Drill is the basis of the perfection of the soldier as a military machine. Its object is to ensure that, through the habit acquired by constant exercise, a certain action of the soldier shall instantly and almost mechanically follow on a certain word of command spoken by the officer.
In February 1862, newly appointed Colonel Charles Adams Johnson may have read these words as he prepared to lead his command, the 25th New York Infantry, in its transition from an undisciplined mob of street toughs into an effective military unit. This excerpt comes from The Theory of War by Sir Patrick Leonard MacDougall, a career British Army officer and veteran of the Crimean War. Johnson owned a copy of this book, which he inscribed with his name and “Feb. 1862.” It is now in the possession of my cousin, Aaron S. Hamilton, whose mutual ancestor with me, Irish immigrant William Hamilton, served as a private in Johnson’s regiment. (1)
Drill, as emphasized by MacDougall, was certainly a cornerstone of Johnson’s effort to transform the 25th New York Infantry (a.k.a. Union Rangers). The testimony from the court martial trial of the regiment’s previous commander, Colonel James Kerrigan, revealed that the regiment was terribly undisciplined and insufficiently drilled. In fact, it was the unit’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Henry F. Savage, who led all previous attempts to drill and train the regiment. Kerrigan had been conspicuously absent from such activities. Savage, who had prior experience in the famous 7th New York State Militia, was likely an asset to Johnson from day one. The colonel also had the help of a new slate of company grade officers. The New York Herald reported in February 1862 that Johnson had “made terrible slaughter among the officers of the regiment,” compelling 23 of its original officers to resign. Many of these men had been fierce Kerrigan loyalists. They included corrupt city officials, saloon keepers, and others with backgrounds tied to New York street gangs like the Bowery Boys. As I described in the previous article, the men who were appointed to replace them were largely a mix of former enlisted men promoted from the ranks of other New York regiments or from the 25th itself. (2)
Kerrigan’s court martial and the resulting officer purge also affected morale among the rank-and-file, causing an uptick in desertions. In response, Johnson dispatched Captain Archibald Ferguson and several junior officers and enlisted men to New York to recruit new enlistees and round up some of the deserters. He had limited success with both efforts; only a few recruits trickled in to fill the vacancies, and Ferguson had trouble convincing the appropriate authorities to cooperate in the apprehension of deserted soldiers. In a letter dated February 24th, 1862, he complained to Johnson that “Justices of the Peace [refused] to commit [the deserters], and the commanding officer at Governor’s Island [refused] to receive them.” Despite these issues, the soldiers who remained in the ranks of the 25th New York seemed to adjust well to their new training regimen. The aforementioned Herald article boasted that, “There are now few regiments across the river that are finer drilled, and give better promise of courage and efficiency on the field of battle.” (3)
In March 1862, William Hamilton and his fellow Rangers prepared to face trials that would put their training to the ultimate test. Assigned to Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s division of the Army of the Potomac, they loaded aboard a steamer and sailed to the vicinity of Fortress Monroe as part of Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. The move, which included over 121,000 Federal troops, was part of an effort to seize the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia by sidestepping the main Confederate forces and advancing up the Virginia Peninsula. The 25th New York first made contact with the Rebels along the Warwick Road on April 5th, 1862. Marching toward Yorktown, Virginia, they moved into position to support an artillery battery that was bombarding the Confederate fortifications defending the city. The Confederates replied in kind, and shells began to fall dangerously close to the New Yorkers. Colonel Johnson soon ordered Companies A and H (the latter including William Hamilton) into the woods in the regiment’s front to determine whether any Rebel troops were nearby. (4)
The two companies, commanded by Captain Shepard Gleason of Company A, most likely advanced in a skirmish line, a loose formation in which soldiers, divided into groups of four “comrades in battle,” spaced roughly five paces from each other, advanced while utilizing any available cover along their route. Skirmishers typically served as a first point of contact in advance of a Civil War army’s primary battle lines. They were often used to probe an enemy position, screen advancing troops, and harass and delay enemy movements. The 25th New York employed this formation throughout the war; their training in its usage may have been influenced by Colonel Johnson’s reading of MacDougall’s Theory of War. MacDougall posited that:
Skirmishers require more individual training, intelligence, and self-reliance, than men in close order who fight shoulder to shoulder, whose duty it is to advance, to stand firm, or to retire, by direct command alone. The skirmisher must frequently act on his own judgment: he should know something of the principles of tactics; he should have an eye quick to seize a position whence, sheltered himself, he may annoy his enemy. Although at a review skirmishers advance, retire, or fire, by command; in the heat of action, on broken ground, in a wood, every man must judge for himself and ‘fight for his own hand.’ (5)
As William Hamilton and his comrades advanced through the “deep morass and belt of fallen timber” before them, they came under Confederate small arms fire for the first time. They would certainly have needed to use their training and judgment as they engaged a small contingent of Rebel pickets and drove them through the woods and swamp and back toward the protection of their fortifications. The Yankee skirmishers soon came within full view of the breastworks and the battery positions supporting them, and halted there, providing Johnson with some much-needed intelligence regarding the Confederate positions and a location to reposition the remainder of the regiment from its exposed line near the Warwick Road. Corporal John L. Parker, regimental historian for the nearby 22nd Massachusetts, recalled how the day’s fighting drew to a close: “The firing ceased after the skirmishers retired. Some one from the fort shouted, ‘Good-night, captain!’ and then for the first time we heard the ‘rebel yell;’ which sounded quite like the noise made by a crowd of boys rushing out of school. A [Confederate] band struck up ‘Dixie’ and the ‘Marseillaise.’” Although Colonel Johnson reported that “the firing on both sides was heavy” throughout the afternoon, the Rangers were lucky; their regiment did not record a single casualty from the engagement. (6)
While the soldiers of the 25th had reasons to celebrate their first taste of combat, General McClellan was doing anything but. He anticipated a rapid advance to Richmond, but the stiff resistance he encountered outside Yorktown worried him. Instead of ordering a potentially costly frontal attack on the Confederate works, McClellan ordered his forces to dig in and prepare for a siege. The Rangers and their fellow soldiers spent the better part of a month digging trenches and parallels by night, and performing picket duty in shifts during the daytime. Unbeknownst to McClellan, Confederate Brigadier General John B. Magruder’s small defensive force had actually waged a successful deception campaign that tricked the Union commander into thinking he was facing far more Rebels than he really was. McClellan’s delay allowed Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston time to move his Army of Northern Virginia to the Peninsula. The warfare that was to come was unlike anything either army had encountered to date. The Union Rangers’ trials had only just begun. (7)
Notes and References
Thank you again to Aaron S. Hamilton for help with notes, images, and sources throughout.
(1) MacDougall, Patrick Leonard, Theory of War.
(2) 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. “The Officers of the New York Twenty-fifth Regiment,” New York Daily Herald, 2 Feb 1862.
(3) “A Yankee Letter Found Amongst the Spoils,” Macon Telegraph, 15 July 1862. “The Officers of the New York Twenty-fifth Regiment,” New York Daily Herald, 2 Feb 1862.
(4) Sears, Stephen W. To The Gates Of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign; Johnson, Charles A., “Report of Col. Charles A. Johnson, Twenty-fifth New York Infantry, of operations April 4—13,” Official Records of the Rebellion: Volume Eleven, Chapter 23, Part 1”
(6) Johnson; Parker, John L., Henry Wilson’s Regiment: History of the Twenty-second Massachusetts Infantry, the Second Company Sharpshooters, and the Third Light Battery, in the War of the Rebellion.
(7) Sears; Parker.