Monday, September 16, 2019

“For God’s Sake! Have Those Men Lie Down!” The Life and Death of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, Part 1.

As my dedicated readers know, I’m a fan of publishing my blog posts as a series. I believe Tales from the Army of the Potomac lends itself to the telling of multiple, interlocking stories. Consequently, this post is going to be the start of another long set. I’d like to tell the tale of one of the Army of the Potomac’s “heavy artillery” regiments, the 7th New York.

Most Civil War buffs have heard the general story of the heavy artillery regiments. In 1862, under Abraham Lincoln’s call for “300,000 more, the northern states recruited a slew of regiments to occupy the ring of earthworks that encircled Washington, D.C. For two years, the “heavies” occupied the defenses of the nation’s capital, and then, in mid-May 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered them armed and equipped as infantry and integrated into the ranks of the Army of the Potomac. 

Unsurprisingly, the Army of the Potomac’s veterans did not welcome the newly-arrived heavy artillerymen with open arms. Quite the contrary, they universally derided them as “band box soldiers,” recruits who had sat out the war inside the comparatively safe confines of Washington City. When they arrived at the front, the veterans often sneered at them, calling them “Abe’s Pets” or “Paper Collar Boys.” One heavy artillery officer recalled that, as soon as his regiment joined the Army of the Potomac, “We were frequently saluted by the old campaigners near whose camps we passed, with ‘What division is that?’ ‘How are your heavy Infantry?’ What’s the size of your siege guns?’ ‘How are the fortifications?’ and other equally pointed and aggravating interrogations, to all of which the men either turned deaf ear or replied with becoming emphasis.”

Clearly, when the heavy artillery regiments joined the Army of the Potomac, they had yet to earn their place in it. Further, that place had to be earned in blood. This is the story of one particular heavy artillery regiment—Albany’s 7th New York—which fought as part of Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow’s 1st Division, 2nd Corps. By the end of the Overland Campaign, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery had bled itself dry. In May 1864, it departed for the seat of war with 1,850 men on its roster, but it returned only 381 survivors at its muster-out in August 1865

As you might imagine, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery felt the rampaging maw of the Overland Campaign like no other Union unit. One of Albany’s newspaper correspondents said simply, without much exaggeration: “No regiment in the Army of the Potomac can show a brighter record, or one which has suffered equal to the 7
th since it went to the front.”

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, we have a few questions to answer.

How did the 7th New York Heavy Artillery come into existence and how did it experience its first battle?

First of all, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery began the war under a different name. When it entered into federal service, the War Department called it the 113th New York Infantry. (However, popularly, it was known by locals as the “Albany Regiment.” All ten of its companies were recruited in the city or in the adjoining county.) Recruitment for the 113th New York began on July 18, 1862, and due to its popularity (and also due to a generous enlistment bounty), the regiment filled to capacity in exactly one month’s time. On August 18, 1862, the recruits took the federal oath of allegiance, mustering into the service of the United States. The next day, August 19, the regiment paraded through the streets of the city as an excited populace bid the men farewell. A newspaper reporter commented: “Ten thousand men and women lined the streets through which the regiment passed. No equally intense enthusiasm has marked the departure of any regiment, since the war began, and no finer body of men ever went to the tented field of any country.”

At the docks along the Hudson River, the new soldiers loaded onto barracks barges towed by USS Hendrick Hudson, a captured Confederate blockade runner formerly known as CSS Florida. After a long trek down the river, the regiment landed at Jersey City, where the soldiers received a batch of Springfield rifled-muskets. While the troops were briefly quartered there, news reached them that the Army of the Potomac was in pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which was then wreaking havoc in Maryland. 

Having received their weapons, the soldiers of the 113th expected to be sent to the front, to join the Army of the Potomac in the midst of the Maryland Campaign. But instead of entering the fray at Antietam, the War Department cautiously rerouted the entire regiment to the defenses of Washington. Once there, the 113th New York occupied a structure called Fort Pennsylvania (later renamed Fort Reno) in Tennallytown, a neighborhood on the northwest side of Washington D.C. For the next three months, the regiment performed guard duty along the parapet walls, and apparently, it did such a stellar job that the War Department intended to keep it there permanently. Thus, in mid-December, the federal government converted the 113th regiment into heavy artillery, and at that point, it took on its new name. For the next seventeen months, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery stayed in place, protecting its sector of the Washington earthworks. Over those months, the regiment grew in size. Not only did it gain two additional batteries—L and M—but the individual batteries themselves (the former companies) swelled with new recruits until the regiment contained more than 1,800 men.

The 7th New York Heavy Artillery’s sentry duty came to a sudden end on May 12, 1864. That day, as the Army of the Potomac pummeled the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania Court House, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant directed the Department of Washington to send 10,000 reinforcements to Virginia. The departmental commander, Maj. Gen. Christopher C. Augur, ordered thirteen heavy artillery regiments to arm themselves as infantry and prepare to march.

The 7th New York Heavy Artillery set out for its new assignment on May 15, 1864. That day, the regiment made a tiresome march to Belle Plains. It rested near the steamboat landing for a day and then joined a makeshift division commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert O. Tyler. Together with the 1st Maine, 1st Massachusetts, and the 2nd and 8th New York Heavy Artillery, the 7th New York marched south, reaching the Army of the Potomac’s battlefield encampment at midnight, May 18. The exhausted troops flung themselves onto the fields adjacent to the Fredericksburg Road, not far from the Ni River. Nearby was a farm owned by a man named Clement Harris.

The 7th New York saw its first combat the very next day, May 19. Tyler’s division deployed northwest of the Clement Harris and Susan Alsop farms, with orders to act as a rear guard, protecting the Fredericksburg Road. At 3 P.M., Lee’s Confederates assaulted the Union wagon trains that were moving south in the direction of Massaponax Church. Two gray-clad divisions—one under Maj. Gen. Robert H. Rodes and another under Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon—tested their luck against the Union rear guard. Of course, the Confederates had no idea they would be fighting against newly-arrived troops. Merely, they wanted a chance to plunder the valuable supply vehicles.

Although they had been part of the Army of the Potomac for less than a day, the heavy artillery units were rushed to scene of the fighting. One of Grant’s staff officers, Lt. Col. Horace Porter, discovered that Tyler’s heavy artillery regiments were perfectly positioned to intercept the Confederate attack. Approaching General Tyler, who he knew personally, Porter said, “Tyler, you are in luck today. It isn’t every one who has a chance to make such a debut on joining an army. You are certain to knock a brevet out of this day’s fight.” Tyler reminded Porter that his troops were raw, but nevertheless, claimed to have faith in their fighting abilities. The heavy artillerymen had been drilling relentlessly for the past two years. The Confederates would soon be on the receiving end of that rigorous discipline.

Following Grant’s orders, Tyler’s division deployed for battle. The 7th New York took up a position near Susan Alsop’s farm, marching west into a dense fir thicket. Soon, bullets began whizzing in, clipping tree branches and causing the men to duck and weave. Unfortunately, as they closed with the enemy, the New Yorkers suffered from the dissemination of incorrect information. Word passed along the line that another friendly unit stood between them and the oncoming foe. 

Remembered Lieutenant Frederick Mather, “We  . . . were told not to fire because several lines of our own men were ahead of us.” But no friendly unit actually existed. The only human beings ahead of them were Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur’s North Carolinians. The Confederates pushed their way through the fir thicket and right into the 7th New York. The first time the New Yorkers saw their foe, they seemed to rise “as if out of the ground and gave us a volley in our faces.” Not expecting to encounter enemy forces so soon, the New Yorkers were caught by surprise.

A soon as the first well-aimed Confederate volley struck them, the New Yorkers broke and ran. “That fresh troops should break under such circumstances was only natural,” recalled Lieutenant Mather of Battery L, “and we did.” The rout was chaotic, to say the least, and the Union line dissolved quickly, the soldiers running zig-zagged to avoid colliding with the thick tree trunks and the low-hanging evergreen branches.

Luckily for the Army of the Potomac (and for the 7th New York’s reputation) the regiment’s rout was short lived. The density of the thicket prevented the Confederates from pursuing. On the south side of the Alsop Farm, the 7th New York’s two senior commanders, Colonel Lewis O. Morris and Lt. Col. John Hastings, managed to rally their fleeing troops. According to Lt. Mather, Colonel Morris rode along the line, chastising them: “Men, don’t let the news of this break get back to Albany!”

These exhortations worked. The heavy artillerymen reformed their lines and moved back into action. Although slightly shaken, they plunged into the woods and opened fire. Lieutenant Mather expressed surprise that his regiment could recover its courage so quickly. He remembered, “We were cooler now. We had been under fire and most of us had lived through it. We went forward as steadily as the wild forest would permit, passing obstacles like the well-drilled men that we were, and this baptism of fire was all that was needed to make us soldiers.”

The sight of 1,800 Union troops storming into the woods forced the Confederates to rethink their decision to plunder the Union wagon train. Not expecting to encounter fresh troops—especially in such awe-inspiring numbers—the rebels soon realized they had bitten off more than they could chew. All along the line, the other heavy artillery regiments gave as good as they got, forcing the Confederates to give way. Wisely, Rodes’s and Gordon’s men fell back toward Spotsylvania. Although the fight at the Harris and Alsop farms were largely inconclusive, the heavy artillerymen claimed victory, for they could accurately say they had driven the enemy from the field.

However, not every observer believed the 7th New York Heavy Artillery had conducted its first battle wisely. A Union sharpshooter, Corporal Wyman S. White, found himself passing the 7th New York as he ambled his way to the rear to refill his ammunition. As he watched the 7th New York surge into the thicket (presumably the second time), he recollected, “As soon as they got over the hill so the Johnnies could see them, they opened fire on them from their pickets. The men were hit in considerable numbers. Still the colonel, who did not seem to notice that his men were being killed, was making strenuous efforts to keep the line straight. As the men advanced, a heavy infantry fire from the Rebels was almost slaughter. The colonel dismounted about this time but failed to do the right thing by ordering a charge or open fire on the rebels.” According to White, the whole scene “made me disgusted with the idea of perfection in drill of soldiers.”

As White told it, he alone saved the 7th New York from further losses. Unable to keep quiet, White shouted, “For God’s sake, have those men lie down!” Heeding Corporal White’s advice, the regiment went prone, the colonel included. At some point, a staff officer came up and informed the commander—presumably Colonel Lewis—that he should advance upon the enemy quickly, even if the line was not straight.

As White later relayed, “Any veteran body of troops in the same circumstances that the Seventh was in on that hill would have gone over and down that hill like an avalanche and carried their objective if possible. Or, in case they were repulsed, they would take advantage of the ground and cover of tree and rock to cover them from the fire of the enemy. Thousands in that corps of heavy artillery lost their lives through the inexperience of their officers and the intense discipline of the men.”

According to statistics, we should consider White’s harsh opinion to be an accurate one. The 7th New York’s attack at the Alsop Farm had been a costly endeavor. At the end of the day, the regiment counted up 76 losses. Sixteen officers or enlisted men had been killed or mortally wounded. Another 51 were reported wounded and seven were listed missing. 

The Battle of the Alsop Farm had lasted about three hours—from 3 to 6 o’clock. During that bloody interlude, the 7th New York had paid dearly. A war correspondent guessed why:

In these murderous wood fights, our veterans have learned all the devices that are calculated to shelter them from fire, and will lie down and take advantage of trees, stumps, &c., but the heavy artillery braves, unused to this kind of craft, the moment they saw the enemy, blazed away and rushed on. In consequence of this, their loss was quite heavy, and probably reached 1,000 in killed and wounded. Perhaps it was also in consequence of our heavy artillerymen’s proved courage, unused to this style of attack and not exactly understanding it, that the Rebels gave way in confusion, scattering through the woods. . . . The division of raw troops feel immensely tickled at their success, and although their loss has been heavy, it is felt that the diminution of numbers is made up by the increase of morale.

Perhaps the heavy artillerymen brought with them an important asset: ignorance. With no knowledge of what a Civil War battle looked like, they knew not why they should be afraid of one.

But that ignorance could be dangerous, as Corporal White aptly observed. Unafraid of battle, many good men died because they lacked the good sense to lie down.

There are no known photographs of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery in the field. So, I have to rely on a similar image to illustrate this post. This photograph depicts six soldiers from Battery D, 4th New York Heavy Artillery. They are operating from a battery on the outskirts of Arlington, Virginia. Like the 7th New York, the 4th New York joined the Army of the Potomac in the midst of the Overland Campaign. One battalion joined the 2nd Corps, another went to the 5th Corps, and a third battalion went to the 6th Corps.

This is Corporal Wyman S. White, Co. F, 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters. On May 19, 1864, he observed the 7th New York Heavy Artillery as it entered its first battle. He was unimpressed.

The present-day location of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery's first engagement is on private property, east of the NPS property owned by Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park. I've marked the approximate position of the regiment's attack.

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