This is the second part in a series of articles by myself and several guest contributors, chronicling the lives of several related Hamilton emigrants from County Tyrone. While Part 1 explored the emigration and early career of William Hamilton, Part 2 explores the leadership and enlisted members of the regiment he enlisted in during the American Civil War, the 25th New York Infantry. What emerges is a rogues gallery of real life “Gangs of New York” figures.
On 26th August 1861, the acclaimed Irish war correspondent Sir William Howard Russell witnessed an inspection of the Union Army of the Potomac near Washington, DC. The army had just recently been reorganized under the command of Major General George B. McClellan from the remnants of Brigadier General Irvin McDowell’s forces that met with calamity at Bull Run the previous month. “After some ordinary movements,” Russell recorded, “the march past took place, which satisfied me that the new levies were very superior to the three months’ men, though far, indeed, from being soldiers. Finer material could not be found in physique.” Russell, who had previously observed the Crimean War, went so far as to proclaim that “no division of the ordinary line, in any army, could show a greater number of tall, robust men in the prime of life.” There was one regiment, however, that stood in stark contrast to this observation:
an assemblage of miserable scarecrows in rags and tatters, swept up in New York and commanded by a Mr. Kerrigan….A soldier standing near me, pointing out Kerrigan’s corps, said, ‘The boy who commands that pretty lot recruited them first for the Seceshes in New York, but finding he could not get them away he handed them over to Uncle Sam.’ The men were silent as they marched past, and did not cheer for President or Union.
The “miserable scarecrows” Russell observed were members of the 25th New York Volunteer Infantry, alternately known as Kerrigan’s Rangers or the Union Rangers. Among them marched my great great grandfather, a thirty-year-old immigrant from County Tyrone named William Hamilton. Theirs was an inauspicious beginning for a unit whose haggard survivors would, less than two years later, return to New York as battle-hardened veterans. (1)
The 25th New York was recruited in New York City in the spring of 1861. One officer in their division wrote that the regiment was “composed of New York roughs, Bowery boys, ‘Dead Rabbits,’ etc.” While this characterization likely leaned on rumors and over-generalizations, an examination of the formation of the 25th reveals that it was not entirely off base. The unit’s first commander, Colonel James E. Kerrigan, was himself a former leader of an Irish-American New York street gang called the Molly Maguires and a suspected accessory to the murder of the notorious William “Bill the Butcher” Poole. The son of Irish immigrants, Kerrigan attended Fordham University for a stint before leaving at the age of seventeen to fight in the Mexican-American War. Upon his return to New York City, he became a volunteer fireman and worked as a “short-boy,” or political thug, for Tammany-affiliated Democrats before being elected to city council in 1853. Kerrigan took a break from local politics to join William Walker’s filibustering campaign in Nicaragua. He returned again to lead the Molly Maguires, who battled with axes, clubs, and guns against rival gangs the Bowery Boys and the Mulberry Street Boys in a series of polling place melees over political control of the city’s Sixth Ward, home to the famous Five Points neighborhood. Kerrigan was even a key player in the famous “Dead Rabbits Riot” of 1857. (2)
By the time of the Secession Crisis, Kerrigan had cast his lot with Mayor Fernando Wood’s Mozart Hall wing of the Democratic party. Elected to US Congress in 1860, he quickly made waves for his pro-slavery, secessionist sympathies. In December 1860, Kerrigan put out an ad in the New York Herald all but calling for New York City’s militia units to support the Confederate cause should a civil war occur. For this act, he was later hauled before a grand jury as part of a treason investigation, but he denied any wrongdoing and was ultimately released without being charged with any crime. The firing on Fort Sumter heavily influenced the opinions of New Yorkers on the Secession issue, transforming many sympathetic, pro-slavery Democrats into “War Democrats” who strongly sided with the Union cause. While it appears that Kerrigan fit into that category, his previous actions gave his fellow Unionists plenty of reason to question his intentions–-and the loyalties of his men–when he decided to recruit his own regiment for Federal service in April 1861. (3)
James Kerrigan was not, by any means, the only officer in the 25th New York with a shady background. The regiment’s first major, George Mountjoy, deserted in July 1861 and fled to Canada in an attempt to escape criminal charges related to his role in a city government corruption scandal. Captain Michael Norton, a Roscommon-born policeman, Tammany Hall politician, and sometime prizefighter, commanded Company D, or the “Eighth Ward Rangers.” Norton, who went by the nicknames “Crow” and “Thunderbolt,” was employed as a special policeman specifically assigned to the theater and concert hall at 444 Broadway by 1860. It was probably no coincidence that this location–which was notorious for its rumored connections to prostitution–was one of the first recruitment locations for the 25th New York. Norton left the police force after the war to manage multiple saloons, including a Coney Island pavilion that was itself known as a locus of prostitution, gambling, and prizefighting. He also became famous for aiding in Tammany leader William “Boss” Tweed’s 1876 escape from prison. (4)
Company D’s first lieutenant was Cyrus Shay, a well-known member of the Bowery Boys gang and rival to Kerrigan and the Molly Maguires in the pre-war years. Brother-in-law and close friend of “Bill the Butcher” Poole, Shay operated a dance house, where, according to one contemporary preacher’s sermon, “every decency [was] forgotten, and all sense of propriety and shame ignored.” Second Lieutenant Theodore “The” Allen, was another Bowery Boy and associate of “Bill the Butcher.” Allen came from a prominent Methodist family in upstate New York but moved to New York City as a young man. Starting out as a professional burglar, he eventually headed his own crime family and ran at least half a dozen Manhattan dance halls, brothels, saloons, and gambling dens. Allen became so infamous–and elusive to law enforcement–that city authorities came to refer to him as “The Wickedest Man in New York.” (5)
The Rangers’ regimental chaplain, Thomas Blades de Walden, was not, by any indication, a clergyman. The white-bearded English immigrant was instead a prolific playwright whose works featured prominently at the Bowery Theatre. His comical plays, like The Upper Ten and the Lower Twenty, often involved streetwise working class people outwitting members of the educated upper crust. They were wildly popular and would undoubtedly have been familiar to many of the 25th’s recruits. Robert Johnston, First Lieutenant of Company A (the “Tenth Ward Rangers”) was a tragedian and the stage director at the Bowery Theatre. Johnston and de Walden’s ties to this famous venue likely explains why it served as the other headquarters and recruiting station for the Union Rangers. The new recruits’ first attempts at drilling may have happened on or around the very stage where de Walden’s plays had been performed, and where many of them had spent innumerable raucous evenings out with their pals. (6)
As I mentioned in the previous post, I don’t know what drew cartman/fireman William Hamilton to this particular regiment, but it could have been a number of factors, including connections with friends or family, overlap with places of entertainment he frequented, or even a common link to the firefighting world. The 25th New York included a multitude of volunteer firemen among its officers and enlisted men. 1st Lieutenant Edward A. Willoughby, of William Hamilton’s Company H, was an Irish immigrant butcher and eatery proprietor who served in Lady Washington Engine Company No. 40. Atlantic Hose Company, No. 15, the successor company to that in which James E. Kerrigan served during the mid-1850s, also produced a number of Union Rangers, including Kerrigan’s brother, Second Lieutenant George Kerrigan, and Sergeant Henry B. Clark. (7)
A closer look at the rank-and-file of the regiment also reveals some clues into Hamilton’s link to the Union Rangers. Unfortunately, the descriptive rolls for most of this regiment no longer exist. To supplement this information, I used the soldiers’ names and ages, combined with information from pension filings, to locate as many as I could in the 1860 US Census. This in turn revealed their occupations, neighborhoods, birth places, and other details about them not available in the surviving military records. Approximately 52% of the Rangers I found were foreign-born, with Irish natives constituting the majority of those at 37% of the regiment overall. Immigrants from modern day Germany come in at a distant second, representing about 6% of the regiment. England and Scotland were also represented in the 25th’s ranks, as well as a smattering of immigrants from France, Canada, Poland, and Cuba. And, judging by the surnames of many of the native-born, many (if not most) were likely first generation children of immigrants. (8)
The soldiers of the 25th New York came from all over Manhattan, as well as Brooklyn, Queens, and other parts of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. There were also at least ten recruits who lived in Massachusetts at the time of the 1860 Census. New York City’s 9th Ward (the modern day West Village neighborhood) where William Hamilton lived immediately prior to his enlistment, appears to be the most represented ward in the regiment, accounting for about 9% the regiment’s enlistees. The 14th Ward, just north of Five Points and bordered to the east by Bowery, brought in about 8%, while the 20th Ward, or Hell’s Kitchen, where William Hamilton lived in the 1860 Census, represented about 7%. (9)
The Rangers were primarily urban and working class. The most common occupation given was simply “laborer.” Clerks, cartmen, butchers, sailors, and machinists were also heavily represented, and there were a handful of farm laborers who came to New York from the surrounding countryside to enlist. At least 10% of the regiment’s enlisted men (excluding musicians) were underage recruits who presumably lied about their ages to be accepted into the unit. I previously wrote about one such soldier, Richard Ewing, in this article. Many of these young soldiers came from the suburbs and countryside, possibly as runaways, and at least eight of them employed aliases to conceal their true identities. One boy even travelled all the way from Ohio before enlisting in the 25th. Other young enlistees were recent inmates at the New York House of Refuge and the Five Points House of Industry, and included petty thieves and vagrants who had been caught sleeping out on the city’s streets and under its docks. (10)
The gangsters and corrupt city politicians at the core of the Union Rangers’ organization quickly proved ill-suited for military leadership. After arriving in the defenses around Washington, DC, in the summer of 1861, their regiment was so rowdy and disorganized that the military brass contemplated disbanding it entirely. In the next article, I will examine the 25th New York’s discipline and supply issues, the court martial of Colonel Kerrigan, and the reorganization of the regiment under a more competent cadre of officers.
Notes and References
Russell, William Howard, My Diary North and South (Vol. 1).
Anbinder, Tyler, Five Points.
1860 US Federal Census, “Justice Norton is Dead,” The Sun, 24 April 1889, Ross, Greggory M., “Boxing in the Union Blue: A Social History of American Boxing in the Union States During the Late Antebellum and Civil War Years,” Phalen, William J., Coney Island, “The Union Rangers,” “How Sex Sold Songs in New York’s Early Theater Days,” Bedford + Bowery, New York Daily Tribune, 22 April 1861.
“Various Items,’ Pittsfield Sun, 22 March 1855, “The Rowdies of New York,” Daily Dispatch, 30 March 1855, Forsyth, Owen, “Theodore Allen – The Allen,” The Irish Mob, Asbury, Herbert, The Gangs of New York, “‘The’ Allen’s Mind Failing,” The World, 7 Oct. 1902.
“de Walden, Thomas Blades (1811-1873),” The Vault at Pfaff’s (Lehigh University), Wemyss, Francis Courtney, Wemyss’ Chronology of the American Stage, “The Union Rangers,” New York Daily Tribune, 22 April 1861. Johnston’s first notable stage appearance was his 1847 performance at Baltimore’s Front Street Theatre as Iago in “Othello.” The lead role, incidentally, was played by Junius Brutus Booth, father of John Wilkes Booth.
Costello, Augustine E., Our firemen. A History of the New York Fire Departments, Annual Report of the Chief Engineer of the Fire Department, 1862
1860 US Federal Census, New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, Trow’s Directory, US Civil War Pension Index. I have so far been able to find Census details for 334 of the approximately 1,000 members of the regiment, which provides a decent size sample. One potential flaw in this method is the fact that native-born Americans may have been easier to locate with confidence in the Census due to a higher likelihood of having middle initials and less common given names than Irish immigrants. Consequently, Irish immigrants may be underrepresented in the resulting figures.
1860 US Federal Census, New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, Trow’s Directory, US Civil War Pension Index.
1860 US Federal Census, New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, Trow’s Directory, US Civil War Pension Index, New York House of Refuge Case Histories