The Purple Heart of Hell: The 34th Massachusetts at New Market

The 34th Massachusetts Infantry spent most of the first year of its service in the defenses of Washington, D.C. and Harper's Ferry, missing out on such battles as Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. They were a spit and polish regiment, and one veterans of the Army of the Potomac would refer to as “band box soldiers.” That changed in the spring of 1864 when the regiment joined General Franz Sigel’s army in the Shenandoah Valley.

          During the first major engagement of that campaign at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864, the 34th Massachusetts held a rearguard position north of the Bushong Farm until the afternoon. After halting the Confederate advance, General Sigel ordered the regiment to charge as one soldier said, into the “purple heart of hell.” Tasked with breaking the Confederate line, the 34th Massachusetts quickly found itself pummeled by Confederate musketry and the attack spluttered to a halt. It was as one soldier said, “a most destructive battle” and one fought in an increasingly heavy thunderstorm. General Sigel soon ordered his batteries to retreat and the infantrymen followed not long after, leaving the field and a victory to the Confederates.

The Bay Staters suffered 221 casualties in roughly a half hour of combat, a quarter of those suffered by the Federals at New Market, before leaving the field “with its wounded colonel at its head slowly and in good order.” Colonel George D. Wells had been struck twice; once in the head by one bullet and once on the arm by another and the men later boasted that Wells was “ironclad.” Co. I went into the fight with 71 men and left with only 26 which gives some idea of how tough this fight was for the 34th Massachusetts. The blood of the "band box regiment" flowed as red and as thickly as that shed by any of the veteran regiments at New Market.

          In the aftermath of the engagement at New Market, the Southbridge Journal ran a series of articles about the regiment, a digest of which is published below.

 

Raised in the five western counties of Massachusetts, the 34th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry entered service in response to Lincoln's call for 300,000 more volunteers in the summer of 1862. The regiment spent months serving in the defenses of Washington, D.C. before being dispatched to Harper's Ferry on July 9, 1863 in the closing stages of the Gettysburg campaign. But it wasn't until New Market that the 34th Massachusetts got into a stand-up fight with the Confederates and suffered heavily in that engagement, losing 39 men killed and a total of 221 casualties in the regiment. The regiment would see extensive action in the Shenandoah Valley in the ensuing months, taking part in the battles of Piedmont, Lynchburg, Snicker's Gap, Opequon, Fisher's Hill, Stickley's Farm near Cedar Creek, and Cedar Creek a few days later. The unidentified drummer above is wearing a field musician's uniform with a Massachusetts belt buckle. The piping on the jacket would have been light blue in color.  

          The regiment marched 22 miles on the 14th and had a skirmish with the enemy after dark and lay on their arms all night, cold, wet, tired, and hungry with no campfires. It rained hard from the 10th to the 15th; consequently, the ford was very high and the Shenandoah was over its banks.

          Early on the morning of the 15th our troops moved into the open field and formed into line of battle under the direction of General Sigel. Only a small part of his army came up in time to take part in the fight. The Rebels were in full force under General Breckinridge and formed three strong lines across the field, each line a brigade supported by batteries. Our artillery opened on their lines with grape and canister at short range, cutting large gaps in their lines, but on they came until they met our infantry which held them in check a short time and finally broke their first line.

Colonel George Duncan Wells of the 34th Massachusetts proved to be ironclad at New Market, but that good fortune wouldn't last as the former judge would be killed in action October 13, 1864 near Cedar Creek in the engagement at Stickley's Farm. 

The 18th Connecticut broke in the beginning of the engagement, also the 1st West Virginia regiment, leaving the 54th Pennsylvania and 34th Massachusetts unsupported. General Sigel was in the advance trying to collect the scattered regiments, often in the hottest of the fire. It seemed madness to throw so small a force in the face of so strong an enemy, but General Sigel did not know before the engagement commenced that the enemy had been reinforced during the night.

The 34th, after being in the fight a short time, was ordered to make a bayonet charge and charge they did through the first Rebel line into what seemed the purple heart of hell. The enemy’s second line stood laughing at them. One regiment trying to go through three such lines in expectation of getting out again was madness. The colonel saw that it was useless to try and carry out the order, but so great was the noise that he only arrested the advance of his regiment by seizing the color bearer and holding him fast. They then retired with the artillery and stragglers from other regiments across the river, blew up the bridge, and held the Rebels in check until night when all retreated to Strasburg. The 34th marched off the field with its wounded colonel at its head slowly and in good order.

 

A company of men from the 34th Massachusetts are deployed in skirmish order in front of their camp at Miner's Hill, Virginia.  

“I heard the hiss of bullets and saw where they had struck the ground in different directions, right, left, and in front, but I was a green hand and didn’t know that this meant we were among the Minie balls. A few minutes after being under fire, we were halted and the corps commenced marking time, but as we lay down almost instantly for a few seconds, a cadet near me remarked, ‘What damn fool gave the order to mark time under this fire?’” ~John Clarke Howard, V.M.I. Cadets

 

Only half the regiment was in the fight, many being detailed to guard the bridges. Those in the fight were under fire about half an hour and lost one half their number. Our entire loss in the fight was 762 killed, wounded and prisoner, and eight dismounted pieces of artillery which could not be brought off because all of the horses were killed. Our killed and 150 of the wounded were left on the field in Rebel hands. All that could be brought off are in hospital at Martinsburg.

Captain William B. Bacon, Co. E, 34th Massachusetts
Killed in action at New Market

A few days after the fight, General Sigel made a speech to the 34th in which he said, “I for the first time saw the 34th Massachusetts under fire on the 15th and I am bound to state that it is the best regiment and has the best commanding officer I have ever seen.” The men of the 34th are rightly proud of this compliment, made in the presence of other regiments and a battery of regulars.


Sources:

“The Battle of New Market,” Southbridge Journal (Massachusetts), June 3, 1864, pg. 1

“From the 34th Regiment,” Southbridge Journal (Massachusetts), May 27, 1864, pg. 2

Letter from Private William A. Sears, Co. F, 34th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Southbridge Journal (Massachusetts), May 27, 1864, pg. 2

The 34th Massachusetts in formation by company in front of their encampment at Fort Lyon, Virginia in an image probably dating from the winter of 1862-1863. The Sibley tents which could house upwards of 20 men have been "winterized" by erecting them atop barricades of logs with stovepipes exiting the rear of the tents. The tents are laid out in regular Army order with company streets no doubt kept clean per the regulations. 


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