Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hell Reigns

In which three Union regiments try to end the war
Return of the 69th New York Militia from the Seat of War

 "Hell reigns in the 13th today, and has all day," wrote Samuel Partridge to a friend. Partridge was a young man in Company F of the 13th New York, who had fought at Bull Run as part of Cump Sherman's brigade.He was only a private on August 14, but he would rise to the rank of lieutenant as the regiment's adjutant and quartermaster by the time it finally went home in two years -- and that was the problem.

Company F, like all but three of the 13th New York's companies, was raised in Rochester. The men had pledged two years of service to the State of New York under its militia law, but under Federal law the Lincoln administration could only accept their service for 90 days. The 13th New York marched to Washington and were sent to Fort Corcoran, in present-day Rosslyn, and began a very unhappy period under then-Colonel Sherman.

During that time, Congress passed a new law, allowing the War Department to accept militia raised by the states for a period of three-years. Because volunteers had been so plentiful after the fall of Fort Sumter, there was no shortage of state militia that were not yet in Federal service, and it was easy to find new units to make three-year units. But after Bull Run, with George McClellan's constant warnings about imminent Confederate attack, the War Department believed it needed every man it could get its hands on. So, it accepted the 13th into service for the duration of its commitment to New York.

Only the 13th didn't see it that way. Added to existing complaints against now-Brigadier General Sherman, the men decided that on their 91st day they had had enough. "[They] have refused duty," Sherman reported to McClellan. "They simply refuse to form ranks, to go on details or obey any orders whatsoever. Appeals to them are treated with ridicule." Partridge wrote that the men responded to commands with cries of "'Oh Hell', 'Dry up' 'That's played out' 'We're free today' 'No more reveille for me' and that style of talk."

Sherman, they believed, was part of the problem. Since the flight from Manassas, his brigade had seethed with resentment, especially the three New York regiments. The 79th New York had been the most vociferous, actually approaching Lincoln with accusations of cruelty by their commanding officer. Lincoln had brushed them aside, but Winfield Scott had transferred the regiment to diffuse the problem.

Then it was the 69th New York Militia's turn. A regiment of Irish immigrants, their leader and the fort's namesake, Colonel Corcoran, had been captured by the Confederates at Bull Run, and their regiment had taken a heavy beating on Henry Hill. When their 90 days was up, their acting-commander, Captain Thomas Francis Meagher, packed them up and headed back to New York. (Meagher, hater of only Sherman, not the army, would persuade the regiment to re-enlist as the 69th New York Volunteers and even recruit two more regiments in order to form the famed Irish Brigade).

But by the time the 13th's Federal service expired, the War Department had come up with their legal loophole. Sherman, too, had changed tactics. Whether he knew about the decision or not, he spent the days leading up to August 14 telling the men they would "probably" go home and he was "almost positive" their time was near an end. "This glorious 13th that left home so proudly, that fought so nobly and would have shown its bravery all through the war was ruined by bad policy in a Government which cheated and lied to them," Partridge concluded in the heat of the mutiny.

George McClellan had spent the morning catching up on work he had fallen behind on during his recent feud with Scott. "Profs Mahan and Bache at breakfast," he wrote his wife. "Then the usual levee. Then Burnside turned up and I had to listen to his explanation of some slanders against him; [Burnside was back in Washington as a brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers and hopping mad about Andrew Porter's claims that he hadn't, in fact, almost defeated the South, defended the rearguard of the army, and saved the Union.] then some naval officers; then I don't know how many more before dinner."

But then the mutinies began. It wasn't just the 13th. The 79th New York had apparently found their new commander no more pleasant than Sherman (they also objected to their new colonel, Isaac Stevens, replacing the popular James Cameron, the Secretary of War's brother, by order rather than by the time-honored militia practice of voting), and declared that their 91st day had arrived and they were going home. The 2nd Maine (who may have the best claim to serving as the rearguard at Bull Run) felt similarly.

McClellan's spirits in his midnight letter are reinvigorated by the crisis (which Sears' puts on the night of the 14th, and McClellan's memoirs on the night of the 15th). After his customary paranoia about the Southern army ("I... sleep with one eye open at night--looking out sharply for Beauregard...") and rant about Scott ("Genl Scott is the most dangerous antagonist I have..."), he seems more enthusiastic about his daily business, "among which may be classed quelling a couple of mutinies among the patriotic volunteers."

"As to my mutinous friends," he continued after (barely) describing his schedule, "I have ordered 63 of the 2nd Maine rgt to be sent as prisoners to the Dry Tortugas, there to serve out the rest of the war as prisoners at hard labor."

The 79th was a tougher nut to crack, actually threatening to shoot . "I reduced the other gentlemen... by sending out a battalion, battery & squadron of regulars to take care of them." Using professional U.S. Army soldiers from all three combat branches, McClellan finally induced them to surrender. He blamed their officers (except Stevens) for the poor discipline of the troops. "I have their ringleaders in irons--they will be tried and probably shot tomorrow..." They weren't, but they did join the 2nd Maine ringleaders in the Dry Tortugas.

Sherman took care of the 13th New York on the morning of August 15. "It is not for me or you to dispute the order--we are not lawyers," he admonished them, as a group of regulars surrounded the mutinous regiment. He invited any soldiers who did not wish to follow orders to step forward and 80 did so. Then he explained their coming imprisonment in the Dry Tortugas and offered them a second chance. Depending on the account, 27 or 31 men stood firm and were rounded up and sent to Provost Marshal Andrew Porter for detention until transfer.

Sherman, Porter, and many of the professional soldiers from the Old Army had little patience for the mutineers, whatever the merits of their complaints. McClellan summed their feeling up in his letter to Mary Ellen: "An example is necessary to bring these people up to the mark, & if they will not fight & do their duty from honorable motives, I intend to coerce them & let them see what they have to expect if they pretend to rebel."

For these career generals, concepts like honor, duty, and discipline were the pillars of any fighting force, and a company or regiment that thought for itself could only be trouble. The mutiny subdued, McClellan finished off his letter to his wife with two statements that Sherman and the others would have applauded.
I deprived the 79th of their colors & have them down stairs--not to be returned to them until they have earned them again by good behavior. The great trouble is the utter worthlessness of the officers of these rgts--we have good material, but no officers.


The 79th would earn its colors back at the Battle of Lewinsville, in September, as described last year over at All Not So Quiet. Check it out.

Print Sources:
  • Kennet, 122-124
  • Sears, 84-85

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