88th New York Infantry Regiment's Civil War Historical Sketch
BY CAPT. W. L. D. O'GRADY
Captain In The Eighty-Eighth New York, And Previously Second Lieutenant Royal Marines (Light Infantry), British Army.
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.
The Eighty-eighth New York Volunteers of Meagher's Irish Brigade, sometimes styled the " Connaught Rangers " (from the British Regiment of Foot holding that number), the " Faugh a Ballaghs," the " Fourth Irish," which long appeared on the guidons, and " Mrs. Meagher's Own," was raised in the fall of 1861 by Brig. Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, and rendezvoused at Fort Schuyler, on Long Island Sound. Their colors were presented to them on November 18th by Mrs. Meagher, in front of the Archiepiscopal Palace on Madison Avenue, and late in December the regiment went to the front The winter was spent in Camp California, near Alexandria, Va., with plenty of drill, picket duty and fun.
As a part of Richardson's Division in Sumner's Corps of the Army of the Potomac they proceeded on March 10, 1862, to investigate the deserted camps of the Rebels as far as Warrenton; then returned to Alexandria, and embarked for Yorktown and the Peninsular campaign. The regiment was armed with buck-and-ball muskets, as were the Sixty-third and Sixty-ninth New York; for General Meagher had a theory that most of our fighting would be at very close quarters. So it was; but sometimes our short-range weapons were a disadvantage. The baptism of fire came at Fair Oaks, where the splendid volleys of the brigade were conspicuous and effective.
It may be mentioned that the regiment was practically as alien as the old Irish Brigade in the French service, comparatively few being citizens by birth. Fully a third were old British soldiers, many of whom had seen service in the Crimean war and the Indian mutiny. One private had been a British officer, and a few spoke nothing but Gaelic when they enlisted from the very gates of Castle Garden. The officers at first were nearly all ex-officers or noncommissioned officers of the Sixty-ninth Militia, S. N. Y., who had smelt powder at First Bull Run. There was, therefore, a leaven of veteranism about the regiment at the start, and it was no wonder that their steadiness excited the warm appreciation of the grim old Sumner.
In the famous change of base on the Peninsula the regiment was hotly and frequently engaged. At Games' Mill they checked the rush of the enemy at nightfall. At Savage Station they were detached, under Maj. James Quinlan, to reinforce the Philadelphia Brigade of General Burns, which was hard pressed, and made a memorable charge on a battery which they captured, and held the ground as the last of the rear guard of the army for the second time in three days. Major (now Colonel) Quinlan got the Medal of Honor for his superb conduct on this occasion, as skillful as it was dashing, deploying at the double from quarter distance column on passing Burns' men, and charging home with a rush that was not to be denied. Their mettle was again tried at White Oak Swamp, and at Malvern Hill, where, after doing their full share in the action by day, the regiment got into a regular Donnybrook scrimmage at night, in which clubbed muskets were the favorite tools. The next morning General Sumner was invited to inspect a pile of broken muskets, and asked to order new ones, which excited an outburst of wrath, very profanely expressed, until he was made aware that the damage was not occasioned by stragglers disgracefully abandoning or spoiling their weapons, but because " the byes wint for the Rebs in the way they wor used to." The general never forgot this nor failed to remind us of the incident, adding more than once that he wagered his shoulder straps on us. We were certainly favorites with the old dragoon.
After recuperation at Harrison's Landing and the march to Newport News we embarked for Aquia Creek, packed like sardines, and so harassed had we been by incessant marching and fighting, that on a musket being accidentally or otherwise discharged on another boat, two poor fellows who had been sleeping on one of the paddle-boxes, started up and stepped overboard, where they sank like stones. From Aquia Creek we went to Fredericksburg, crossing very gingerly in the first train over the wonderful trestle bridge erected by General Steinmetz over Potomac Creek with pine trees cut on the spot, lashed with ropes, to replace an iron structure destroyed by the enemy. Our stay was short, for we re-embarked the next day for Alexandria, and thence hurried to the music of the guns at Second Bull Run, and were in time to cover the retreat of the army which Pope had well-nigh destroyed. So tired were the men that they slept as they marched,, waking up in a dazed way at the frequent halts occasioned by the numerous obstructions, such as dead mules and wagons in mudholes.
Then came the march in fine weather, through lovely Maryland and its peach and apple orchards towards Antietam. We left Frederick on September 14, 1862, and as we were crossing North Mountain, our restored commander, McClellan, dashed past us, and was greeted with such fervor that he kept waving his cap till out of sight. We had a glorious view of the battle of South Mountain as we were winding down the slopes on the other side of the valley. At nightfall we were deployed with bayonets fixed, and made a gallant charge over fences and ditches with sundry casualties to our front ranks from the harmful and decidedly unnecessary bayonets of the men behind till we brought up in a marsh — a most absurd exploit for which we could never fix the responsibility — where we camped for the night, or rather alternately squatted or walked about, as the mud was very wet, solacing ourselves with coffee.
Before daybreak on the 15th we were sent in advance to storm the heights, but found no enemies but dead ones. Then came the pursuit in hot haste, the Eighty-eighth ahead of the army, and we crossed the bridge at Keedysville as it was just beginning to blaze up, with the rear guard of the Johnnies just before us. All this time we had been gathering up Rebel stragglers and packing them to the rear. The Eighth Illinois Cavalry (a regiment with which we had so often been in company that we were collectively known as the three Eights) galloped past us, followed at a swinging pace by the Fifth New Hampshire, of our division, a splendid body of good shots with rifles. Under cover of this skirmishing we soon reached the outskirts of Sharpsburg, formed line and straightway went to sleep, to find, on being aroused, that a cannonade and skirmishing had been going on for a couple of hours, and that the neighborhood so scantily occupied at our arrival was thronged by dense masses of troops. We were moved a little to the right and there remained during the artillery duel of the 16th.
On Wednesday, September 17, 1862, General Meagher, gotten up most gorgeously in a somewhat fancy uniform, with a gold shoulder-belt, was carefully brushed by an orderly, and remarked that " we'd all have a brush soon." We had it. We forded the creek, by General Meagher's orders, taking off our shoes (those who could, many were barefoot, and some, like the writer, were so footsore that they had not been able to take off their shoes, or what remained of them, for a week), to wring out their socks, so as not to incumber the men in active movements, and every man was required to fill his canteen.
While not excellent as a tactician, General Meagher was most thoughtful of his men, and his magnetism in recruiting not only our brigade, but inducing the Irish to flock to the defence of the Union, was worth thousands of men. He was a victim of jealousy; and his men suffered too by coldness and lack of promotion, instead of receiving the recognition they had earned. The Eighty-eighth, for instance, had but one Medal of Honor man beside Colonel Quinlan, the late Captain Ford, who was allowed to die in poverty without a pension, though most grieviously wounded, and on whose breast Lincoln himself had pinned the coveted decoration.
The bullets were whistling over us as we hurried past the general in fours, and at the double-quick formed right into line behind a fence. We were ordered to lie down while volunteers tore down the fence, and some with rifles, for which they had surreptitiously exchanged their muskets, picked off some sharpshooters in trees. Then, up on our feet, we charged'. The Bloody Lane was the witness of the efficacy of buck-and-ball at close quarters. We cleared that and away beyond, leaving on the ground a lot of flags which we were too busy to pick up, for the capture (?) of which Medals of Honor were freely bestowed on the men of another regiment, whose commander was an able performer on the trumpet of self-laudation. When our ammunition was exhausted, Caldwell's Brigade relieved us, the companies breaking into fours for the passage as if on parade, as specially reported by General McClellan, who was watching our steady, unwavering advance through field-glasses. When we got ammunition we returned to the front. By some misunderstanding, part of the Sixty-third New York with their colors were massed on our right for a few minutes, during which our two right companies, C and F, were simply slaughtered, suffering a third of the entire casualties of the regiment. We were always proud of Antietam.
Our next affair was the failure — more glorious for us, perhaps, than a victory, in which our behavior received the commendation of foes as well as friends, and the story is embodied in the histories supplied to the children in our public schools,— at Fredericksburg. Here, in the absence of our new green flags (the old ones torn by shot and shell having been sent to New York), which were lying in boxes at Falmouth Depot, and in honor of the presentation of which, with the true Hibernian spirit a banquet was held in the outskirts of the town, we were decorated by General Meagher and his staff with sprigs of boxwood, while he harangued each regiment separately, giving us the idea we were on a forlorn hope, and that we should be engaged in street fighting with batteries to storm. The actual conflict was not exactly this way, but it sufficed to nearly annihilate us. We crossed the Rappahannock, after a cold night in the open air on the nth, in the morning of the I2th with the frost so hard that Captain (afterwards- General) Burke consolingly remarked that the ricochet shots would be bound to hit all that were otherwise missed. Some lives were saved by breastplates of plug tobacco, garnered from sunken barges, a luxury which, owing to the several months' arrears of pay, had become exceedingly scarce and correspondingly precious. The night was remarkable for a wonderfully brilliant aurora borealis, which was supplemented by the flames of the burning town and the glowing trains of bursting shells.
The morning of the 13th was foggy and cold, which made it worse for the wounded, who could not drag themselves from the field. The oft-told story of that fatal day need not be repeated here. But, it may be stated with emphasis, despite the contrary statements made by two prolific writers of Massachusetts, that, on official authority, the dead found nearest the stone wall at Marye's Heights wore the boxwood of the Irish Brigade; that the two nearest of all were Maj. William Morgan and Adjutant Young, of the Eighty-eighth New York; and that the nearest man who got out alive (with three wounds) is truthfully reported on page 322 of " Field, Fort and Fleet, by M. Quad," as having fired six shots with careful deliberation and fatal execution after the withering hail of shot had swept away every living thing from his neighborhood.
At our next inspection by General Hancock, one company presented seven men. A solitary private, standing at company distance in the column, was angrily accosted by the general, who wanted to know " Why the etc. he didn't parade with his company? " The convincing reply was that " This is all my company, sir." In truth we were shattered, and while other troops were allowed to go home on short furloughs to recruit, the unhappy dislike entertained by Stanton for Meagher and ourselves operated to keep us in this condition. And we had to do our full brigade picket duty, which meant forty-eight hours at a stretch every alternate day for several weeks.
Gradually, convalescents rejoined us, but it was not until the further losses at Chancellorsville that the absurdity of a regimental organization under such conditions became too palpable to be overlooked. At that miserable fiasco, the Eighty-eighth was separated from the brigade during most of the fighting, and even all the regiment was not together. Suddenly detailed as part of a baggage guard, with the Fifth New Hampshire and Eighty-first Pennsylvania, under Colonel Cross, of the Fifth New Hampshire, we left behind us a large detachment with several officers, including the adjutant, on picket at Banks' Ford, where they remained and were entangled in Sedgwick's struggle. The rest of us never saw any baggage, but held the front of Hancock's Division on the 2d and 3d of May, 1863.
We were rushed about from one side to the other of the salient in front of the Chancellor Mansion, under the worst cross-fire of shells we were ever under; were abused as " cowards " by General Geary, while we were quietly waiting for his division to finish their hurried retreat over our bodies to allow us to open fire, for which he was nearly bayoneted by a sergeant whose weapon the writer struck aside, and General Hancock, who was with us, savagely informed Geary that, " I command here;" then, from literally the last ditch, where the Rebels got at us with the bayonet, the Eighty-eighth were the very last troops of the army in front of the Chancellor House, incidentally taking off the last gun of the Fifth Maine Battery, the wheel-team of which was alone able to stir. This team was mounted by Sergt. John Sparks, an old regular, and the gun saved. The sergeant was so injured that he did not rejoin the regiment for a year. By an extraordinary coincidence we found it was the Irish Brigade we fell among, and among them they had saved the rest of the battery. It was here the One hundred and sixteenth Pennsylvania, under Major (now General) Mulholland, won its numerous Medals of Honor, richly deserved; but there are others who did not get them. Cringing in the woods, disgusted with the imbecility that put us on the defensive, tormented by sharpshooters, pelted by rain, lying in trenches filled by the storm,— even the horrible night march through fathomless mud and treacherous stumps to the swollen river, and thence to our old dismantled camp at Fal-mouth, seemed a relief.
The brigade was reduced to a skeleton, and Meagher resigned. His farewell on May 19, 1863, was touching. The brigade was drawn up in a hollow square to receive his address, at the close of which he bade an individual farewell to every officer. Col. Patrick Kelly succeeded to the command. He was a father to the brigade, as he was always to his own regiment, a brave, gentle, splendid soldier. The three New York regiments were now reduced to two companies each, and the superfluous officers mustered out. This was not encouraging to those who went or those who stayed. The different policy pursued in the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts and One hundred and sixteenth Pennsylvania made it the more galling. As a second lieutenant I had a Twenty-eighth Massachusetts sergeant under me on picket; was under his command as first lieutenant the week after; and found him field officer, of the day after Gettysburg.
We left our old winter camps on June 13, 1863, for a long and tortuous march, including a considerable deviation to Thoroughfare Gap, where some trifling skirmishing took place, and brought up at Gettysburg on the night of July 1st. Our "butcher's bill" was not imposing there, but we managed to lose a third of our few men, and captured twice as many prisoners as we took men in, during the struggle in the Wheatfield on the 2d. So, though the battle of Gettysburg is not one our brigade is proudest of, for many of our bravest and best were not there, the little contingent present did its share to maintain the glories of the earlier days. And the absolution under fire by our chaplain, who hasn't received a Medal of Honor (Father William Corby, now the Right Rev. General C. S. C., Notre Dame University, Notre Dame, Indiana, recentIy deceased) is, perhaps, the most picturesque as well as solemn of any incident of the war, and one of the best known.
In the fall raid of Lee we came in for the opening of the brisk little surprise at Auburn, on October 14, 1863, where Stuart, who had been sandwiched during the night between our marching columns, spoilt our breakfast on " Coffee Hill" with his artillery, when, to show our steadiness, we went through the manual and gave General Warren a marching salute in great shape. Later, on the same day, at Bristoe Station, the Eighty-eighth, who had been flankers for the First Division, Second Corps, all day, and sharply engaged at the halt, was left after nightfall as extreme rear guard; but the regiment stole softly away in the darkness, and then stretching out at a rapid gait, caught up with the rest.
The Mine Run campaign, from November 24th to December 5th, gave us. some more marching and picket duty in weather so unseasonably cold, that with sentries relieved every half hour, some men were actually frozen to death on post. We didn't fire a shot. Then came the veteranizing, when nearly all the men re-enlisted for the war. We had a month's furlough in New York city; bounties abounded; the officers banqueted the men at Irving Hall, where Meagher delivered perhaps the best of all his speeches; and recruits were gathered in so that we were again expanded to ten companies.
Capt. Denis F. Burke succeeded Colonel Kelly in command of the regiment,, which did its duty under Grant in the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Totopotomoy, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Deep Bottom, Reams' Station,— where a number were captured, which gave Lieutenants Grainger and Wall a chance to honor their regiment in an unusual way by the superb skill and gallantry displayed in a marvelous escape from Columbia, S. C,— Boydton Road, and the hard but exhilarating chase to be in at the death of the Rebellion, from Sailor's Creek to Appomattox.
To name, with even brief mention of their idiosyncrasies, the gallant officers, and those more especially distinguished of the rank and file of the regiment, would not only take much space but be invidious, and, at this distance of time, the deficiencies of memory might, by unintended omission, inflict injustice on the deserving and pain the relatives who are proud of them. In general terms it may be said that the regiment was one of " 300 fighting regiments," and that its health was good, the percentage of loss by sickness being extremely low, thus betokening military stamina and cheerfulness. It was certainly a cheerful regiment, playing cards under fire, joking while actually engaged in file firing, and in camp ready for anything from a snowball fight to tossing pie peddlers in blankets, or driving a mule in full uniform into the colonel's tent. In the St. Patrick's Day functions, begun with the solemn celebration of high mass, with all the imposing ceremonies possible in a camp and continued with unique festivities, which attracted the whole army (what a scattering there was of generals and everybody else at Falmouth, March 17, 1863, when the guns of the cavalry fight at Brandy Station were heard), they held their own.
They were a well-drilled regiment, with clean brasses and muskets, even ii they hadn't been able to wash for a week. They had no idea of being second to any other in anything. For instance, at Stevensburg, in December, 1863, when the disagreeable work of building log and brush bridges was pretty generally shirked, the Eighty-eighth, at the desire of an officer for whom they had some regard, turned to and built a wooden bridge, staked and picketed in the most approved fashion, the best by far ever built by the Army of the Potomac, and it undoubtedly exists to this day. Mention might be made of our two mascots: " Fan," a little slut decorated with a silver collar for many wounds, and " Big Mary" Gordon, one of the jolliest and handsomest of young Irishwomen, a very practical cantiniere, whose little husband minded the colonel's famous horse, " Faugh a Ballagh," while she washed his shirts and those of several other officers whom she favored.
Above all, while they loved the Green Flag of Erin, whence they sprung, they upheld with devoted, undying affection and loyalty the Stars and Stripes of America, the country of their adoption.