This year we are remembering the 150th anniversary of the 1864 campaigns of the American Civil War. 1864 looms large in many of the pension files relating to Irishmen and their families that I have examined. That year, thousands of Northern Irishmen died both on battlefields and in Confederate prisons. For Irish-America, as for much of the American population, 1864 was a year of blood. The 25th of this month will mark the 150th anniversary of one of the most catastrophic days in what was already a costly year for Irish servicemen in the Army of the Potomac. It is a day which deserves significant attention from those of us interested in the Irish experience of the American Civil War.
The 25th August marks the anniversary of the Second Battle of Reams’ Station, when the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac suffered its worst defeat of the war. Among the killed and captured were men from what had been the Irish Brigade, men from Corcoran’s Irish Legion, and men from other ‘ethnic’ Irish units. Large numbers of Irishmen were also present throughout the non-ethnic units of the Second Corps. Over the course of the coming weeks I hope to return to Ream’s Station on a number of occasions. The letter below was written by Second Lieutenant Dean Wilson of the 155th New York, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, on 28th August- three days after the battle. Addressed to the brother of the regiment’s Lieutenant-Colonel in Buffalo, it makes clear the scale of the disaster for his brigade:
I now undertake the painful duty of informing you of the severe loss our Brigade met with on Thursday, 25th: that day the 1st and 2d Division of our Corps lay at Reams Station on the Weldon R.R.; about 5,500 muskets, the Division (Gibbon’s) being very small, and 12 pieces of artillery, with some Cavalry, under Gen. Gregg, Gen Hancock commanding the whole. Early in the morning our pickets were driven in at all points, and the rebel sharpshooters annoyed our batteries considerably; then commenced the fight in reality: we lay on the right angle of the 1st Division; they charged six times on our right and were repulsed with slaughter, but they brought up their batteries, I should say 20 or 25 pieces, and opened on us simultaneously; they were in such force they overlapped our lines in the right and let and came up in our rear; then commenced the slaughter. From front and rear they came swarming in with their yells, and seizing the artillery turned it immediately on our men; the Lieut. Col. was captured while endeavoring to get the men to stand by the guns. Capt. McConvey was wounded severely and carried about a mile, then the men that were carrying him had to leave him as the rebels were in our rear and right on top of us; he gave his money to the Adjutant of the 152d N.Y., who was captured with it afterwards, and Capt. McC., also, taken prisoner. Captains Doran. Pagee, Peluz, Quintz, Flynn, Hartford and Davis were captured. Lieut. Quinn was wounded in the arm and got off. We losr 41 men out of 75. CO. I lost James Clark, P. Donohugh and David Smith missing. J. Ryan and George Harry wounded, but got off the field. Co. K lost Sergt. McGowan, P. Kiennan, Amengo Bogert, James Cotter, P. Dolan, Louis Katrick missing; Sergt. Seymour was captured but got away again. The 164th has only one officer left- Capt. Burke. Thomas Cantwell was wounded and got off; the Brigade loss was 500 men; the 170th has one officer and about 30 men out of 150. We saved our Colors, so did the 69th and 170th; the 164th lost theirs; so did the 8th N.Y.H.A., who are in our Brigade. Prisoners taken told our officers that we were fighting Hill’s whole corps and two DIvisions of Beauregard’s Command, I hope and trust that my comrades and your friends will not be let rot in a Confederate prison; they captured from us 8 or 10 pieces of artillery and 1,700 prisoners.
Many of our troops would not leave the pits at all, preferring capture and imprisonment to running the chances of getting out from under the destructive artillery fire that was concentrated on us from all points front and rear, right and left. Gen. Hancock led a charge in person on the right, and Gen. Gibbon exposed himself fearlessly, but the day was gone against the noble 2d corps. Capt. Emblee, of Gen. Gibbons staff, led the 164th and the 8th N.Y.H.A., on the charge; but it was useless, as at that time the enemy were swinging in our rear; their artillery checked their rear from capturing more of us as they mowed down their own men with the artillery they captured and turned on us. I hope, dear friend, that I will never get in such another “tight place,” Gen. Gibbon cried; Hancock to-day and yesterday will let no one approach him; this is the first time the old corps was ever whipped; but the odds were three to one in artillery and men. I have tried to give you as true a statement as possible. Charley Priest is safe; also, the following men of Company I and K:- Sergeant P. Kelly, Sergeant Opping, — Seymour, John Donohue, William Heffernan, Allan Gray, James Griffin, John Monahan, Dan Frawley, and John Gallaher; we have four officers and thirty-eight men left. Please show this letter to Captain McNally, when you get through. Dr. Hasbrouck of the 164th, was ordered to take charge of the wounded when he comes back I may find something more definite in relation to the Lieutenant-Colonel and the men; if so, I will let you know at the earliest opportunity. Hoping you will have patience and take the brightest side of the picture,
I remain, your friend,
2d Lieutenant, 155th N.Y.S.V. (1)
Shortly after receiving this letter the Irish-American also received a list of casualties among the brigade’s officers as follows:
One Hundred and Seventieth N.Y. Vols.- Major J.B. Donnelly, wounded and prisoner; Capt. James H. Keely, Capt. Turner, Adjt. Dunne, Lieuts. Quigley and Whelan, also wounded and prisoners. The command went into the fight some 70 strong, and lost more than half.
Sixty-Ninth, N.Y.S.M.- Capt. Welpley, killed; Lieut. D. Sweeney, killed; Capt. Canton and Lieut. O’Farrell, wounded; Lieut. E. Kelly, captured.
One Hundred and Fifty-Fifth N.Y. Vols- Major Byrne, Capts. Page, Doran, Pelouze and Lieut. O’Flynn, captured.
One Hundred and Sixty-Fourth, N.Y. Vols.- Major Beatty, Capts. Kelly, Hearne, O’Reilly and others, captured.
The Legion now numbers about 200 men. (2)
Despite the slant that Lieutenant Wilson put on proceedings the Second Corps had not performed well at Ream’s Station. Consistently used as a strike arm during the course of the 1864 campaign, it was no longer the powerful formation it had once been. Battle fatigue and almost relentless casualties had taken their toll. Unfortunately the Lieutenant’s hope that the men would not be ‘left to rot’ in Confederate prisons did not come to fruition; many of those taken at Ream’s Station would never see their homes again.
(1) New York Irish-American 17th September 1864. (2) Ibid.
New York Irish-American 17th September 1864. War News.