Greenwich Village Helps Preserve the Union

In the Spring of 1861 the Confederate Army attacked Fort Sumter. Newly elected President Abraham Lincoln realized that troops were needed to preserve the Union. Lincoln quickly called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the resistance in the South. In May of 1861 the 9th New York State Militia answered Lincoln's call-to-arms. Many of the soldiers in this militia were from Greenwich Village, and their distinguished and honorable service illustrates the Village's important role in preserving the Union.

Originally organized in 1799, the 9th New York State Militia served in a variety of capacities prior to the start of the Civil War. Always based in New York City, this unit served as both infantry and artillery throughout the antebellum years. The War of 1812 revealed a need for better protection of New York Harbor. The forerunner to the 9th Militia answered this need. The unit served in various batteries throughout Manhattan during the conflict and helped protect New York Harbor from British invasion. After the War of 1812, this unit “served the State at the Abolition riot, January 11 and 12, 1835; at the great fire, December 17, 1835; at the Police riot, June 16-18, 1857; and at the Dead Rabbit riot, July 5-7, 1857.” Equipped by the armory on West Fourteenth Street and armed with this noteworthy history, the 9th Militia answered the call to preserve the Union in May of 1861.

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1st Lt. Felix Hirt, 83rd NY Infantry

Men from Greenwich Village signed up on May 27, 1861 to serve three years with the Union Army. From May to December 1861, the unit served as the 9th New York State Militia. The 850 men of the 9th Militia marched down Broadway wearing dark blue uniforms with red trimming and capes lined with red.1 These fancy uniforms would not last long under the trials of campaigning and were not inconspicuous on the battlefield. John Wesley Jacques, a veteran of the 83rd, remembered the departure from New York City, "Many a mother as she wiped the tears from her eyes was proud to see her son in the ranks, willing to serve his country against the traitors…Many a wife offered up a silent 'God Bless You' as she beheld her husband with this band of true and loyal patriots."2 Unfortunately for these men and women, too many soldiers would not return.

After leaving New York City, the 9th Militia travelled to Washington, D.C. to help protect the capital. For a month the men from Greenwich Village camped in Washington, marched before President Lincoln and his cabinet at the White House, and trained with newly-acquired Harpers Ferry Muskets. Here the men were sworn into service for three years or until the rebellion was stifled and the 9th Militia became the 83rd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. (Full Roster of the 83rd Infantry) John Jacques expressed the view of the majority of soldiers at this time when he wrote the men of the 9th Militia were “confident of compelling the rebels to return to their allegiance to the United States Government, in a few months.”3 Though it would take much more than “a few months”, the soldiers of Greenwich Village would serve faithfully until attrition and casualties essentially ended their ability to contribute to the war effort.

Under the leadership of Colonel John Stiles, a West Village resident before the war, the 83rd New York marched south to battle the Confederates. Their first major engagement of the war came at the Second Battle of Bull Run. On August 30, 1862, the Army of the Potomac under General Pope engaged the Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee for the second time at Manassas, Virginia. The 83rd New York suffered 15 men killed, 21 wounded and 39 missing during this Union defeat in which the army under Pope retreated toward Washington.4 These casualties foreshadowed dark days to come for the Greenwich Village regiment.

The next month the 83rd New York marched to meet Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the north. The two armies collided at Antietam, Maryland for what would become one of the most significant battles as well as the bloodiest day of the war, with a total of 23,000 lives lost. During this engagement, the 83rd suffered heavy casualties. While marching across a field, both shells from cannon and rifle fire began to thin the ranks of the New Yorkers. Three hours of fighting resulted in 24 New York City deaths and 90 wounded. But in spite of heavy casualties the 83rd New York helped push the Confederates back south to Virginia. Though tactically the battle was somewhat inconclusive, it was enough of a victory for President Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation.

Unfortunately the carnage was far from over for the men from Greenwich Village. In December, 1862 the Army of the Potomac met disaster at a town in Virginia named Fredericksburg. This battle was a disaster, with the Union troops marching up a long, clear slope toward the Confederate Army waiting behind a rock wall. The safely entrenched Southerners picked off Northern forces from relative safety and the Union army suffered double the number of casualties the Confederates sustained. The 83rd lost 126 men during this battle. The men from Greenwich Village now numbered 517.
After playing a small part in the Battle of Chancellorsville, another horrible Union defeat, the 83rd marched to stop Lee’s second invasion of the North. These New Yorkers met the Confederates at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The 83rd New York played an important role during the first of three days of battle at Gettysburg.

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Battle of Gettysburg, by Currier and Ives

West of the town of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, the Confederates were pushing the Union troops back. It was here that the 83rd New York sought revenge for what happened to them at Fredericksburg. Now the regiment from Greenwich Village was behind the stone wall and the rebels were in an open field. Along with other Union infantry regiments, the 83rd held their fire to let the rebels from North Carolina get into optimum range. When 50 yards away, the Union line fired a devastating volley into the oncoming North Carolinians. George Hussy of the 83rd New York wrote: “rarely has such a destructive volley been fired on any field of battle.”5 The Confederates from North Carolina lost 900 out of the 1,400 sent into battle while the 83rd lost 82 men. The men from Greenwich Village fell back after inflicting these heavy casualties on the enemy. The 83rd would provide support for the rest of the battle.

After Gettysburg, the regiment from Greenwich Village served in other major engagements such as the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. On June 11, 1864, the 83rd returned to New York City with only 95 officers and men. The 850 men who left Greenwich Village to suppress the rebellion in “a few months” returned three years later with barely ten percent of that number.6 The Civil War hit many communities of 19th century America hard, Greenwich Village being no exception. John Jacques concluded his recollections of his unit, "This regiment can show as true and as loyal a class of men, as ever laid down their lives for their country, and as such they will be remembered by future historians."7

Bibliography

Gottfried, Bradley M.The Maps of Gettysburg: An Atlas of the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3-July 13, 1863. New York: Savas Beatie, 2007.

Heritage Preservation Services, "CWSAC Battle Summaries." http://www.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/sc001.htm. Accessed 16 November 2011.

Jaques, John W. John W. Three Years Campaign of the Ninth, N.Y.S.M During the Southern Rebellion. New York: Hilton & Company, 1865.

Phisterer, Frederick. New York in the War of the Rebellion. Albany: J.B. Lyon Company, 1912.

Photo credits: "1st Lieutenant Felix Hirt," New York State Military Museum and Veteran Research Center
"Battle of Gettysburg," Wikimedia Commons

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Web Exhibit and Digital Archive Topic: The Village Defends The Union: 9th Regiment New York State Militia (US Service, 83rd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment)

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