Thanks to a certain movie, it’s kind of a well-known event among us Civil War nerds, that on May 23, 1863, 120 veterans from the from the defunct 2nd Maine—a two-year regiment that mustered-out on May 19—had to join unwillingly the ranks of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry. These 120 unfortunate soldiers had to undergo their unpleasant transfer because, back in 1861, they had foolishly signed on for a three-year tour-of-duty instead of a two-year tour-of-duty, unlike everyone else in their regiment. Understandably, this merger put the 20th Maine’s commander, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, in an unenviable position. His corps commander, Major General George Meade, had told him to force the 2nd Maine men to join the 20th Maine or to execute them; or as Meade wrote, “make them do duty, or shoot them down.” Famously, Chamberlain handled the dyspeptic 2nd Maine veterans in a generous way, telling them that it was their choice to fight or not. He would not execute a single soldier for the crime of wanting to return home with his former unit. Amazingly, of those 120 “mutineers” from the 2nd Maine, all but six elected to honor their enlistment contract, choosing to fight alongside the soldiers of the 20th Maine for an additional year.
I prefer to remind people that the 20th Maine was not the only regiment attached to the Army of the Potomac that received an influx of disgruntled soldiers in May 1863, men who formerly belonged to disbanded two-year regiments. In today’s tale, I’d like to profile a lesser-known group of “foolish” three-year soldiers who had to be transferred when their two-year regiments went home, the men of the 37th and 38th New York.
Here’s how their tale began.
When New York mobilized for war, Governor Edwin Morgan called up thirty-eight regiments to be officered, organized, and equipped at the state’s expense. (He numbered these units the 1st through 38th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments.) As regiments go, they were not terribly unusual. They followed the standard protocols and regulations that governed regiments in federal service; however, unusually, Morgan decreed that all men who enlisted into these thirty-eight regiments would serve only two years in the army, instead of three. (At this point in the war, Union infantrymen typically enlisted for a three-year tour-of-duty.) Eventually, in late-May 1861, the War Department—which had grown desperate for more regiments to come to the defense of Washington—accepted Morgan’s two-year men into federal service, even promising to uphold the important stipulation that they would not serve no longer than two years. However, Secretary of War Simon Cameron insisted that Morgan must cease recruiting two-year men immediately. Thereafter, all soldiers from New York had to be enlisted for three years’ duty, the same as in other states.
The next unit raised in New York, the 39th New York Volunteers (which mustered-in on June 6), became the state’s first three-year regiment. However, Cameron’s order created a problem for two of the two-year regiments, those that were still in the process of mobilizing. Neither the 37th nor 38th New York had filled their ranks by the time Cameron issued the order to cease recruiting two-year men. It took each regiment another week to fill, which meant that both units had to complete their organization by recruiting a sizable portion of men who were signed on for three years, even though the bulk of both regiments had signed on for only two years. (The 37th New York mustered-in on June 6 and 7, and the 38th New York mustered-in on June 3 and June 8.) After serving for several weeks in the defenses of Washington, both regiments joined the Army of the Potomac in the autumn, and by the spring of 1862, they were assigned to the same division in the 3rd Corps. For the next year, the two New York regiments witnessed heavy action, fighting on the Peninsula, at Second Bull Run, at Chantilly, at Fredericksburg, and at Chancellorsville. By the end of May 1863, the 37th New York counted up eighty-one killed-in-action and fifty-eight dead by other causes, while the 38th New York tallied seventy-five killed-in-action and forty-six dead by other causes. During their short time in federal service, the two-year recruits from these two regiments had fought and bled copiously. It is no exaggeration to say that the volunteers of the 37th and 38th New York had made incredible sacrifices for their country.
When the Army of Potomac licked its wounds at Falmouth after the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville, high command had to decide what to do about the three-year men who served in those two regiments. During the first week of June, the two-year men expected to return to New York City, 170 from the 37th Regiment and fifty-seven from the 38th. But what should be done about those who still had an additional year of service? Those contingents were not small in number. The 37th New York contained 238, while the 38th New York contained 387. Should they be sent home to muster-out with their regiments, or should the army find another way to use them? The New Yorkers’ divisional commander, Major General David Birney, decided to send the two-year men home as planned, while transferring the three-year men to another regiment, the 40th New York. Under Birney’s order, the veterans from the 37th New York joined their new regiment on May 29, while the veterans from the 38th New York joined on June 3. “They were a valuable addition,” remembered the regimental historian of the 40th (although was not present to witness the merger), “and they gave tone and vitality to our weakened ranks.”
In truth, the fusion of these three regiments was not at all cordial. Most of the three-year recruits from the 37th and 38th New York wanted to go home alongside their two-year brethren and they felt betrayed when the army denied their request. In fact, they became increasingly stubborn about it because Brig. Gen. Hobart Ward (the brigade commander and the former colonel of the 38th New York) informed his men that they would go home on June 3, no matter what. Private William L. Hauptman, a twenty-three-year-old Bronx native who belonged to Company E, 38th New York, recalled how he underwent a change of emotions thanks to Ward’s influence: “Before Genl. Ward told me that I was going home I had made up my mind to stay three years, but when he announced Publicly that the recruits of the 38th N.Y. would go home, why I then made up my mind to go.”
What exactly happened during the discussion about what to do with the 37th and 38th New York is still a bit unclear, but it appears that a disagreement occurred between several high-ranking officers. General Ward insisted that all the members of his old regiment should be discharged on June 3, regardless of their enlistment contract, while General Birney believed that all the three-year men should serve out their time in the 40th New York. Unable to come to an agreement, the two generals decided to consult the 38th New York’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert F. Allason. Unable to speak strongly or register any sort of convincing opinion on behalf of his men, Allason demurred to Birney’s wishes, refusing to ask for the three-year recruits’ early discharge. Private Hauptman described the complexity of this arrangement and the prejudice he believed actuated the decision:
Col. Allason is to blame for not taking the recruits home, he would not take the responsibility. I might say that Genl. Dead Beat Birney had a hand in the Pie, he never was a very great favorite of the 38th or of Ward. Birney used to be the law partner to Secretary [of War Edwin] Stanton, its all in the family. Genl. Ward when he left [regimental command] made everything all right so there would be no difficulty about our going [home], but as soon as he left, Birney was Boss. . . . No doubt he dreams every night of the great Victory he gained over the 38th[.] the boys all swear Vengeance against Allason, poor man, I would not [want to] be in his shoes for any amount.
With the decision thus rendered by Allason and Birney, the 565 three-year men of the 37th and 38th New York had to join the ranks of the 40th New York, like it or not. Private Hauptman made it clear that this verdict cast a pall over the two regiments. He wrote to a friend: “my expectations, as well as others, ran very high, so high that it made the fall all the worse. . . . A great many were wounded (in the feelings) [when the news came].” Although he professed to have prepared himself for the possibility of staying on additional year, Hauptman admitted to homesickness. He wrote, “I would have given $100 to go home with the Regiment, even if I had to go back the next day. For the past twenty one months all I have been thinking about was going home with the Regiment but to be humbugged in this manner, makes the little I have done for the Union go for nothing, in my estimation.”
Unwillingly, Hauptman joined Company F, 40th New York, but as he admitted to a friend, the word “mutiny” rumbled from lip to lip among the other three-year men. Hauptman believed, “Stack Arms will be the word.” The other 38th New York soldiers “swear they will never go into a fight with the 40th.” As for Hauptman, dark, perilous thoughts filled his mind as he contemplated his next move. He wrote, “If I was alone in the world and had no friends, why french leave [desertion] would be the [way to] go, but as I have a few friends that think a little of me, I will stay in the Army for their sake if not my own.”
Near as I can tell, the 40th New York’s commander, Colonel Thomas Egan, did not have an inspirational speech to motivate his reluctant three-year men, quite unlike the situation involving Chamberlain and the 2nd Maine. Egan demanded that all of his new soldiers respect his authority, and with that, he took his regiment north to fight at Gettysburg, where 150 of his soldiers fell killed or wounded. I wonder if those feelings of betrayal crept into the minds of the 37th and 38th New York soldiers as they battled their way across the “Valley of Death.”
Maybe those thoughts escaped Hauptman, at least. Despite all his grousing, he re-enlisted on January 18, 1864, and served with the 40th New York for the rest of the war.
There aren't many photographs of the soldiers from the 37th and 38th New York Volunteers, but there is this one. This depicts the officers of the 37th New York (known as the "Irish Rifles"). The officer in the middle is Colonel Samuel B. Hayman.