Archive for the ‘Army of the Potomac’ Category

Marsena Patrick: Provost Marshal General of the Army of the Potomac

September 20, 2008

By John E. Carey

Generally unknown, unnoticed and little honored, the provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac proved his worth as an invaluable right-hand man to the commanding general.

During a myriad of sometimes messy, often ugly and usually distasteful assignments, one man acted aggressively, diligently and with integrity, plus a dash of God-fearing, Bible-thumping religion: Marsena Rudolph Patrick (1811-1888).


Before the war, Patrick worked on the Erie Canal, taught school and attended the U.S. Military Academy. He served in both the Seminole War and the Mexican War. During the 1850s, he became an expert farmer, intrigued by the science of agriculture. Ultimately, he became president of the New York State Agricultural College.

When the Civil War began, Patrick offered his services to New York, and the governor appointed him brigadier general and inspector general of the state militia. By March 1862, he was in command of James Wadsworth’s brigade in Rufus King’s division of Irvin McDowell’s 1st Corps.

He first learned the difficulties of managing both Union troops and semi-hostile civilians when appointed military governor of Fredericksburg, Va., in April 1862. Later, Patrick and his men fought at Second Manassas and Antietam. In October 1862, Gen. George McClellan appointed Patrick provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac.

On the march

Patrick’s job as provost marshal began with a marching army. Whether in advance or retreat, a force the size of the Army of the Potomac had to contend with clogged roads, narrow bridges, mud, swift rivers and a host of other situations bound to slow progress.
The provost marshal almost always had troops, both infantry and cavalry, under his direct command to assist him in his duties. Patrick had to keep the army moving while rounding up stragglers, looters or worse.

“Artillery, Packs, Ambulances, Servants, Orderlies & detached commands, with Stragglers of all kinds, began to pour in” as the army approached a narrow bridge, Patrick wrote in his diary. “I was at the Bridge & thereabouts, whip in hand, using it freely & directing the movement successfully, until every wheel & hoof had crossed the bridges.”

As battle neared, Patrick’s job evolved into helping concentrate the army. He had to round up drunks, skedaddlers, looters, stragglers and other unsavory men who were supposed to be in line against the enemy. On June 30, 1863, as the army approached Gettysburg, Patrick wrote, “I was called into town and sent for two Squadrons of Cavalry to go back to Frederick & clean out that town, which was reported full of drunken men & Stragglers.”


During battle, Patrick performed the thankless job of turning around or corralling the men who ran from the battle. He also had to deal with prisoners. During Pickett’s Charge, Patrick and his men were behind the main Federal line. “I had my hands full with those that broke to the rear, but we succeeded in checking the disorder & organized a guard of Stragglers to keep nearly 2000 Prisoners all safe.”

After the battle, Patrick saw to the dead and the mountains of government equipment left on the field. On July 6, 1863, Patrick wrote, “I was soon ordered by Gen. Meade to go into the town & make arrangements with responsible parties for the burial of the dead & Securing of the property on the battle field.”

A town pillaged

Perhaps Patrick’s most controversial action was at Fredericksburg. In November 1862, Union troops commanded by Gen. Ambrose Burnside conducted a 40-mile forced march across rural Virginia to a position on the banks of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg.

Gen. Robert E. Lee pulled the bulk of his army out of Fredericksburg to Marye’s Heights, leaving behind sharpshooters. The 120,000-man Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and began a five-hour house-to-house engagement in the town. By the time Patrick crossed the river and entered the town, he encountered a horrifying scene, which historian Frank A. O’Reilly called “a bizarre, bacchanal carnival kind of atmosphere.”

“The Soldiery were sacking the town!” Patrick wrote, uncharacteristically using an exclamation mark in his diary. “Men with all sorts of utensils & furniture, all sorts of eatables & drinkables & wearables, were carried off. I found the town in a most deplorable state of things. Libraries, pictures, furniture, every thing destroyed & the brutal Soldiery still carrying on the work.”

Patrick described his efforts to restore order with near-melancholy: “Couch sent over for me to clear the town. This was impossible although I put in my Cavalry & 4 companies of Infy.”

Some gave Patrick credit for stopping the looting, but in the post-battle finger-pointing, Army leaders and politicians in Washington wanted Patrick’s head for the “sacking of Fredericksburg.” Messages from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton annoyed and depressed Patrick, who believed he had done his duty to the best of his ability in a miserable situation.

“I then wrote [to Stanton] saying that So far as the Pillage of [Fredericksburg] was concerned,” Patrick wrote in his diary on March 19, 1863, “I had nothing further to say, and that the Court of Inquiry would elicit the facts in the case.”

A myriad of tasks

Despite criticism, Patrick kept to the task at hand, performing any number of unusual and often unseemly, yet necessary, duties.

In camp, his “routine” was never routine. “I have been overrun with applications for Bakeries, for Agencies, for Eating Houses, for any and every thing in fact, even to holding my horse, if I pay, roundly,” the provost marshal wrote.

Often, he had to deal with cheaters, moneymaking schemes and the like. “We have made a large number of arrests today, of Soldiers selling [stolen] passes [to return home from the army].” One unusual diary entry is unexplained, but it certainly entailed malfeasance: “I drove up to the Hospital to see about some charges against the embalmers.”

Some complaints Patrick encountered give insight into the lively camp life of the Army of the Potomac. He wrote on Sept. 22, 1864: “This Evening I have had Rev. Mr. Burdick, Chaplain of the 61st New York here, for the 2nd time, in regard to a gross outrage committed upon him by Capt. & Lieut. Ames of a Battery in the 1st N.Y. Artillery, in the 2nd Corps – They tied him up to a Battery Waggon & the trial seems to be a farce.”

Newspapermen were not always treated well by the army. Negative reports from the front could mean banishment, or worse, for the offending scribe. Patrick wrote about “a Man named Cropsey of the Phil. Inquirer, who is to be sent off on account of a Libel on [Army commander George] Meade.” Patrick describes Mr. Cropsey’s punishment: “He was placed on a horse, with breast and back boards Marked ‘Libeller, of the Press’ & marched in rear of my flag, [through] the army, after which he was sent North.”

Patrick frequently interrogated the prisoners in his charge. He nicknamed the holding pen for these men the “Bull Ring”: “I went over to the Bull Ring and brought out a number of cases for examination.” He commented that many commanders found no value in Allan Pinkerton’s detectives and their intelligence. Many believed that between the interrogations of the prisoners and other information dug up by Patrick and his men, all intelligence to be had was obtained.

No alcohol, please

Practically every unwanted and difficult task, it seemed, wound up in Marsena Patrick’s hands. Just before Christmas 1863, he wrote: “I have had the Oyster business in hand, it having been referred back to me by Gen. Meade. I have, this evening, sent down an Advertisement, to appear in the Chronicle, & it has been telegraphed to the Associated Press. The bids are to be opened on Saturday the 2nd of January ’64.”

A teetotaling Presbyterian, Patrick took a stern approach to any amusement, especially involving alcohol, that made him both a pain in the neck and the perfect rule enforcer. On one St. Patrick’s Day, Patrick wrote: “In accordance with a Special request from [Gen. Joseph] Hooker, I agreed to go over & witness some of the festivities at the Head Quarters of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. We brought up in the midst of a grand steeple chase, from which the crowd soon adjourned to drink punch at Meagher’s Head Quarters – Everybody got tight & I found it was no place for me – so I came home.”

Patrick investigated his boss’s own servant for misuse of alcohol. “There has been a court Martial over at headquarters today to try Meade’s Steward, E.A. Paul for Selling Whiskey to Soldiers.” Later, Patrick enforced a “no alcohol” order by the notoriously non-teetotaling Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Picture of honor

More than once, Patrick officiated at an execution, taking the opportunity to address the troops on the value of good conduct and discipline. On July 15, 1864, Patrick wrote: “I read the Order of the Court & Sentence – The Clergy talked with them a few moments & at their request the feet were tied, the eyes bandaged, the ropes adjusted, the tap upon the drum & the drop fell! I remounted the Scaffold & said such words of warning, of reproof & of correction as seemed proper.”

After Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox, Mathew Brady posed Grant and his staff for one final photograph in the field. On April 12, 1865, Grant, the hero of the hour, posed in a high-backed chair. All his other staff officers stood on either side. The bald, well-built Patrick, wearing a startling 6- or 7-inch white beard, draped his right arm over the left shoulder of Grant’s chair. Patrick appears calm, serene and in command of the minutiae no other general needed or wanted.

As provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac, Patrick had served Gens. McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and Meade, the enforcer of discipline, the repairman of messes, the handler of the distasteful.

He did his duty honorably and well. Every large military unit requires a man like him.

John E. Carey writes history in northern Virginia.

Irish Brigade’s Flags Add Green to the Blue

August 30, 2008

National and regimental flags represented prized symbols of honor and tradition for any Civil War military unit, Union or Confederate. However, knowledge about many of those military flags is limited, poorly documented or dependent on word-of-mouth histories or inaccurate museum notations.

Officially, according to regulations, regular Army units were authorized just three flags: two national flags and a state flag. The first U.S. flag was a huge 36-by-20-foot heavy-bunting flag intended to fly on a pole over camp or garrison. The Stars and Stripes that units carried into battle were 6-by-6 on a 19-foot staff.

According to Army regulations in 1861, “The second, or regimental color, to be blue, with the arms of the United States embroidered in silk on the center. The name of the regiment on a scroll, underneath the eagle.”Because largely ethnic units, such as Irish, German or Italian, usually were state volunteers, they freely deviated from these federal rules. Some carried no blue flag. Some of the Irish carried the Stars and Stripes, the blue New York flag and a green regimental flag. Other flags might be used as guidons at the end of regimental lines.


The original Irish Harp flag presented to the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers by the Mayor Joseph Wightman of Boston, and called the ‘Pilot’ flag because of this illustration from that Irish Catholic newspaper in Boston.  The publisher was a strong supporter of the raising of the regiment.

Among the most recognizable regimental flags were the green silk flags of the Irish Brigade. At least three regiments of the Irish Brigade officially carried green flags: the 63rd Regiment, New York Volunteers; the 69th Regiment, New York Volunteers; and the 88th Regiment, New York Volunteers.A final 10th Regiment, New York Volunteers, was partially organized and then folded into the existing Irish units.As casualties among the Irish mounted in 1862, the 29th Massachusetts Regiment was added to the brigade, but this unit was not Irish. The 29th was replaced by the 28th Massachusetts, and then the 116th Pennsylvania joined the Irish Brigade. These units were almost entirely composed of Irishmen.

Confusion sometimes exists concerning the very names of these units, as accounts often refer to the 63rd Volunteer Infantry or the 69th Militia. As if that weren’t enough, the first Irish unit formed, the 63rd, is called the 3rd Irish (Independent) Regiment.The 69th is called the 1st Irish Regiment, and the 37th New York Irish Rifles is called the 2nd Irish Regiment.To further add to the confusion, the 23rd Illinois Volunteers is sometimes referred to as the “Irish Brigade of the West.”As flags were damaged beyond repair in battle or otherwise replaced, the lineage of the flags is denoted by a number, such as “the first Irish colors” for the first green flag carried by the unit.Most is known about the green flags of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Volunteers. The 28th Massachusetts apparently also carried a green flag, but the 116th Pennsylvania did not. The green regimental colors were rich in symbolism.

Most featured the Brian Boru harp, the symbol of the only king of a united Ireland, who died in battle in 1014. The sunburst often is above the harp, a symbol of hope and good times common among the American Fenians.

Shamrocks appear on several flags, in reference to the green hills of Ireland and its Catholic heritage. Many flags have patriotic Irish mottos such as “Riamh Nar Druid O Spairn Iann’” – “Who never retreated from the clash of lances.”Many of the green flags were presented to the regiments by wealthy donors. The most costly and ornate green flags, meant for presentation and ceremonies but not battle, were made by Tiffany Co.

How important can these flags be?

During the war, their value was inestimable. Brevet Brig. Gen. Ezra Carman, 13th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, recalls this scene at Antietam: “The ranks of [Thomas] Meagher’s [Irish] Brigade had been greatly thinned. The 69th New York had nearly melted away but a few [troopers] were left, huddling about its two colors, when one of the enemy shouted from the Sunken Road: ‘Bring them colors in here,’ upon which the two color bearers instantly advanced a few steps, shook their colors in the very face of the enemy and replied: ‘Come and take them you damned rebels.'”Capt. D.P. Conyngham wrote about “the green flag” at Antietam. “[It] was completely riddled, and it appeared certain death to anyone to bear it, for eight color bearers had already fallen.”The flags of the Irish Brigade, like other brigade banners, made the units recognizable and represented the bravery of the men who fought beneath them. At Fredericksburg, Confederate Gen. George Pickett marveled at the bravery of the Irish.

“The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. … We forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”After Fredericksburg, though, some of the Irish feared they had lost their colors and shamed the brigade.

2nd Irish Color, 69th NYSV

Conyngham wrote: “Next day the color-sergeant was found sitting up against a tree, dead, and his hands clasped upon his chest, as if protecting something. Near him was the staff of the missing flag. When removing the body, the men found the flag wrapped around it, with a bullet hole right through it and his heart.”

Anyone with interest in the Irish Brigade will appreciate the historical memoirs and letters used, the carefully documented illustrations and the detailed endnotes and references in a recent book about the green flags: “Blue for the Union and Green for Ireland: The Civil War Flags of the 63rd New York Volunteers, Irish Brigade,” written by Peter J. Lysy and published by the Archives of the University of Notre Dame.

John E. Carey is descended from members of the Irish Brigade. He is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.

Saint Patrick’s Day: Recalling Irish Union Soldiers in the American Civil War

August 30, 2008

Union’s luck with the Irish 

By John E. Carey
The Washington Times
March 17, 2007

Why did Irish immigrants enlist in the Army of the Potomac in such large numbers? According to the man who raised and equipped the Irish Brigade, Thomas Francis Meagher, “Duty and patriotism alike prompt me to it. The Republic that is the mainstay of human freedom, the world over, that gave us asylum and an honorable career, is threatened.
“It is the duty of every liberty-loving citizen to prevent such a calamity at all hazards. Above all it is the duty of us Irish citizens, who aspire to establish a similar form of government in our native land,” Meagher said.
The Irishmen carried green flags into battle alongside the Stars and Stripes. The distinctive flags were adorned with the harp of Erin embroidered in gold, “with a sunburst above it and a wreath of shamrock below. Underneath, on a crimson scroll, in Irish characters, was the motto, ‘They shall never retreat from the charges of lances.’ “
In Indiana, a French priest named Edward Sorin felt very much like Meagher.
Sorin, first president of the University of Notre Dame, recognized the importance of helping the Union cause and knew the Irish could choose to support the Union or suffer the blame of not contributing. He went first to one of his favorites, his protege, the Rev. William Corby. He urged Corby and then all his Irish clergymen to minister to the men under arms and to serve the Irish Brigade in particular.
Corby and six other priests of the Holy Cross order, a third of the order’s members in the United States, eventually joined up, but Corby was the first Catholic priest with the Army of the Potomac. He chose to serve the Irish Brigade but extended his ministry to the entire Army because of the paucity of serving clergy, especially among Catholics, in the early stages of the war.
Corby and other chaplains at the start of the war received no pay and held no rank. Later, Washington recognized the importance of chaplains and offered each an officer’s commission and pay.
The nuns from the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College community also went to war. The nuns became nurses in the Western theater, and some helped staff the first Navy hospital ship, the USS Red Rover, a specially configured medical ship operating in the Mississippi River and Western theater.
At the Mound City, Ill., military hospital, Dr. John Brinton called most female volunteers “terrible, irritable and unhappy.” The work was tough, disgusting and fatiguing. Brinton heard about the Catholic nuns and asked if any could assist him.
“In answer to my request to the Catholic authorities of South Bend, Indiana, a number of sisters were sent down to act as nurses in the hospital. Those sent were from a teaching and not a nursing order, but in a short time they adapted themselves admirably to their new duties,” Brinton said.
The Irish Brigade — and all Irish on both sides during the Civil War — earned reputations as fighters.
They also earned reputations as drinkers.

St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish Brigade was the stuff of military legend.
Meagher made St. Patrick’s Day an event talked about by the entire Army of the Potomac. Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, when commanding the Army of the Potomac, was the honored guest at one celebration. Festivities began on the eve of the holiday, with the night of March 16 devoted to music and song.
At dawn on March 17, according to Meagher’s biographer, Michael Cavanagh, preparations were made for Roman Catholic Mass. “A new and elegant vestment had been purchased by the men for their beloved chaplain, Rev. William Corby,” he wrote.
After Mass, the brigade challenged units of the Army of the Potomac to athletic contests, followed by food and drink.
The teetotaling provost marshal of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. Marsena Patrick, wrote on that St. Patrick’s Day, “In accordance with a Special request from Hooker, I agreed to go over & witness some of the festivities at the Head Quarters of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. We brought up in the midst of a grand steeple chase, from which the crowd soon adjourned to drink punch at Meagher’s Head Quarters — Everybody got tight & I found it was no place for me — so I came home.”
St. Patrick’s Day, always a highly celebrated Civil War day of revelry, remains a special day for Irishmen the world over.
    John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.