The 44th N.Y.V.I. in the War of the Rebellion

by
Matthew Ten Eyck

     The 44th Regiment New York State Volunteers, or the "People's Ellsworth Regiment" as it was also known, was organized at Albany, N.Y., and was mustered 24 September, 1861.[1]  The Regiment was formed in response to the death of a twenty-two year old Colonel from Mechanicsville, N.Y., Elmer Ellsworth. It was to be composed of volunteers from across New York State, each county contributing to the unit as a whole. This proved to be theoretical, as the bulk of the regiment eventually came disproportionately from but a few counties. Albany and Erie counties furnished two companies each, and the county of Herkimer was to provide one. Albany and Schenectady counties in time contributed large numbers of men to the Regiment, undoubtedly due to the proximity of the village of Mechanicsville itself.

     Muster records indicate that the average height of the men was five feet ten and a half inches. The Regiment's first field officers were Stephen W. Stryker, Colonel, James C. Rice, Lieut. Colonel and James McGowan, Major.[2]  This is only a list of senior officers. Many of the officer staff of the 44th had served with Ellsworth in the New York Fire Zouave Regiment, and this previous experience would bode well for the Regiment when in the field.

     This was a departure from recruiting practices, as most units were assembled from rather small geographic areas that at times had catastrophic results. Communities such as Deer Island, Maine lost an entire generation of young men, when a single company or regiment bore the brunt of a day's fighting. Although the topic of this research is the Normal School Company or as it was otherwise known the new company "E", an examination of the 44th Regiment before the Fall of 1862 when the new company "E" went into the line, is in order.

     The Regiment was first attached to Butterfield's Brigade, Fitz-John Porter's Division, Army of the Potomac until March, 1862. Butterfield's 3rd Brigade, Porter's 1st Division, 3rd Army, 9 Corps, Army of the Potomac, to May, 1862. It was part of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Corps, to October 1864.[3]  This time span covers the enlistment period of the three-year men who were part of the original Regiment.

     The 44th was moved to Washington on October 21, 1861, but its' stay was short-lived. By the 28th of October the Regiment was stationed at Hall's Hill, Virginia, and it was there on that date that the life-long bond between the 44th New York and the 83rd Pennsylvania was to begin. Before the arrival of the Normal School Company on 23 October, 1862, the 44th would see action at Manassas (2nd Bull Run) in March of 1862. as well as the Peninsula and Yorktown. Places such as Hanover Court House, Gaines Mill, and Malvern Hill, would become a part of the life of the 44th N.Y.. In September of 1862, a little more than a month before the arrival of the New Company "E', the men from New York would meet General Lee at a small Maryland town called Sharpsburg, along a little stream that was to be immortalized in Civil War lore, Antietam Creek. Although the 44th was sent into the line, records indicate that the Regiment saw little if any fighting and for the most part had been held in reserve. They were a part of that segment of McClellan's army that had not been committed, and conceivably could have made Antietam an actual rather than the strategic victory. It was only when Lee, fearing encirclement on enemy soil, chose to leave the field for the security of Virginia, that left the Union in command of the field.

     In this paper I will attempt to illuminate various actions of the 44th, which are either a prelude to, or a segment of a larger campaign. The first engagement to be scrutinized will be a probe of the upper part of the Shenandoah Valley near Middleburg, Virginia, on June 21, 1863. General Hooker was attempting to secure information about Confederate troop movements in the Valley, as the Blue Ridge had served in the past to shield the enemy's intentions. Although the 44th New York under Col. (later General) Strong Vincent participated in this engagement, it was in a supportive role only. It cooperated with a cavalry unit under General Gregg and the minimal loss of one man killed and two wounded emphasizes the minor role of the 44th.[4]  Vincent was to be wounded July 2 near the Round Top, and subsequently to die from wounds on July 7. It was not noteworthy as battles go, but it did prove that Lee was again on the move, and ten days hence the nation would focus its attention not on Virginia, but a small obscure hamlet in south-central Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. The rumor of an invasion of the North by the Confederacy would be a reality.

     To further exacerbate an already tenuous situation, on the very eve of battle, Lincoln was to appoint yet another commander for the Army of the Potomac, General George Gordon Meade. Nothing can be said here that has not already been said of this greatest of all battles to take place in North America. On July 2, the 44th fought alongside the 83rd Pa. and the 16 Mich. near the Round top. Members of Co. "E' among them Sgt. Consider H. Willett, were instrumental in rounding up 97 prisoners following the repulse by these units of Hood's division on that date.[5]  Sgt. Willett was commissioned on September 28, 1863 receiving a promotion to Captain. Company G, 2nd U.S. Colored Troops.[6]  This appears to have been the destiny of numerous young men from the Normal School.

     On the 5th of July 3rd Brigade to which the 44th was attached advanced in line of battle, only to find that The Army of Northern Virginia, General Lee commanding, had left the field. Pursuit was not as spirited as was hoped by those in Washington, and Meade was to be censured by General Halleck. The 44th proceeded southward following Lee's army, and on the 9th crossed over South Mountain and Antietam Creek, already in the annals of American military history. The regiment was in the vicinity of Jone's Crossroads on the 11th of July, but appears to have suffered no casualties.[7]  Nashs' history merely makes mention of this engagement, and lists only the casualty figures for the 16th Michigan and 20th Maine.[8] 

     On July 23rd the Regiment was at Manassas Gap, but according to available records it took no part in the fighting which in any case was minimal. The following morning the 44th was on the move again, only to find out that the Confederates had departed. " When at length, the crest was reached, it was found that the enemy had retreated. It must be admitted that our troops were able to overcome their feelings of disappointment when the crest was reached without firing a shot."[9]  The crest in the quote was Wapping Heights which the 44th occupied on July 24, 1863.

     For the next few months the records indicate that 5th Corps to which the 44th was assigned did little more than march and counter-march. Much of this time saw the 44th in close proximity to or at Beverly Ford on the Rappahannock. The Army of the Potomac was again on ground contested for and lost but a few months before during the battle of Chancellorsville. The regiment came close to action on 14 October when called upon to support 2nd Corps which had become engaged against the enemy at Bristoe Station. Again, the 44th was to arrive after the field had been won.

     Actual combat would not again be experienced by the 44th until the 7th on November, at Rappahannock Station. The 44th as a part of 5th Corps operated with 6th Corps in dislodging a Confederate force of two brigades of infantry and a section of artillery left by Lee to guard the rear of his main body.[10]  This encounter reduced Lee's strength by 1300 men and eight pieces of artillery. Casualties for the 44th were light, three enlisted men were killed and one officer and four enlisted men wounded.[11]  General Lee had not committed to a large-scale action here, his main effort was the destruction of railroad trackage which would disrupt the Union forces in Northern Virginia. The 44th would close out the year at a place called Mine Run, November 29 to December 1, 1863. This was another Bloody Angle, another Fredericksburg in the making, but in the end cooler heads prevailed, and a slaughter was averted. The Confederates had managed to fortify the high ground opposite the Union lines near a small creek called Mine Run. In order to dislodge the Rebels, the Union forces would first have to had crossed this stream in an area where the banks were from four to ten feet in height. Following this questionable feat, the attacking force would have to attack the Confederate force head on over a wide open upward-sloping field. The attack had been set for 8:00 A.M. on the 30th of November, but following a brief council, General Meade reluctantly agreed with General Warren that an attack would be folly.[12]  Warren was to be removed of his command during Five Forks in April of 1864 by General Sheridan for not being prompt enough in support of another unit. It was unjust under the circumstances. If other senior commanders including Grant himself considering his debacle at Cold Harbor had been as intuitive as Warren, possibly the body count might have been considerably less. At any rate, the actions of this officer kept the 44th out of the slaughter pen. Following this end-of-year episode the Regiment was to spend much of the time guarding trains, a duty that seemed preferable to the monotony of winter camp.

     On the 29th of April, 1864, the Regiment was again in the field reunited with the rest of the 3rd Brigade. Encampment was made at 5 p.m. on that same day at Beverly Ford; the Regiment was again on the Rappahannock.

     May 1864 would begin with the Wilderness which took place between the 5th and the 7th of the Month. Grant would pursue Lee relentlessly fighting again between May 8th and May 21st at Spottsylvania. Grant's war of attrition was in full swing, and Union losses would continue to mount. But our pursuit will skirt these grandiose campaigns, and focus on a lesser engagement at a nondescript place called North Anna River. This place was reached 2:00 P.M. on the 23rd of May, and a crossing was immediately begun at Jericho Ford. First across was the 2nd Brigade with 3rd Brigade ( to which the 44th was attached ) directly behind. The ' 3rd was divided to support the flanks of the 2nd Brigade as the Confederates did oppose the crossing. Although an attack was expected on the 24th it never materialized. During the 25th, the 44th was held in reserve, and only entered the actual area of fighting after dark on the 25th to establish a picket line for the protection of the 20th Maine which had been sent forward to construct breastworks closer to the enemy line.[13]  Nash indicates no casualties here but Phisterer does list one killed. The most significant statistic is the return of three officers and twenty enlisted men who had been captured on the 8th at Spotsylvania, and were recaptured on the 9th by Sheridan. A follow-up action against skirmishers and sharpshooters at Totopotomoy, Virginia resulted in the wounding of Eugene Nash, Capt., 44th Regiment N.Y.V.I. Nash was eventually mustered out with the company on 11 October, 1864, his three-year term of enlistment ending.[14]  While 44th losses were small at Totopotomoy, the loss to the 2nd, 5th, and 9th corps Army of the Potomac under the command of George G. Meade amounted to 223 killed, 1,460 wounded, and 200 missing.[15] 

     Magnolia Swamp was a part of the larger action known as Cold Harbor. The history of the 44th Regiment makes no mention of this place, so I will provide a synopsis of the activities of the Regiment on June 1st to the 3rd.. On June 1st, the 44th repulsed a Confederate advance with minimal casualties of one killed and eight wounded for the days events. On the 2nd, the 44th was withdrawn from the front with the loss of one man wounded. June 3rd saw the greatest loss to the 44th with one officer Capt. B.A. Kimberly wounded, and four enlisted men killed and thirteen wounded. Capt. Orett L. Munger was struck by a ball from an exploding round of canister, but was only bruised. The canister must have been at some distance as these one inch balls could cause considerable damage.[16]  Again a twist of fate would keep the 44th from the slaughter pen that in the first half-hour on June 1st, 1864, would cost the Union forces some 7,000 casualties.

     The final months for the men of the 44th would be spent around Petersburg, the key to the Confederate Capital, Richmond. Between May 4th and the arrival of the Army of the Potomac before the gates of Petersburg, casualties were nearly 55,000 men of which 5th Corps contributed some 12,000.

     Petersburg was the key to the crown jewel, Richmond. Grant planned to strangle Lee by besieging the gateway to the capital. The city was the hub of the wheel consisting of the Petersburg & Norfolk, Weldon, and Southside Railroads, and denying Lee the use of these lines of communication would not only cripple, but isolate the Richmond government from the rest of the Confederacy.[17]  This phase of the Petersburg campaign began on August 18, 1864, and although many units suffered heavily, the 44th had only the loss of four men who had been captured. " From this time to the 23d of September, the duties of the siege continued without further general engagement and the Forty-Fourth was not called to battle."[18]  It was on 24 September 1864 that the original men of the Regiment left for home.

     Reorganized as the 44th Battalion N.Y. Volunteers, the 44th was to enter the final stage of its participation in the War that commenced on 3 September at the Battle of Poplar Spring (Grove) Church. This Confederate fortification was taken with one man killed, one officer Lt. Bennett and twenty-one men wounded, and four men missing for a total of twenty-seven. In this final encounter with the enemy, the 44th fought along side the 83rd Pennsylvania, and the 16th Michigan, units the 44th had been with from the beginning.[19]  This trio had been between the roundtops on the second day at Gettysburg, and had been a part of a valiant and successful effort to prevent the flanking of the Union left by the Confederates. As originally organized, the 44th was a part of the 3rd or Butterfield's Brigade which was comprised of the 17th New York, Col. Lansing, the 16th Michigan, Col. Stockton, and the unit most associated with the 44th Regiment N.Y.V.I., the 83rd Pennsylvania, under the command of Col. McLane.[20] 

     The Regiment had departed Albany, N.Y. on the 24 October 1861, with a total combat strength of 1061. It was augmented in the Fall of 1862 by an additional three companies of which the Normal School was one, and before the end of the war the total enrollment would be 1,585. Of this total, 643 would be killed or wounded, another 147 died in prison from disease or accidents, and a further 79 would be listed as missing or captured.[21] 

     When examining the records of the 44th Regiment N.Y.V.I., casualties suffered in individual engagements appear minimal, but the aggregate loss to the entire Regiment during its time in the field is around fifty percent. Following WW 11, General Dwight D. Eisenhower entertained his wartime British opposite General Sir Bernard Montgomery at the Eisenhower home in Gettysburg. As they toured the great battlefield, they discussed the enormous casualties suffered there between I July and 3 ) July, 1863. Both concurred that they would have been sacked as field commanders if either had sustained such appalling losses on the battlefield. The enormity of the carnage during The War of the Rebellion is further magnified when one compares the engines of destruction available during the Second World War as compared to the rudimentary weapons available in 1863. One cannot argue as to the tragedy of either event or weigh the casualties. 7,000 dead Union troops at Cold Harbor, Virginia in June of 1864, and this within the first half-hour or so of battle is testimony enough to the horrors of America's greatest struggle.

Notes

[1]  Dyer, Frederick H., A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Dayton: Morningside Press, 1994 ), p Return to Text

[2]  New York Monuments Commission, Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg Vol. I (Albany: J.B. Lyon Company, State Printers, 1900 ), p. 367. Return to Text

[3]  Dyer, Frederick H., A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Dayton: Morningside Press, 1994 ), p. 2289 Return to Text

[4]  Nash, Eugene A. Capt., A History of the Forty-Fourth Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. 1861 - 1865 (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1911 ), p. 137. Return to Text

[5]  Ibid., 152. Return to Text

[6]  Phisterer, Frederick, New York in the War of the Rebellion 1861 to 1865 (Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, 1912 ), p. 17. Return to Text

[7]  Dyer, Frederick H., A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Dayton: Morningside Press, 1994 ), p.2290. Return to Text

[8]  Nash, Eugene A. Capt., A History of the Forty-Fourth Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. 1861-1865 ( Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1911 ), pp. 159-160. Return to Text

[9]  Ibid., p. 162. Return to Text

[10]  Ibid., p. 172. Return to Text

[11]  Dyer, Frederick H., A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Dayton: Morningside Press 1994 ), p. 2290. Return to Text

[12]  Nash, Forty-Fourth, 193-94. Return to Text

[13]  Ibid., 193-94. Return to Text

[14]  Dyer, War of the Rebellion, 2301. Return to Text

[15]  Lossing, Benson J. Matthew Brady's Illustrated History of the Civil War (New York: The Fairfax Press ), p. 352. Return to Text

[16]  Nash, Forty-Fourth, 199-200 Return to Text

[17]  Commager, Henry Steele, The Blue, and The Gray, (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1982), p. 1003. Return to Text

[18]  Nash, 206. Return to Text

[19]  Ibid., p. 211. Return to Text

[20]  New York Monuments Commission, Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg Vol. 1 (Albany: J.B. Lyon Company, State Printers, 1900 ), p. 368. Return to Text

[21]  Ibid., p. 362.