The 44th N.Y.V.I.
in the Peninsular Campaign

Matthew Shea

     This paper will briefly examine the actions of 44th N.Y. Infantry Regiment during the Peninsula campaign of 1862. Special attention will be given to the battlefield behavior of the regiment's two ranking officers, Colonel Stephan Stryker and Lt. Colonel James Rice. We will see how the regiment and Lieut. Col. Rice acted heroically under the test of fire, and how Col. Stryker failed the regiment in his duty as commanding officer.

     The 44th landed on the Peninsula on 25 March. In April the regiment, as part of Heintzeman's 3rd Corp- Porter's Division- Butterfield's Brigade, labored in the trenches surrounding Yorktown. The Confederates finally abandoned the town on 4 June, and the 44th was ordered by McClellan to garrison the town while the Army of the Potomac continued its creep up the Peninsular As the regiment entered Yorktown the regimental band played, and the battle-flags fluttered in the air.[1] 

     Marching the regimental colors across the battlefield of Washington's great victory must have been a stirring moment for many of the 44th, but the idea of staying behind as the army marched forward to Richmond also chaffed many of the men. Private Abram Smith of company B blamed the garrison assignment directly on Stryker : "this is all on the account of our Colonenall [sic] he is a coward and he kept us here...but i now[know] he was a fraid to go for he expected a fight would come soon".[2]  Smith hadn't enlisted to play solider, " i came here to fight not do garrison duty", he vented in a letter to his sister.[3] 

     In mid-May Stryker went to Washington to retrieve the regiment's fancy Zouave uniforms from storage. While Stryker was absent a petition was drafted by a group of officers and presenter to brigade commander Butterfield. The petition asked the general to relieve the 44th of garrison duty and allow the regiment to join the march to Richmond a, Butterfield promptly assented. When Stryker returned he, "was much displeased with the step taken...His displeasure at being ordered to the front was expressed in quite emphatic language ", but colonel's displeasure had no effect and the 44th moved out of Yorktown on the 19 May.[4]  The regiment was attached to Fitz John Porter's newly formed 5th Corps, Morrell's Division, Butterfield's Brigade.

     On 27 May 1862 Porter moved toward Hanover Courthouse. Porter had orders to destroy or damage portions of the Virginia Central and Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroads. The railroads fed into Richmond from the north, and thus might be used by the Confederates to move reinforcements and supplies to the troops defending Richmond.. Any telegraph wires, bridges, wagon roads, or military supplies were also to be wrecked. [5]  At Hanover Court House the men of the 44th experienced their first earnest firefight.

     A driving rain greeted the soldiers who awoke and fell in place in dark pre-dawn hours of 27 May. The rain made campfires impossible and deprived the men of coffee and a hot breakfast. Many cold, wet and hungry regiments begun the 14 mile march toward Hanover Courthouse as early as 3:30 am.[6]  The rain, sloppy roads, and general "greenness" of the men and officers made for a torpid march. Most regiments had floundered their way through shin deep mud for 8-10 hours before they went into battle began.

     Porter selected Brig. Gen. George W. Morrell's division for the raid. Morell had under his command three infantry brigades, three batteries of artillery, one battery of light infantry, the First U.S. Sharpshooters Regiment (Berdan's Regiment), and two Calvary regiments.[7]  The Calvary and the battery of light infantry led the advance followed by Berdan's regiment - a regular army regiment who stood out in their green uniforms. The First Brigade under Brig. Gen. John Martindale followed the sharpshooters. Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield's Third Brigade( including the 44th N.Y.) followed Martindale, and the Second Brigade commanded by Col. James McQuade made up the rear.[8] 

     When Butterfield received orders to join the battle, he lacked the 44th. Morell had detached the 44th and a section of artillery from the brigade around 2:00 p.m. and posted it at a crossroads in the rear to protect his lines of communication.[9] 

     Stryker had moved his force a half mile out from the crossroads, and fanned the regiment out. The companies were posted on the several roads that fed the crossroad, and to prevent surprise Stryker posted mounted lookouts in commanding position in front of the regiment. The regiment had been position perhaps an hour when Morell ordered Stryker to march the 44th , "to the front as soon as possible."[10] 

     The 44th never made it to the front. Shortly after reforming and beginning to march, the regiment met a union detachment commanded by Brig. Gen. John Martindale. Martindale was also guarding the rear, and had been watching Confederates moving in the woods in his front. Stryker reported that Martindale, "ordered me to support him."[11]  , but Martindale reported a slightly different exchange. Seeing the 44th on the road from New Bridge, Martindale "informed him [Stryker] of the difficulty, and he placed his regiment under my orders."[12]  Martindale outranked Stryker, but he didn't have the carte blanche to commandeer a regiment belonging to another brigade, especially a regiment ordered to the front by the divisional commander. Stryker may have acted correctly in aiding Martindale, but he would certainly have acted correctly if he informed Martindale that the regiment had been ordered to the front and pushed the regiment onward.

     Martindale's force was not yet under fire when he received a report of fighting near a union hospital a mile in his rear. Stryker and five companies of the 44th were dispatched to guard the hospital.[13]  Stryker marched his men a short distance toward the hospital, then halted when the road broke into a woodlot. Skirmisher were order into position , but before the regiment could resume its march a whip of Confederate musket fire lashed out from the wood-line and stung the five companies. Stryker ordered his men to return fire, then quickly ordered them to retire.[14] 

     Once Stryker had his men out of musket range, he recalled the remaining wing of his regiment, doubled his skirmish line and began to prepare a line of battle to attack the woods. A mounted orderly was sent hunting for Gen. Martindale to secure permission for the attack.[15]  Stryker's actions seem curious because he estimated that the force that fired upon his detachment "to be within 75 yards of us, and I should judge from 150-200 strong."[16]  If Stryker wanted to engage the confederates in the woods, a better course would have been to send an orderly to command the remaining companies to move up and join the firefight, especially if he believed he faced 150-200 muskets. The length of time required to counter march, deploy the whole regiment in line of battle, and find Martindale would have only given the Confederates in the woods more time to strengthen their position, or re-deploy on the battlefield. All of Stryker's preparations were in vain anyway, Martindale needed the regiment elsewhere on the battlefield.

     Besides the 44th, Martindale had the 2nd Maine and the 25th N.Y. regiment under his command. Fearing envelopment, Martindale established a horseshoe shaped line of defense with the 44th on the left, the battery and the 25th in the center, and the 2nd Maine on the right.[17]  Shortly after the 44th got into position the Confederates opened fire along the entire line. Martindale's effort to protect his flanks by curving his line had lethal consequences for the soldiers in the center. Because the center bulged out, it had become vulnerable from three sides of fire.

The 25th, the artillerymen, and two companies of the 44th found themselves engulfed in a severe crossfire. Martindale was behind the line of the 2nd Maine when the confederates began shooting, and he quickly realized that "a murderous oblique fire" was raking his center.[18]  Before Martindale could make adjustments to his line the cannons in his center fall quiet, and he saw the 25th N.Y. begin to retire in order. The orderly withdraw of the 25th was soon followed by a "rapid and ...disorderly movement to the rear" by the two companies of the 44th.[19]  Sensing a skedaddle, Martindale galloped over to rally the "disorderly movement", amongst the confusion he found Stryker.

     Stryker was instructed to gather up stragglers and help form an emergency line of defense. Martindale assumed the entire 44th had broken , and he expected the Confederates to overrun his entire command at any moment. Stryker made several attempts to rally the men, than decided that he had to find divisional commander Morell and inform him of Martindale's condition.[20]  A wounded corporal of the 44th latter claimed that he saw Stryker in the rear, dismounted and quietly sitting under a tree.[21] 

     Like Martindale, Lt. McRoberts of company C, thought the whole regiment had been broken. Seeing Martindale laboring to stop the retreat, McRoberts and ten men of the 44th stopped and fell in position along the new line being formed. While in position on the new line, McRoberts saw the regimental flag of the 44th waving from its original position on the left. McRoberts immediately rounded up his men and marched forward to rejoin the regiment.[22]  Command of the regiment had devolved upon Rice. The regiment occupied a position on an embankment that overlooked a fenced-bordered road. The position along the embankment sheltered most of the regiment from the crushing effects of the Confederate crossfire. But Confederate fire still "swept through .. [the].. ranks like a storm of hail ", over forty musket balls shredded the regimental flag, and four different color barriers went down.[23]  The confederates charged the regiment several times, each rush stalled at the wooden fence. Rice's men cooled the scalding hot barrels of the muskets with water from their canteens and scrounged ammunition from dead and wounded men. When the ammunition supply neared exhaustion, Rice ordered the regiment to fix bayonets and be prepared to charge. Rice asked Captain Larrabee if his company would make a charge if necessary, Larrabee replied, "All of my company will follow you save the dead."[24]  But the confederate attack had spent itself, and when Union reinforcements appeared the confederates withdrew, sparing the 44th from making the charge. At least 84 men of the 44th were killed or wounded, roughly 20% of the regiment.[25] 

     Rice's leadership during the attack did not go unnoticed by his superiors. Porter's report to McClellan gave honorable mention of Rice, and Martindale commended Rice and the regiment highly for repulsing the Confederate charges "without flinching."[26]  Stryker's flagrant abdication of his duties as a regimental commander - primarily the duty of leading men under fire- earned the colonel a severe rebuke from his superiors, but not dismissal or reassignment.[27] 

The Battle at Hanover Courthouse was the 44th's baptismal fire. Aside from the behavior of Stryker and a handful of other runners, the regiment felt proud of itself when it went into camp along the Chickahominy River on 2 June. For the next three weeks the 44th split its time between camp and the picket line. Although camp life was generally quiet, and an informal truce regulated the picket line , the regiment was weakened further by sickness when the Seven Days Battles began on 25 June.[28] 

During the Seven Days Battle union and confederates clashed at Oak Grove on 25 June, Mechanicsville on the 26th, Gaines' Mill on the 27th, Savage Station on the 29th, Glendale on the 30th, and Malvern Hill on 1 July. At Gaines' Mill and Malvern Hill the 44th saw considerable action.

     The 44th was on the march before the sun had risen on 27 June. Although Stryker was still the regiment's commanding officer, Rice had been designated "field officer of the day".[29]  Butterfield assigned a unit of pioneers to Rice's command, and ordered him to destroy three bridges after the rear guard of the 5th Corp had passed. The regiment completed their task within sight of the approaching confederates, and than labored to create an abatis in front of the brigade's new position. When the approaches to the brigade were cleared, the regiment went into position behind improvised earthworks at the far left of the brigade.[30]  The regiment had hardly deployed into line when the popping of skirmishers and sharpshooters began.

      For the next two hours the firing continued, as confederate forces could be seen in the distance moving into position. At 12:30 p.m. the confederates launched an all out attack on the Union line.[31]  All afternoon long the Confederates attacked.

     Although the Confederates probed the center, right, and left of the Union line, they could not achieve a breakthrough. Butterfield's brigade received an attack in force at 2:30, but the attack stalled due to Union artillery. At 5:30 p.m. the Confederates attacked the left again, and again they were repulsed. The Confederates launched one more attack at 6 p.m. [32] 

     The attack at 6 p.m. dislodged a portion of the Union line, and threatened Butterfield's right flank. The 83rd Penn. and 12th N.Y., badly pressed in the front and sensing a threat to their rear, began to fall back. Butterfield quickly rallied the two regiments, and called up the 16th Michigan to strengthen the line. The 44th had not budged an inch. Butterfield rode through the thick fire to praise and encourage the 44th to stand firm, and "the entire regiment .. assured the general...that he might depend upon its constancy."[33] 

     Shortly after Butterfield rode from the regiment, Rice looked in horror as, "the commanding officer of the Forty-fourth New York Volunteers with the left wing of the regiment commenced to retreat, and at length to fly toward the Chickahominy."[34]  Furious, Rice galloped over and halted the retreating mass before it could cross the river. Rice seized the regimental flag and coaxed the men back into position on the firing line. Stryker and Captain Walsh of company E could not be inspired to return , both fled across the river and neither returned to the regiment until 11 am the next morning.[35] 

     The situation along the brigade line steadily deteriorated. Facing encirclement Butterfield finally sent an orderly to tell Rice to pull the mauled brigade out. While the message was being delivered the Confederates cut Butterfield off from his brigade. Responsibility for the brigade now rested upon Rice. Shot, shell, and musket fire ranked the retreating column. Rice pushed the men onward, "through marsh and swamp and tangled underbrush" , until they reached the safety of the reestablished union lines across the river. [36] 

     Again Rice received high praise for his battlefield conduct. In all phases of the battle, reported Butterfield, Rice had "behaved with the greatest gallantry and bravery".[37]  Stryker's conduct was self-explanatory. When Stryker returned to the regiment the morning of 28 June, he was still the regiment's commanding officer. Two days latter Stryker tangled up his troops while trying to execute a maneuver and received a tongue-lashing, in front of the regiment, from Butterfield. Stryker was ordered to the rear, his command of the 44th effectively over. [38] 

     On 1 July the 44th found itself in reserve behind the main Union lines on Malvern Hill. The men of the regiment were "wearied and exhausted" from the hard marching and constant battle readiness of the past week.[39]  As the battle on Malvern Hill progressed, the regiment and the brigade moved into a forward position, and endured several hours of Confederate artillery fire. When a Confederate attack seemed to be making progress at one point, the 44th received orders to advance and break the assault. The regiment pushed forward to within 100 yards of the Confederates, than charged with bayonets.[40] 

     The charge of the 44th scattered the confederates in their front, and earned the regiment its first captured battle-flag (although a sergeant from the neighboring 83 Penn. got to the flag first, the two regiments officially "shared" the honor of its capture). Rice had 225 men present for duty on the morning of 1 July , 99 were killed, wounded, or missing after the battle. And the casualty rate did not include Capt. Michael Walsh of company E, who for the second consecutive engagement ,"left his company in the midst of the engagement and retired from the field."[41] 

     During the early morning hours of 2 July the 44th began its march to Harrison's Landing where the regiment stayed for the next month, the Peninsular campaign was over. On 4 July, safe at the Union encampment at Harrison's Landing, Stryker tendered his resignation that was accepted on 7 July. Stryker's leadership," had failed to meet the expectations of the regiment, its promoters and friends."[42]  Butterfield, in recognition of Rice's excellent leadership under fire, immediately recommended Rice for a promotion to full colonel and command of the regiment. [43]  Stryker resurfaced as a Lieut. Col. in the 18th N.Y. Cavalry, but was dismissed after serving little more than a year with the unit. Rice received his promotion to Colonel, became Brigade commander on 2 July 1863 on Little Round Top when Col. Vincent Strong was killed, rose to the rank of Brigadier General, and died in action at Spottsylvania Courthouse 11 May 1864.[44] 

The 44th went on to distinguish itself at 2nd Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, and Petersburg.

[1] Eugene Arus Nash, A History of the Forty-Fourth Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, 1861-1865, ( Chicago: R.R. Donnelley and Sons, 1911) pp. 68-9. Hereafter referred to as Nash. Return to Text

[2] New York State Archives, Abram Smith Collection of six letters, one file, letter from Smith to his brother 14 May 1862. Return to Text

[3] NYS Archives, Smith collection, letter from Smith to his sister 18 May 1862. Return to Text

[4] Nash, pp. 72-3. Return to Text

[5] The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, ( Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884), Series 1, Vol. XI, part 1, p. 680. Report of Fitz John Porter. Hereafter referred to as O.R. Return to Text

[6] O.R., Series 1, Vol. XI, part 1, p. 703- Report of John Matindale, and p. 680 - report of Fitz John Porter. Return to Text

[7] O.R., series 1, Vol.XI, part 1, p. 698-Report of George W. Morell. Return to Text

[8] Ibid. Return to Text

[9] Ibid., p.699. The time of 2 o'clock is mentioned by James Rice's Report - p.730. Return to Text

[10] O.R., Series 1,Vol. XI, part 1, pp. 727-28 - Report of Stephan Stryker. Return to Text

[11] O.R. , Series 1, Vol. XI, part 1, p.728 - Report of Stryker. Return to Text

[12] O.R. , Series 1,Vol. XI, part 1, p.704 - Report of Martindale. Return to Text

[13] O.R., Series 1, Vol. XI, part 1, p. 704 - Report of Martindale. Stryker and Rice specifically mention five companies on pp. 728 and 730 , Martindale refers to "one wing" of the regiment. Return to Text

[14] O.R., Series 1, Vol. XI, part 1 , p. 728 - Report of Stryker. Return to Text

[15] Ibid. Return to Text

[16] Ibid. Return to Text

[17] O.R., Series 1, Vol. XI, part 1, p.705-Report of Martindale, p. 709 - Report of Roberts. Return to Text

[18] O.R. , Series 1, Vol. XI, part 1, p.705 - Report of Martindale. Return to Text

[19] Ibid. Return to Text

[20] O.R. , Series 1, Vol. XI, part 1, p. 729 - Report of Stryker. Return to Text

[21] Nash, p. 75. Return to Text

[22] O.R., Series 1, Vol. XI, part 1, p. 705-06 - Report of Martindale. Return to Text

[23] O.R., Series 1 Vol. XI, part 1, p. 731 - Report of Rice. Return to Text

[24] Ibid., pp. 731-32. Return to Text

[25] Nash, p.76, O.R. Vol. XI, part 1, pp. 685 and 731. Nash lists 84 casualties, Porter reported 86 casualties, . Rice estimated a total regimental loss of 20%. It is unclear how many men left the position and did not return during the actual fighting. Return to Text

[26] O.R., Series 1, Vol. XI, part 1, p. 684 - Porter's Report-, p. 706-7 - Martindale's Report. Return to Text

[27] Nash, p. 75. Return to Text

[28] Ibid., p. 78-79. Return to Text

[29] O.R., Series 1 Vol. XI, part 2, p. 316 - Report of Butterfield. Return to Text

[30] O.R., Series 1 Vol. XI, part 2, p. 338 - Report of Rice. Return to Text

[31] Ibid., p. 338-39. Return to Text

[32] O.R., Series 1, Vol. XI, part 2, pp. 316-17 - Butterfield's Report. Return to Text

[33] O.R., Series 1, Vol. XI, part 2, pp. 339-40 - Rice's Report. Return to Text

[34] Ibid., p. 339. Return to Text

[35] Ibid., p. 340. Return to Text

[36] O.R. , Series 1, Vol. XI, part 2., p.340-Rice's Report-, p. 317-Butterfield's Report. Return to Text

[37] O.R., Series 1, Vol.XI, part 2 . p. 318 - Butterfield's report. Return to Text

[38] Nash, pp. 85-6. Return to Text

[39] O.R., Series 1, Vol. XI, part 2. p. 341 - Report of Rice. Nash says the men had "great enthusiasm" on p. 87. Return to Text

[40] Ibid., p.342. Return to Text

[41] Ibid., 342-3. Return to Text

[42] Nash, p. 90-91. Return to Text

[43] O.R., Series 1, Vol. XI, part 2, p. 318 - Report of Butterfield. Return to Text

[44] Nash, pp. 438-9, 454.