Struck down at Cold Harbor: In Action with the 8th New York Heavy Artillery
By the spring of 1864, the 8th New York Heavy Artillery had thus far had a quiet war. Recruited as the 129th New York Infantry in the summer of 1862 from Niagara and Orleans Counties in western New York, the regiment had been converted into heavy artillerists and served for much of the past two years in the forts guarding Baltimore harbor.
But in mid-May as Grant’s Overland campaign ground on towards Richmond, the decision was made to pull the veteran heavy artillery troops out of their forts and send them to Grant’s army where they would be converted into infantrymen.
On the afternoon of May 15, 1864, the raw Federalized National Guard troops of the 144th Ohio marched into Fort McHenry with orders to relieve the 8th New York then led by Colonel Peter Porter. Adjutant Jonathan Ayres of the 144th noted the departure of the 8th New York in a letter back home. “The 8th New York Heavy Artillery left for the front via Washington,” he wrote on May 16th. “They were 1,800 strong, well-drilled having been here two years, most of the officers had their wives with them.”
The 8th New York joined the Army of Potomac and was assigned to the old Corcoran Legion, a brigade of Irish New Yorkers commanded by General Robert O. Tyler. The massive size of the 12-company 8th New York Heavies doubled the size of the Legion. The brigade was assigned to General John Gibbon’s division of Hancock’s 2nd Army Corps, superb company indeed.
The introduction of the “heavies” to combat was brutal, particularly the morning of June 3rd 1864 at Cold Harbor. The 8th was placed on the brigade right near Cold Harbor Road and Grant’s plan was to mass his men and punch until a weak point could be found to exploit. As the New Yorkers formed ranks, they could see gray-clad infantry hunkered down behind fieldworks preparing for the fight. But the men seemed nonchalant. “We were acting very much unlike the stern and silent soldiers we read of for we were laughing and chatting, speculating upon the prospect before us as if it were a mere holiday or some bore of a parade,” one later wrote.
The regiment formed up into two lines and marched off at dawn across more than a mile of open ground. Confederates mercilessly pummeled their lines with artillery and musketry. Casualties mounted quick. “It was advancing across an open space when a masked battery opened upon it a withering fire, by which the colonel was instantly killed, the major dangerously wounded, and more than half of the men disabled,” Harper’s Weekly reported.
John Haney, who served as Colonel Porter’s manservant, described that attack. “On Friday morning, General Tyler, in command of the Brigade, was wounded in the leg, and sent word to Colonel Porter, requesting him to assume command in the charge on the enemy's works, about to be made. Colonel Porter called the officers together, and firmly and calmly informed them that the task was one of almost certain death, but that orders must be obeyed. He then sprang to the top of the earthworks, and waving his sword cried, "Boys, follow me, I will lead you!"
“Every man in the Brigade rushed over the entrenchments at the word, and swept down on the Rebel works, from end to end of which a torrent of death flame was pouring. Scarce half of the horrid intervening space was passed, before a Minie ball struck the Colonel in the side of the neck, and he fell. Struggling to his feet, he again cheered on his men (one report said that he yelled “dress on the colors!”), and again dauntlessly faced the tempest of iron and lead. The next instant a ball passed through his heart, and he fell on his hands and knees, undoubtedly killed instantly, as his body was in that position when recovered. He was struck with seven rifle balls; two through the neck, one through the heart, one in the side, one in the abdomen, and one through each leg.”
|Colonel Peter A. Porter, 8th N.Y.H.A. |
Killed in action at Cold Harbor
“His body was riddled with balls and his death is supposed to have been instantaneous,” the Rochester Union reported. “The ground on which he was lying not being in possession of either army, it was with extreme difficulty the body was recovered. It was reached by digging a trench to within a few feet of it, several men then crawling on their hands and knees, when a rope was attached to his feet and the body thus secured. Four men then transported it on their shoulders to White House, where it was encoffined and forwarded to the Falls. It was much decomposed, having lain on the ground for nearly 48 hours under a blazing sun.”
The attack had only lasted ten minutes before it sputtered out, one Confederate calling it simply “butchery.” 475 men of the 8th New York numbered amongst the casualties of this short, and incredibly brutal debacle.
To Captain Joel B. Baker of Co. B fell the sad task of informing the homefolks what had happened to the regiment.
|Captain Joel B. Baker, Co. B, 8th New York Heavy Artillery|
Cold Harbor battlefield, Virginia
June 4, 1864
It is my duty to inform, through your paper, our many friends in Niagara county of the dreadful slaughter in our regiment. We reached this place by a "flank movement" from Prospect Hill on the morning of the 2nd instant. We took position in a line of rifle-pits about half a mile from the Rebel works before us.
Our line of rifle-pits occupied by our forces extended about midway between us and the rebel lines on our right. We lay in our position until 5 a. m. when we were ordered to charge the Rebel lines. Our brave boys sprang over their breastworks, and at double-quick, with good lines, steadily proceeded over the long space between us and the enemy's lines.
The field where most of the men fell is within from one to twenty rods of the Rebel lines and covered by their guns, and it was under cover of the night that our men succeeded in getting off any of the wounded, and once on being discovered by the rebels they opened a furious fire of musketry and canister upon us which continued for half an hour. During this fire Captain Gardner, Co. I, was killed, and Lieutenant Cook, wounded. Some of the missing may be safe, but I greatly fear nearly all are killed.
I shall attempt no detailed account of the charge but suffice it to say that we were repulsed with heavy loss. Colonel Porter is missing and reported killed; but as long as there is a doubt there is hope. Major Willet is wounded in the right shoulder. Captain Hawkins shot in the right breast; a severe wound.
|Major James M. Willet|
But my company lost most. Lieutenant Low has a flesh wound in right thigh. Lieutenant Nichols slight wound in right arm. Lieutenant Brown received four severe wounds, and owing to the Rebel fire, could not be got off the ground till near midnight, when he was just alive. Lieutenant Pitcher, light arm badly wounded, and ball through right leg.
Sergt. Robb, dangerously wounded head; do Fellows, severely do, leg; do, Peterson, missing; do Cornell, do; Corp'l Saddleson, do; do Taylor d o ; do Root, do; do Furman, severely wounded, leg; do Fuller, do; do Harwood, do; do Jondson, dangerously, breast; do Gifford, severely, arm and leg; do G. H. Fellows, slight, foot; Private Ball, severely, foot; do L. H. Bennett, severely, side; do Billings, slight, leg; do Barnes, dangerous, breast; do Blake, severely, shoulder; do Christigan, severely, 3 wounds; do N Coe, severely, arm; do E Coe, slight, band; do B Coe, severely, leg; do G Drake, dangerous, head; do W Dutton, severely, leg; do W H Gleason, severely, arm; do W Harwood, slight, leg; do J Howell, severe, hip; do H Johnson, severe arm; do F Knenger, severe, head; do A Mahon, dangerous, chest; do A Mehwaldt, slight, leg; do T Meyers, dangerous, side; do A McCoy, do; do J Nafe, slight, head; do W S Pike, severe, leg; do W Rogers, do; do R Russell, do; do C Sherman, do; do M L Swift, do d o ; do C U Thornton, slight, hand; do W Thompson, do; do E Van, severe, leg; do A Warden, slight; do J Walker, severe, l e g ; do S White, do, hip; do H L Weston, dangerous [sic], body; do A Stein, missing; do J Brewer, do; do J Bowman, do; do A Bishop, do; do G W Day, do; do W Elton, do; do D S Howe, do; do W Hall, do; do W Ireland, do; do G W Johnson, dead; do J Jacobs, missing; do A Lapworth, do; do J Layland, do; do F E Morrison, do; do C Mehwaldt, do; do G Maynard, do; do W Praker, do; do L G Pettit, do; do C Romer, do; do B J Rose, do; do M W. Stiles, do; do J Senn, do; do J Starrow, do; do W Vanduser, do; do W Watson, d o ; do E Wilcox, dead; do J Walden, missing.
All whose names do not appear in the above list are safe.
They were only too brave and charged into a fire that older regiments could not be forced into. My men melted away around me, till, with the exception of the Adjutant of our battalion, who was wounded, but bravely struggling on, not a man was standing within the length of the lines of my company.
I cannot speak of the other companies, but the loss in killed, wounded and missing is between 500 and 600 in the Regiment.
All night we toiled stealing our wounded from the field. I cannot express the sadness of the few of us who escaped harm and left to tell the dreadful tale.
J. B. BAKER
By June 12th, Major E.M. Spalding reported that the 8th New York had lost 7 officers and 73 men killed, 16 officers, and 323 men wounded, and 1 officer and 85 men missing, for a total of 505 casualties in a nine-day span.
Adjutant Ayres of the 144th Ohio was present when Porter’s body was brought back through Baltimore on June 8th less than three weeks after he departed at the head of the 1,800-man strong regiment. “The remains of Colonel Porter of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery was brought into the city yesterday afternoon, escorted by General Lew Wallace and staff, General William W. Morris, and staff, and the 137th Ohio under Colonel Len Harris. The 8th was relieved at Ft. McHenry by the 144th and sent the front the same day we got there.”
Do you want to walk the path of the charge of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery at Cold Harbor? Thanks to the work some great battlefield preservation groups, you can walk through part of it including the line of Colquitt’s works where some members of the 8th New York fell in their desperate effort to break Lee’s line. Readers are recommended to visit the Cold Harbor Battlefield Visitor Center, part of the Richmond National Battlefield, located at 5515 Anderson Wright Dr., Mechanicsville, VA 23111. If you travel east on Cold Harbor Road (VA-156), you’ll see the Garthright House in located south of the road. The county owns a 50-acre tract of woods surrounding the house which includes trails and intact Civil War-era trenches and rifle pits. The right flank of the 8th New York Heavies formed up just south of Garthright House and marched east towards Colquitt whose line ran south from the curve in Cold Harbor Road as shown in the map below.
|A simplified modern map showing the relative locations of Colquitt's brigade and the path of the 8th New York Heavies.|
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