Band of Brothers: The Day the Irish Brigade Saved the 9th Massachusetts

Historical Art Prints
"Brothers of Ireland," by Don Troiani, depicts the 69th New York and 9th Massachusetts Infantry regiments in battle at Gaines Mill.

By Robert J. Bateman

By Friday, June 27, 1862, the Army of the Potomac, under the command of Major-General George B. McClellan, had fought within 10 miles of the Confederate capital, in Richmond, Virginia. After the engagements at Oak Grove and Mechanicsville on the 25th and 26th, the Battle of Gaines' Mill, the third of the now famous "Seven Days Battle," was about to commence.

After breakfast, the men of the 9th Massachusetts, along with the rest of their brigade, left their camp and marched in the direction of New Cold Harbor and halted a short distance from Gaines' Mill, once one of the finest grist mills in the state of Virginia. Prior to leaving camp each man in the "Irish 9th" Regiment had been issued three day's rations and 80 rounds of ammunition.

Virginia Historical Society
Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill

From the Confederate side at about the same hour, Major General Ambrose Powell ("A.P.") Hill's "Light Division", of General Longstreet's I Corps, was on the move from Mechanicsville. On paper, the so-called Light Division numbered 30,000 men, but at Gaines' Mill only some 14,000 troops were engaged. As the six brigades of Confederate infantry and seven batteries of artillery began their march, General Hill sent orders for General Maxcy Gregg's Second Brigade, consisting of the 1st, 12th, 13th, and 14th South Carolina Regiments, and Orr's Rifle Regiment, also from South Carolina, to move out in advance of the main body and "drive out of their entrenchments any Federal units he encountered."

Leaving the 14th South Carolina on picket duty at the Chickahominy River, Gregg sent forward, on the right flank, the 1st South Carolina, with the 12th South Carolina on his left flank. Orr's Regiment of Rifles and the 13th South Carolina followed in support.

Just before noon, Griffin ordered the 9th's commander, Colonel Thomas Cass, to march his regiment in the direction of Gaines' Mill and to hold the bridge crossing over the Powhite Creek, just below the mill. Griffin also informed Cass that two additional regiments would be sent to support the 9th. (These two regiments never arrived and for which General Griffin later apologized.)

Library of Congresss
Col. Thomas Cass

Upon arriving at the bridge, Cass deployed as skirmishers Company I, under Captain James McCafferty, on the right flank, and Company F, under Captain O'Leary, on the left flank. Soon thereafter, Confederate infantry advanced down the road by Gaines' Mill to their front. Gregg had sent forward as skirmishers two companies from the 1st South Carolina and one company from the 12th South Carolina.

Advancing at the double-quick, in the noonday heat, the Confederate skirmish line was met by a volley of musket fire from the Irish 9th Massachusetts' Company I to their front and from Company F on their right flank. After several horrible and frantic minutes, the Rebels were driven back. Additional troops from Gregg's South Carolina Brigade moved onto the field in an attempt to drive the Irish 9th's skirmishes from their isolated and exposed position. Time and again, the brave South Carolinians charged against the 9th's Companies I and F, only to be met by withering musket fire from the determined Irishmen.

Confederate forces continued to take the field as Cass sent forward Companies A and D, under Major Patrick Hanley, to reinforce the bloodied I and F. Company I, being to the front, was taking a murderous beating, while gallantly holding its position. McCafferty and 1st Lieutenant Richard Nugent lay dead among the carnage, with 2nd Lieutenant Frank O'Dowd now in command of the Company. Hanley rode up and down his line of defenders shouting orders and giving encouragement.

'Boys, stand firm!... Stand firm!" he shouted. 'Commence firing.'

By now, the major portion of Gregg's Brigade was on the field. Hill would later write that Gregg's troops at Gaines' Mill performed "the handsomest charge in line I have seen during the war." The fighting intensified, and Hanley gave the order to fall back. The four companies closed intervals, and, while still facing the oncoming Confederate forces, on command gave one final volley of fire by company before slowly giving ground. During this withdrawal, Lieutenant O'Dowd was killed and First Sergeant James MacNamara was seriously wounded and captured. Sergeant Timothy Deasy, now the senior noncommissioned officer in action, assumed command of Company I.

Consolidating the remains of the company, and with his younger brother Connie at his side, Sergeant Deasy shouted the order to "Rally By Fours," and the men came together in groups of four. "Boys, stand firm! … Stand firm!" he shouted. "Commence firing." The remnants of Company I once again began firing volleys of musket fire into the advancing Confederates. Having gained control of the company and the confidence of the men, he gave the order to once again, "Deploy as skirmishers! … Retire in Order. Retire in Order," he commanded. He then ordered several of the walking wounded to gather up the ammunition boxes and canteens of their fallen comrades and to help to the rear those who could be moved as they fell back to their own lines.

Map by Hal Jespersen, www.posix.com/CW
Map of the Battle of Gaines' Mill actions at 2:30 p.m., showing the retreat of the 9th Massachusetts skirmishers. Click on the image for the full map.

By 2 p.m., Cass had succeeded in moving the 9th back to the Fifth Corps' main line. The infantry battle line of General Morell's First Division was formed on the incline of the hill along Boatswain's Swamp, from the center of the line to the extreme left. General Sykes' Second Division was in position from the center and extended over Turkey Hill to the extreme right. General Griffin's Second Brigade, which included the 9th, was on the right of the First Division.

The 9th Massachusetts formed on the right of the Brigade at the very center of the line of battle. The 62nd Pennsylvania formed in line directly behind the Irish 9th. To the left of the 9th stood four regiments of General Martindale's First Brigade, with the 22nd Massachusetts and 1st Berdan Sharpshooters in a line to their rear. To the 9th's immediate right, covering the road from New Cold Harbor, was the 3rd. Massachusetts Battery of Artillery, under the command of Captain A.P. Martin. To the right of Martin's Battery was positioned Colonel Governeur Kemble Warren's Third Brigade, Second Division.

At 2:30 p.m., amid sweltering heat, Hill ordered his Light Division to attack. The division's Sixth Brigade -- North Carolinians led by General William Dorsey Pender -- and General J.R. Anderson's Third Brigade advanced on the Federal center. During the advance, Gregg ordered Orr's Rifles, with Colonel J. Foster Marshall in command, to charge and capture the 3rd Massachusetts Artillery Battery.

Marshall formed his men in three lines of battle and, with bugles sounding and drums pounding, began his attack. For a distance of several hundred yards, in the face of murderous musket and cannon fire, the courageous troops of Orr's Rifles advanced across open ground. The 9th, supported by the 62nd Pennsylvania and Berdan's Sharpshooters, successfully repulsed the attack, inflicting heavy casualties upon the South Carolinians, but the battle was far from over. WGT

Part 2: Band of Brothers

Robert J. Bateman is the great-grandson of Pvt. Cornelius Deasy and great-grand-nephew of Captain Timothy Deasy, 9th Massachusetts Volunteers. The Deasys immigrated from Clonakilty, County Cork. Bob was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and raised in Lawrence and York Harbor, Maine. He is a colonel, Army Division, New York Guard. Bateman is a former National Historian of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America (AOH); a former director, Irish National Caucus; Past Commander-in-Chief, The Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States; Past Chairman of the Board, The Military Association of New York; and a member of the National Guard Association of the United States; the New York Guard Association; the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA); the Irish Brigade Association; The Sovereign Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem (Knights Templar); and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. He is the founder and president of Alliance Defense Marketing Associates. Bob and his wife Camille reside in New York City.

Copyright © 2011 by Robert J. Bateman and GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: 9th Massachusetts, American Civil War, Diaspora History, Gaines Mill, Irish Brigade, Thomas Cass, Timothy Deasy, United States

Comment by Joe Ó Connell on June 29, 2018 at 2:07am

This was one of the Seven Days' Battles in the Peninsular Campaign. While it was not formally a part of the Irish Brigade, my great, great-grandfather's regiment, the Seventh Pennsylvania Reserves, was heavily Irish, mosty railroad workers, and was frequently engaged alongside the "formal" Irish Brigade. Sgt. John Scanlon, my ancestor, lost his leg at Gaines Mill. He eventually died as a result of complications of his wound some 16 or 17 years later.

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