Cass in the twilight called out ‘Colonel Cass, is this you?.’ Guiney responded: ‘Hallo, General Meagher, is this the Irish Brigade? Thank God, we are saved!.’ The seemingly endless days fighting for the 9th Massachusetts was over. The Fifth Corps retreated south of the Chickahominy during the night and rejoined the rest of the Army of the Potomac. Gaines’ Mill was a Confederate victory, but poor Rebel coordination and the determination of regiments such as the 9th Massachusetts prevented the destruction of Fitz John Porter’s force. (6)

Officers and men of the 9th Massachusetts prepare to celebrate mass in camp near Washington D.C. This photo was taken prior to the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. (Library of Congress)

The 9th Massachusetts Volunteers had endured a day of fighting to equal anything experienced by any regiment of the Army of the Potomac during the war. Their casualties were horrendous. A total of 249 men had been lost in the eight hours since they had first become engaged, 82 of whom were killed or mortally wounded. This was the highest loss of any Union regiment engaged at Gaines’ Mill. Today, The Civil War Trust have an opportunity to purchase a portion of ground near the Fifth Corps defensive line, in a section of land referred to as Griffin’s Woods. It was close to this spot that the 9th Massachusetts, part of Griffin’s brigade, helped to repulse Confederate assaults during the afternoons fighting, before eventually being forced to retreat. To find out more about this parcel of land see the Civil War Trust appeal here. (7)

9th Massachusetts veteran Daniel George MacNamara wrote a history of the regiment in which he served after the Civil War, carefully recording the names of those who died as a result of the fighting at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. The 82 men who lost their lives are as follows:

Company A: Private William Adams, Private James Doherty, Private James Foley, Private John Gleason, Private Patrick Keating, Private Maurice Lynch, Private John Manning, Private James McGuire, Private Peter McIntire, Private Paul Melanfry, Private Roger Pope, Private Hugh Tiernan

Company B: Private Andrew Conlon, Private John Cullinan, Private Daniel Doherty, Private Thomas Hogan, Private Dennis Hyde, Private Michael Keenan, Private Patrick McGaffany (or McGaffigan), Private John McQuade, Private John O’Brien

Company C: Captain William Madigan, Sergeant George Grier, Corporal Patrick McGee, Corporal James Hughes, Corporal Daniel Leary, Private Charles Greaney, Private John Hyde, Private Michael Slattery

Company D: First Sergeant Patrick Collins, Private John Flynn, Private Neil McConologue, Private James F. McDonough, Private William McFeeley, Private Terence McGrade (died of wounds), Private Francis McKenna, Private John Cartwright (died of wounds, Company I)

Company E: Private Timothy Cahill, Private James Condon, Private Michael Fitzgerald, Private Joseph Lambert, Private Thomas Marrin, Private Joseph F. Smyth (or Smith, died of wounds 29th June 1862), Private Michael Sullivan (died of wounds 29th June 1862), Private Michael Horan (died of wounds 29th June 1862)

Company F: Private Robert Farrell, Private John F. Finney (died of wounds 6th July 1862), Private Peter McNamara, Private Patrick Meagher, Private James Reagan

Company G: Captain John Carey, Private Patrick Clark, Private John Crowley, Private Bartholomew Finnerty, Private Cornelius Long, Private Charles Quinn, Private Patrick Scolland

Company H: Captain Jeremiah O’Neill, Private Thomas Cummings, Private Simon Curley, Private Samuel Day, Private William McBrian (or McBrine), Private James McGovern (died of wounds 7th August 1862), Private Jeremiah Murphy, Private John O’Neil, Private John Haggerty (died of wounds 27th June 1862)

Company I: Captain James E. McCafferty, First Lieutenant Richard P. Nugent, Second Lieutenant Frank O’Dowd, Corporal Maurice Cotter, Private Patrick Curran, Corporal Charles Kearney, Private John Fitzgibbon, Private John Garrity, Private Patrick Nagle, Private William Winn

Company K: Corporal Hugh O’Hare, Private John Butler, Private Patrick Dennison, Private Daniel Riordan, Private Daniel Riordan (different from previous), Private Bartlett Tully

(1) D.G. MacNamara 1899: 114-117; (2) D.G. MacNamara 1899: 117-118, M.H. McNamara 1867: 96, Official Records Series 1, Volume 11 (Part 2): 854; (3) D.G. MacNamara 1899: 118-119; Official Records Series 1, Volume 11 (Part 2):854, Porter 1887: 336 (4) D.G. MacNamara 1899: 122-124, M.H. McNamara 1867: 96-98,  Samito (ed.) 1998: 113, Official Records Series 1, Volume 11 (Part 2): 313; (5) Porter 1887: 339-340, D.G. MacNamara 1899: 125- 127, Samito 1998: 114; (6) D.G. MacNamara 1899: 126-127, Conyngham 1867: 186; (7) D.G. MacNamara 1899: 126-128, Samito (ed.) 1998: 115, M.H. McNamara 1867:  100- 103;

References & Further Reading

Conyngham, David Power (edited by Lawrence Kohl) 1994. The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns (1st Edition 1867)

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)

MacNamara, M.H. 1867. The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle; or Virginia and Maryland Campaigns

Porter, Fitz John 1887. ‘Hanover Court House and Gaines’s Mill’ in Battle and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 2.

Official Records Series 1, Volume 11 (Part 2), Chapter 23. Report of Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg, C.S. Army, commanding Second Brigade, of the battles of Mechanicsville and Gaines’ Mill

Official Records Series 1, Volume 11 (Part 2), Chapter 23. Report of Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin, U.S. Army, commanding Second Brigade, of the battles of Mechanicsville and Gaines’ Mill, engagement at Turkey Bridge, and battle of Malvern Hill

Richmond National Battlefield Park

Civil War Trust Seven Days Battles Page

Civil War Trust Battle of Gaines’ Mill Page

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Categories: 9th Massachusetts, Battle of Gaines' Mill, Massachusetts, Virginia

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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14 Comments on “‘Before the Reaper’s Sickle': The 9th Massachusetts at Gaines’ Mill”

  1. Judy Fitzpatrick Parisi
    May 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    Great article. I just got a great photo of Col Cass recently. He’s on the Boylston St side of the Boston Public Garden. I never really noticed it before. We have the Troini print Sons of Erin at the Battle of Gaines Mills. My husband and I are civil war reenactors and have portrayed the Ninth mass and 17th Virginia but our main hobby is the 28th mass.
    As a follow up to my previous post about Plunkett, I just picked up a box of documents of my father’s and a photo from 1864 of Catherine Plunkett. I’m still sorting through to see if she was Thomas’s sister or cousin.

    • May 3, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

      Hi Judy,

      Many thanks. I have seen photos of the statue on the net it looks like a good one- I am a big fan of the Troiani print as well (I recently got my first ever print of his, the Corcoran’s Irish Legion Drummer). That sounds like an interesting box of material, be sure to keep us updated with how the research goes!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. Diane
    May 31, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    Hi Judy,
    I had an ancestor that was wounded and captured at Gaines’ Mill, Patrick McGaffigan, Mass. 9th Infantry, Volunteers. We believe he was taken to Libby Prison and also that he died on or about July 17, 1862 at the Depot, Richmond, VA. We got this information on footnote.com from a letter written by Christopher Plunkett. Have you ever heard of Patrick and what happened to him?
    Diane

    • June 4, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

      Hi Diane,

      Accocrding to his entry in MacNamara’s history (see here: http://www.archive.org/stream/historyninthreg01macngoog#page/n500/mode/2up) where he is incorrectly called McGaffany, he served in Company B of the 9th Massachusetts, Patrick was a single 25 year old laborer when he enlisted on February 11th 1862 in Boston. He mustered in on February 11th 1862 for a term of three years. Interestingly according to MacNamara he was killed at Gaines Mill, but the letter you have found would suggest he was captured that day and subsequently died at Libby. It may be that he picked up a wound at the battle that also weakened him prior to going to Richmond.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. Bart
    June 7, 2012 at 1:46 am #

    Nice article. I, too, had an ancestor in the 9th. My Great-Great-Grandfather Martin Sheehan in Company B. He almost made it to the end but was killed during the Wilderness Battles around 5-8 May 1864.

  4. Joseph Maghe
    June 27, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

    A great synopsis of the Ninth’s action at Gaines Mill… once again, well done.

    • June 27, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

      Many thanks Joe- I think the experience of the 9th at Gaines’s Mill and The Wilderness have to be up there with some of the most harrowing for any units in the war. In the former they fought all day while at the latter they were only engaged for a few minutes, but at both they suffered horrendous casualties.

    • July 2, 2012 at 8:53 am #

      Hi Joe,

      Many thanks, glad you enjoyed it!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  5. September 22, 2012 at 1:10 am #

    Hi Joe, I also have a great great grandfather who was in the 9th MA company B. Philip McGovern was 25, from Lynn MA and was a native of County Cavan, Ireland. He was shot in the head (and survived!) at Malvern Hill. He lost the sight in his right eye and suffered brain damage but went on to father may children one of whom was my great grandmother! Thanks for the info….Alison

    • October 4, 2012 at 9:43 am #

      Hi Alison,

      What an exceptional story of survival- did the injury give him much difficulty in later life?

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

    • Tommy Reilly
      April 21, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

      Hi Alison, Do you know where abouts in Cavan your gg gf was from? Our g gm was mcgovern and had a relation you fought at the battle of gettysburg. They were from Kiltynaskellan. Hope you have more information. thanks.

      • April 22, 2013 at 11:04 am #

        Hi Tommy, He was at Gettysburg! I’m not sure where in county Cavan he was from. I’ve never been able to find that out. I do know his parents names were Ann and I Terrance.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Visualising the Demographics of Death: 82 men of the 9th Massachusetts | Irish in the American Civil War - January 30, 2013

    [...] fighting at Gaines’ Mill, Virginia on 27th June 1862 see a previous post here. It suffices here to note that the battle was Robert E. Lee’s first in command of the Army of [...]

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