The 155th was part of an Irish brigade known as “Corcoran’s Irish Legion”, for its original commander, Brigadier General Michael Corcoran. Other regiments in the Corcoran Legion included the 164th New York Zouaves, 170th New York, 182nd New York (also called the 69th New York National Guard – not to be confused with the separate 69th New York Volunteers of the Irish Brigade) and, for a time, the 175th New York. The brigade bore Corcoran’s name because he was largely responsible for its recruitment. Corcoran had led the famous “69th New York State Militia” regiment at the first battle of Bull Run in July 1861 and was captured. Stubbornly refusing to sign a parole until exchanged, Corcoran became a hero in the North and the idol of every Irishman in America. When Corcoran was finally released from a Confederate prison in August 1862, Yankee Irishmen everywhere wanted to serve under the banner of his new brigade. Colonel John McMahon in Buffalo was among the first men to receive authority to form a regiment for Corcoran’s Legion.
On September 13, 1862 the New York City newspaper Irish American listed, among the regiments being recruits for Corcoran’s Legion: ‘3d Regiment “The Buffalo regiment”, commanded by Col. John E. McMahon, now numbering over 800 men. 5th Regiment, This regiment (Michael’s) is to be commanded by Colonel William McEvily, who is an old and experienced officer, and by Lt. Col. James Mooney, U.S. Army. Although this regiment has been in operation only a few days, it numbers over 400 men.’
Most of the 155th New York was recruited by Colonel William McEvily in New York City (Manhattan), Brooklyn, and western Long Island, with a company from the Binghampton New York area. The regiment was recruited in late summer, 1862 as part of President Lincoln’s August call for 300,000 volunteers “to serve three years or until the end of the war”, whichever came first.
Despite McEvily’s efforts, the regiment that was initially designated the “155th New York” was recruited in the City of Buffalo and surrounding towns by prominent Buffalo lawyer, politician, and Irish immigrant John McMahon. Ultimately a portion of McMahon’s unit was merged with McEvily’s men to form the “official” 155th New York. At least two-thirds of the regiment was comprised of Irish immigrants. Unlike many other Federal regiments, after its initial formation, the 155th New York received almost no additional recruits.
Recruiting, for both McMahon’s Buffalo area battalion and the companies being formed under McEvily in New York City, occurred from early August, 1862 through early October. During that time, approximately 570 Buffalo-area men enlisted and were quartered at Fort Porter, also known as Camp Morgan, near the present-day site of the Peace Bridge over the Niagara River. McEvily’s New York City companies, which apparently never received an official state designation until they were combined with parts of McMahon’s battalion, together with the Binghampton-area company, ultimately enlisted about 660 of the men that were mustered into the United States Army as the 155th New York State Volunteers.
McMahon’s “Buffalo Irish Regiment”, which was known as the 155th New York before it left Buffalo, was presented with a beautiful green silk flag by the citizens of Buffalo on October 4, 1862.
The flag, made in New York City, was two-sided and was edged with a golden fringe. The front of the banner featured the harp of Erin, which included the figure of a woman. This style of harp seems to have been unofficially adopted by the Legion as the brigade symbol in its recruiting posters. It was surrounded by a wreath of gold shamrocks and scrolls reading, “Corcoran’s Irish Legion” and “We Strike for the Union and Constitution”. The reverse side of the flag included the seals of New York State and the Federal government, along with the words, “Corcoran Guard of Buffalo, N.Y.” and various names relevant to the flag’s production and dedication.
Many men who enlisted to fight for the Union in the dark summer of 1862 did so on the promise of bounty money and many of the men of the 155th were no exception. When the promised bounties were not paid immediately, a number of enlistees took “foot furloughs”. For example, over one-third of McMahon’s troops deserted before the regiment ever saw its first battle.
Co F. 155th Roster
Captain, W. S. Schuyler.
1st lieut., Thomas Hart.
2d lieut., Michael O’Connell.
Sergeants; Melvin A. Newman, Louis Bally, Thomas Matthews.
Corporals; Anthony Gillespie, Michael Golden, Daniel Hartnett, Wilson Gleason.
Musician; Rodney B. Hill.
Privates; George Ackley, James Brannan, Daniel Buell, Patrick P.Cunningham, Patrick Clancy, George W. Cook, John Crow, Stephen Davenport, Patrick Donnelly, Patrick Donoghue, William Donoghue, Andrew Ferry, John Gougheny, James B. Golden, John Gordon, Roger Kain, Thomas Killean, Patrick Liddy, Christopher Martin, William McConnell, Henry Morris, Judson MuHneau, James B. Murray, Thomas O’Dowd, William Perrigo, John Reed, Michael Shanahan, John Stoikholm, Michael Sullivan, Pierre Tisson, Michael Wall, John Fits Morris, John Heary.
Corcoran’s Legion was originally intended to have eight regiments but only one of the colonels, Peter McDermott of the 170th New York, which was recruited within a single state senatorial district in Manhattan, had enlisted the full compliment of around 1,000 men. On November 8, 1862, the State of New York issued orders for consolidation of the units into “full sized” regiments of 750 to 1,000 men each. As part of the reorganization, for some unknown reason, General Corcoran split the Buffalo Irish Regiment in two. Much to the dismay of the men and their officers, the final version of the 155th New York contained only two companies, I and K from Buffalo, the rest of the regiment was comprised of McEvily’s New York City men and the Binghampton company. Colonel John McMahon left the regiment and took command of the 164th and command of the 155th was assumed by McEvily. The 155th retained the green flag presented in Buffalo, while the 164th marched under a blue regimental banner emblazoned with a Federal eagle.
In mid-November 1862, the 155th New York left Staten Island for Newport News, Virginia, situated twelve miles from Fortress Monroe on the York/James Peninsula, where on November 17-18, 1862, they were officially mustered into the United States Army for three years. The brigade remained at Newport News until the end of December.
Corcoran’s Legion, spent the Christmas of 1862 in camp, not yet having seen battle. One historian wrote, “The Corcoran Legion was enjoying Christmas time with horse racing, theatricals, and other amusements in a style such as only Irishmen can.” This Yuletide, all the regiments of the Legion were situated near Newport News, Virginia.
On Christmas Eve, drill was suspended so that decorations could be put up. One correspondent, arriving in camp on December 24, noted that, “all the men were working like so many beavers decorating the camp with evergreens. There were arches of evergreens, some as high as thirty feet, and stars made out of the time-honored holly”. This correspondent also noted that officers had come from other brigades’ camps just to look at the decorations. Father Dillon, formerly of the 63rd New York, now with the 69th NYNGA of the Legion, celebrated High Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve at General Corcoran’s headquarters, replete with a choir of officers. After the midnight mass, Corcoran treated his staff officers and guests to ‘a Christmas box in the shape of a glass of genuine Irish whiskey’ in his quarters.
This first Christmas in uniform for the men in the ranks is perhaps best revealed by Sergeant George Tipping of the 155th New York, who wrote on Christmas Day, 1862, “Last night was very lonesome for me. I felt as if I would like to be home,” and that, “I hope that by next Christmas things will be different and that I will be home safe and sound once more. Of course, I have no one to blame but myself for my absence this Christmas.” Tipping further wrote the un-Christmas like news that a man had been killed in the countryside near Newport News and that the 155th had to furnish a detail of men during the night of Christmas Eve to go investigate.
The next morning, balmy weather brightened Tipping’s spirits as he wrote, “The weather is very fine here. This day looks like the month of May.” The Legion were assembled by regiments at 10:30am and marched to Mass, which was celebrated by Father Paul Gillen of the 170th New York and Father Dillon.
A full day of festivities was planned for all. Tipping wrote, “We had quite a time this Christmas. The boys have a shaved pig for this afternoon and there is going to be a horse race.” Other amusements included a sack race, blindfolded wheelbarrow racing, and foot races. The 155th’s Colonel William McEvily “gave all the boys, all of them, a Christmas whiskey. They are all in the house now and half drunk” wrote Tipping. The men of the 155th were well provisioned for the holiday as ten geese and twelve turkeys were issued to every company in the regiment.
The horse racing, consisting of three heats, started at 1:30 p.m. Corcoran and his staff, together with “a lot of Irish ladies”, watched the races from an elevated viewing stand. Of the horse race Tipping wrote, “There was many hundreds of dollars changed hands. Our McMahon, has a fast nag and was the favorite horse among the men of the Irish Legion.” Despite the wagering on McMahon’s horse, “Blue Bird”, Tipping wrote, “Old Bull Run, as they call him, took the stakes. That is the white horse Michael Corcoran had at the battle of Bull Run.” In fact, “Old Bull Run” wound up winning two of the three heats.
One observer termed the subsequent sack race and wheel barrow races, “laughable”. Tipping wrote, “After the races, there was a pig greased and shaved.” Another man wrote, “I cannot do justice to the pig race, as the animal was let loose, just imagine the whole Brigade running and shouting after Mr. Porkey, and he too commenced to squeal as hard as he could, and kept up the running as fast as a pig can go. Finally, after sundry upsets and knock-downs he was finally captured and placed hors de combat.”
A sumptuous officers’ reception was given by Corcoran that lasted late into the night that Christmas Day. From the ranks, Sergeant Tipping reported that four Navy ships (including Ironsides and Galena) were at anchor near Newport News and that several sailors had been invited to dinner with the 155th New York. He wrote, “They are going to stay some time.”
As the war lengthened and darkened, so too did the aura surrounding the celebration of Christmas of 1862. Few accounts of the Christmas of 1863 are available, although Brigade historian D. P. Conyngham wrote, “the Irish Brigade reached New York in safety and in the most exuberant spirits, January 2nd 1864,” for they were soon to begin their veteran furloughs prior to the beginning of their second term of enlistment. The Corcoran Legion’s 1863 Yuletide was a sad one due to the untimely death of General Corcoran only three days before Christmas. December of 1864 saw the Legion and the Brigade in the miserable, muddy trenches outside of Petersburg. With both brigades reduced to less than 600 fighting men, it is likely that large celebrations were not seen in the camps during this last Christmas of the war.
On December 29th, the 820 men of the 155th New York, together with the rest of the Corcoran Legion, arrived at the Union base at Suffolk in southeastern Virginia near the North Carolina border for six months duty as part of the Union Seventh Corps. Suffolk was a backwater of the Civil War and, during the period of January through June 1863, the 155th participated in a few long and arduous reconnaissance marches between Suffolk and the Blackwater River.
In January the 175th New York, was detached from the brigade and assigned to service in Louisiana and never rejoined the Legion. The 175th, sometimes referred to as the “Albany Irish regiment” and the “Fifth Regiment of Corcoran’s Legion”, suffered heavy casualties including its colonel, Michael Bryan, killed in the May 26th, 1863 assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana. In addition to Port Hudson, the regiment fought at Fort Bisland on Bayou Teche and Franklin, Louisiana, in early 1863, marched in the Red River campaign in early 1864, and participated in Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign in Virginia in the autumn of 1864.
The 155th New York “saw the elephant” on January 30th, 1863, in a pre-dawn action called “The battle of the Deserted House” about ten miles west of Suffolk. Corcoran commanded all the Federal forces in the engagement, which involved about 5,000 Union troops, 1,800 Confederates, and a heavy, two-hour artillery barrage.
The battle resulted in 5 casualties in the 155th and 26 total for the brigade, most from the 69th NYNG, and ended in a Confederate retreat. Afterward, life at Suffolk mostly involved incessant fatigue and picket duty. The Legion raucously observed St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, 1863.
During this period the 155th was commanded by Colonel William McEvily, the Legion was commanded by Colonel Matthew Murphy of the 69th NYNG, and Corcoran led the division. Sadly, only days before St. Patrick’s Day, the man who recruited the Buffalo Irish Regiment, Colonel John E. McMahon of the 164th New York, died of consumption at his home in Buffalo. His brother James, then lieutenant colonel of the 155th, was promoted to command the 164th in John’s place.
The Buffalo men of the 155th and the 164th apparently remained closer to each other than they did with the downstate recruits and, especially in their first year of service, there were several incidents of strife between the New York City men and “the Buffalo boys” of both regiments. The most notable was a fracas in the 155th’s camp on St. Patrick’s Day, 1863 in which the two factions waged a battle with revolvers in which live fire was actually exchanged, thankfully there were no injuries.
From Thompson, S. Millett’s ‘Thirteenth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865.’ - “March 17. Tues. St. Patricks Day, and Corcoran’s Irish Legion celebrate it in a high, barbaric fashion. Gathering all the horses he can, he mounts them with his best riders; mounts all the buglers he can obtain; calls in a battery of mountain brass-howitzers; makes an assembly of this large mounted host - a thousand or two apparently - and parades on the road. Then joined by his whole staff, up somewhere near Suffolk, he brings the whole cavalcade, in full uniform, bugles sounding furiously, and the mounted bands playing ‘St. Patricks Day in the Morning,’ tearing down the road, and through camp, all their horses galloping at their highest speed. A stirring show, a tremendous hullaballo. Four Irish regiments also turn out and march in grand procession through the camp; their banners very numerous and gay. Each man wears a sprig of evergreen in his cap. Three mottoes are - ‘Erin and Columbia;’ ‘Irishmen to the rescue;’ ‘Erin go bragh.’ The volunteer Irish element in our army is generally a magnificent fighting material - brave, reliable, true. The day closes with a torchlight procession, extremely noisy, but all in good nature. The whole day a wild scene from old Ireland’s wild hills and vales, acted more wildly in the wildest swamp of Virginia. Mrs. Stowe in ”Dred” describes the Dismal Swamp most admirably; but she never saw it with the annex of three or four thousand wild Irishmen, all shouting, yelling and cheering at once.
Some of Corcoran’s men during the day capture a big negro cook in the 13th, known as “Nigger Joe,” take him to their camp, strip him nearly naked, and make a “rainbow nigger” of him; painting him in patches, bars and stripes, yellow, green, red, blue - every color they can muster, and then turn him loose. He returns to the 13th camp, running as if for dear life, scared half out of his wits, and looking worse than the evil one.”
Corcoran later hosted a dinner party at a hotel in Suffolk. It was interrupted several times by noisy, torch-lit processions by the regiments of the Legion. He made a patriotic speech to each, and then dispatched them to receive a whiskey ration. Finally, dinner was served and the party lasted until after 4 a.m. During the evening, Corcoran declared publicly, for the first time, that he was a member of the Fenian Brotherhood. (He commanded the Fenians’ military wing.)
Later the whiskey no doubt had taken its effect when a pistol fight erupted in the camp of the 155th New York. Young Cpl. Michael Casey of Company I, quite inebriated, pulled a cocked pistol on Capt. John Byrne. Byrne reportedly “played the coward” and backed down, avoiding an unhappy ending to the matter. Fortunately, no injuries resulted when some drunks actually fired pistols at their compatriots. Shortly after, the Buffalo companies were separated from the rest of the regiment when they were detailed for several weeks as the brigade provost guard under the 155th’s Lt. Col. James P. McMahon, who was from Buffalo.
The Corcoran Legion wore a variety of uniforms throughout the war. Michael, along with the majority of the 155th, wore infantry dress, frock coats with sky-blue piping around the collar and cuffs, with a smattering of fatigue blouses (sack coats). In February 1863 the 164th New York received Zouave uniforms with Chasseur-style trousers, similar to the uniform worn by the 9th New York ‘Hawkins Zouaves’. The 164th’s uniform differed from the 9th New York’s attire in that the 164th wore blue fezzes with a green tassel. The other regiments of the Legion were attired as follows: the 182nd New York-69th NYNG, which was largely made up of men from New York City’s famous 69th New York Militia Regiment, Corcoran’s former regiment, were trained in both infantry and artillery tactics and therefore wore distinctive red-trimmed heavy artillery style frock coats. The 170th New York, which was attired in standard infantry frock coats like the 155th, was entirely from New York City. The 175th New York were recruited in the Albany/Troy/Utica area. Neither the 155th or 164th ever had a chaplain. Because the vast majority of men in the Legion were Irish and Catholic, the Legion’s only two chaplains were both Catholic priests. Father James Dillon of the 69th NYNG-182nd New York, who also served in the Irish Brigade prior to joining Corcoran’s Legion, and Father Paul Gillen, who was assigned to the 170th New York. Dillon suffered ill health and eventually died of disease in the autumn of 1864 when he was still in his late twenties. Father Gillen, a tough old bird who was over fifty years old in 1862, appears to have remained with the 170th New York in the field throughout the war, and often shared the privations of the men, similar to the Irish Brigade’s famous Father William Corby.
In April, as part of an enormous foraging expedition, Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps “besieged” Suffolk. The siege caused Longstreet and his 18,000 men to be absent from the Army of Northern Virginia during the Chancellorsville campaign. The 155th was actively engaged during the siege, mostly serving on picket in the trenches on the south side of Suffolk.
On April 15th, Michael, with the 155th’s Company I, together with the 164th’s Company B, a company of the 170th New York, and a squadron of the 1st New York Mounted Rifles made a rough reconnaissance on the White Marsh (Edenton) Road just south of Suffolk, where they put the 17th Virginia of George Pickett’s division to flight. Company I suffered 6 casualties in this engagement, including their commander, 1st Lieutenant Jack McAnally, who was shot in the leg and Michael became Acting 1st Lieutenant. Company B of the 164th New York lost one man killed and the 170th New York lost one man mortally wounded.
The entire Legion was present but not actually engaged during the larger battle that occurred on the White Marsh Road on April 24th, during which the 164th New York lost 9 men to artillery fire. The siege of Suffolk lasted about three-and-a-half weeks until Longstreet withdrew on May 3. This is where Michael was wounded in the ankle and spent some time convalescing in Hospital at Fort Munroe. On his return he was promoted to Full 1st Lieutenant, Co. K.
Shortly after the siege Federal commanders decided to entirely abandon Suffolk. In early July, the 155th and the Corcoran Legion were the last Federal units to be withdrawn from the area, around the time of the battle of Gettysburg.
In mid-July 1863, the 155th moved to northern Virginia for guard duty along the vital supply line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. For ten months the regiment fended off Confederate cavalry raids and partisans. At one point, the 155th’s regimental sutler and his wagons were captured by Mosby’s Rangers. The Legion was assigned to the ad-hoc Twenty-second Corps. During this time, Corcoran reverted back to command of the brigade and Colonel McEvily of the 155th was discharged from the army. The reasons for McEvily’s discharge are unclear. He was court-martialed in June for allegedly stealing part of the regimental surgeon’s pay but was found not guilty. McEvily was replaced by his second-in-command, Lt. Col. Hugh Flood of New York City.
A notable skirmish during this period occurred during the evening of December 17th, when two regiments of Confederate General Thomas Rosser’s cavalry brigade, probably about 1,000 men, attacked a railroad bridge over Pope’s Run near Sangster’s Station guarded by the sixty-five or so men of the 155th’s Company I. After a sharp fight in the dark in a thunder-and-lightning storm the Rebels withdrew, leaving the bridge and railroad intact despite the fact that Company I was outnumbered better than ten to one. Company I lost four wounded and nine taken prisoner during this action, most of who died in Andersonville prison in Georgia. During the fight, the Confederates captured and burned Company I’s Sibley tents.
Just prior to the fight at Sangster’s Station, the 164th New York had, incredibly, inadvertently left their new regimental flag, still in its shipping crate, at Fairfax Station along the O&A Railroad. Captain Jack McAnally of Company I, recovered from his Suffolk wound, found the 164th’s flag and kept it in his quarters until he could give it back to Colonel James P. McMahon of the 164th. During the December 17th fight, however, Rosser’s troopers broke into McAnally’s quarters and took the flag, which they presented to the Virginia Military Institute a week later. While the 155th New York never lost its flag in battle, the 164th’s state flag was captured while in the custody of the 155th’s Company I.
Only five days after Company I’s battle at Sangster’s Station General Corcoran, weakened by his 1861-1862 captivity, died of apoplexy while riding the horse of former Irish Brigade commander General Thomas F. Meagher, Corcoran was only 36 years old.
During the winter of 1863-1864, desertions, disease, and accidents continued to take their toll on the 155th New York, which was eventually whittled down to about 400 men by spring. In mid-May the Legion’s four regiments numbered less than 1,600 men present for duty.
The Overland Campaign
In May 1864, the 155th New York was assigned to Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac near the end of the battle of Spotsylvania Court House. The regiment, together with the rest of the Corcoran Legion, was assigned to the 2nd (Gibbon’s) Division, originally as the 4th Brigade and later as the 2nd Brigade. On May 29, the Legion was augmented by the non-Irish 8th New York Heavy Artillery. This 1,654-man regiment served as infantry and was recruited in Niagara, Orleans, and Genesee Counties in western New York.
The 155th New York joined the Army of the Potomac late in the evening of May 17th and at dawn the next day participated in a large assault in the area of Mule Shoe salient.
Two divisions of the 2nd Corps, Gibbon on the right and Barlow on the left, and the 6th Corps on Gibbon’s right moved to the attack at 4:30am. In Gibbon’s Division, Corcoran’s Legion and Webb’s Brigade under H. Boyd McKeen were in the first line, and Carroll’s Brigade under Thomas Smyth and Owen’s Brigade were in the 2nd line. The first line climbed into the abandoned breastworks and advanced while the second line waited at the salient until it was needed. When the first line advanced forward, it came under heavy fire from the rebel guns and then the second line was ordered forward to support. By 5:30am, the first line of Federals saw an abatis area about 100 yards wide where the officers ordered the men to lie down. When Webb’s Brigade started to fall back, General Gibbon ordered Owen’s men forward to plug the gap. As the Philadelphia Brigade moved forward, the Confederate guns spit canister that blew huge gaps in the line. Men and body parts blew everywhere! Owen saw that the attack would fail so he ordered a halt and ordered his men back to safety at the “Mule Shoe”. Since Owen flatly disobeyed his direct order, Gibbon put him up on charges. Some of the other units fell back and by 8:30a.m., Hancock reported to Meade that the attack was a failure. The regiment lost 16 enlisted men killed or mortally wounded, Lt. Colonel Flood, Major Byrne, Captain John O’Dwyer and 38 enlisted men wounded, and 2 men missing.
In this attack the regiment lost 60 men including all its field officers: Lt. Col. Hugh Flood (severely wounded), Major John Byrne, and “acting Major” Captain John O’Dwyer. Byrne was shot clean through the head, the bullet entered his temple, wrecked the back of one of this eyeballs, and exited his opposite cheek, but he lived. Incredibly, he returned to the field to command the 155th only ten weeks after receiving his disfiguring wound. While Byrne convalesced the 155th was commanded by Captain Michael Doran of Company B. Brigade commander Colonel Matthew Murphy was also wounded at Spotsylvania and Colonel James McIvor of the 170th New York took over the Legion, the first of numerous changes in the brigade command during the next five weeks.
Following Spotsylvania the 155th was lightly engaged along the North Anna River and Totopotomoy Creek and eventually arrived at Cold Harbor, Virginia early on June 2, 1864 with about 330 men in the ranks. Shortly before its arrival at Cold Harbor, Colonel McIvor was replaced by Brigadier General Robert Tyler, who’s tenure in the Corcoran Legion lasted only five days.
by Martin T. McMAHON, Brevet Major-General, U. S. V.
In the opinion of a majority of its survivors, the battle of Cold Harbor never should have been fought. There was no military reason to justify it. It was the dreary, dismal, bloody, ineffective close of the Lieutenant-General’s first campaign with the Army of the Potomac, and corresponded in all its essential features with what had preceded it. The wide and winding path through the tangled Wilderness and the pines of Spotsylvania, which that army had cut from the Rapidan to the Chickahominy, had been strewn with the bodies of thousands of brave men, the majority of them wearing the Union blue. No great or substantial success had been achieved at any point. The fighting in the Wilderness had told heavily against us, as it must necessarily against an assaulting army in such a country. A gleam of victory had come when the selected column of the Sixth Corps, under Russell and Upton, carried the works near Spotsylvania on the 10th of May. Failure elsewhere and conflicting orders had led to the abandonment of the works and the guns, and about one thousand prisoners remained as the sole fruits of the success. On the 12th, at the Bloody Angle, Hancock had inspired the army with new hope, taking there also four thousand prisoners by a brilliant dash, but the slaughter that followed in holding the works all day had saddened his success. Gloom and discouragement had taken hold of the army also, because of the death three days before of Sedgwick, an officer who would have been worth to that army many thousand men. Many other leaders had fallen whose names were familiar to the rank and file, but the Sixth Corps, although commanded by Sedgwick’s most trusted lieutenant, General H. G. Wright, an able and gallant soldier, seemed like an orphaned household. Warren’s and Hancock’s fight at North Anna had been fierce but ineffective, resulting only in slaughter, of which, as usual, a sadly disproportioned share was ours. The crossings of the North Anna had been forced but our progress had been barred as before by the enemy in stronger position than ever. The three corps, which had crossed, had withdrawn in the night-time and had commenced a movement toward the Pamunkey, a river formed by the junction of the North Anna and the South Anna. The passage of that river had been completed on May 28 and then, after three days of marching, interspersed with the usual amount of fighting, the army found itself again confronted by Lee’s main line on the Totopotomoy. The operations which followed were known as the battle of Cold Harbor.
On the afternoon of May 31st Sheridan, who was on the left flank of the army, carried, with his cavalry, a position near the old well and cross-roads known as Old Cold Harbor and, with his men dismounted behind rough breastworks, held it against Fitzhugh Lee until night. To this point, during the night, marched the vanguard of the Army of the Potomac, the Sixth Corps, under Wright, over roads that were many inches deep in dust. The night was sultry and oppressive. Many of our horses and mules were dying of thirst, yet they had to be forced through streams without halting to drink. Frequent messengers from Sheridan came during the night, urging the importance of rapid movement. About 9 the next day (June 1st) the head of the column reached Sheridan’s position, and the cavalry was withdrawn. The enemy, who had been seriously threatening Sheridan, withdrew from our immediate front to within their lines and awaited us, occupying a strong outer line of intrenchments in front of our center, somewhat in advance of their main position, which included that on which the battle of Gaines’s Mill had been fought two years before. It covered the approaches to the Chickahominy, which was the last formidable obstacle we had to meet before standing in front of the permanent works of Richmond. A large detachment, composed of the Eighteenth Corps and other troops from the Army of the James, under General W. F. Smith, had disembarked at White House on the Pamunkey, and was expected to connect that morning with the Sixth Corps at Cold Harbor. A mistake in orders caused an unnecessary march and long delay. In the afternoon, however, Smith was in position on the right of the Sixth Corps. Late in the afternoon both corps assaulted. The attack was made vigorously, and with no reserves. The outer line in front of the right of the Sixth and the left of the Eighteenth was carried brilliantly, and the enemy was forced back, leaving several hundred prisoners in our hands. On the left, where Russell advanced, our losses were severe. The men went forward under a terrible fire from front and flank, until they were ordered to lie down under such shelter as was afforded by the ground and the enemy’s impenetrable slashing, to which they had advanced. Russell was wounded, but remained upon the field all day. This left the well and the old tavern at Cold Harbor in our rear, and brought us in front of the most formidable position yet held by the enemy. In front of him was a wooded country, interspersed with clearings here and there, sparsely populated, and full of swamps. Before daylight the Army of the Potomac stood together once more almost within sight of the spires of Richmond, and on the very ground where, under McClellan, they had defended the passage of the river they were now endeavoring to force.
On the 2nd of June our confronting line, on which the burden of the day must necessarily fall, consisted of Hancock on the left, Wright in the center, and Smith on the right. Warren and Burnside were still farther to the right, their lines refused, or drawn back, in the neighborhood of Bethesda Church, but not confronting the enemy. The character of the country was such that at no point could the general direction of the various corps be seen for any considerable distance.
The enemy’s general line, although refused at certain points and with salients elsewhere, because of the character of the country, was that of an arc of a circle, the concave side toward us, overlapping on both flanks the three corps intending to attack. The line of advance of Wright’s command holding the center was therefore perpendicular to that of the enemy.
On the forenoon of June 1st Wright occupied an intrenched line close to Old Cold Harbor. At that time Hoke’s division formed the Confederate right, near New Cold Harbor, and Anderson’s corps (Longstreet’s) extended the line to a point opposite Beulah Church. During the afternoon W. F. Smith’s corps arrived on the right of Wright, extending the Union line to Beulah Church. At 6 o’clock Smith and Wright drove the enemy through the woods along the road to New Cold Harbor and intrenched a new line. Warren was north of Smith. On June 2d Hancock formed on the left of Wright. Hill’s corps and Breckinridge’s division took position opposite, extending the Confederate line to the Chickahominy. Burnside, May 30th to June 1st, occupied lines facing south and west, above Sydnor’s sawmill; June 2d he withdrew to Warren’s right. Ewell’s position throughout was on the Confederate left.
Hancock’s line, connecting with Wright’s left, extended obliquely to the left and rear. A movement upon his part to the front must necessarily take him off obliquely from the line of advance of the center. The same was true of Smith’s command upon the right. What resulted from this formation the 3d of June developed. No reconnoissance had been made other than the bloody one of the evening before. Every one felt that this was to be the final struggle. No further flanking marches were possible. Richmond was dead in front. No further wheeling of corps from right to left by the rear; no further dusty marches possible on that line, even “if it took all summer.” The general attack was fixed for the afternoon of the 2nd, and all preparations had been made, when the order was countermanded and the attack postponed until half-past 4 the following morning. Promptly at the hour named on the 3rd of June the men moved from the slight cover of the rifle-pits, thrown up during the night, with steady, determined advance, and there rang out suddenly on the summer air such a crash of artillery and musketry as is seldom heard in war. No great portion of the advance could be seen from any particular point, but those of the three corps that passed through the clearings were feeling the fire terribly. Not much return was made at first from our infantry, although the fire of our batteries was incessant. The time of actual advance was not over eight minutes. In that little period more men fell bleeding as they advanced than in any other like period of time throughout the war. A strange and terrible feature of this battle was that as the three gallant corps moved on, each was enfiladed while receiving the full force of the enemy’s direct fire in front. The enemy’s shell and shot were plunging through Hancock’s battalions from his right. From the left a similarly destructive fire was poured in upon Smith, and from both flanks on the Sixth Corps in the center. At some points the slashings and obstructions in the enemy’s front were reached. Barlow, of Hancock’s corps, drove the enemy from an advanced position, but was himself driven out by the fire of their second line. R. O. Tyler’s brigade (the Corcoran Legion) of the same corps swept over an advance work, capturing several hundred prisoners. One officer alone, the colonel of the 164th New York [James P. McMahon.], seizing the colors of his regiment from the dying color-bearer as he fell, succeeded in reaching the parapet of the enemy’s main works, where he planted his colors and fell dead near the ditch, bleeding from many wounds. Seven other colonels of Hancock’s command died within those few minutes. No troops could stand against such a fire, and the order to lie down was given all along the line. At points where no shelter was afforded, the men were withdrawn to such cover as could be found, and the battle of Cold Harbor, as to its result at least, was over. Each corps commander reported and complained to General Meade that the other corps commanders, right or left, as the case might be, failed to protect him from enfilading fire by silencing batteries in their respective fronts: Smith, that he could go no farther until Wright advanced upon his left; Hancock, that it was useless for him to attempt a further advance until Wright advanced upon his right; Wright, that it was impossible for him to move until Smith and Hancock advanced to his support on the right and left to shield him from the enemy’s enfilade. These dispatches necessarily caused mystification at headquarters; so much so that copies of Hancock’s and Smith’s dispatches were sent to Wright and copies of his to each of the others. The explanation was simple enough, although it was not known until reconnaissance had been made. The three corps had moved upon diverging lines, each directly facing the enemy in its immediate front, and the farther each had advanced the more its flank had become exposed.
Further telegraphic correspondence followed, and at last came a circular order to the corps commanders, understood to be from Lieutenant-General Grant. It directed, in substance, that the three corps should advance and attack with their entire forces the enemy’s position in their respective fronts, without reference to the movements of other troops either upon their right or left. Unity of action, so necessary to success, could certainly not be expected from such an order. The attack was made here and there by the advance of troops that had retired for shelter, and by merely opening fire from troops that had already reached obstacles which they could not surpass; and the corps commanders duly reported that the attack had been made and had failed. A third time the order was given for a general assault along the whole line. It came to the corps Headquarters, was transmitted to the division headquarters, and to the brigades and the regiments without comment. To move that army farther, except by regular approaches, was a simple and absolute impossibility, known to be such by every officer and man of the three corps engaged. The order was obeyed by simply renewing the fire from the men as they lay in position. Shortly after midday came the order to suspend for the present all further operations, and directing corps commanders to intrench, including their advance positions, “and directing also that reconnoissances be made, with a view to moving against the enemy’s works by regular approaches.”
The field in front of us, after the repulse of the main attack, was indeed a sad sight. I remember at one point a mute and pathetic evidence of sterling valor. The 2d Connecticut Heavy Artillery, a new regiment eighteen hundred strong, had joined us but a few days before the battle. Its uniform was bright and fresh; therefore its dead were easily distinguished where they lay. They marked in a dotted line an obtuse angle, covering a wide front, with its apex toward the enemy, and there upon his face, still in death, with his head to the works, lay the colonel, the brave and genial Colonel Elisha S. Kellogg.
When night came on, the groans and moaning of the wounded, all our own, who were lying between the lines, were heartrending. Some were brought in by volunteers from our intrenchments, but many remained for three days uncared for beneath the hot summer suns and the unrefreshing dews of the sultry summer nights. The men in the works grew impatient, yet it was against orders and was almost certain death to go beyond our earth-works. An impression prevails in the popular mind, and with some reason perhaps, that a commander who sends a flag of truce asking permission to bury his dead and bring in his wounded has lost the field of battle. Hence the reluctance upon our part to ask a flag of truce. In effect it was done at last on the evening of the third day after the battle, when, for the most part, the wounded needed no further care and our dead had to be buried almost where they fell.
The work of intrenching could only be done at night. The fire of sharp-shooters was incessant, and no man upon all that line could stand erect and live an instant. This condition of things continued for twelve days and nights: Sharp-shooters’ fire from both sides went on all day; all night the zigzags and parallels nearer to the enemy’s works were being constructed. In none of its marches by day or night did that army suffer more than during those twelve days. Rations and ammunition were brought forward from parallel to parallel through the zigzag trenches, and in some instances where regiments whose term of service had expired were ordered home, they had to leave the field crawling on hands and knees through the trenches to the rear. At 9 o’clock every night the enemy opened fire with artillery and musketry along his whole line. This was undoubtedly done under the suspicion that the Army of the Potomac had seen the hopelessness of the task before it and would withdraw in the night-time for another movement by the flank, and, if engaged in such a movement, would be thrown into confusion by this threat of a night attack. However, no advance was made by the enemy.
Another strange order came about this time. It opened with a preamble that inasmuch as the enemy had without provocation repeatedly opened fire during the night upon our lines, therefore, at midnight of that day, the corps commanders were directed to open fire from all their batteries generally upon the enemy’s position and continue it until daylight. This was coupled with the proviso that if in the opinion of a corps commander the fire would provoke a return from the enemy which would inflict severe damage upon his troops, then he was exempted from the operation of the order. The commanders of the three corps holding the front communicated with one another by telegraph with this result: Smith was satisfied that the fire which he would provoke would inflict upon him disproportionate damage. Hancock for the same reason did not intend to open fire unless the fire provoked by the other corps reached his lines. Wright adopted the same rule of action. Twelve o’clock came, and the summer night continued undisturbed.
Thus things went on until the 15th of June. Preparations had been made in the meantime for the abandonment of the position and the withdrawal of the army to another line of operations. Yet the summer had scarcely begun. The army was withdrawn successfully and skillfully, and, crossing to the south bank of the James, entered upon the new campaign before Petersburg, which culminated nearly a year thereafter in the capture of Richmond.
Cold Harbor was a discouraging fight in every particular. The men could not help recalling and discussing certain facts. Two years before, this same army had been placed much nearer Richmond with comparatively little loss. During Grant’s advance from the Rapidan he had the advantage, of which he freely availed himself, of ordering troops to his assistance, not begging for them as McClellan did in vain. He depleted the defenses of Washington at his pleasure, and of new troops more than the number of men with which he commenced the campaign joined him before its termination at Appomattox. The line of the peninsula and the advance to Cold Harbor and the Chickahominy had been McClellan’s second plan. His first had been a movement from Urbana [see Vol. II., p. 163], with the possibility in view of crossing to the south side of the James and compelling the evacuation of Richmond and its defenses. This plan had been overruled in Washington, and that of the peninsula, also suggested by McClellan, had been approved as a compromise. But the plan of an overland march to Richmond, while protected navigable waters within our control led to the very door, was fully tried between the 3d of May and the 15th of June and had failed. Whether the failure was due to faults inherent in the plan, or the belief upon the part of the Lieutenant--General that the Army of the Potomac had never been fought to its utmost in previous campaigns, or to the system, new to that army, of fighting battles by watch and wire, it is useless to inquire and difficult to determine.
“Cold Harbor,” said General Grant, “is, I think, the only battle I ever fought that I would not fight over again under the circumstances” “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.” Captain William Schuyler, Lieutenant Richard Dunphy and 50 enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded, Captains Dennis Carolin and Hugh Mooney, Lieutenant Hugh Duffy and 103 enlisted men wounded, and 5 men missing.
The 155th was heavily engaged during the Union’s pre-dawn assault of June 3 at Cold Harbor and lost 164 men in twenty-five minutes. Much of the rest of the Corcoran Legion suffered similar casualties and the brigade as a whole lost around 900 men in the assault – more than any other brigade at Cold Harbor. Among the casualties were General Tyler (severely wounded) and his successor, Colonel Peter Porter of the 8th NYHA (killed). Brigade command was assumed by an outsider, Colonel John Ramsey. The 155th’s sister regiment, the 164th, lost approximately 155 men in the charge, including Colonel James P. McMahon, who was killed on the Confederate breastworks while holding his regiment’s flag.
Although no member of the 155th New York ever received the Medal of Honor, the Overland Campaign witnessed deeds by other members of the Corcoran Legion that were so recognized. Two Medals of Honor were earned at the North Anna River. One by Lt. Col. Michael Murphy of the 170th for keeping his regiment in its front-line position despite having run out of ammunition, and by the Sergeant Major of the 182nd New York for braving a gauntlet of enemy fire to single-handedly bring ammunition to the regiment; two at Cold Harbor, by a corporal in the 164th’s Company E for making a dangerous reconnaissance alone and subsequently leading skirmishers in a successful assault on the enemy picket line, and by a sergeant in the 8th NYHA for recovering Colonel Porter’s body from a position only fifty feet from the Confederate line; and on June 16 at Petersburg when a sergeant in the 164th’s Company E braved enemy fire to save a wounded comrade. All of the Corcoran Legion’s Medals of Honor were earned in a mere three-and-a-half week period.
The Petersburg Campaign
June 1864-March 1865
After the battle of Cold Harbor the Army of the Potomac moved south to Petersburg. The 155th New York took part in the massive Federal assaults on Petersburg on June 16-18, 1864. On June 16, during a late afternoon/early evening charge on well-defended enemy breastworks near the future site of Fort Stedman, the regiment suffered over 50 percent casualties for the second time in less than two weeks, losing about 80 men and being reduced to less than 80 muskets. During this assault, the 155th was deployed as brigade skirmishers and was pinned down for three hours only thirty yards from the Confederate entrenchments, until ordered to withdraw under cover of darkness. Overall the Corcoran Legion lost around 600 men in this charge.
D. P. Conyngham, in his book ‘The Irish Brigade and it’s Campaigns’ says “Lieutenant Michael O’Connell of the One Hundred and Fifty Fifth New York (Corcoran Legion), was a native of Kerry; chevalier of the Papal Army; fell bravely leading his company at the battle of Spotsylvania”. Other dates given, on his casualty sheet, were June 22nd (Weldon Railroad), August 25th (Reams Station) and June 16 (Petersburg) and Fr James O’Connell, Michael’s brother inscribed on their fathers grave July 1864.
The confusion in the Army records and the differing reports aside, it was in the 2nd brigades first assault on Petersburg that Michael was killed on the field of battle. Captain Thomas Hart, Lieutenants John Nolan and Michael O’Connell and 25 enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded and 11 enlisted men wounded.
In the book ‘Record of the Federal dead buried from Libby, Belle Isle, Danville & Camp Lawton Prisons, and at City Point, and in the field before Petersburg and Richmond.’ published (1865) by the U.S. Christian Commission, there is a field cemetery list of names, situated on the ‘Rufin Plantation, one mile north of Meade Station and east of the railroad.’ that includes mostly men from Corcoran’s Legion. They were:
1. AKER John,
2. ALLEN H.,
3. ALLEN J.,
4. ATKINS Thos.,
5. BAILEY John,
6. BENTLEY Wm.,
7. BITTLES Mat.,
8. BURNS A.,
9. CARLON Ruben,
10. CHAMBERS Sergt. Geo.,
11. COLE Darvan,
12. CONDO Eliss,
13. DUFFEY Wm.,
14. DUNHAM Harvey,
15. EDWARDS Sergt. S.,
16 GALLAWAY Lieut. Elias F.,
17. GILBRETH Lieut. Samuel,
18. JONES Geo.,
19. JONES Corp. E.,
20. KANE R.,
21. KELLEY Corp. William.,
22. LIBERTY Joseph,
23. LYKE Edward,
24. MATTHEWS John,
25. MCCLORE Corp. R.,
26. MCFARLAN H.,
27. MCKEEN Patrick,
28. MEADOWS Robt.,
29. MURPHY Corp. I.,
30. MUSGRAVE Corp. P.,
31. MYERS Corp. Ern.,
32. NASH W.,
33. O'CONNELL Lien.
34. PECK Isaak,
35. PENNEL Fred.,
36. SHERIDAN John,
37. SHERIDAN Pat.,
38. SMITH Asa,
39. STAYSA Corp. I.,
40. STEWART James,
41. VANOUTE John,
42. WALSH Sergt. I.,
43. WILEY John,
44. WILLIAMS Sergt. C.,
45. WILSON Sergt. T.,
46. WOLFRAN Adolph,
B, 4th N.Y. Art.
K, 8th N.Y. Art.
D, 155th N.Y. Inf.
E, 155th N.Y. Inf.
F, 108th N.Y. Inf.
F, 4th N.Y. Art.
K, 36th Wisc. Inf.
I, 164th N.Y. Art.
E, 19th Maine. Inf.
C, 72nd Penn. Inf.
C, 36th Wisc. Inf.
F, 184th Penn. Inf.
D, 155th N.Y. Inf.
L, 8th N.Y. Art.
E, 8th Ohio. Inf.
K, 36th Wisc. Inf.
1, 20th Mass. S.S.
G, 8th N.Y. Art.
A, 170th N.Y. Inf.
F, 155th N.Y. Inf.
A, 15th Mass. Inf.
E, 1st Mass. Inf.
H, 4th N.Y. Art.
E, 170th N.Y. Inf.
C, 164th N.Y. Inf.
D, 69th N.Y. Inf.
H, 170th N.Y. Inf.
E, 170th N.Y. Inf.
C, 155th N.Y. Inf.
I, 1st Mass. Art.
D, 7th Virg.
E, 8th N.Y. Inf.
K, 155th N.Y. Inf.
A, 8th N Y. Art.
I, 19th Maine. Inf.
B, 4th N Y. Art.
A, 69th N.Y. Inf.
H, 4th N.Y. Art.
B, 184th Penn. Inf.
D, 155th N.Y. Inf.
F, 4th N.Y. Art.
E, 170th N.Y. Inf.
A, 155th N.Y. Inf.
H, 69th Penn. Inf.
A, 155th N.Y. Inf.
B, 20th Mass. Inf.
I believe this should read Lieu. M. O’Connell, K, 155th NYVI as Company K, 155th New York Volunteer Infantry only had one O’Connell, i.e. Michael. This field cemetery was situated alongside the Military Railroad outside Petersburg where the Legion had arrived on the 15th June and made their first assault on the 16th of June, in which there were many casualties.
In the newspaper ‘The Express’ this appeared:
THE 155TH. REGIMENT,–The correspondent of the Express gives the following list of the losses of the 155th Regiment before Petersburg on June 16th:
Co. A – Captain Thomas Hart, thigh – dead. 1st Lieut John Nolan, thigh; since dead, Private James Rolston, killed at Cold Harbor. Sergt Thomas Wilson killed. Sergt John Wylis, killed.
Co. B – Private James Lambert, killed.
Co. C – Corporal John Murphy, killed. Private Andrew Brady, killed.
Co. D – 1st Lieut Hugh Duffy, arm; at Cold Harbor. Private Patrick Cooney, killed.
Co. E – 2d Lieut. Daniel Purdy, leg; at Cold Harbor, Private John Maloney, killed at Cold Harbor. Private Patrick Gray, killed at Cold Harbor. Private Michael McMahon, killed at Cold Harbor. Private James Reid, killed at Cold Harbor.
Co. F – Capt Wm F Schuyler, both legs; since dead. 1st Lieut Richard B Dempsley, killed, Private John Crow, killed at Cold Harbor. Private George Donnelly, killed at Cold Harbor. Private Roger Kane, killed.
Co. G – Private Michael Canning, killed. Private Thomas Flynn, killed.
Co. H – Capt Dennis Carlin, thigh, Private John Becket, killed at Cold Harbor. Private Michael Coleman, killed at Cold Harbor. Private Antonio Francis, killed.
Co. I – 1st Lieut Hugh Mooney, shoulder; at Cold Harbor, Private John Burns, killed. Private John Parsons, killed. Private Patrick Mahar, killed. Private Timothy O’Brien, killed. Private Wm Duffy, killed.
Co. K – 1st Lieut Michael O’Connell, killed. 2d Lieut Albert Dwyght, killed. Adjt. John R Winterbotham, arm, Private Patrick Blake, killed at Cold Harbor. Private Michael Owens, killed at Cold Harbor. Private John Kilbreck, killed. Private Daniel Sullivan, killed.
Published 2nd July 1864, ‘Irish American’ newspaper, page 2:
Lieuts O’Connell 155th and Michael Egan 170th N.Y.V.
We extract the following passage relative to the deaths of the above officers who both commenced their military careers in the Pope’s Irish Brigade from a letter by Captain Michael Doheny to his father [this is confusing because the older Doheny died in 1862].….
Near Petersburg, Va. June 17, ’64
We had a very heavy engagement last evening which lasted ’till about 11 o’clock. Our regiment suffered severely. I got out of it all right, thank God. I have now only six men in my company.….
Tell Colonel O’Mahoney that Lieutenants O’Connell and Egan were both killed. We buried Egan on the field. There were several more of the Fenians killed or wounded but these are all I am aware of. I haven’t seen my brother Morgan [serving with the 42nd NYV] for two weeks. This is written quite close to the enemy and within range of their guns. I must close now as we are about to be relieved.
[Captain, 155th] MICHAEL DOHENY
After the war most of the field graves scattered about the different battlefields were disinterred and buried in several National Cemeteries. A lot of the grave markers that had previously been recorded by the U.S. Christian Commission had deteriorated or been lost over time and Michael’s seems to have been one of these. I found most of the names of the Ruffin Plantation list buried at City Point National Cemetery but Michaels is missing. Most likely he is buried in an “Unknown Soldier’s” grave.
Summary of the Battles and Campaigns of the 155th New York during Michaels service with the Legion.
Spear’s Blackwater Expedition, near Suffolk, Va. (January 8-10, 1863)
Battle of the Deserted House, Va. (January 30, 1863)
Siege of Suffolk, Va. (April 12-May 3, 1863)
Reconnaissance on the Edenton Road (April 15, 1863
Battle on the Edenton Road (April 24, 1863)
Pursuit of Longstreet to the Blackwater (May 3-4, 1863)
Expedition to the Blackwater (June 12-18, 1863)
Orange & Alexandria Railroad (July, 1863-May, 1864)
Action at Sangster’s Station, Va. (December 17, 1863)
Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Va. (May 17-21, 1864)
Landron House/Second Assault in the Mule Shoe (May 18, 1864)
Battle of the North Anna River, Va. (May 23-26, 1864)
Actions along the Pamunkey River and Totopotomoy Creek, Va. (May 26-31, 1864)
Battle of Cold Harbor, Va. (June 2-12, 1864)
Second Assault (June 3, 1864)
Battle of Petersburg, Va. (June 16, 1864)