63rd New York Infantry Regiment's Civil War Historical Sketch
Of The Irish Brigade
63rd, 69th, 88th Infantry
By Gen. Robert Nugent
Taken from Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg (New York at Gettysburg) by the New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga. Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, 1902.
Some thirty-four years ago the first regiment of an Irish Brigade took its departure from our Metropolis on its way to the National Capitol to engage in a conflict on the very threshold of a great internecine war that was to determine the destinies of this Republic. Arriving at Washington on the morning of the 20th of November, 1861, we pitched our tents just outside the confines of the city, encamping on a beautiful knoll christened " Camp Corcoran " in honor of that distinguished soldier, Michael Corcoran, then a prisoner in Libby Prison. The organization of the Sixty-ninth New York Volunteers, the first regiment of the brigade, had its full compliment of officers, numbering thirty-eight with rank and file of 1,000 men, the best the Irish brawn could furnish, and eager for the fray.
Here we remained encamped until the 30th of November, following, when in obedience to orders from the War Department we broke camp and reported to General Sumner at Camp California, Va. We arrived there on the 1st day of December, 1861, where we were joined soon after by the Sixty-third and Eighty-eighth New York Volunteers which had come on from New York, and were assigned to the brigade. The establishment of the Irish Brigade having been completed, I was ordered by General Sumner to assume command, being the senior colonel in rank. This I did, retaining command until February, 1862, when I was relieved by that illustrious patriot, statesman and soldier, Thomas Francis Meagher, who was commissioned brigadier general and who then took command, leading it to victory on many fields of battle, and whose history is written on the escutcheon of every patriot at home and abroad.
In the political organization and existence of nationalities there is always some insignia, some symbol by' which their distinctive character is known. So, like a nation — for the brigade was the representative of that glorious race which fought so nobly on the fields of Fontenoy — the Irish Brigade distinguished by its insignia, its red trefoil, its green feather, and above all, by its glorious standard, the flag of its adopted country the Stars and Stripes, which we carried successfully through so many battles, unstained by the hand of the enemy. The tattered remnants of our colors now in the Armory of the Sixty-ninth Regiment, in New York City, are the only vestiges of what remain to exemplify the deeds of fallen comrades, the memory of which exalts us to the highest pitch of patriotism.
The brigade remained at Camp California until the 10th day of March, 1862, when the Army of the Potomac moved on to Manassas under command of that able and gallant soldier, the late General George B. McClellan. The army did not meet the enemy at Manassas, and returned to Alexandria, embarking for Fortress Monroe, and sailing thence up the York River to Ship Point, and thence to Yorktown. The Siege of Yorktown was this brigade's baptism of fire. The battle of Fair Oaks came next, followed by Gaines' Mill, Savage Station; Peach Orchard, White Oak Swamp, Glendale, Malvern Hill, Antietam, the famous charge at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, Mine Run, Wilderness, Po River, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Totopotomoy, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Strawberry Plains, Deep Bottom, Reams' Station, Skinner's Farm, Siege of Petersburg, White Oak Road, Hatcher's Run, Boydton Road, Sutherland's Station, Sailor's Creek, Farmville, and finally Appomattox, where the Army of Northern Virginia, under command of General Lee, surrendered to General Grant on the 9th day of April, 1865.
And here I am proud to state, that on the night of the 7th of April, the first communication sent by General Grant to General Lee requesting a cessation of further hostilities was delivered to me by Gen. Seth Williams, Adjutant General of the Army of the Potomac, accompanied by General Miles, with instructions to deliver the same to a commissioned officer of the Confederate picket line. Accompanied by Capt. John Oldershaw, one of my aides, we passed through our lines and hailed a commissioned officer of the Confederate pickets. The importance of this letter can be realized when I say it was General Grant's first letter to General Lee, asking the surrender of his army; and, being of so much interest, I will quote it in full.
"April 7, 1865. " GENERAL,— " The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States Army, known as the Army of Northern Virginia. "U. S. GRANT, " Lieut. General. " GENERAL R. E. LEE."
The letter was duly delivered to a major in charge of that portion of the picket line directly opposite my brigade's line of battle, where we had fought the whole day. It was the last fight of that grand old division, then in command of Maj. Gen, Nelson A. Miles, now in command of the Department of the East.
Subsequent to the Battle of Fair Oaks, the Twenty-ninth Massachusetts was attached to the brigade, and remained with it until about the 1st of December, 1862, when it was exchanged for the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts, which was originally organized for the brigade; but through some mistake it did not join us until that time. The brigade was also joined at Harper's Ferry in October, 1862, by the One hundred and sixteenth Pennsylvania, and as thus formed we remained until October, 1864, when the Seventh New York Heavy Artillery took the place of the One hundred and sixteenth Pennsylvania. On the 25th day of March, 1865, the Seventh Heavies were relieved by the Fourth New York Heavy Artillery, the Seventh having been ordered to Baltimore. This was the brigade organization, from time to time, during the war. How nobly it discharged its patriotic duty to its adopted country is splendidly shown by the severe losses which each distinct regiment sustained.
The official records of the War of the Rebellion, as prepared and published by the War Department, up to and including the battle of Fredericksburg, show that during the Peninsular campaign, the casualties in brigade officers killed and wounded amounted to 15, and enlisted men 478, making a total of 493; at the battle of Antietam there were 24 officers killed and wounded, and 516 enlisted men, making a total of 540. At Fredericksburg, one of the severest fights, there were no less than 55 officers killed and wounded, and 490 enlisted men; aggregating 545 heroic patriots.
In a paper of this character, where I can only narrate some of the salient features of famous battles which have been chronicled in the Nation's history, I must hurriedly pass over the many details which go to make up movements of great armies, and content myself with general operations only, and the results necessarily following them. History records with astonishing accuracy the fatal and disastrous losses occurring in great battles, which, of themselves, bring about little or no permanent conclusions, or results from which one would naturally suppose that lasting and effectual cessation of difficulties had been accomplished. So it was with the battle of Fredericksburg, or the assault made on Marye's Heights. The Army of the Potomac had been resting at Falmouth from the I7th of November to the I3th of December, 1862, when the attack was made. The army, as thus organized, was composed of three grand divisions; the right, consisting of the Second and Ninth Army Corps, under command of General Sumner; the centre, consisting of the Third and Fifth Army Corps, under command of General Hooker; and the left, consisting of the First and Sixth Army Corps, under command of General Franklin; and all under command of General Burnside. The whole made a grand aggregation of nearly or about 100,000 men. As thus prepared we waited with much eagerness the orders for the attack.
That portion of the field of Fredericksburg, upon which this brigade fought on the I3th of December, 1862, lies south of the city, and is known as Marye's .Heights; this was occupied by the Confederates in several lines of rifle pits at different elevations, and the top or crest was garnished with artillery. At the base, or foot of the Heights, there runs a stone wall, and behind this was posted a strong force of infantry. From the point where the brigade formed its line of battle to this stone wall is a quarter of a mile. The ground inclines in a gentle ascent throughout the whole distance. Now, the slope between the point where the brigade formed its line of battle and the stone wall constitutes the battlefield. The view revealed an impenetrable barrier, an impregnable wall.
Previous to the attack, and before the final orders were given to advance on the works, General Hancock, then in command of the First Division, Second Corps, sent for the colonels of the First Division, some fourteen in number, and thus addressed them: " Gentlemen, I have called you together for the purpose of communicating to you the orders of the commanding general. They are imperative and must be carried out at all hazards and at all costs." Describing how the battle would be opened, he said: " General French's Division will lead the advance, supported by the First Division, Zook's Brigade supporting French, and the Irish Brigade supporting Zook. Caldwell's Brigade will support the Irish Brigade, and if one or either line should fail, the other should pass on and over, and so on until the works of the enemy were carried." He advised, however, that all mounted officers should go in on foot, as we were going to encounter some hot musketry, and " that scarcely a pigeon could live through it." When the general had finished his short address the fourteen colonels shook each other by the hand, many of them for the last time.
The gallant Cross of the Fifth New Hampshire was standing by my side and on my right. Turning around and taking him by the hand, I said, " Cross, we are going to have hot work to-day; but if you get into Richmond before I do, order dinner at the Spottswood House and I will dine with you." Cross, who was a good fellow and a very gallant soldier, a little profane at times, replied to me in very strong and emphatic terms, " So and so Nugent, we are!" We did not carry the works; we did not get into Richmond that day; the dinner has never been ordered. At his next fight, Gettysburg, that brave and gallant soldier gave up his life for his country's cause. The Fredericksburg fight was terrific; no pen can describe with accuracy the horrors of this battle. The casualties were enormous. It was a living hell from which escape seemed scarcely possible. I was myself carried off the field, having been shot through the right side while I was leading the charge. Owing to the commanding position of the enemy no attack could have been successful.
Gen. Francis A. Walker, in his history of the Second Corps, reports that Gen. John R. Brooke says that the bodies found nearest the celebrated stone wall were recognized as those belonging to the Sixty-ninth New York, the Fifth New Hampshire, and the Fifty-third Pennsylvania. In the campaigns of 1862, from the battle of Fair Oaks to the battle of Fredericksburg, there were killed and wounded, in officers, 96; and in enlisted men, 1,521; making a total of 1,617.
The brigade participated in no less than 34 battles throughout the war, and had enlisted in its organization no less than 7,000 men. When, at the cessation of hostilities, it reached New York, its number was less than 1,000. Gentlemen, what a magnificent record to be handed down to future generations. Not at Balaklava nor at Fontenoy was greater heroism displayed by men whose genius and bravery is known throughout the civilized world, than was displayed at the celebrated stone wall on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg, the Bloody Lane at Antietam, and in the repulse of the courageous Tenth Louisiana at Malvern Hill.
Meagher, Kelly, Byrnes, Smyth, McGee, Burke, and Nugent were, from time to time, its commanders. Meagher, whose distinguished services at home and abroad are so well known, that time cannot obliterate them. Byrnes,, of the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts, a brave and gallant soldier, was killed at Cold Harbor on the 3d of June, 1864. Kelly, the faithful, honest and true soldier, was killed a few days after in front of Petersburg, on June 16th. The gallant and dashing soldier, Gen. Tom Smyth, was the last general officer of the Army of the Potomac that was killed; he fell on the picket line, April 6, 1865, while in command of a brigade in the Second Division, Second Corps. McGee, that fearless soldier, is gone; he died of wounds received in front of Petersburg. Of the regimental commanders, Burke, who rose from the lowest round of the ladder to the top for gallant conduct on every field, is gone.
From Yorktown to Appomattox the same old spirit prevailed throughout the brigade that characterized the Irish soldier the world over. It was full of fun, full of frolic, and full of fight. It was a noble brigade. It was a grand organization, magnificently officered, perfectly disciplined. On the march, in the camp, or in battle, it was ever cheerful and brave, every ready to respond to the bugle call. General Hancock, our gallant corps commander, has often said to me, that the Irish Brigade men never knew when to disobey an order.
Col. William F. Fox in his history, " Regimental Losses in the Civil War," speaking of the division of Hancock, says: "This division was commanded successively by Richardson, Hancock, Caldwell, Barlow, and Miles, and any regiment that followed the fortunes of these men was sure to find plenty of bloody work cut out for it." Again, he says: " But the hardest fighting and greatest loss of life occurred in the First Division of the Second Corps, Hancock's old division, in which more men were killed and wounded than in any other division in the Union Army, East or West." It was in this division the Irish Brigade served from its organization in 1861, until April, 1865.
There were over 2,000 regiments in the Union Army. Out of this number! Colonel Fox gives a list of forty-five, and says: " The following table will show clearly the relative position of the leading infantry regiments in point of numerical loss. It embraces every infantry regiment in the Union armies which lost over 200 men, killed or mortally wounded in action during the war." In all there are forty-five. First on the list is the gallant Fifth New Hampshire, with a loss of 295; the second is the Eighty-third Pennsylvania, with a loss of 282; the third is the Seventh Wisconsin, with a loss of 281; the fourth is the Fifth Michigan, with a loss of 263; the fifth is the Twentieth Massachusetts, with a loss of 260; the sixth is the Sixty-ninth New York, with a loss of 259; the seventh is the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts, with a loss of 250. There are the first 7 of the 45. The Sixty-ninth New York and Twenty-eighth Massachusetts stand side by side as they have stood in many hard fought battles, both being regiments of the Irish Brigade. It will be seen that the Sixty-ninth stands at the head of the list of the New York regiments, it having lost more men killed and mortally wounded in action than any regiment from the State.
It is a grand and glorious record. It needs no words of praise. Its name will live in history. Its record was unsurpassed. I might go on and record the deeds of this splendid military organization, and the brave fellows who sacrificed their lives in this country's cause, but space will not permit me to go into all the details of the Battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, the Wilderness, and those that followed up to the surrender at Appomattox.