Between 11th June and 9th July 1864, the New York Irish American Weekly ran a series of letters from a young man to his brother back in New York. Taken together, they offer a highly detailed account of his experiences with the 147th New York Infantry during the Overland Campaign. Written on almost a day-by-day basis, they describe the campaign from its opening clash at the The Wilderness all the way through the 18th June assault at Petersburg.
The author of the letters was Irish-American Thomas W. Kearney. He enlisted in the 147th New York– an Oswego County regiment– at Richland on 26th March 1864 and mustered in as a private in Company K. The 20-year-old had been born in New York City, and was described as 5 feet 6 1/2 inches tall with hazel eyes, black hair and a light complexion. In civilian life, Thomas had been a clerk, which goes some way towards explaining his degree of literacy. His account of the Overland Campaign appeared across three letters written to his brother from the front, which were published in the New York Irish American Weekly. Given his position within the army, Thomas seems to have had a lot to say with respect to wider army operations; perhaps his professional skills were put to use by some of the officers of the regiment, thereby giving him access to more information. The letters themselves slip in and out of diary form, suggesting Thomas was keeping daily notes, but was also returning to expand on specific areas of his text. Although he describes a number of actions, by far the most powerful account deals with the 147th New York’s participation in the assault at Petersburg on 18th June, which is to be found in his final letter. Much of Thomas’s life both before and after his time in the regiment remains unclear. He may have had prior military service, but he disappears from the records in January 1865. At some point during that month he took the decision to desert from the army while on furlough. Whether he did so because he had grown tired or disillusioned with the fight, or because of personal, family or some other reason is unknown. If any readers have any further detail to add to the picture of Thomas Kearney’s life I would be glad to hear from them.
The first letter is the most extensive of the three, and deals with the fighting from The Wilderness through to Laurel Hill and Spotsylvania, ending on 18th May– it was published on 11th June:
BIVOUAC ON FIELD, NEAR SPOTTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE, VA., MAY 17, 1864.
Dear Brother– Thinking a brief account of our present campaign would prove a little interesting to you and some of the friends, I herewith send it. We started on the march from Culpepper, Va., on the 3d instant, as 12 1/2 o’clock at night, marching all night until 10 o’clock, A.M., when we crossed the Rapidan at Germania Ford, and continued marching until we came to Gold Mine, where we encamped for the night. On Thursday, May 5th, we marched up the road to the right about two miles, where we formed in line of battle and marched to the west towards Mine Run. We had not gone far before we met the rebels in the woods in two lines of battle marching to meet us. Here our battle opened; our line and the rebels fired at about the same time. After each fire of the first line of the rebels, they lay down and let the second line fire; thereby keeping a continuous fire upon us all the time, which proved very destructive to our regiment. Our Colonel (Miller) fell here mortally wounded, while rallying his men on the left of his regiment. This place was called “the Wilderness” and true enough it was a wilderness. Col. Miller acquitted himself on this occasion very creditably. No officer in the army of the Potomac could display more courage and bravery than he did that day. The losing of such a brave and gallant officer threw gloom over the whole regiment. Meanwhile, the right of the regiment was manoeuvred by Lieut.-Col. Harney with great coolness and bravery. Company K (our company) was the second in line, forming the 1st division. The casualties in our company were very heavy. Our 1st Lieutenant, Hamblin, was wounded in both arms– one broken below the elbow, and the other having a flesh wound [A 32-year-old farmer from Oswego County, he died of his wounds on 25th June]. Our killed, wounded and missing, on the first day, were twenty-one men; the company went in with 57 guns, and came out with 28. After being under such a destructive fire for some time, we received ordered to fall back, but not until the rebels were close upon us. Much credit is due to Capt. Dempsey, for a braver and cooler officer or better soldier there can not be found in our army [37-year-old Captain Joseph Dempsey was from Ireland and was a speculator in Oswego before the war; he would survive his service]. As the rebels were within hailing distance of us one of our corporals called out to him that he was wounded; and Capt. D. immediately went to his rescue, regardless of his own life; and while in the act of assisting the poor wounded man, one of his sergeants fell mortally wounded in the head. Meanwhile the rebels had been advancing. They were but a few yards from the Captain when we called out to him from behind, for God’s sake to come on or he would be taken prisoner. He turned, saw the rebels and how he was situated, and what few men he had, order to fire; but at that time the rebels let fly a volley from the left, which compelled him to fall back. The Captain then fired a gun, and the rebels perceiving where the smoke issued from, poured in a deadly volley. I thought our Captain Joe was not more; but thanks to kind Providence, who saved him that time, and he immediately fell back and rallied his men on the clearing in line of battle. It is my opinion that our division had to stand before a whole division of rebels; and what was more, there was not event the slightest reserve to fall back on.
About 5 P.M., the whole division again formed in line of battle, and marched in the woods to the east, the line running north and south. We charged the rebels in the woods for the purpose of getting possession of the road leading to Spottsylvania Court House. We drove them steadily before us until dark. At the break of day, we were ordered to move forward, which we did, and drove them three quarters of a mile out of the woods. When we came to the edge of the woods, we saw Gen. Wadsworth (Our Division General) riding up and down the line (between our’s and the rebels’ fire), hat in hand, cheering on his men. Our boys gave him three hearty cheers, and moved forward on the double-quick across a clearing about fifteen yard wide, which brought us on to a pine thicket. We fired a volley through the thicket, and in return received a terrible charge of grape and canister, which mowed down men and trees like so many scythes. It seems the rebels had a masked battery about four rods off, which they opened on us when they got us near enough to them. At this charge Gen. Wadsworth was killed. We were then ordered to fall back slowly. Part of our brigade went south east through the woods, and getting possession of the Spottsylvania road, commenced throwing up breastworks: and soon after the Second Corps came up and did likewise.
In the afternoon about 4 P.M., the rebels charged our breastworks in from of the Second Corps, and planting their colors on their works, captured two stands of colors. Gen. Rice, commanding our brigade, ordered his men to charge the rebels, which they did, and recaptured the colors, and jumping over the breastworks after the rebels, killed and wounded many. One of the rebel prisoners we captured said that the charge in which Gen. Wadsworth was killed was led by Lee in person. Our line of battle now extended from the Rapidan, on our right, to about four miles on the plank road leading to Spottsylvania Court House. On this day we were reinforced by the arrival of the Ninth Corps, which immediately went into action and commenced throwing up breastworks. This day our company lost two men by being wounded; and a chum of mine from Oswego, named Dennis Deegan, is missing yet [a 20-year-old Irishman and former sailor, Deegan was captured at The Wilderness, but survived to be paroled in April 1865]. The next day being the third day of the fight, our brigade was ordered to the right to assist the Sixth and Ninth Corps; but nothing of much importance transpired while we laid here. About 5 P.M. we were relieved, and marched back to Gold Mine about 8 P.M. We then marched to the left, towards Spottsylvania Court House, about 15 miles– marching all night without any rest. We were the head of the column of the Fifth Corps. We marched onward for miles, till we came up with the cavalry, and they reported the enemy in force about a mile ahead. We stopped about an hour and got breakfast– that is, a collation of coffee and “hard tack.” We then again started on and went towards the foe. The rebels had felled trees across the road to prevent our progress, and soon with a desultory fire opened upon us; but we drove them before us about two miles, when we came to a place called Petersburg, where is a large clearing. Here they opened on us with a deadly fire of shell. Here our Brigadier-General Rice, showed himself a very brave and Christian man. He spoke very coolly, and said to us– “Follow me, men, and God will protect us!” We did so up a small hollow, and went into a small piece of woods and formed in line of battle, and marched on the rebel line and were engaged very hotly for about three hours, when we drove them from their position. One man of our company was wounded with a piece od shell in the hand: Co. A had 2 men killed. The regiment here experienced a heavy loss; our men and officers fought like tigers, and got great praise from the other regiments in our brigade, as the lone on our right gave way, comprising the 3d brigade of Pennsylvania Bucktails, which was afterwards sent to the rear. The same night the rebels made a very heavy charge on our left, but it was repulsed with a heavy loss by a part of our corps and the Sixth on our right. A heavy cannonading closed the ball of the fourth day.
The fifth day, armed with shovels and picks, we threw up more breastworks, and threw out a heavy line of skirmishers. There was beavy firing all along the lines, but the heaviest was on the left, with the 6th corps, where Gen. Sedgwick got killed; and it was reported that we took a great many prisoners. In our company we lost one man this day. We slept on our arms all night, and the rebels made two bold assaults, but were as boldly repulsed.
The sixth day, about 11, a.m., heavy firing began on our right and left, but they were only feints to break our centre. The rebels massed their troops to carry our works; but we sent two lines of battle forward in the woods to meet them, and compelled them to fall back. In this charge we had hard fighting for two hours. Lieut. Col. Harney was wounded in the face by a piece of shell, and was compelled to leave the field, but returned and resumed command the next day [29-year-old George Harney would survive his service to muster out with the regiment]. About 5, p.m., the same day, we formed four lines of battle in the woods for the purpose of charging the rebels’ works, and the 2d corps was to do the same on our left; the 147th (our Regiment) was in the third line, with bayonets fixed, but did not move far before the enemy perceiving our motive opened upon us with grape and shell. There were pine trees, a foot in diameter, cleanly cut across with the shell, and the woods fairly rained with grape shot, but yet, by all appearances, our loss was small. By some reason or other, the corps on our right failed to move forward, and after firing four or five volleys, darkness set in, and we fell back to our rifle pits. Gen. Rice was killed in this engagement; he was wounded in the thigh and shattered to the hip. He was carried to the hospital, about two miles to the rear, where he died two hours after amputation. The officers and men under his command regret his loss very deeply, as he was beloved and esteemed by all our company. This day we lost three men wounded; and our old war-horse of a Captain, was wounded, or at least hit twice with a shell; but be never left the field; the boys call him Fighting Joe; he is a regular warrior. There was heavy skirmishing all along the lines during the whole night, and it was reported that Burnside had captured 2,000 prisoners, and twenty-three pieces of cannon. We laid on our arms all night, as the heavy skirmishing continued.
The seventh day brought heavy cannonading for about an hour all along the lines in the forenoon. We kept the enemy busy in our front, while we erected more breastworks, and planted more cannon, which kept up a fire through the night. This ended the seventh day of strife of any note. Col. Harney came back from the hospital, and resumed command of the Regiment, which pleased the officers and men very much, as they repose great confidence in him.
The eighth day, before daylight, we were ordered to pack up and move to get in line, the 2d corps on our right being moved to the left. The morning was very dull, wet, and foggy. As soon as daylight appeared, the cannonading opened. Our Brigade moved forward out of the breastworks and attacked the enemy. The musketry was very heavy on both sides, and the shelling very hot. Our company, in this engagement, lost several men in killed and wounded; a lieutenant, named Browne, lost a leg here, and was amputated above the knee. The 2d corps made a charge on the Rebels breastworks, and carried them with 4,000 prisoners, four generals, and fifteen pieces of cannon. They belonged to Johnson’s Division, Ewell’s Corps. We were ordered up; but it was merely to support the 2d and 6th corps. We are now lying in the Rebel rifle pits, which we took from them. The evening’s loss this day, in killed, wounded, and prisoners, must have been very heavy. We have used a great deal of artillery.
May 13th, 2, a.m., we have just been relieved from the intrenchments. We had to keep a heavy fire on the enemy all night, to prevent them from advancing on our works, as we were not properly prepared for them. When we got relieved, it was raining, but you may bet your pile we could lie down and sleep, too, if it was all mud. Only imagine a man having no rest for nine days and nights, and you will jump at the conclusion that he can sleep it it is a mud hole. 11, a.m., same day, everything is quiet along the lines. Burnside has gone further on the left about seven miles, and on their flank. Where we are now, is on the rebels’ right flank, so you can perceive that it is turned, and, consequently, leaves us in possession of the Fredericksburg road, and also the Bowling Green road. 4, p.m., same day (13th), there was an ordered read to us, conveying the happy tidings that Gen. Lee was driven from the line of the Rapidan, and that we had captured 8,000 rebel prisoners, and complimenting the troops highly for the work they so nobly performed. Nothing of much note transpired during the day. We are at work now making more and stronger breastworks inside our old lines. 10, p.m., same day, we marched from the right to the left, a distance of twelve miles. Lee’s army is in the shape of a wedge. On the 13th, our line of battle faced the south-west, and on the 14th, the north-west; we had a very muddy march all night, the mud being over a foot deep, and the little runs were so high that we were compelled to ford them, being three feet deep. Here we relieved Burnside’s corps; the Rebs were in force on our front on a high position near the Spottsylvania Court House, throwing up earthworks and mounting guns, so we set to work throwing up breastworks also, as we anticipated they would charge us, to get possession of our works, and the road running parallel with the railroad, so we extended our lines six miles further to the left, and towards the south; the railroad is in our rear about four miles; our communication is open to Belle Plains.
This being the tenth day of battle, we kept up a heavy cannonading all day on the rebels. They held possession of a high eminence in our front about half a mile off. We charged on and drove them from it, but they charged and shelled in the afternoon and drove us back; but just before dark we formed in lone of battle and advanced at the same time, opening on them with shell, and succeeded in retaking the place. The rebels ran into the cellar of a house that was there, for safety, which some rebel General had for Headquarters. We got thirty fine horses in the barn already saddled which they had no time to take away before we were on them.
May 15, 2 p.m. Everything is pretty quite along the lines to-day. There was some cannonading on our right. The men on our left were busy all night making breast works; so that they can hold the place without much force. There was a reinforcement of convalescent soldiers, numbering 7,000 men came in to-day from the different hospitals through the country. It was Brigaded and officered by a good many from the old Irish Brigade. Some of the men were of our regiment who had been wounded at Gettysburg battle; and when they heard that our regiment was so near them they made a bolt and joined us. It is rumored that we are reinforced by 30,000 men. The weather is dark and threatening heavy rain. our cavalry are all out toward Richmond. The rebels moved last night; but when daylight came they found, to their great surprise, the Second Corps in their front.
May 16th and 17th. There has nothing of any account transpired along the lines.
May 18th. Quite a brisk cannonading commenced this morning and lasted about one hour. On our right two divisions of the old Third Corps charged and took two rows of the rebel rifle pits. All quiet the rest of the day. May 19. To-day all quiet. Our Division are the only troops now on the right of the Third Corps, and Burnside’s Ninth Corps went away in some other direction. We were engaged fighting already for twelve days– fighting eight battles, commencing at the battle of the Wilderness, and ending at the battle of Laurel Hill.– I remain your affectionate brother.
Co. K, 147th N.Y. Vols., Warren’s Corps, Wadsworth’s Division, Rice’s Brigade.
Thomas’s next letter takes up the campaign from the crossing of the North Anna to end of the fighting at Cold Harbor, and was published on 2nd July:
LETTER FROM THE 147TH N.Y. VOLS.
BIVOUAC ON CHICKAHOMINY RIVER, NEW KENT COUNTY, VA.
June 10th, 1864.
Dear Brother– The last account of our army movements that I sent you, was up to the 20th of May. Nothing of any importance transpired until the 23d, when we crossed the North Anna River at Jerico’s Ford, where our corps (the Fifth), under the command of Major-General Warren, crossed about 5 P.M. The 1st and 4th divisions of this corps were compelled to wade the river, as the pontoons had not arrived. Having crossed the river, we formed line of battle and marched forward about half a mile, in the direction of a piece of woods, where the enemy had their troops massed for the purpose of driving our force into the river, and making another Ball’s bluff affair– but were foiled in their murderous attempt. The 1st brigade, 4th division of the 5th corps, were thrown out as skirmishers, and moved forward through the woods until they met the enemy, who drove them back through the woods. Meanwhile, the 2d brigade, commanded by Col. Hoffman of the 56th Pa. Vols., were drawn up in line of battle about a hundred yards from the woods, the line running parallel with the woods. This brigade was assisted by Battery H, 1st N.Y. Artillery. On the enemy emerging from the woods about twenty yards, Col. Hoffman gave the order to fire; at the same time the artillery worked their guns handsomely, pouring into the enemy a deadly fire of grape and cannister. This engagement was hotly contested for about thirty minutes, when the enemy was compelled to fall back; at the same time an aid rode forward and notified Col. Hoffman that the enemy were endeavoring to flank him on his right. He immediately changed direction of his brigade to the right, at the same time firing, and moved forward in line of battle, steadily driving the enemy before him over half a mile, in the direction of the Virginia Central Railroad, until darkness settling in, he was ordered to halt, by Major-Gen. Warren, and throw up breastworks– Major-Gen. laying out the breastworks in person. Much credit is due Col. Hoffman for the gallant manner in which he manoeuvred his brigade on this occasion. Owing to his tact and skill, he was the means of saving the day and preserving many a life. His brigade is composed of the following regiments:- 56th Pa. Vols., 147th N.Y.V., 76th N.Y.V., and 95th N.Y.V. In this action, this brigade captured 370 prisoners, principally South Carolina troops.
On the 24th, the Second Corps, under command of Major General Hancock, crossed at Island Ford; and the Sixth Corps, commanded by Gen. Wright, crossed at this point, and moved down the river about a mile and a half to the left, where the army head quarters were established.
On the 25th, the Fifth Corps moved to the left wing of the army, about four miles down the river, and threw up two lines of breastworks.
On the 26th and 27th, heavy skirmishing continued along the lines. The 2d brigade, 4th division of the 5th corps, lost 35 men while skirmishing. We recrossed the river on the night of the 27th, about 11 P.M., and marched north-east about four miles, where we received three days’ rations. We marched from there for the Pamunky River. On the 20th, we crossed the Pamunky River; and on the morning of the 30th, we moved forward, passing the 6th and 9th corps, where they were well entrenched in breastworks. About 4 P.M., we bivouacked in a field about a hundred yards from the resting place of the celebrated patriot, Patrick Henry [this would seem to be an error]. Next day, the 31st, our brigade was reinforced by two regiments, the 46th N.Y. and 3d Del. Towards evening, orders came for the 2d brigade to move forward and relieve Gen. Lockwood’s brigade, which was exhausted, having been under fire from 11 A.M. until 4 1/2 P.M. It was then ordered that a heavy line of skirmishers of 140 men and 3 commissioned officers, detailed from the different regiments of the 2d brigade, should move forward and relieve the skirmishers of Gen. Lockwood, which was done in a gallant and skillful manner by Capt. Dempsey, 147th N.Y., commanding the entire skirmishing party. I would say that much credit is due Captain Dempsey for the brave manner in which he advanced his skirmish line on this occasion. His cool, brave manner is proof of his good soldierly qualities. The casualties were very light, losing only two men, by being wounded, on his whole skirmish line, while we took upwards of 200 prisoners from some of the crack regiments of Virginia. The enemy perceiving what sad havoc our skirmish line had made among them, opened upon them with grape and shell, at the same time sending a very heavy skirmish line forward for the purpose of dislodging our skirmishers; but Capt. Dempsey having received orders from Major-Gen. Warren to hold the left of the skirmish line at all hazards, directed his men to fire on the enemy’s advancing line, which they did, killing and wounding 37 and taking 9 more prisoners. The enemy’s skirmishers, in falling back, had to abandon their arms and equipments in order to save their lives. That night our skirmish line advanced and threw up breast works about fifty yards from the enemy. Next morning the enemy fell back towards Mechanicsville, and our whole army moved forward and entrenched themselves, where there were two days heavy fighting on our right and left, Our left extended to Coal Harbor, where the Second Corps fought splendidly. Yours,
The last letter in the sequence carries the campaign from Cold Harbor to Petersburg on 19th June. It was published on 9th July:
LETTER FROM THE 147TH N.Y. VOl. RIFLES.
BIVOUAC NEAR PETERSBURG,
June 24th, 1864.
Dear Brother– Nothing of any importance has transpired since I last wrote, with the exception of leaving the Chickahominy and going towards Petersburg.
June 15th. In my last letter I mentioned the death of Col. Miller; but to-day I am happy to announce the glad tidings received in camp of the existence of our gallant Colonel.
Junr 16th. We embarked on board transports at Wilcox’s Landing, and crossed the James River about half-past 10 o’clock, a.m.; we then halted until about 2 p.m., when we again took up our route, marching steady all that day and night, until about 3, a.m., when we rested for the night.
June 17th. About 6, a.m., our Regiment (the 147th N.Y.) were sent on picket guarding the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad. At 4, p.m., we were relieved and drawn in; we were then drawn up in line of battle, and commenced throwing up breastworks, where we remained quiet all night.
June 18th. The next morning we advanced our lines over the two outer lines of the enemy’s works surrounding Petersburg, which they had evacuated during the night. We continued advancing through a piece of woods, crossing the railroad, and coming out into an open clearing. Here we were met by shot and shell from the enemy, decimating our ranks fearfully, and compelling us to move by the right flank, which gave us a slight protection from so deadly a fire. Here we lay still for half-an-hour, when we were ordered to fix bayonets, move forward, and take the line of works that the enemy then occupied, and from which they were continually firing on our lines. This was about half-past 2, p.m. The ground over which our men had to advance deserved notice, as we were in such a position while charging, that the enemy had the decided advantage of keeping our men in view, and continually pouring volley after volley of musketry, together with shell, grape and canister, which proved very destructive to our ranks. The sight was indeed heart-rending, to see so many brave fellows fall; yet, regardless of the danger of those terrible missiles, we continued moving forward, all the time closing up the vacancy made by the fall of our comrades, until we cam to within about one hundred yards of the enemy’s works, when our ranks becoming so thinned, and the fire of the enemy so destructive, the line was compelled to fall back, with the exception of a part of our Regiment, who, fortunately, were a little in the advance, and partly under cover of a small knoll. Seeing that this would give us a slight protection, and also perceiving the terrible slaughter the enemy were making on our men while falling back, we were ordered to lie down. As this afforded us but a partial protection from the fire of the enemy, it was surprising to see the men lower themselves into the earth by means of natural entrenching tools, in the shape of their hands and feet. Meantime our men, while lying in this position, were suffering profusely from the intense heat of the sun. Here we had a clear view of the field of battle in our rear. The ground was literally strewn with our dead and wounded, and to make the picture more striking, every now and then a few, not believing themselves secure enough, and endeavoring to secure for themselves a more safe position, would be seen to rise, but only to meet the fate of their fallen comrades. It was most distressing, indeed, to hear the groans of our dying comrades, crying for help, which it was not in our power to give them. Their cries were most agonizing. After lying in this position for nearly an hour, awaiting with great anxiety the darkness of the coming night, the enemy perceiving our situation, determined on capturing a few “live Yankees;” but in this attempt they were foiled, for our men, perceiving their intention, immediately poured a few volleys into their advancing columns, compelling them to fall back into their works. We then remained quiet, until about 9 p.m., when we fell back under cover of the night, and after partaking of a small collation of “coffee and hard tack,” which the boys were greatly in need of, as they had no opportunity to eat since the night before, we advanced up to within about two hundred yards of the enemy’s works, where we immediately intrenched ourselves, and how hold possession. This charge was the greatest that our Brigade ever participated in during the present campaign, and was led, in gallant style, by Col. Hoffman, of the 56th Pa. Vols., commanding the Brigade (2d). He is an able and efficient officer. The casualties in our Regiment were very heavy. Our Brigade (the 2d) sustained a very severe loss.
June 19th, and up to the present date, being the 24th, we still continue to occupy the same position. Our men are in a very perilous situation, not being able to leave their rifle pits through the day, except at the risk of their lives. We are continually firing out of the pits at each other. On the 19th, our flag was completely riddle with bullets, having no less than sixty-five bullet holes through it. From the 19th up to the present date, from the effects of firing out of the pits, we have lost as many men, on an average daily, as we did during the recent battles. The men are obliged to do their cooking, draw rations, & c. during the night. Much credit is due to the officers and members of the 147th N.Y. Vols. for the gallant way in which they conducted themselves on this occasion. The men are in good spirits, and feel confident of success.
Co. K, 147th N.Y. Vols., 2d Brig., 4th Div., 5th Corps
References & Further Reading
1860 U.S. Federal Census.
Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts of New York State Volunteers, United States Sharpshooters, and United States Colored Troops [ca. 1861-1900]. (microfilm, 1185 rolls). Albany, New York: New York State Archives.
New York Adjutant General. Roster of the 147th New York Infantry.
New York Irish American Weekly 11th June 1864. Twelve Days Fighting. From The Wilderness to Laurel Hill.
New York Irish American Weekly 2nd July 1864. The Virginia Campaign.
New York Irish American Weekly 9th July 1864. The Virginia Campaign.