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