Gettysburg’s Big Round Top is home to one of the lesser known monuments on the battlefield. It marks the position held by the Irish 9th Massachusetts Infantry from the late evening of 2nd July 1863. The regiment had a proud service history during the American Civil War, but through no fault of their own, their contributions at Gettysburg could best be described as peripheral. Despite this, in the decades following the conflict, some veterans of the 9th felt the need to portray their role in the fighting as a key one. Why was this? This post examines that question, looking at both the veteran’s writings and the story of the 9th Massachusetts monument, which was placed on the field in 1885.
The 9th Massachusetts Infantry was one of the lucky ones at the Battle of Gettysburg. While their comrades in Jacob B. Sweitzer’s 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the 5th Corps– the men of the 4th Michigan, 32nd Massachusetts and 62nd Pennsylvania– had been at the vortex of the fight on 2nd July, the 9th Massachusetts had been spared, serving on detached duty on Brinkerhoff Ridge, before moving to Big Round Top only after the major fighting of the day had concluded. Their good fortune was reflected in the casualty tallies; while the brigade as a whole lost well in excess of 400 men, only 15 were in the 9th Massachusetts. Indeed, their only confirmed combat fatality, Joseph Ford of Company K, had died in the ranks of the 4th Michigan, having lost his unit but deciding nonetheless to go into the fight with men of his brigade. Another, John Quinn of Company B, was never seen again after 2nd July and was presumed killed, while the 9th lost 13 men to wounds. There were other battles, on other days, where the 9th paid an exponentially greater butcher’s bill. The most notable were Gaines’ Mill, where the 249 casualties suffered by the Massachusetts Irishmen was the highest in the Army of the Potomac, and The Wilderness, where the regiment lost 150 in a matter of minutes at Saunder’s Field. But you will find no monument to the 9th Massachusetts Infantry on these fields, or indeed any other outside of Pennsylvania. When they came to decide where they were to place their monument, there was only one choice– Gettysburg. This was despite the extremely peripheral role they played in the battle. (1)
By 1885, the year in which the 9th Massachusetts Infantry memorial was constructed and placed at Gettysburg, the battlefield was being described by the Harrisburg Daily Independent as “the coming monumental city.” That summer large numbers of memorials were being placed by various Union veteran groups around the field, with monument committees a regular sight on the landscape as they studied the ground to select (and sometimes argue over) appropriate sites. The Lawrence Daily Journal was of the opinion that “ere long Gettysburg will become the great memorial battlefield of the world.” With the perception of Gettysburg as the pivotal battlefield of the American Civil War becoming cemented in public opinion, so too did it’s role as the focal point for memory and memorialisation. If the 9th Massachusetts Infantry wanted to be remembered, then Gettysburg was the only place to do it. Given this, the veterans of the 9th Massachusetts were eager to present their actions at Gettysburg as of central importance. This is certainly the impression given by the regiment’s former Major John Mahan ,in his 1885 account of their contribution at Round Top:
The confederates dashed like turbulent waves against the little rocky mount, only to recede before the deadly fire poured upon them. The rocks afforded protection to the men of the 9th, and their shining rifle barrels were thrust over these, the sharp, continuous report of the volleys rang along the hillside, bullets whistled through the air and buried themselves in the trees, or struck the rocks, only to glance off and lodge elsewhere. The natural breastworks saved many lives, while the green flag, waving side by side with the flag of the Union, told the enemy that behind these were foemen worthy of their steel…Gen. Meade took occasion to thank Col. Guiney and the officers and men of the 9th for their coolness and courage, and Quartermaster McNamara was remembered by all for his efficiency in bringing up supplies and ammunition. (2)
In his 1899 history of the regiment, former First Lieutenant and Quartermaster Daniel George McNamara similarly oversold the 9th’s contribution. He suggested that the regiment had been present in their position at Big Round Top from the earliest phases of the Confederate attack on 2nd July:
Skirmishers from General Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps, on the west side of the hill, assaulted this point [the 9th Massachusetts position on Round Top] at various times during the day intending to capture the hill and flank Little Round Top, but they were always driven back by our rapid infantry fire…Their object was to get possession of this neck of ground, held by the Ninth, some 800 yards from Little Round Top, in order to flank our forces which had taken and were holding Little Round Top. But the activity and fighting qualities of the Ninth that day held the “fort.” The regiment would have lost heavily were it not for their breastworks of stone, and their freedom from artillery fire. their services and position could only be appreciated by military men who understood the advantage of that strategical point which the Ninth occupied and held so gallantly all day against the determined assault of Hood’s skirmishers. If the enemy in any great numbers had gained a permanent hold on the north side of Big Round Top they could have, under the natural protection of the woods and boulders there, poured in a deadly fire onto the south side of Little Round Top that would have made it too hot for our troops to hold for any length of time. (3)
These accounts effectively seek to re-write history and suggest the 9th Massachusetts played a pivotal role in holding the left flank of the Union line. In reality, the main Confederate assault had been repulsed before the 9th arrived in their Round Top position. McNamara’s depiction of the regiment’s role at Gettysburg has been described by the unit’s leading contemporary historian, Dr. Christian Samito, as “the most glaring and inexplicable error” in the veteran’s record of the regiment. These men patently felt a need to overplay their contribution, and also to explain away their relatively light casualties (despite apparently heavy fighting) through reference to the stone breastworks on Round Top. The 9th Massachusetts Infantry had a war record to be proud of, and certainly did not need to justify their contributions to the cause for Union during the conflict. Why did they exaggerate their involvement at Gettysburg? The answer probably lies in the fact that by the time these accounts were written, Gettysburg was central to the memory of American Civil War. If you wanted your contribution to be remembered, it had to be there. Added to that was the reality that all the other regiments of the 9th’s brigade had been through the meat grinder at Gettysburg. The regimental historian of the 32nd Massachusetts, who had originally meant to be detached as skirmishers on 2nd July but were substituted for the 9th due to lack of experience, noted that “The Ninth Massachusetts was substituted, fortunately for them, and unfortunately for us, for as matters turned out they were not engaged, and did not lose a single man during the fight of that day.” There is no denying that the 9th Massachusetts were fortunate at Gettysburg. However, there must have been a feeling among some of the veterans that fate had been unkind in bringing their greatest sacrifices on less well-remembered fields. (4)
The 9th’s memorial was part of a wider effort to remember state unit’s contributions at Gettysburg. Massachusetts appropriated $500 for the construction of monuments for each of it’s formations engaged at Gettysburg. Preparations were some time in the making. On 9th April 1885 Daniel George McNamara, then President of the Society of Old Ninth Massachusetts Regiment, brought over 40 regimental veterans to the monument yard of J.J. Horgan in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts to view their memorial under construction. McNamara was one of three Boston-born brothers who served in the regiment. Among the others who undertook the trip were the regiment’s former Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Hanley (Roscommon), Captains John Tobin (Kilkenny), James McGonigle (Boston) and Martin O’Brien (Ireland), Sergeant William Mitchell (Ireland) and Color-Sergeant Michael O’Brien. The veterans were photographed beside their new monument before sharing a reunion lunch. The total cost of the memorial, including transport to and erection on the field, was reckoned to be in the region of $700. (5)
A committee of the 9th including Major John Mahan, Major George Dutton, Major Daniel McNamara and Captain James McGonigle spent a week in Gettysburg at the time of the monument’s placement. It was dedicated on Big Round Top on 9th June 1885, and was placed to mark the centre of the regiment’s position during the battle. Major McNamara made the address of presentation to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, to which J.M. Krauth, secretary, responded. Addresses were also made by Major Mahan and D.A. Buehler, vice president of the Memorial Association. The party was then photographed beside their new memorial. 1885 proved a big year for Massachusetts monuments at Gettysburg. Early October that year brought what was described as “Massachusetts’ Week”, with the dedication of a range of the state monuments that had been built in the preceding months. Veterans flooded into the town for the events which also saw the decoration of Massachusetts graves at the National Cemetery on the 9th October 1885. They were far from alone, as delegations from states such as Pennsylvania and Connecticut were also busy at work on the battlefield that year, making sure their contributions were also remembered. This memorial activity now covers the conflict landscape, and profoundly influences how those who visit the battlefield experience the site. (6)
Looking back, the efforts of the veterans of the 9th Massachusetts to overplay their contributions at Gettysburg are perfectly understandable. They had no other standalone battlefield monument, so this memorial had to represent all their service and sacrifices between 1861 and 1864 (they are remembered on Massachusetts State Monuments, and veterans also raised a monument to Colonel Cass in Boston Public Garden). Fate had seen to it that Gettysburg– not Gaine’s Mill or The Wilderness– would be seen as the most significant action of the war. As they saw it, in order to make sure their role was remembered, they had to accentuate their actions at Gettysburg, and do what it took to raise their profile on that hallowed site of memory. Today, the 9th Massachusetts Monument to their Gettysburg remains what it was in 1885– a memorial to the 9th Massachusetts’ entire service in the American Civil War.
The Hallowell granite monument to the 9th Massachusetts on Big Round Top stands fifteen feet high with its base. It is inscribed as follows:
Erected by the Ninth Regiment Infantry Massachusetts Volunteers
2nd Brigade, 1st Division 5th Army Corps,
Army of the Potomac.
During the Battle of Gettysburg the Ninth Regt. was detached from the 2nd Brigade and it held this position on Round Top.
Casualties 26 men.
The Ninth Regiment Mass. Vols. was composed of ten
companies of 101 me each from Boston, Salem, Milford, Marlboro and Stoughton, and organized at Boston May 9, 1861. Mustered into the United States Volunteer Service June 11, 1861. Mustered out at Boston June 21, 1864. Commanded respectively by Colonel Thomas Cass and Colonel Patrick R. Guiney.
The Ninth Regiment Mass. Vols. served during three years campaigns in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania and was in forty two engagements including the following viz.
Hanover Court House
Seven Days Battles
Total number casualties 863.
Erected on Round Top Battlefield of Gettysburg June 1885 (8)
(1) MacNamara 1899: 336; (2) Harrisburg Daily Independent 2nd June 1885, Lawrence Daily Journal 25th December 1885; (3) McNamara 1899: 320; (4) Samito 2000: xxxv, McNamara 1899: 319 (5) New York Irish American 25th April 1885, Boston Herald 10th April 1885, Boston Herald 1st June 1885; (6) Boston Herald 1st June 1885, McNamara 1899: 423, Philadelphia Inquirer 10th June 1885, Harrisburg Daily Independent 8th October 1885; (7) Philadelphia Inquirer 10th June 1885; (8) Gettysburg Stone Sentinels;
References & Further Reading
Boston Herald 10th April 1885.
Boston Herald 1st June 1885.
Harrisburg Daily Independent 2nd June 1885.
Harrisburg Daily Independent 8th July 1885.
Lawrence Daily Journal 25th December 1885.
New York Irish American Weekly 25th April 1885.
Philadelphia Inquirer 10th June 1885.
MacNamara, Daniel George (1899). 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).
Samito, Christian G. 2000. ‘Introduction’ in MacNamara, Daniel George 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.