Monday, September 17, 2007

8th New York Heavy Artillery

I am originally from Youngstown, New York and one of my new interests is researching regiments from that area. Don't worry I am still researching the 4th Alabama Infantry but money has cut into my research a bit and I am unable to push the process forward until October comes. However, I wanted to write about the 8th New York Heavy Artillery and their experiences during the Civil War.If you google "Youngstown, New York" you will find that it is located in the far, northwest corner of Niagara County. The city of Niagara Falls is located within the same county. The 8th New York had been recruited in this same area in 1862. The men came from the counties of Genessee, Niagara and Orleans. Originally christened the 129th Regiment of Infantry, the unit was renumbered as the 8th Heavy Artillery after several months of garrison duty in Baltimore, Maryland. The 8th had been in the war for two years but had never heard a shot fired in anger. The combat soldiers referred to these regiments as "band box soldiers" because they lived behind the comforts of fortifications that the weakened southern armies would never attempt to assualt.Unlike the combat regiments who saw their numbers dwindle the 8th had twelve companies of 150 men each.

This fact caused animosity between the fighting regiments of the Army of the Potomac and the garrison regiments who hadn't had the joy of hearing a bullet whirl past their heads. As the Army of the Potomac saw their numbers decline on such battlefields as Antietam, Gettysburg and Fredricksburg the 8th was among those who enjoyed the safety of their forts.The 8th not only lived in an environment that was free from musket fire but was also an area of comfort. Most had permanent barracks, their own bakeries and hospitals, some even had machine shops, libraries and livestock herds that provided fresh meat for the men. In many ways the combat soldier lived like a trailer park family and the heavies lived like Paris Hilton. Many of the men wanted to fight and their letters home reflect a sense of duty and desire to battle the Confederacy. One member of the 8th wrote home "It is exceedingly trying to be kept here far from the scene of glorious strife. Every man in this regiment would greet with vociferous cheers an order to move to the front."When U.S. Grant began his spring campaign of 1864 the "play time" ended for many of the green, garrison regiments. He increased the armies numbers by taking the "heavies" out of the forts in Washington and put them in the field. Grant knew that the weakened Confederate armies would pose little threat to the fortified cities of Baltimore and Washington. Among these regiments that was removed from paradise was the 8th New York and the green regiment would prove themselves on the battlefields of Virginia.

By May 1864 the regiment had joined the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac as infantry. Many of the men were very eager to taste combat and prove themselves as equals to the battle-tested veterans of Grant's army. The men sang as they marched in splendid uniforms that were unstained from gunpowder and blood. One member of the 8th wrote "we were the proudest regiment to every reach the front." The men they were joining forces with were not as joyous and they had some surprises for their new comrades.One these new regiments marched into camp many combat soldiers would say "What division is that?" Others offered nothing but insults and cat calls to the heavies as their new shoes stepped on the blood stained soil of Virginia. In many cases the new regiments were shown wounded men and even a mangled corpse as part of their initiation into the the horrors of war.The 8th was commanded by Colonel Peter Porter and Grant quickly threw his new regiments into the chaos of combat hasten their experience levels. On May 19th at Spotsylvania the regiment was part of the attack force that assaulted the fortified Confederate front. One of the first to fall was John Furner who was shot thru the head and died instantly. A captured Confederate claimed that he shot at Colonel Porter three times but missed. The regiment performed well in its first battle but the pride of the 8th would be severely tested in the next big battle at Cold Harbor. During the battle the Army of the Potomac threw itself against the battle stiffened rebels and it suffered horrendous causalities.

On June 3rd, in the span of just twenty minutes the 8th NY lost over two hundred men. The men showed incredible bravery by attacking a position that many of them knew was impossible to take. As the men sprang from their entrenchments and marched at the double quick the Confederates opened fire sending volley after volley into the Union ranks. The results were appalling and the men began to stagger back from the sheets of southern musketry. The 8th got withing fifty feet of the enemy before Colonel Porter was struck four times and fell dead between the lines. Also killed was Capt. H. H. Sheldon a resident of Niagara Falls. With their Colonel dead on the field the 8th New York fell back to the protection of their earthworks and as they swept back to safety many of the men tripped over their comrades who lay dead or dying. In his battle report Major General John Gibbon praised the men of the 8th stating "The gallant Colonel Porter, Eighth New York Heavy Artillery, fell only a few yards from the enemy's works, surrounded by the dead of his regiment, which, although new to the work, fought like veterans."The men felt a special attachment to Colonel Porter who once referred to his men as "the sons of friends and neighbors." This devotion would become the catalist for one of the greatest rescue attempts in American history. Sergeant LeRoy Williams risked life and limb to retrieve Colonel Porter's body during the night. The Oswego, New York native would receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery just thirty four years after the battle. In a series of frontal assaults, the Federals were slaughtered, sustaining approximately 7,000 casualties.At Cold Harbor the 8th New York suffered more than any other regiment on the field. Seven officers and one-hundred seventeen men were killed in action. Nearly 505 men fell before the Confederate guns that day and when it was all said and done 361 men would never rise again. Only the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery regiment would surpass the loss of the 8th within the time span that these green regiments first took the field.

After Cold Harbor, the 8th endured the 10 month siege of Petersburg. After following Lee to Appomattox the war ended for the 8th New York but not before they had placed themselves amongst the best fighting units that the Army of the Potomac ever had. Officially the loss within the ranks of the 8th as staggering. Eleven officers and 199 men were killed in combat during its short service to the Union. Another nine officers and 145 men died as a result of their wounds and 136 men would die of disease. In total, 24 officers, 646 enlisted men of the 8th died as a result of their service.

They are a regiment that is ignored and forgotten by some but they are forever remarkable. A poem written by a member of the 8th named W. H. C. Hosmer best illustrates how gallant and chivalrous these men were. Originally written for Colonel Porter who would no doubt agree with me that these words were meant for the entire regiment:
"Mourn for Niagara's gallant son, Brave Porter who hath died;A crowning victory
was won,And he his country's pride;In triumph over death the grave,Fell first,
and foremost of the brave."

The 8th has some excellent sources and webpages. Here are some that you can look at and I used many of them as I wrote this blog.

New York in the War of the Rebellion, 3rd ed. Frederick Phisterer. Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, 1912.

Sgt. Williams Medal of Honor bio can be found at:

Roster and more info are here:

Western NY GenWeb projects are here:

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