For this next series of posts, I’m examining the muster-out of the 34th New York, the “Herkimer County Regiment.” This unit served in the 2nd Corps, it participated in the Peninsula Campaign, and then it fought at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville (or, rather, Second Fredericksburg). When the regiment went home on June 9, 1863, it returned to the Empire State amid considerable controversy.
This controversy existed on multiple levels. First, just as the regiment received orders to join in the Chancellorsville Campaign, its soldiers organized a mutiny, which had to be summarily quashed. Second, when the regiment reached the front, it didn’t participate in much combat, a fact which has since drawn the ire of at least one historian. Third, when it finally went home, the 34th New York used its homecoming parade as an opportunity to make a political statement, carrying aloft a portrait of General George McClellan as a not-so-subtle way of telling spectators how to align their political compass.
In today’s installment, I’m going to examine the first of these three controversies, the May 1, 1863, “mutiny” of the Herkimer Regiment, a nasty little affair that sowed bitter feelings among the New York veterans. Unwilling to serve beyond May 1, six companies of the 34th New York stacked their rifled-muskets on the fields around Falmouth, complaining that their time had elapsed and the government could no longer order them to perform duty. Only the threat of violence made these men march to the sound of the guns.
Surprisingly, this incident has rarely appeared in modern histories. (After doing a quick search, I found mention of it in Stephen Sears’s Chancellorsville and Lawrence Kreiser’s Defeating Lee, but nowhere else.) It seems strange that a Union regiment could stack arms amid the Battle of Chancellorsville, and it get no attention from military historians!
Clearly, the men of the 34th New York were an unhappy lot, and it’s illuminating to unravel the source of their displeasure.
Their beef with the federal government stemmed from a troublesome question concerning the 34th New York’s length of service. The 34th New York was a two-year regiment, one of thirty-eight raised by New York’s state government in the spring of 1861. Like many two-year regiments, the 34th New York counted up several weeks of state service before transferring to the federal government in the middle of the summer.
A timeline of the regiment’s mobilization will help explain the problem. When the war broke out in April 1861, the people of Herkimer County (and Steuben, Essex, and Clinton Counties and Albany City, which also contributed to the regiment) began raising companies with alacrity. When they mustered in, the soldiers swore an oath to serve the state for two years, dating from May 1, 1861. However, one month later, Governor Edwin Morgan convinced the War Department to accept his two-year regiments into federal service.
This transfer occurred only after acrimonious negotiation between the War Department and the State of New York. Secretary of War Simon Cameron told Governor Morgan that the War Department would not accept regiments for two years. All recruits had to swear for three years, and not fewer. In fact, Cameron initially turned away Morgan’s thirty-eight regiments, but after thinking on it, he changed his mind. He promised to honor the two-year enlistment contracts for all the men already sworn into state service; however, all future volunteers needed to enlist for three years. Accordingly, U.S. mustering officers began seeking out Morgan’s two-year regiments and swearing them into federal service. On June 15, one of them arrived at the 34th New York’s encampment in Albany, and had them swear into federal service. Accordingly, six companies swore to serve the federal government for two years, while the remaining four—those that had not yet sworn into state service—swore to serve the federal government for three years.
Foolishly, the federal mustering officer—whoever he was—failed to clarify an important point. When would the 34th New York’s two-year men muster out? Would they do it on May 1, 1863 (the two-year anniversary of their initial muster), or would they do it on June 15, 1863 (the two-year anniversary of their federal muster)?
That six-week gap made an important difference. As of late-April 1863, all signs indicated that Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker intended to send the Army of the Potomac into another engagement. (And—as you know—he certainly did. On April 30, the army embarked upon the Chancellorsville Campaign, which resulted in 12,300 federal losses.)
As the weather warmed up around the Army of the Potomac’s winter encampment at Falmouth, the two-year men of the 34th New York worried the federal government would hold them into service until June, thus squeezing one last campaign out of them.
To put it another way: would they have to fight in the third-bloodiest battle of the war, or would they get to go home one day before that battle began?
As the Army of the Potomac readied for the march, the soldiers in the 34th New York circulated a petition, reminding the army’s generals that their terms of enlistment would expire on May 1. Under no condition, they said, would they obey orders beyond that date. On April 30, when it appeared that no one had taken any preparations to send the regiment home, the soldiers forwarded their petition to their brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully, a West Point graduate famous for fighting the Sioux in the Dakota territories. The petition—which, by all accounts, employed tempered, inoffensive language—seemed to sway General Sully. After reading it, he agreed that the two-year men ought to be discharged the very next day. Sully endorsed the petition and sent it to the headquarters of his divisional commander, Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, another West Pointer who became famous for fighting Plains Indians in the postwar era.
As Civil War buffs might expect, General Gibbon didn’t see the situation the same way as General Sully. Gibbon possessed a sterner reputation and he held a stricter interpretation of a soldier’s duty; he didn’t believe any soldier had the right to negotiate the terms of his muster-out with his commanders. Predictably, Gibbon returned the petition without endorsement, a clear indication that he wanted Sully to support the government’s preferred muster-out date, June 15.
Apparently, Sully didn’t expect Gibbon to respond this way and he certainly didn’t have a scheme for how to convince the men of the 34th New York to stick around for another six weeks. When the sun rose on May 1, Sully had not yet resolved the problem. At 8 A.M., the six companies that believed their time had expired stacked arms and refused to perform any additional duty. (It’s not entirely clear what the other four companies did, but they appear to have readied themselves for the march.)
Dutifully, the 34th New York’s commander, Colonel Byron Laflin, sent General Sully a note, stating that “some companies” of his regiment had “refused to do duty this morning.” The scene must have looked eerie. All along the regimental street, the regiment had stacked weapons, and some of the men had already broken open their personal liquor stores, celebrating the end of their service. Writing with considerable understatement, Second Lieutenant Louis N. Chapin of Company C reported that when he arrived at camp that morning, he found things “somewhat upset.”
Still unwilling to make a decision, Sully reported this news to Gibbon, who promptly told him to send another regiment to disarm the mutinous soldiers, place them under guard, and allow no further communication with them. Then, not long after, Gibbon sent a second message to Sully, instructing him to “use any and every means to quell the mutiny” and “bring the men back to their duty.” Finally, almost as an afterthought, Gibbon promised not to interfere with Sully’s authority, unless he publicly announced that he had lost his ability to “maintain his authority in his own command.”
Dutifully, Sully obeyed Gibbon’s first order. He directed the 15th Massachusetts to arrest sixty to seventy of the 34th New York’s mutinous ringleaders, a number of whom had already become visibly intoxicated. However, Sully proved reluctant to obey Gibbon’s second order, that is, to “use any and every means” to quell the mutiny. Believing he possessed no right to order the six companies of the 34th New York to take up their arms, Sully sent Gibbon a written reply, telling him that the majority of the mutineers were perfectly quiet and respectful and that it would be useless to threaten them. Perhaps sarcastically, Sully wrote that the only way to force them to return to their senses would require “shooting” a few of them on the spot. However, if that was what Gibbon wanted, Sully remarked, then Gibbon had to make that call.
At this point, Gibbon had grown tired of Sully’s handling of the situation. Several hours had passed and the 34th New York was nowhere closer to getting on the road than it had been at daybreak. Already, the sound of battle could be heard echoing from the vicinity of Zoan Church. Further, Sully had incautiously written that it was “not in his power to enforce discipline in his command.” Believing that Sully had just admitted to being too weak of spirit or too weak of mind to deal with this crisis, Gibbon approached the soldiers of the 15th Massachusetts, ordering them to load their weapons and form line-of-battle facing the mutineers. Eyes agog, the Massachusetts soldiers did as Gibbon requested, wondering if he really intended to have them slaughter the unarmed New Yorkers. So remembered First Lieutenant David M. Earle of that regiment, “no one doubted he would do it.”
It was noon. So far, the mutiny had lasted four hours. Angrily, Gibbon addressed the mutineers, threatening to shoot their ringleaders if they did not perform duty right away. When none of the mutineers budged, Gibbon began insulting the whole regiment, telling them they were no better than the rebels on the other side of the river. If every member of the 34th New York did not return to duty immediately, he vowed to order the 15th Massachusetts to open fire and “kill every man it could.” Although Gibbon’s recollections claimed that his threats ultimately swayed the mutineers, in reality, he brought them to heel by relenting to one of their demands. Gibbon implored them to obey orders, promising that if they did so, he would endorse their petition—which he had earlier rejected—vowing to seek justice on their behalf.
This seemed to quell the “mutiny,” if one could call it that, and one by one, the soldiers of the 34th New York took up their arms and formed ranks. The regiment marched onward as if the incident had never happened. To his credit, Gibbon later admitted that he rode away from the scene trembling, apparently upset that he had come so close to ordering the 15th Massachusetts to open fire. Like many generals, he talked a big game, but his harsh words didn’t reflect his mood. He admitted that he shook “at the thought of what might have happened.”
The bad news might have ended there, but another ugly incident soon followed. Gibbon relieved Sully of his command. (Coincidentally enough, the 34th New York’s commander, Col. Laflin, assumed command of the brigade.) Eventually, General Sully stood before a board of inquiry, and he successfully defended his actions. That board restored him to rank; however, he did not return to the Army of the Potomac. Instead, he went to the Dakotas to face the Sioux.
No further insurrectionist sentiment troubled the 34th New York, but I doubt anyone attached to the regiment believed they had received justice at the hands of the government. Lieutenant Louis Chapin stated his opinion rather matter-of-factly:
It is but natural that these men should think that their time was out May 1, 1863, for they had served the full two years. . . . We think every candid mind must admit the men had a fairly good case. Some of these men had enlisted immediately after President Lincoln’s call was issued, April 15, 1861, and as the regiment was not mustered out until June 30, 1863, they were really in service two years, two and a half months.
No one can doubt the truth in Chapin’s statement. The volunteers of the 34th New York had served their time. Why did Gibbon feel it necessary to bully them? That answer is rather complex. Of course, no commander wants to admit he has lost his authority over his troops, but I don’t think that truth fully explains Gibbon’s reaction to the mutiny. In May 1863, the Army of the Potomac needed a big win. Its failure on the Peninsula, the removal of McClellan in November, the bloodshed at Fredericksburg, and the humiliation of the Mud March all weighed heavily on the minds of the generals. The army needed a victory at Chancellorsville lest its reputation deteriorate further. As of May 1863, no one was in the mood to listen when 430 two-year men chose to quibble about the date of their muster-out.
If the Army of the Potomac had been basking in the glow of victory, perhaps the 34th New York would have been treated differently. But instead, while carrying around the albatross of defeat, it exhibited no sympathy toward short-timers.
|This shows the location of the 34th New York's 1863 mutiny. This 1902 photograph depicts the fields around Falmouth, the location of the regiment's winter encampment. The 34th New York encamped atop the hill at left-center.|
|Brig. General Alfred Sully commanded the 1st Brig., 2nd Div., 2nd Corps. When the mutiny occurred, he sympathized with it. However, for not quelling it, Sully's divisional commander relieved him of his command.|