On October 15th, 1861, as the young Army of the Potomac was busy preparing for future campaigning, Brigadier General John H. Martindale rode out to Hall’s Hill, Virginia, to inspect a regiment that had recently been added to the brigade under his command. As he passed other units in their fresh uniforms and neatly organized camps, the officer was likely ill-prepared for the chaotic spectacle that awaited him at the encampment of the 25th New York Infantry, also known as Kerrigan’s Rangers.
There seemed to be no means of preserving order. Officers and men were quarreling in a boisterous manner. They were not soldierly. Many men had their pants unbuttoned or wore drawers instead of pants. Many were without shoes. Their persons were dirty and their weapons foul, very foul. Their drill and marching was irregular.
Even when the soldiers finally lined up on parade, they were still “in a state of unseemly disarray and filth–their pants unbuttoned and their underclothes and persons exposed.” My great great grandfather, Private William Hamilton, was one of these ragged soldiers, though–thankfully–I have no insight to add as to the state of his “person.” The flummoxed General Martindale called for the 25th’s officers to assemble for his instructions. When the regiment’s commander, Colonel James E. Kerrigan, stomped off without permission and didn’t return, Martindale ordered him arrested. The arrest and subsequent court martial of Colonel Kerrigan marked the beginning of the end for the 25th New York’s gangland officer cadre–and the start of its metamorphosis from a ragged rabble into an effective military unit. (1)
The summer of 1861 had been a tumultuous one for this new regiment. After being officially mustered into Federal service at Staten Island, New York on June 28th, the 25th traveled via train to Washington, DC, departing on July 3rd and arriving on the 5th. It was soon assigned to the garrison of Fort Albany near Arlington, Virginia, part of the emerging network of fortifications guarding the capital from potential Confederate attacks. The soldiers of the 25th spent most of July guarding various posts near Arlington. An inspection report from this period found them drinking heavily, and soldiers were seen urinating within their camp instead of utilizing a latrine pit just twenty-five feet away. Diseases spread rapidly within such crowded encampments, aided by the swarms of mosquitoes prevalent in the area near the Potomac River. Fevers, diarrhea, and rheumatism were all reported in the regiment during this time. The lack of discipline within the regiment was also a problem from early on. Private Barney McGaffney was arrested in early August for assaulting an officer with a Bowie knife. Around the same time, Private Andrew McDonald (or McDonough) died under mysterious circumstances after turning himself in for desertion and theft. McDonald was discovered in the guard house with a slit throat and multiple bayonet wounds to the abdomen, yet, as the New York Daily Tribune dryly reported, the “theory of the officers” was that his death was a suicide. (2)
On July 12th, 1861, Kerrigan’s Rangers came close to an all-out mutiny when they were ordered to exchange their new, British-made Enfield rifle muskets for outdated U.S. Model 1842 Springfield smoothbore muskets. 71 soldiers from the 25th were hauled off and jailed by the Ringgold Artillery of Pennsylvania before military leadership could force the remainder of the regiment to comply with the order. It is likely that the detained soldiers were soon allowed to return to the ranks, for there is no evidence of a mass detention on the regimental roster. As for the unit’s arms, by the time of the Peninsula Campaign in the spring 1862, they were once again carrying their cherished Enfields. (3)
Attached to Colonel John H. McCunn’s Reserve Brigade on the evening of July 20th, the 25th New York was not present at the Bull Run the following day. They marched in the direction of the battle, fully expecting to be engaged, only to run straight into the disordered remnants of the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia already in full retreat. Lieutenant Henry W. Salisbury of Co. G described the vision that greeted him as his comrades in the 25th New York:
As far as the eye could reach, the roads leading to this place were filled with broken fragments of regiments, baggage wagons, ambulances, and everything appropriate to complete the finale of an army. The men were covered with dust and begrimed with smoke and powder. Many of them were wounded and bleeding at every pore; some were supported by their generous comrades, and some, disdaining all assistance, dragged their slow and weary way along, uncomplaining. It was a sight to make the heart bleed…
The dejected troops of the 25th New York turned around and returned to the defenses of Washington. In the following months, they and the other remaining Union forces in the region were reorganized and rebuilt by a new commander, General George B. McClellan, who shaped them into what would become the Army of the Potomac. That the regiment soon received special attention from the military brass is not surprising–they had developed such a reputation for trouble that the authorities considered disbanding the unit and sending its members right back to New York. As described in the previous article in this series, they appeared at an August 1861 inspection looking like “miserable scarecrows in rags and tatters” and refused to cheer for President Lincoln and the Union. (4)
After his altercation with Martindale in October, Kerrigan was court martialed on a whopping 42 charges and specifications, including habitual neglect of duty, disobedience of orders, and drunkenness on duty. Various witnesses, including other officers and enlisted men from the 25th, took the stand. One of them, Major Henry F. Savage, testified that Kerrigan “never instructed us in drill or tactics.” Regarding General Martindale’s account of the regiment’s October inspection, he verified some aspects, while insisting that such behavior, while commonplace in the regiment, was typically the product of a few bad actors and not characteristic of the troops as a whole:
I would not say there was anything unusual in the conduct of the men at that time; there had been disorderly language and disturbance; I saw some men drunk and fighting, which had frequently been the case before; I would not call that an unusual occurrence; I wish the court to bear in mind that there were only a few men in the regiment who acted so…
Captain Archibald Ferguson testified similarly, although he made no such effort to relegate the troublemakers to a small minority:
There was loud, drunken singing in the officer’s tent, and much quarreling in the camp. A sergeant and a lieutenant had a conflict and the lieutenant hit the other man in the head with a pistol. The colonel took no action. Our regiment lagged behind in discipline and knowledge. There was much drunkenness, and gambling on dog fights. At the Grand Review, in October 1861, our regiment was in rags and very much in want of pantaloons. About five men in every company had no shoes.
That said, he made sure to clarify that, “None of them appeared with their persons exposed, to my knowledge.” Kerrigan was ultimately convicted of 12 of the 42 charges and specifications and sentenced to be dismissed from the military. (5)
Many of the regiment’s original slate of officers resigned while Kerrigan was on or awaiting trial. General Martindale had them replaced with a combination of men transferred from other New York regiments and promotions from within the ranks of 25th New York itself. In William Hamilton’s Company H, for example, Thomas W. Maxwell, who had previously served as the regiment’s sergeant major, replaced Captain Daniel McManus. Maxwell was born either in Ireland or New York (the records vary). He was a clerk by trade, and lived in Manhattan’s 14th Ward, but may have spent time prospecting and mining in the Colorado Territory during the 1858 gold rush. The company’s new first lieutenant was Washington B. Fairman, who was promoted from the rank of private in the 44th New York (or “People’s Ellsworth Regiment”). Fairman was a career sailor who lived in San Francisco, California at the time of the 1860 Census. Brooklyn stationer John W. Sibell, who served as a private in the 7th New York State Militia, was promoted to second lieutenant. (6)
Charles Adams Johnson was appointed to command the 25th as its new colonel. An attorney, Yale graduate, and descendant of President John Adams, Johnson had previously been a major in the 17th New York (“Westchester Chasseurs”) and served as a lieutenant in the 10th US Infantry during the Mexican American War.
Lieutenant and Adjutant Henry F. Savage, who provided testimony at Kerrigan’s court martial, was officially promoted to major (he had been elected to the rank but was never appointed by Kerrigan) and subsequently lieutenant colonel. Savage was an Irish immigrant who was, alongside his father and brother, the partial owner of John Savage and Sons, a family-run grocery and wine stand in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Like Sibell, Savage had also served in the 7th Militia prior to the war. Captain Ferguson testified that Savage oversaw drilling and training the 25th in Kerrigan’s stead. (7)
Another new addition was Thomas E. Bishop. An accountant in Rochester, New York before the war, Bishop was the son of an American native father and an Irish immigrant mother. He grew up in Rochester’s Dublin neighborhood, so named for its concentration of Irish immigrants. Starting out as a private in the 13th New York Infantry, Bishop survived the First Battle of Bull Run before being promoted to second lieutenant and transferred to Co. B of the 25th New York in November 1861. Bishop was the brother-in-law of Colonel Patrick “Paddy” O’Rorke, who was later killed leading a famous counterattack on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. (8)
The 25th New York’s diverse new officer slate faced a monumental task–to transform a rowdy crew of New York street toughs into a well-drilled, disciplined fighting force. The upcoming Peninsula Campaign would demonstrate whether they, and the men and boys under their command, could rise above their reputations and stand up to their Confederate counterparts on the field of battle.
Notes and References
Thank you to Aaron S. Hamilton for help with notes, images, and sources throughout.
(1) Lowry, Thomas, Tarnished Eagles.
(2) “25th Infantry Regiment,” New York State Military Museum; Bell, Andrew McIlwaine, Mosquito Soldiers; “A Murderous Soldier,” New York Daily Tribune, 6 Aug 1861; “Sad Death of a Deserter,” New York Daily Tribune, 6 Aug 1861.
(3) “Refuse Their Arms and Are Sent to Jail,” Louisville Daily Courier, 13 Jul 1861.
(4) “A Letter from One of the Fillmore Guard,” Buffalo Courier, 14 Aug 1861; “25th Infantry Regiment,” New York State Military Museum; Russell, William Howard, My Diary North and South (Vol. 1).
(5) Lowry, Thomas, Tarnished Eagles; “The Proceedings of the Court Martial in the Case of Colonel Kerrigan,” New York Daily Herald, 5 Mar 1862; “The Court Martial on Colonel Kerrigan, New York Sun, 18 Dec 1861.
(6) New York Muster Roll Abstracts, National Archives; 1860 US Census, National Archives; 1855 New York State Census.
(7) New York Muster Roll Abstracts, National Archives; “Colonel Charles Adams John,” Antietam on the Web (antietam.aotw.org); 1860 US Census, National Archives; Trow’s Directory of New York City; Ad in New York Herald, 13 Mar 1862; Obituary in New York Times, 29 Oct 1862.
(8) New York Muster Roll Abstracts, National Archives; 1860 US Census, National Archives; 1855 New York State Census; 1850 US Census, National Archives; Brennan, Christopher, “Dublin: Rochester’s Irish Neighborhood,” Local History Rocs (rochistory.wordpress.com).