Medal of Honor: First Sergeant William Jones, 73rd New York Infantry

Some Medal of Honor citations are more detailed than others. That of Wicklow native William Jones is a case in point. It reads, simply, ‘Capture of the flag of the 65th Virginia Infantry (C.S.A.).’ His action took place at the Battle of Spotsylvania, Virginia on 12th May 1864, as he and men from his regiment fought over the ‘Bloody Angle’, in a brutal struggle which raged across an entire day. What William’s citation does not reveal is the Irishman’s fate- he was one of only a handful of Irish-born recipients who didn’t live to receive his Medal of Honor. (1)

The exact details of William’s actions on the 12th May remain unclear, beyond the fact that he captured a Confederate color. The fighting during the Overland Campaign of 1864 was so constant that there was no time for immediate after action reports. It was not until the autumn that regimental commanders found time to record their bloody advance through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna and Cold Harbor. The 73rd New York was at this time commanded by William’s fellow Irishman Lieutenant-Colonel Michael W. Burns. On 9th August 1864 he recounted the actions of his men the previous May, when they had been in the second wave of Union troops to take part in a massed assault against the vulnerable ‘Mule Shoe’ salient, the weak point on the Confederate’s Spotsylvania line:

‘…the regiment advanced through the belt of woods…and on arriving in the open field was ordered to proceed to the assistance of the first line, which was then engaged with the enemy. The regiment then moved rapidly forward over the first line of the enemy’s works (which had already been taken) up to and over the second line, under a heavy fire, capturing 150 prisoners, 2 stand of colors, and 2 pieces of artillery, one of which was turned and used against the enemy with great effect.’ (2)

The Union assault at Spotsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup (Library of Congress)

The Union assault at Spotsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup (Library of Congress)

Savage fighting had seen the Army of the Potomac smash a huge hole in the Confederate defences, threatening to cut the Army of Northern Virginia in two. However, Robert E. Lee rushed reinforcements to close the breach, and waves of Rebels descended on the salient in an effort to recapture it:

‘The command succeeded in getting the prisoners, colors and guns to the rear, but being entirely unsupported, and the enemy concentrating his whole fire upon it, the works so gallantly won had to be abandoned, and the regiment fell back to the first line of rebel works captured. The loss of the regiment both in officers and men was heavy, especially the former…In this engagement the regiment suffered more severely than at any other period of the campaign.’ (3)

Among the men of the 73rd New York Infantry left dead on the field at the end of the day’s fighting was First Sergeant William Jones. William had been an old hand in the regiment, which formed part of the famed Excelsior Brigade. By 1864 he was a veteran volunteer; having originally enlisted as a 25-year-old on 25th May 1861, he had renewed his commitment to the war on 30th December 1863. The fact that he had risen to the rank of First Sergeant, re-enlisted beyond his original term of service and placed himself in harm’s way to capture an enemy flag speaks volumes for his dedication to his duty. Unfortunately it was not just the 73rd and the Excelsior Brigade that would feel the Irishman’s loss in the months and years to come. (4)

The 9th November 1857 had undoubtedly been a happy occasion for William Jones. It had been the day that the Irish stevedore had married his Irish sweetheart Margaret Carney, with the ceremony taking place at St. James Catholic Church in New York. The couple celebrated the birth of a daughter, Susanna (known as Susan) on 21st August 1860. The American Civil War intervened to disrupt the young family’s lives, but William did manage to return to their home on Dean Street, Brooklyn at least once on leave while the conflict raged. It was during such a furlough in 1863 that Margaret became pregnant once more. (5)

The couple’s second child, William Jones junior, was born on 17th April 1864. There is a good chance that his father was informed of his birth before the Army of the Potomac began their campaign by crossing the Rapidan River on 4th May. Tragically, the baby was not yet a month old when his father died at Spotsylvania. One can scarcely imagine Margaret’s feelings when she learned of her husband’s death, and with a daughter under four and a newly born son the future appeared bleak. Although the Medal of Honor issued to her husband on 1st December 1864 must have been a moment of great pride, her immediate priorities lay with securing a pension for herself and her children. (6)

Monument of the 73rd New York Infantry at Gettysburg, erected in 1897 and depicting a Union infantryman and a fireman side by side (Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg)

Monument of the 73rd New York Infantry at Gettysburg, erected in 1897. (Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg)

Unfortunately it would appear that the worst was not over for Margaret. When she applied for a supplement to her pension in 1866, she did so on the basis that she was supporting a child of under 16 years of age. That child was her daughter Susan- no mention of William junior was made. It seems likely that the boy did not long survive his father, heaping still further tragedy on the Jones family. (7)

The 1860s were not kind to Margaret Jones and her daughter Susan. The war years had taken from them a husband and son, father and brother. Susan would never marry, and as the deacdes passed mother and daughter remained together, their fortunes tied. They emerge on the 1880 census, when 19-year-old Susan was working as a bookfolder to supplement their pension income. Mother and daughter were still together in 1908, living on Butler Street in Brooklyn. It was in that year Margaret became gravely ill. Susan turned to nursing her mother full-time, a task in which she was assisted by Sister Radegonde, a member of the Order of the Infant Jesus, who were French nursing sisters for the sick poor. Despite Susan’s best efforts Margaret died of bronchitis and oedema on 29th October 1908. Susan successfully claimed some of her mother’s widows pension to cover medical expenses. (8)

As the 20th century continued, Susan continued life alone, the last of the Jones family. It is not known if she ever visited the graveside of her father, whom she must have barely remembered. Fortunately unlike so many others his body had been identified on the Spotsylvania battlefield, and he rests today in Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Forty-four years after his death, the pension that his service had provided for his family ensured that his wife’s grave in Holy Cross Cemetery would also be marked; their daughter Susan was able to use the last of the monies William’s sacrifice had secured to erect a granite headstone at Margaret’s grave in New York. (9)

(1) Lang et al. 1995: 116; Proft 2002: 906; (2) Official Records: 505; (3) Ibid; (4) A.G. Report 1893: 1018; (5) Widows Pension; (6) Widows Pension, Proft 2002: 906; (7) Widows Pension; (8) 1880 Federal Census, Widows Pension; (9) Widows Pension;

References & Further Reading

Lang, G., Collins, R.L., White, G.F. 1995. Medal of Honor Recipients 1863-1995 Volume 1.

New York A.G. 1893. Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of New York for the Year 1893.

Official Records Series 1, Volume 36, Part 1. 505. Report of Lieut. Col. Michael W. Burns, Seventy-third New York Infantry.

Proft, R.J. (ed.), 2002. United States of America’s Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients and their Official Citations, Fourth Edition

Rhea, G. 1997. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern May 7-12, 1864.

First Sergeant William Jones Find A Grave Memorial

Civil War Trust Battle of Spotsylvania Page

Fredericksburg National Cemetery (Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park)

William Jones Widows Pension File WC56122

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Categories: Battle of Spotsylvania, Medal of Honor, Wicklow

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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2 Comments on “Medal of Honor: First Sergeant William Jones, 73rd New York Infantry”

  1. March 10, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    Spotsylvania CH Battlefield is one of my favorite places anywhere and the Bloody Angle is now a very peaceful, serene place where one can contemplate what took place and be glad that it’s over. Walking it was one of our favorite pastimes when we lived in Virginia. Now we go back once a year and sometimes we still walk it. I can’t remember the name of the ruins of the old house back behind the line of trees but it’s worth going back to see it. Still shocks me that a place where such a raging bloody battle took place is now so peaceful and quiet. Thanks for sharing, Damian! :)

    • March 11, 2013 at 10:46 am #

      I would love to get the chance to visit the site one day- it really was a quite incredible scene of carnage. The Overland Campaign is one of the most shocking of the war in terms of casualties, and the fact that the fighting was almost constant must have been unbearable for those involved. It gets less attention than the earlier battles of the war, but it was this fighting that effectively destroyed the early war Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia. Famous brigades like the Excelsior Brigade and Irish Brigade were practically wiped out during the May and June fighting.

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