John Dineen was born in Cork around 1846. Somtime during the 1850s he emigrated with his parents to Lawrence, Massachusetts, a town which provided employment to large numbers of Irish immigrants in its textile mills. On 5th June 1862, when only 16-years-old, John left his position as an operative to enlist in what became Company G of the 33rd Massachusetts Infantry. Composed of men from places like Lowell and Lawrence, Company G had plenty of fellow Irishmen in the ranks. Among them, John rose to become a Corporal, and served until his discharge in the summer of 1865. The passage of forty years found the Cork emigrant living a much changed life. By then he had adopted the alias John J. Davidson and was making his home in Eastman, Dodge County, Georgia, a state he had fought through as a young man. It was here that John decided to being to record some of his memories of the conflict, and he penned a number of pieces before his death on 24th September 1919. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing some of these on the site. John’s first account relates to his regiment’s involvement at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and his experiences there. Though the 33rd were not seriously engaged, John’s description provides us with an insight into the confusion and “fog of war” that often reigned supreme on the battlefield. As a part of the Eleventh Corps, which had been long vilified for “running away” at Chancellorsville, John was keen to set the record straight. Within the extracts I have included below are a number of references to John’s Irish comrades, as well as an encounter with a wounded soldier of the Irish Brigade. The identities of the men he recalled from Company G after the passage of four decades serve as a reminder that even where Irish Americans served in non-ethnic units, they tended to stick together. I’ll let John take up the story…
The 33rd Massachusetts was mustered into the service in August 1862, and arrived in Washington two days later. Their first duty was policing Alexandria. They were attached to the Eleventh Corps the last of September or about the 1st of October 1862. They did a great deal of marching in the Fall, uner Sigel, chasing Stonewall Jackson, but never could catch him. To hear the boys talk this was exceedingly lucky for Jackson, as they would have made mush of his whole command. They had no experience as yet in the fighting ring. They got plenty of chances before the frolic ended, and proved to be worthy of the foeman’s steel. I am not going to write a history here od the 33rd Massachusetts. I want to tell the part it took in the Battle of Chancellorsville, as near as I can, for I am writing from memory.
After chasing Jackson all over creation we were ordered to join Burnside, who was preparing to attack Lee at Fredericksburg. As it happened, Burnside had fought the Battle of Fredericksburg before we arrived at Falmouth. We got there in time to take part in the next battle, if it hand’t been that Burnside got stuck in the mud [The Mud March], which ended the campaign as far as the Army of the Potomac was concerned. We were ordered to Stafford Court House, where we settled ourselves for the Winter. Picket and guard duty was the order of the day during the Winter months, and dress parade when the weather permitted. When the weather became more moderate we had a great deal of frilling, although the 22rd Massachusetts did not lack anything in the drill line. Every comrade in the Army of the Potomac at that time knew very well that the Army of the Potomac was as fat and as fine an army as was on the globe when General Joe Hooker started toward Chancellorsville on the 27th April, 1862, and if managed right would whip Lee out of Virginia. Some one blundered. Who was it? Quien sabe? [Who knows?]
The 33rd Massachusetts broek camp on the 27th April, 1863, and moved out towards Kelly’s Ford and arrived at Chancellorsville the night of the 30th. The Paymaster was on hand to pay the boys two months’ wages, only $26. I believe we got only $13 a month at that time, which was just about enough to pay the sutler, who, of course, was on hand to get it. All the boys showed a spirit of cheerfulness, for General Hooker’s order was read to them, stating that we had Lee in a sack, and to get out of it the Johnnies had to come out and fight us on our own ground. The sun arose out of the eastern horizon like a ball of fire, denoting a fine day. The whole army was in motion, taking their respective places for the coming fray. About 10 o’clock, May 2, our brigade marched up the plan road around a mile toward the Chancellorsville house and halted. The rebs were to our right, massed, so the report went out. We formed line of battle rear in front, with skirmishers thrown out. Then came the order, “Prime.” Now we are in for it. Can our skirmishers entice the Johnnies to charge on us?
We hear a few shots, but it is nothing but a few scouts hovering around. We waited and stood like so many pickets on post for an hour, when we gave up the idea of enticing the Johnnies to come to see us. The brigade had done nothing but march up and down the plank road all day. Just about an hour before sundown the 33rd Massachsuetts had orders to pile knapsacks and proceed in light marching order to somewhere the Lord only knew. It was said that the First Division of the Third Corps had cutt off a Mississippi regiment, and that they were moving then toward us: so every mother’s son of us dumped our knapsacks in a pile, eack company by itself. That was the biggest pile of knapsacks I ever saw before or since. That was the last sight we ever hard of knapsacks or guard, either. The next we knew we were off, as near as I could guess, in a southeasterly direction on double-quick for about a mile, when we came to a halt and opened ranks, each rank facing one another, rear rank about face. There we waited 30 minutes for the supposed prisoners, who never showed up. The Third Corps took them in out of the cold.
Soon we are off again like the devil on winfs, to capture Lee this time. General Hooker had said that Lee must come out and fight us on our own ground. Then why didn’t he let us stay where we were? I suppose Hooker didn’t know that General Barlow was hunting the woods for Lee’s army. But perhaps Howard did. Anyway, we are off; night is coming on; the sun has gone below the western horizon long ago. We strike a corduroy road, and on we are marching toward the Wilderness, where Grant fought the battle later on [May 1864]. We had some very witty Irish boys in my company (G), and the conversation turned as follows:
Peter–Murty, do you know where we are going?
Murty–Faith, Peter, if me memory serves me right we are going down to Richmond for the purpose ov invitin’ Misther Jeffe O’Davis to cum up to Washinton and take ta wid Misther Lincon. Am I right, Barney? (addressing another one of the comrades)
Barney–Faith, I believe you are, Murty, for I am sure I herd General Hooker tell General Howard to be sure and send General Barlow wid the 33rd Massachusetts.
Thus the boys cracked jokes with one another as we marched along into the very jaws of the enemy, with fires in the distance and on each side of us.
[Note: All three of these men are identifiable. Murty McQuaid was a 23-year-old emigrant from Co. Tyrone, who had been a machinist before the war. He served with the regiment through to muster out in June 1865. Barney Golden, a former laborer, was also from Tyrone, but was 41-years-old. Captured at the Battle of Dallas, Georgia on 25th May 1864, Barney died in capativity at Charleston, South Carolina the following October. He left behind a widow (Rebecca), a four-year-old son (John) and one-year-old son (Richard). Peter Kearns was a 38-year-old Dublin-born farmer. He had been a step-migrant through England, where he had married Mary Burns in the Manchester Irish community. Peter was killed at the Battle of Kolb’s Farm, Georgia on 22nd June 1864, leaving Mary to fend for their daughters Mary (13) Catherine (10) and Ellen (7)].
It is 9 o’clock p.m. and yet we are marching on. The boys are getting tired. Yet they go on without a murmur. If we keep on we will surely go to Richmond, but in a different way from what Murty predicted. Co. G was the left guide company then, if I am not mistaken, and our quick ears heard the thump of a horse’s feet behind us. Up comes a courier. He and his horse seemed out of breath or windbroke. He asked for General Barlow. We told him he was ahead. Away he dashed to the head of the column. What passed between the courier and Barlow I don’t know; but one sure thing, Barlow didn’t want to countermarch. He gave the order about-face, and away we went, left foot foremost, as fast as our legs could take us rear in front on the back track. Arriving on the battlefield about 10 o’clock, for the first time we were told of the disaster to the Eleventh Corps and the capture of our knapsacks and guard by Jackson.
Now, let us see who was to blame? Hooker in his general order stated that we had Lee sacked. In other words, Lee would have to come out of mouth of the sack and fight us on our own ground. Of course, we were going to let him out, which we did, by Jackson flanking our army. My opinion, the blame rested either on Hooker or Howard.
As I previously stated, we arrived sound and well about 10 o’clock p.m. on the field after our wild goose ramble through the wilderness. Here we wheeled into line, expecting to take our part in the grand drama which was to come off in the morning, and did come off, but not with the 33rd Massachusetts, for we were doomed from participating in the Battle of Chancellorsville. We were ordered to the rear, and I didn’t see anything for us to do but protect the hospitals, or act on the reserve where the rebs would not be expected. But I get ahead of my story a little. On the night of May 2, coming on the field after the wild goose chase, we had to go about a half mile out of our way, and we marched very still without any racket, so as not to alarm our videts, which were cavalry. In passing them they looked more like ghosts than living people, and sat on their horses like statues. Not a move did they make, and what struck me was that they were picketing on each side of the road. This gave me an idea that we had a very small place to squeeze through to get into our lines, and also what a narrow escape we had of not being captured.
We were no sooner inside our lines and taken our place in line than the Johnnies began to shell us. The night was a beautiful one, for the moon was shining, and while our boys were lying down with their arms ready I could see General Barlow about 20 paces to the rear of the line. He was walking up and down the line during the shelling, telling the boys that they were nothing but shells and wouldn’t hurt them. Murty McQuade, of our company, remarked:
“Yes, bejabber; they are nothing but shells, do you say? But if one of them shlaps you on the side of the jaw you will think the shells will hurt you.”
When Sunday morning, May 3, dawned Barlow was a mad man, for he was ordered to take our brigade out on a road the name of which I have forgotten. Most of the hospitals were lined up there, and by all appearance our regiment was sent there for their protection and also of the pontoons. We did nothing all day but march up and down the road, sometimes stopping to rest 30 minutes, but alway on the alert under arms and looking for Johnnies we never saw. We kepy our skirmishers out all the time in our front. The 33rd Massachusetts was kept on the move, but never went more than 500 or 600 yards at a time; then would rest 30 or 40 minutes and move again, always keeping in front of the hospitals.
My regiment was never under fire until the night of May 2, except a small incident while we were on the march to Chancellorsville some rebel cavalry fired on us from the woods across a clearing. The rebs had a small cannon with them. I guess they wanted to delay us as much as they could. They didn’t do it; neither did they do any damage, but scared a little negro who was standing near a log cabin. One shot hit so close to him that it made the dirt fly all over him. The negro was gone in a moment, and we lost sight of the squad of rebel cavalry and their popgun.
Let us return to the hospitals. You who have never experienced war cannot imagine the horrors which you behold after a battle. Surgeons with their sleeves rolled up to their elbows, large crude tables made for the present occasion, saws, knives and other implements, the smell of chloroform and ether, legs and arms puled up in heaps, ambulances bring in their wounded comrades in blankets swung from guns; sometimes comrades making a crutch out of their guns where they have been shot in the foot; wounded men lying around everywhere, some groaning with pain, some chiding each other and others joking. It was an awful sight for me, a lad then only 16 years of age, to look on. But I was a soldier fighting for country and humanity, and it gave me no fear, but sympathy for my wounded comrades. I guess if those who cry out against the small pension to those brave comrades who sacrificed their lives and health for the good of this country saw the horros that I and every other comrade saw whilst serving their country they would have more love and respect for their country’s defenders and stop groaning about draining the Treasury for pensions for coffee-coolers.
One incident in particular I saw whilst the regiment lay at the side of the road. A wounded comrade of the Irish Brigade came walking down the road between two other comrades. His arm was cut off just above the elbow. He had a black clay pipe in his mouth, and was puffing away, with a good head of smoke coming out of his mouth at every puff, very unconcerned, indeed, swining his right arm, and you could almost see the stump of his left arm swing to the same motion as his right, chatting with his other comrades as though nothing was the matter. I said to myself, that man had a double nerve, and if I ever get wounded I want to take the matter just like him. I never was wounded, although I had many narrow escapes. Just as I was standing hear the comrade with the stump arm I heard the order, “Fall in, 33rd,” and up the road we went toward the firing line for about a mile, when we noticed heavy firing to our right. The order came, “Prime!” which was done in a moment. “Ready!” was the next order, and here we waited for the sight of the Johnnies which never came. You see, the Johnnies wanted to flank us off from the river, which was our line of retreat, and they were moving on our left fot that purpose, but I guess they thought we were too stronf for them, as our brigade mustered about 4,000. The 33rd Massachusetts had about 800, and looked like a brigade to the Johnnies, as it stretched out well. A good spyglass could show the rebs that we were fresh and ready to meet them, so they gave up the job in attacking us, and we had no order to attack them. So I consider it a draw.
The firing ceased along the line about 11 a.m. and that was the end of the Battle of Chancellorsville so far as the engagement on Sunday morning, May 3, 1863. This was without any advantage to our arms. In other words, men were sacrificed and no gain, which was enough to dishearten any army; but the boys kepy a stout heart, and what they lost at Chancellorsville, they gained at Gettysburg.
I don’t think that history has anything to say or blame the Eleventh Corps for the loss of the Battle of Chancellorsville; ffor if they had gotten a chance the next day they would have retrieved their fortune, or, in other words, they would have shown General Howard or General Hooker that they could fight as well as any other corps if they were handled right, and no doubt would have made up for the loss of the night of the 2nd. I know, or at least I believe, that if the Second Brigade had gotten a chance at the Johnnies next morning they would have made the Johnnies think terror was in their guns, especially the 33rd Massachusetts, for I never saw so many mad soldiers in my life. All their knapsacks were captured by Jackson’s men. I don’t think they would have felt very bad over the loss of their clothing and blankets, etc. but the loss of their best girl’s picture, also their father’s, mother’s, brothers’ and sisters’ pictures prisoners (I might say) in the hands of the Johnnies, and no doubt all their love letters, too, was enough to make many “cuss” expressions and maledictions on the heads of the rebels.
The Battle of Chancellorsville was fought and lost. The 4th and 5th of May we retreated across the river, and our regiment, the 33rd Massachusetts, took up our line of march to our old quarters, Stafford Court House, where we camped until we were ordered to report to General Pleasonton to participate in the Battle of Beverly Ford; after that on to Gettysburg.
John Dinneen, Company G, 33rd Massachusetts.
We will be returning to John’s recollections in a future post, when he recounts his experiences at the Battle of Gettysburg.
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