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NP: July 24, 1864 Sunday Mercury (New York): 170th NY from Spotsylvania to Jersualem Plank Road

Editor’s Note: This letter to the Sunday Mercury appears here due to Bill Styple’s fantastic book Writing and Fighting the Civil War, which is where I first learned about these amazing soldier letters.  You can purchase a copy of Writing and Fighting the Civil War at Belle Grove Publishing.

One Hundred and Seventieth Regiment, N[ew]. Y[ork]. V[olunteers].

[Special Correspondence of the N. Y. Sunday Mercury.]

BEFORE PETERSBURG, VA., July 20. [1864]

Recent Movements—Doings of the Irish Legion—How it Fights—Losses—A Hint to the Sanitary Commission—Presentation.

My last letter from Kettle Run, Va., appeared in your paper on the 15th of May last [May 15, 1864].  On the 12th of May [1864], we took our departure from that place, and after considerable fatigue in marching and travel reported to General Grant’s Head-quarters on May 15 [1864], when we were ordered to the Second Division, Second Army Corps, [Army of the Potomac] which we [170th New York], with the One Hundred and Sixty-fourth [New York], One Hundred and Fifty-fifth [New York], and Sixty-ninth New York Volunteers [aka 182nd New York]—Corcoran Legion1—formed the Fourth Brigade [Second Division, Second Corps, Army of the Potomac]; we were afterward joined by the Eighth New York Heavy Artillery2. On the morning of the 18th [of May 1864] we opened the ball at Spottsylvania and suffered much in that desperate engagement, charging the enemy’s works, which were carried under a terrible fire from their batteries.3 Long marches and trials incidental to this the hardest campaign in which even the veteran Army of the Potomac has yet been engaged, occupied the interval to the 24th of May [1864], when we again at North Anna, advanced and occupied the enemy’s works on the left of our lines, keeping them back, and losing in our regiment some one hundred and nine in officers and men, until finally obliged to retire, leaving our wounded on the field. Remaining in the front line until the 26th [of May 1864], we again charged the enemy, driving them back and carrying off the wounded of the previous encounter, with a loss this time of two men wounded.4 By this movement we also covered the movement of the Army, which was about changing its base for Coal [sic, Cold] Harbor. The next day, we were en route for that point of operations. On the second of June [1864], while taking our position at the breastworks to relieve the One Hundred Second Pennsylvania Volunteers, four of our men were wounded. During the terrible battle of the 3d of June [1864] we supported [J. Henry] Sleeper’s New York Battery [sic, 10th Battery, Massachusetts Light Artillery].5 Ever in the front line or on the march. June 15 [1864] found us in the assault on the enemy’s works before Petersburg. One hundred and odd casualties were the losses of the One Hundred and Seventieth [New York] in that encounter. June 18th [1864], we supported General Mott’s Brigade [3/3/II/AotP] in the charge, which, however, was repulsed by the enemy. 6 Continually moving from one point to another, we advanced on the 22d June [1864], under a terrible fire of all conceivable deadly missiles, and occupied the line from which Birney’s Division [3/II/AotP] of this Corps had been driven, with a loss of some thirty-six officers and men.7 Marching and countermarching—encamping and breaking up camp again, doing picket-duty and fatigue-duty, occupying various points of the line, upon which an attack might be expected, has occupied our time to the present date, when we find ourselves resting inside shelter-tents on the left of the line, digging wells, building shady bowers of green pines and such foliage as can be procured in the vicinity of our present resting-place, which is rather exposed to the scorching rays of the sun. We have been especially blessed with a fine fall of rain within the last twenty-four hours, and the sombre aspect of the heavens betokens a further supply of that really welcome and much longed for element. It is nearly sixty days since last we enjoyed such before. Cannonading has been quite brisk along our lines all day; yesterday—owing, I presume to the continuous rain—was remarkably quiet; but last night and this morning there has been a very brisk exchange of musketry between our pickets and the Rebels.

There are many rumors afloat, which, if true, betoken more very warm work around Petersburg. Both lines are very strong and equally vigilant. The return of Colonel Matthew Murphy, who was wounded at Spottsylvania, has released Colonel James C. McIvor from his duties as commander of the Second Brigade [Second Division, Second Corps, Army of the Potomac]. Colonel McIvor is, therefore, again in command of the One Hundred and Seventieth [New York] Regiment.

The mortality among our wounded has been very heavy, owing, doubtless, to the heat of the weather. The Sanitary Commission and Christian Commission have been quite active, during the campaign, in the discharge of their highly laudable duties, administering to the wants of our boys; but we think there is room for improvement and an enlargement of their generous labors, especially in that of the former commission, whose means are so enormous, and resources almost unlimited from the unbounded generosity of the people. Now with the Christian Commission it is different, we believe, as their resources are more limited, being confined more particularly to private contributions and religious beneficiaries. The Sanitary should come out more liberally with their delicacies, and the nourishments which they are provided with for the use of our soldiers. They should not confine themselves in their labors to the hospitals alone, but remember that there are many “in the front line” who are in need of care and nourishment as much as some who are to be found in the hospital-tent. Our mails have come to hand pretty regularly the last few days—though we had an interval into the Rebel raid into Maryland which caused their delay.8 Let everyone who has a friend or relative in the army write them, as no one can appreciate a letter from home as well as the soldier at the front.

On the evening of the 16th inst. [July 16, 1864], the officers of the Corcoran Legion, together with the officers of the Eighth New York Artillery, proceeded to the headquarters of Col. Matthew Murphy, commanding the Second Brigade of the Second Division of the Second Army Corps. Col. Murphy had only just returned from New York, after recovering from the wound which he received on the 18th of May [1864]. The sudden assemblage of nearly all the officers composing his command took him by surprise; but when Col. McIvor, of the One Hundred Seventieth New York Volunteers, who was in command of the Brigade in Col. Murphy’s absence, informed him that the officers of the Legion had assembled for the purpose of presenting him with a span of as beautiful and serviceable horses as are in the service, as a token of their appreciation of him, as a man, a soldier, and a commander, he seemed completely dumbfounded, to use a vulgar expression. All things being in readiness, Col. J. P. McIvor made the presentation-speech in his usual graceful and eloquent manner, expressive of the regards of the officers for him while under his command. At the conclusion of Col. McIvor’s remarks, Col. Murphy arose and seemed so bewildered that for a few seconds he could scarcely give utterance to his feelings; but when he did commence he spoke in that same firm, determined manner which has characterized his career as a soldier. He made some very pertinent remarks about the manner in which the Corcoran Legion acted in the present campaign, and dwelt at large in eulogium of those who lost their lives so heroically in the suppression of the rebellion, and in conclusion, hoped that he would continue to prove himself worthy of the confidence which the testimony he had just received from his brother-officers indicated. This done, a splendid impromptu collation was furnished, to which all concerned did ample justice. Several other speeches and toasts, interspersed occasionally with a song—and there are some good singers in the Brigade—terminated as happy an evening as has been spent in the Army of the Potomac.

Yours, etc.                                                           A. O. P.9

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Soldier Letters from the New York Sunday Mercury:


  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: The Corcoran Irish Legion, created in 1862 by Michael Corcoran, was a sort of second Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac, although it is far less well known than the original.  As the author states here, the Corcoran Legion joined up with the Army of the Potomac shortly after the 1864 Overland Campaign commenced. For more on the Corcoran Legion, and the rather odd naming of the 69th New York National Guard Artillery, officially designated the 182nd New York, see the always excellent New York Soldiers and Sailors Museum page on this command.
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: The 8th New York Heavy Artillery would go on to fight with the regiments of the Corcoran Legion in what became the Second Brigade, Second Division, Second Corps, Army of the Potomac for the rest of the war.
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: The brigade participated in the last Union assaults at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 1864. For a map of that engagement, click here.
  4. SOPO Editor’s Note: The author is describing the third major fight of the Overland Campaign at the North Anna River, which occurred from May 23 to 26, 1864.
  5. SOPO Editor’s Note: The famous Battle of Cold Harbor occurred for much of the early part of June 1864, with the famous deadly Union assault occurring on June 3.
  6. SOPO Editor’s Note: The assaults on June 15 and 18, 1864 occurred during the Second Battle of Petersburg.  Ultimately, though Union attacks were sent in piecemeal over four days, a masterful defense by the Confederates combined with tepid advances on the Union side prevented the capture of Petersburg.
  7. SOPO Editor’s Note: The 170th New York and the rest of the Corcoran Legion participated in one of the low points in the history of the Second Corps, the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road on June 22, 1864. William Mahone’s Division of the Confederate Third Corps, guided by railroad surveyor Mahone’s keen eye and knowledge of the terrain, used a ravine to completely rout multiple Union divisions.  Only barely did reinforcements and quick thinking allow the Confederate tide to crest prior to crossing the Jerusalem Plank Road itself.  The day was a disaster, with many men captured as prisoners and ultimately sent to the dreaded Confederate prison camp Andersonville.
  8. SOPO Editor’s Note: In a bid similar to that of 1862, Robert E. Lee tried to relieve pressure on his army around Richmond and rout the Union Army in the Shenandoah Valley by sending a large corps sized force into the area under Jubal Early. After succeeding in routing the Union army under Hunter at Lynchburg, Early turned north and eventually ended up on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The author is referring to Early’s invasion causing issues with receiving the mail.
  9. “One Hundred and Seventieth Regiment, N. Y. V.” Sunday Mercury (New York, New York). July 24, 1864, p. 7 col. 2
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