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Book Review: The 117th New York Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster by James S. Pula

Pula, James S. The 117th New York Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster. McFarland. (2023). 344 pp., 90 photos, maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-4766-8986-9 $49.95 (Paperback).

Book cover of The 117th New York in the Civil War: A History and Roster by James S. PulaJames S. Pula’s The 117th New York Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster is an extremely readable and well-written new unit history of the 117th New York, or Fourth Oneida, supplanting the original unit history written by the unit’s surgeon James A. Mowris in 1866. This eventual Army of the James regiment participated in many of the backwaters of the war in its early days but also saw major fighting at Petersburg and Fort Fisher. The author utilized numerous first-person accounts of the soldiers themselves, including Mowris’ original book as a key foundation, and improved upon it greatly.  The soldiers of the Fourth Oneida would heartily approve. Excellent maps, dozens of images of the men, and a well done and well researched roster add to what was already a great unit history.

Author James S. Pula “is a professor emeritus of history at Purdue University Northwest.” He has received multiple awards, including “the Distinguished Service Award from the American Council for Polish Culture, three Oskar Halecki Prizes for various books, and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.” Pula has also authored or edited at least two previous works on Oneida County, NY, the county from which the 117th New York was raised, with one of those focusing specifically on Oneida County in the Civil War.

Publisher McFarland, located in Jefferson, North Carolina, has a long history of producing Civil War books, especially unit histories.  McFarland books tend to be a bit more expensive than most non-academic presses, but this is due to their business model: “From the beginning, McFarland has been a library-oriented publisher, producing comprehensive reference works and scholarly monographs on a variety of subjects.” Despite the heftier price, most of the Civil War books I’ve read from this publisher have been very well done and often cover obscure topics which might otherwise never see the light of day. Typically the prices for McFarland Civil War books only increase on the used book market.

The 117th New York, often referred to as the “Fourth Oneida” for being the fourth regiment raised in Oneida County, New York, was organized in July and August 1862, mustering in on August 20. Unlike some other newly raised regiments in the summer of 1862 the regiment avoided being sent to the slaughter at Antietam. Instead, the Oneidas spent the first seven months of their existence in the Washington defenses. In early 1863, they moved to swampy southeastern Virginia where they participated in the Siege of Suffolk and the Blackberry Raid on Richmond.  Next the 117th was sent to the Siege of Charleston, arriving just after the famous attack on Fort Wagner made famous in the movie Glory. There they stayed on Folly and Morris islands during the latter half of 1863 into 1864. The men had been spared any serious fighting and suffered very few casualties in their first year and a half of service.  That was all about to change.

The 117th New York was sent north with other Tenth Corps units in the spring of 1864 to participate in Benjamin Butler’s Bermuda Hundred Campaign as part of the new Army of the James.  They saw combat at Swift Creek and Drewry’s Bluff and suffered more casualties in the trenches at Bermuda Hundred.  After the Bermuda Hundred campaign ended in stalemate, the Fourth Oneida boarded a steamer for White House Landing. They marched west to the major Battle of Cold Harbor, arriving late, and missing most of the famous bloodbath on June 2, 1864.  After some time at Cold Harbor, the 117th New York was sent back to Bermuda Hundred.  From there they marched with their division of Tenth Corps on Petersburg, participating in the Second Battle of Petersburg, or what they called “Petersburg Heights,” on June 15, 1864.  The 117th New York played a major role in capturing several works on the Confederate Dimmock Line east of Petersburg. The regiment spent many months in the trenches both east of Petersburg and in the Bermuda Hundred fortifications.  They were in a reserve role at the Crater on July 30, 1864 but were in the line of fire and suffered severely for a regiment not actively engaged. The 117th New York next saw major action at the September 29, 1864 Battle of Chaffin’s Farm.  There, in front of Fort Gilmer, they suffered their greatest casualties of any engagement in which they fought, but helped the Army of the James gain a foothold on the Confederate works guarding Richmond. Less than a month later they again suffered heavy casualties, this time in a “demonstration” against Confederate forces along the Darbytown Road guarding Richmond on October 27, 1864. It was to be the last major action the regiment saw at the Siege of Petersburg.

On December 7, 1864, the 117th New York and its brigade were packed up on steamers and sent south to participate in the First Fort Fisher Expedition. The aim was to cut off Wilmington, NC, the last major blockade running port in the Confederacy.  This first abortive expedition ended in failure over Christmas 1864, costing Ben Butler his job.  The poor men of the 117th New York were forced to spend several stormy days waiting on the beachhead until conditions improved enough for evacuation.  The 117th New York and its brigade briefly returned to Deep Bottom north of the James River near Richmond before setting out on the Second Fort Fisher Expedition where they were to play a critical role.  The Fourth Oneida was the rightmost regiment assaulting the land face of Fort Fisher, and together with their brigade they managed to flank the fort and roll up the Confederates from left to right in a lengthy touch and go hand to hand fight.  It was here the 117th won its greatest fame, losing nearly 100 men killed, wounded and missing.  They then participated in the campaign to capture Wilmington, and moved with Schofield’s “wing” from Wilmington to Raleigh, where they were located when Sherman forced Joe Johnston’s surrender.  The unit was able to head home in June 1865, where they received multiple raucous welcomes from the citizenry of Oneida County.

James Pula’s book on the 117th New York is not the first to be written about the regiment.  Surgeon James A. Mowris of the 117th penned a regimental history in 1866, A History of the One hundred and Seventeenth Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers,[Fourth Oneida] from the Date of its Organization. August 1862, Till That of its Muster Out. Pula takes this work as a key foundation and proceeds to add greatly to it, utilizing many letters and diaries of men from the unit.  His is not a traditional military history of the regiment.  The author adds a lot of reminiscences about the difficulties of soldier life and motivations of the men in the ranks in addition to the usual discussions of battles. That said, Pula provides enough of the high-level strategy that readers always understand the 117th New York’s place in the greater scheme of things.  As a reader, you really feel at times as if you are there in the ranks. It’s almost as if you know some of the more prolific letter and diary writers. Also aiding readers are the always excellent maps of Hal Jespersen, who provides cartography services for many Civil War books. The 117th New York’s position in the larger fight is clearly indicated for their major battles, and often their brigade and division mates’ positions are also shown in some detail. Another small but important detail are the dozens of images of the men who fought in the regiment, often located in the text near where they played an important part in a specific battle, and unfortunately sometimes where they meet their end.   It is clear the author spent a lot of time and research in collecting these images, and they add to the story.  This is an important book because it covers a regiment in the Army of the James.  This army often plays second fiddle to the Army of the Potomac, so it is always good to see these lesser-known regiments getting their just due.  Despite never spending a moment officially in the Army of the Potomac, the men of the Fourth Oneida did important work in the fight to save the Union and free the slaves, especially at the Second Battle of Fort Fisher.

Despite all the good in this book, there were a few minor errors.  On page 74, Baldy Smith’s Corps of the Army of the James is mistakenly called the Twenty-Eight Corps rather than the Eighteenth Corps.  Likewise, on page 128, the 117th New York received orders on what was clearly September 24, 1864, based on the sources, but the text reads August 24 instead. These were small errors and did not noticeably detract from the enjoyment and information presented in the book. In fact, this reviewer only caught the latter error as a decades-long student of the Siege of Petersburg.

The appendices in the book are standard for a unit history, but they are all well done.  Appendix A lists the brevet promotions members of the 117th New York received. Appendix B features a succinct list of the campaigns and battles of the regiment, including major fights at Second Petersburg, Chaffin’s Farm, Darbytown Road, and Second Fort Fisher. Appendix C is a chart of the Fourth Oneida’s casualties at each engagement in which they participated, taken from Frederick Phisterer’s classic work New York in the War of the Rebellion. Appendix D is the best of the bunch, a complete and lengthy roster of the unit.  Pula primarily used the final New York State Adjutant General’s report on men who served in the Civil War in New York units as the base of the roster, but greatly supplemented this freely available information with additional sources specific to the 117th New York, including local newspapers and cemetery records. The result is a solid reference for those researching the unit or an ancestor.

The notes are also fairly standard though the author includes a lot of archival material, primary accounts from soldiers of the 117th New York, and newspapers local to Oneida County to help tell the tale.  The secondary sources are solid, but the author would have found some use in referencing Richard Sommers’ Richmond Redeemed and Hampton Newsome’s Richmond Must Fall for the Fifth and Sixth Offensives against Petersburg, respectively.  The 117th New York fought at Chaffin’s Farm and was in reserve at Darbytown Road during the Fifth Offensive and fought at Darbytown Road again during the Sixth Offensive.  The author also utilizes several of his own books on Oneida County as background material for the regiment’s story.  It is obvious he has spent a lot of time studying its history, and this knowledge added particularly to the epilogue of the book.

In this first modern history of the 117th New York, author James S. Pula has helped readers understand not only the battles of the Fourth Oneida, but also what it was like to be a Civil War soldier in the quiet times.  Boredom, disease, physical privation, and other things caused untold misery, but news of great victories and especially news that men were going home caused joy to equal the intensity of the bad times.  Pula’s book was an easy, enjoyable read which truly puts readers in the ranks with the men.  Great maps and an unusually large number of images of men in the 117th New York combine with the text to create an upper tier regimental history of a heretofore forgotten Army of the James regiment.  Students of the history of Oneida County, the 117th New York, and good unit histories will all want to own this book.  For students of the Siege of Petersburg, there are multiple lengthy chapters on the 117th New York’s role in the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign of 1864-65, even if they left for North Carolina before seeing the final victory.  This book is highly recommended if a bit pricey at $49.95.

Editor’s Note: A copy of this book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • brycealansuderow April 16, 2023, 2:50 am

    Which brigade and division, were they part of? I don’t believe they fought at the second battle of deep bottom, did they?

  • Brett Schulte April 16, 2023, 5:50 pm

    I believe First Brigade, Second Divisiom, Tenth Corps. If I remember correctly, they were holding the Bermuda Hundred lines during Second Deep Bottom.

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