American Civil War: On October 15th, 1861, as the young Army of the Potomac was busy preparing for future campaigning, Brigadier General John H.

There seemed to be no means of preserving order. Officers and men were quarreling in a boisterous manner. They were not soldierly. Many men had their pants unbuttoned or wore drawers instead of pants. Many were without shoes. Their persons were dirty and their weapons foul, very foul. Their drill and marching was irregular.

Unidentified New York soldiers in camp (US Army Heritage and Education Center)

Even when the soldiers finally lined up on parade, they were still “in a state of unseemly disarray and filth–their pants unbuttoned and their underclothes and persons exposed.” My great great grandfather, Private William Hamilton, was one of these ragged soldiers, though–thankfully–I have no insight to add as to the state of his “person.” The flummoxed General Martindale called for the 25th’s officers to assemble for his instructions. When the regiment’s commander, Colonel James E. Kerrigan, stomped off without permission and didn’t return, Martindale ordered him arrested. The arrest and subsequent court martial of Colonel Kerrigan marked the beginning of the end for the 25th New York’s gangland officer cadre–and the start of its metamorphosis from a ragged rabble into an effective military unit. (1)

The 25th New York in camp near Upton’s Hill, Virginia, as sketched by Dublin-born artist Arthur Lumley in September 1861 (The Becker Collection, Boston College)

The summer of 1861 had been a tumultuous one for this new regiment. The soldiers of the 25th spent most of July guarding various posts near Arlington. Diseases spread rapidly within such crowded encampments, aided by the swarms of mosquitoes prevalent in the area near the Potomac River. Fevers, diarrhea, and rheumatism were all reported in the regiment during this time. The lack of discipline within the regiment was also a problem from early on. Private Barney McGaffney was arrested in early August for assaulting an officer with a Bowie knife. Around the same time, Private Andrew McDonald (or McDonough) died under mysterious circumstances after turning himself in for desertion and theft.

Cousin Aaron Hamilton and his son Kameron visiting the site of Fort Albany, where their ancestor, William Hamilton, was stationed with the 25th New York in 1861.

On July 12th, 1861, Kerrigan’s Rangers came close to an all-out mutiny when they were ordered to exchange their new, British-made Enfield rifle muskets for outdated U.S. Model 1842 Springfield smoothbore muskets. 71 soldiers from the 25th were hauled off and jailed by the Ringgold Artillery of Pennsylvania before military leadership could force the remainder of the regiment to comply with the order. It is likely that the detained soldiers were soon allowed to return to the ranks, for there is no evidence of a mass detention on the regimental roster. As for the unit’s arms, by the time of the Peninsula Campaign in the spring 1862, they were once again carrying their cherished Enfields. (3)

Attached to Colonel John H. McCunn’s Reserve Brigade on the evening of July 20th, the 25th New York was not present at the Bull Run the following day. They marched in the direction of the battle, fully expecting to be engaged, only to run straight into the disordered remnants of the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia already in full retreat. Lieutenant Henry W. Salisbury of Co. G described the vision that greeted him as his comrades in the 25th New York:

As far as the eye could reach, the roads leading to this place were filled with broken fragments of regiments, baggage wagons, ambulances, and everything appropriate to complete the finale of an army. The men were covered with dust and begrimed with smoke and powder. Many of them were wounded and bleeding at every pore; some were supported by their generous comrades, and some, disdaining all assistance, dragged their slow and weary way along, uncomplaining. It was a sight to make the heart bleed…

The dejected troops of the 25th New York turned around and returned to the defenses of Washington. McClellan, who shaped them into what would become the Army of the Potomac.  As described in the previous article in this series, they appeared at an August 1861 inspection looking like “miserable scarecrows in rags and tatters” and refused to cheer for President Lincoln and the Union. (4)

An unidentified New Yorker wearing a first issue jacket made by Brooks Brothers of New York City. Early NY state issue uniforms were notorious for their poor construction (note the frayed cuffs and missing buttons). Clothing such as this, left unrepaired–and not promptly replaced by quartermasters–would explain how a regiment like the 25th New York ended up in such a destitute state so early on. CDV by Bailey’s Photograph Gallery in Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood. Author’s collection (with appreciation to Guy William Gane III for identifying the jacket).

Various witnesses, including other officers and enlisted men from the 25th, took the stand. One of them, Major Henry F. Savage, testified that Kerrigan “never instructed us in drill or tactics.” Regarding General Martindale’s account of the regiment’s October inspection, he verified some aspects, while insisting that such behavior, while commonplace in the regiment, was typically the product of a few bad actors and not characteristic of the troops as a whole:

I would not say there was anything unusual in the conduct of the men at that time; there had been disorderly language and disturbance; I saw some men drunk and fighting, which had frequently been the case before; I would not call that an unusual occurrence; I wish the court to bear in mind that there were only a few men in the regiment who acted so…

Major Savage (standing, with his hand raised) testifying at Colonel Kerrigan’s court martial. Kerrigan is seated in right (with the long hair and goatee). Sketch by Arthur Lumley (New York Public Library).

Captain Archibald Ferguson testified similarly, although he made no such effort to relegate the troublemakers to a small minority:

There was loud, drunken singing in the officer’s tent, and much quarreling in the camp. A sergeant and a lieutenant had a conflict and the lieutenant hit the other man in the head with a pistol. The colonel took no action. Our regiment lagged behind in discipline and knowledge. There was much drunkenness, and gambling on dog fights. At the Grand Review, in October 1861, our regiment was in rags and very much in want of pantaloons. About five men in every company had no shoes.

General Martindale had them replaced with a combination of men transferred from other New York regiments and promotions from within the ranks of 25th New York itself.

The company’s new first lieutenant was Washington B. Fairman was a career sailor who lived in San Francisco, California at the time of the 1860 Census. Brooklyn stationer John W.

Colonel (later Brevet Brigadier General) Charles Adams Johnson (Collection of Robert Mayer III).

Lieutenant and Adjutant Henry F. Savage was an Irish immigrant who was, alongside his father and brother, the partial owner of John Savage and Sons, a family-run grocery and wine stand in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Like Sibell, Savage had also served in the 7th Militia prior to the war. Captain Ferguson testified that Savage oversaw drilling and training the 25th in Kerrigan’s stead. (7)

Lieutenant Colonel Henry F. Savage (Library of Congress)

Another new addition was Thomas E. Bishop.B of the 25th New York in November 1861.

Lieutenant (later Captain) Thomas E. Bishop (Author’s collection).

The 25th New York’s diverse new officer slate faced a monumental task–to transform a rowdy crew of New York street toughs into a well-drilled, disciplined fighting force. The upcoming Peninsula Campaign would demonstrate whether they, and the men and boys under their command, could rise above their reputations and stand up to their Confederate counterparts on the field of battle.

Notes and References

Thank you to Aaron S. Hamilton for help with notes, images, and sources throughout.

(1) Lowry, Thomas, Tarnished Eagles.

(2) “25th Infantry Regiment,” New York State Military Museum; Bell, Andrew McIlwaine, Mosquito Soldiers; “A Murderous Soldier,” New York Daily Tribune, 6 Aug 1861; “Sad Death of a Deserter,” New York Daily Tribune, 6 Aug 1861.

(4) “A Letter from One of the Fillmore Guard,” Buffalo Courier, 14 Aug 1861; “25th Infantry Regiment,” New York State Military Museum; Russell, William Howard, My Diary North and South (Vol. 1).

(5) Lowry, Thomas, Tarnished Eagles; “The Proceedings of the Court Martial in the Case of Colonel Kerrigan,” New York Daily Herald, 5 Mar 1862; “The Court Martial on Colonel Kerrigan, New York Sun, 18 Dec 1861.

(6) New York Muster Roll Abstracts, National Archives; 1860 US Census, National Archives; 1855 New York State Census.

(7) New York Muster Roll Abstracts, National Archives; “Colonel Charles Adams John,” Antietam on the Web (antietam.aotw.org); 1860 US Census, National Archives; Trow’s Directory of New York City; Ad in New York Herald, 13 Mar 1862; Obituary in New York Times, 29 Oct 1862.

(8) New York Muster Roll Abstracts, National Archives; 1860 US Census, National Archives; 1855 New York State Census; 1850 US Census, National Archives; Brennan, Christopher, “Dublin: Rochester’s Irish Neighborhood,” Local History Rocs (rochistory.wordpress.com).

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