I am delighted to have an opportunity to share another guest post with readers, this time from Meg Groeling. Many of you will know Meg as a regular contributor to the Emerging Civil War blog and as an expert on Elmer Ellsworth and the 11th New York Infantry– a formation that itself contained many Irish. The firemen of the 11th fought alongside the 69th New York State Militia at Bull Run, and one of their number–Jack Wildey–dramatically saved the 69th’s colors. This event quickly became a famous incident in the 69th’s history, and because of that I have long wondered about Wildey’s backstory. In the post below, Meg fills us in on both Captain Wildey’s career and the fascinating regiment in which he served.
Perhaps the 69th New York is today’s favorite Civil War Irish regiment, but it was not always so. In 1861 New York City and the rest of the Union northeast was all gaga over the 11th New York—Colonel Elmer Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves. Much of this was due to the tour made the previous summer by the U. S. Zouave Cadets, a group of athletic young militiamen from Chicago who performed an entertaining version of the French Zouave drill under the direction of 23-year-old Elmer Ellsworth. The rest of it was due to the general popularity of New York City’s renowned volunteer firefighters. The majority of these men were the sons and grandsons of Irish immigrants.
Although Ellsworth had less than a drop of Irish blood in his veins, his contribution to the early war efforts features a unique slice of Irish history. When Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard attacked Fort Sumter, Ellsworth was in bed at Willards Hotel in Washington, DC. recovering from a case of measles. Ellsworth quickly left his sickbed and went to President Lincoln for a letter of recommendation to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. Ellsworth told Lincoln:
I want the New York firemen, for there are no more effective men in the country, and none with whom I can do so much. They are sleeping on a volcano at Washington, and I want men who are ready at any moment to plunge into the thickest of the fight. (1)
Ellsworth based his decision to recruit New York firefighters on several good reasons, coupled with personal experience. He had been instrumental in the choosing and training of three hundred men in Chicago for the Chicago Fire Brigade. He knew that firefighters were trained to work together as a single unit, each doing his duty, and keeping an eye on the men around him. They could respond quickly, obey orders, organize, and execute upon command. Ellsworth believed men with these attributes would make good soldiers. With Greeley’s help and encouragement, Ellsworth immediately placed ads in newspapers and blanketed the city with posters. Two days after arriving in New York, he awarded officer commissions to New York City Fire Company leaders and to former members of the U. S. Zouave Cadets, several of whom had agreed to help him in his endeavor. Then Ellsworth began recruiting in earnest.
In 1861, like all other large cities at the time, New York’s fire department was a volunteer organization staffed by “b’hoys” from a variety of mostly Irish backgrounds. They responded when their district’s fire tower sounded an alarm and ran with the masheen to the site of the fire. The physical exertion required to run a colossal fire engine through the streets and then pump water, climb ladders, and pull hoses meant that the volunteers were in already in good physical shape. Although these rough Irish b’hoys were of varying political viewpoints and, like many New Yorkers, may have initially felt a Democratic sympathy toward the South, the attack on Fort Sumter caused New York to fall firmly in line on the side of the Union. Within three days of his arrival, Ellsworth had at least 1,200 men signed up for a tour of duty lasting ninety days. The New York Leader, April 27, 1861, printed a compilation of Ellsworth’s efforts:
Colonel Ellsworth and his officers have been active in preparing this regiment for service. More work has been done in six days than seemed possible. The men have been mustered into service; the officers elected; the uniforms made, and on Sunday afternoon eleven hundred as efficient and hardy soldiers as ever handled a gun, will start for the scene of rebellion. Col. Ellsworth arrived in this city on Thursday of last week. On Friday he called together a number of the principal men of the department. On Saturday he selected his officers. On Sunday he mustered one thousand men. On Monday he drilled them. On Tuesday inspected them. On Wednesday commenced giving them clothes. On Thursday had them in quarters, and yesterday, (Friday), he was ready and waiting for supplies. Today he will receive them, and to-morrow march through the city escorted by the whole Fire Department on board the steamer Baltic direct for the seat of war. (2)
Among the men chosen by Ellsworth was John “Jack” Wildey, born on March 28, 1823, in New York City’s heavily Irish 8th Ward. The 8th was the heart of Tammany Hall, the political organization that met new immigrants at the docks. America has never had a “comprehensive immigration policy,” but the Democratic politicos under the sway of William Marcy “Boss” Tweed were not about to let that stop them. Tammany men spoke English and Irish dialects, were closely aligned with the Catholic Church, and willingly opened their world to newcomers. Tammany found places for immigrants to live, arranged for food, clothing, medical care, and employment. In exchange, the mostly Irish immigrants pledged loyalty to Tammany Hall. Their votes elected the slates of Democrats who ran New York, the most powerful city in the United States. Tammany Hall counted on the allegiance of generational supporters, and rightly so. By 1861, John Wildey had been a loyal member of Tammany Hall for most of his life.
In 1844, Wildey officially accepted his Tammany-procured job, joining the other volunteer firefighters of Engine Company Number 11. He progressed through the ranks to Chief and was considered to be a charismatic leader. Fire Chief Wildey regularly took fifty of his firemen and “their splendid engine” by steamboat to Boston to participate in a celebration of the Battle of Bunker Hill. This built recognition for not only his company but for the New York Fire Departments in general. Proving his popularity beyond his own engine house, in 1860 Wildey won a closely contested race to the New York area Board of Foreman and Engineers. At the outbreak of the Civil War, John Wildey—almost overnight–raised a company of ninety men, all of whom belonged to the Fire Department. He was elected Captain and immediately offered his men to the 11th Regiment New York Volunteers, the First Fire Zouaves. (3) Ellsworth himself signed Wildey’s enlistment papers.
New York City supported the federal army amid a tempest of enthusiasm. Every engine house turned into a recruiting station, and in some case, as many as 18-20 men volunteered from a single company. The question was not who was to go, but who was so unfortunate as to be left behind. Wildey, thirty-eight when he brought his men to Ellsworth, was immediately put in command of Company I of the First Regiment. (4) When the Fire Zouaves left New York City, they did so as a 3-month regiment, sworn in on April 20, 1861. On May 7, they were sworn in to serve for the “duration of the war.” (5) Within days, Ellsworth designated Wildey as his aide-de-camp.
Captain John Wildey was with Colonel Ellsworth the night before Ellsworth was shot in Alexandria. The Colonel asked Captain Wildey to come to his tent after 1:00 AM to help him dress for his first mission as a commanding officer. Ellsworth had laid his uniform out on the camp bed. He stood quietly, as if thinking over his choices, and then said to Captain Wildey, “I was thinking in what clothes I shall die.” Wildey laughed and tried to cheer him up with a few joking words, but Ellsworth just shook his head, saying nothing for a moment. Then, smiling, he went to his trunk and opened it. He withdrew an entirely new uniform, tagged and packaged from the tailor. “If I am to be shot tomorrow, and I have a presentment that my blood is immediately required by the country–it is in this suit that I shall die.” Wildey helped him put on the new uniform, and within moments Ellsworth was his usual confident self. Wildey wound the red silk officers’ sash around Ellsworth’s narrow waist. In fact, this was the uniform in which Ellsworth died early the next morning, May 24.
Unit cohesion in the 11th was difficult after losing Ellsworth, but leaders like (acting) Lieutenant Colonel Noah “Pony” Farnham, Major Charles Loeser, and Captain John Wildey kept the Fire Zouaves together long enough to make it to the battleground of First Bull Run. The battle was a Union loss, and the reputation of “Ellsworth’s Zouaves” was initially tarnished by regular Army officers testifying before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. It remained thus until recently, as historians such as Lesley J. Gordon (A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War and “I Never was a Coward” pamphlet), and Harry Smeltzer (Bull Runnings blog) have gone back to primary sources to look for another, more accurate, interpretation. Ellsworth said before he went to New York City that he wanted the New York firemen because they were men who could go into a fight immediately. This would prove especially true for Captain Wildey.
July 21, 1861, the Battle of First Bull Run was fought. The battle lasted most of the day, but the Fire Zouaves were only involved in the afternoon attempt to defend Union batteries on Henry House Hill. Control of the field around the Henry House switched several times, but ultimately the South held sway. There was some small fighting in which the guns changed hands, but because the horses that had pulled them lay dead in their traces, no one could remove the captured pieces from the field. Finally, by 3:15 PM, after just over an hour of combat, the Confederate forces took final possession of the Union guns and the 11th New York, among others, retreated. The 11th did not “run like little girls or scared rabbits,” but they did not stay in retreat either. Many of them looked around the battlefield, identified another unit that was still fighting, and rushed to join in. Wildey joined the fellow Irishmen of the 69th New York, who were having a bad time of it. Their leader, Colonel Michael Corcoran, had been captured, yet they fought on. During this last encounter with the Confederates, Confederate Jeb Stuart’s cavalry took the beautiful green flag that was held so proudly over Irish heads. Who got it back?
At the fight at Bull Run, when the flag of the glorious Sixty-ninth Regiment was wrested from them by a superior force of the enemy, John Wildey rushed forward at the head of his brave men, and after a bloody contest, in which he killed two men,–one a rebel officer, whose sword he took from him as a trophy,–recaptured the flag, and after marching four miles he restored it to the gallant corps from whom it had been taken. (6)
Nevertheless, the Federal troops had been demoralizingly routed and, to make things worse, many ninety-day northern militia enlistments were about to expire. The Union needed heroes. As Wildey’s fame spread northward, he became one of those heroes. The gallant captain was called home to New York City, ostensibly to recruit more soldiers. However, Tammany Hall leader William “Boss” Tweed had other ideas. He needed Wildey to represent Tammany in an upcoming city election. Wildey served as one of New York City’s elected coroners—a job created to reward loyal Tammany members—and went from there to Wildey’s other passion—Base Ball. He was president of the New York Mutuals Base Ball team for several years and then became an early baseball commissioner. Wildey’s vote with the National Association of Base Ball Players was the one that pushed the count ahead to create professional baseball.
In the 1870s, the law finally caught up with “Boss” Tweed and Tammany Hall. John Wildey was one of the many hundreds called to court to testify as to the particulars of his employment and the funding of the New York Mutuals. Tweed spent time in jail, and machine politics took a severe hit in New York City. Wildey’s association with Tammany prevented him from further employment, and he gradually sank into poverty and obscurity. Four years before Wildey’s death, a history of the New York City fire departments concluded their biographical sketch of him with:
Everyone knows of Jack Wildey of ‘Black Horse Guard’ fame. He was always a great admirer of athletic sports of all kinds, and, although sixty-two years old, he would astonish some of the present generation should they try their strength against him. (7)
Captain John “Jack” Wildey, of New York City’s Engine Company Number 11, of Tammany Hall, and the 11th New York Fire Zouaves died in 1889. His obituary, although short, does not fail to mention that, “… in the Battle of First Bull Run he contributed by his bravery to saving the colors of the Sixty-ninth Regiment from capture by the rebels….” (8)
(1) About.com, Col. Elmer Ellsworth Became a Legend and Martyr Early in the Civil War [online version available at http://history1800s.about.com/od/civilwar/ss/Death-of-Elmer-Ellsworth_2.htm.]
(2) 11th Infantry regiment, New York, Civil War Newspaper Clippings. NYS Division of Military and Naval Affairs [online version available at http://dmna.state.ny.us/historic/reghist/cicil/infantry/11thinfCWN.htm NYSMM
(3) J. Frank Kernan, A. M., Reminiscences of the Old Fire Laddies and Volunteer Fire Departments of New York and Brooklyn Together with a Complete History of the Paid Departments of Both Cities, (New York: M. Crane, 1885), 480. [online version available through https://archive.org/details/reminiscencesol00kerngoogle]
(4) A. E. Costello, Birth of the Bravest: A History of the New York Fire Department from 1609 to 1897. (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, first published in 1887), 287.
(6) New York Herald, July 27, 1861
(7) Frank Kernan, Reminiscences of the Old Fire Laddies and Volunteer Fire Departments of New York and Brooklyn, Together with a Complete History of the Paid Departments of Both Cities, (New York: M. Crane, 1885), 474. [online version available through https://archive.org/details/reminiscencesol00kerngoog].
(8) Obituary, “John Wildey Died in Poverty,” June 1, 1889, The New York Times.