Recalling the 155th New York Volunteer Infantry 'Corcoran's Irish Legion' 1862-1865

By Kevin O'Beirne

Michael Corcoran was the commander of the 69th New York State Militia regiment, which fought at the battle of 1st Bull Run in July of 1861. Corcoran was captured by the rebels at that battle and was held prisoner for 13 months, until his exchange in August '62. One hundred and thirty-five years ago this November he formed an all-Irish brigade which was known as Corcoran's Irish Legion. One of the regiments of that Irish Legion was the 155th NYVI.

The 155th NYVI was raised in Buffalo in late summer 1862 and was comprised almost entirely of Irish immigrants; the regiment was part of Corcoran's Irish Legion. The Legion was one of only two all-Irish brigades in the Federal army.

Above left, Michael Corcoran left his imprint on his Legion, which continued to carry his name after his death of a stroke in December 1863. WGT Composite / Micah Chandler

The Corcoran Legion was reorganized shortly after its original formation, and most of the Buffalo men assigned to the 155th New York were transferred to another unit in the Legion, the 164th NY Zouaves. Only Companies "I" and "K" of the 155th remained as all-Buffalo companies; seven companies were comprised of men from New York City and Long Island, with the remaining company being recruited in Binghamton, NY. The regiment marched under both a National flag and a green silk battle flag decorated with a harp and shamrocks on one side, and the seals of New York and the Federal government on the reverse side.

In December 1862, the 155th NY, with approximately 820 men, arrived at the Union base at Suffolk, Virginia (near Norfolk) for six months' duty. During this period, few battles were fought but the regiment experienced 
nearly constant skirmishing. The 155th's first battle was a minor affair January 30, 1863, with a few thousand men on each side in a fight dubbed "the battle of the Deserted House." In April, 1863, Confederate General James Longstreet laid siege to Suffolk, and the 155th was actively engaged during this time in picket duty along the earthworks and in reconnaissances outside the Federal lines.

The men of John Singleton Mosby, right, the "Gray Ghost" of the Confederacy, often tested the mettle of Corcoran's Irishmen. Library of Congress

In mid-July 1863, the 155th NY was moved to northern Virginia for guard duty along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, where the regiment was engaged for 10 months fending off Confederate cavalry raids, including attacks by "Mosby's Rangers." A notable engagement during this period was in December 1863, when Confederate General Thomas Rosser's entire cavalry brigade (about 1,000 men) attacked a railroad bridge guarded by the 70 or so men of Company I. After a sharp fight, the Rebels withdrew, leaving the bridge and railroad intact, in spite of the fact that Company "I" was outnumbered by better than ten to one.

In May 1864, midway through the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, the 400 men of the 155th NY joined Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The regiment, together with the rest of the Corcoran Legion and the 8th NY Heavy Artillery (a unit raised in rural counties north and east of Buffalo) was assigned to the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Division. The 155th NY suffered heavy casualties at Spotsylvania during the Federal assault of May 18, and also fought along the North Anna River and Totopotomoy Creek, arriving at Cold Harbor in early June with barely 300 men in the ranks.

Several Civil War historians examine one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War in The Spotsylvania Campaign edited by Gary W. Gallagher.

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The unit was heavily engaged during the Union assault of June 3 at Cold Harbor and lost 164 men in about 30 minutes. In this battle, Corcoran's Legion lost a total of 900 men -- more than any other brigade in either army in this battle. The men of the Legion entrenched under fire only 150 yards from the Confederate line. Following Cold Harbor, the Army of the Potomac moved south of Richmond and besieged the Confederates at Petersburg. The 155th NY took part in the massive Federal assaults on Petersburg on June 16 and 18, 1864, again suffering 50% casualties. The 155th NY commenced the Siege of Petersburg with about 70 men in its ranks.

Below, "The Bold Soldier Boy," by Winslow Homer, published in Harper's Weekly on Nov. 23, 1861, features an Irish regiment rushing on the foe.


The unit remained at Petersburg for almost 10 months, and took part in the following battles: Jerusalem Plank Road, First Deep Bottom, Ream's Station, Boydton Plank Road, Hatcher's Run, and in the occupation of the Confederate skirmish line near Hatcher's Run on March 25, 1865. After the disastrous battle at Ream's Station in August of 1864, the regiment's strength was reduced to 35 men, but men recovered from previous wounds eventually increased the number to around 130-140. The regiment was present in the successful Federal attack on Petersburg on April 2, 1865 and in the ensuing Appomattox Campaign.

The 155th NY fought its last battle at Farmville, VA on April 7, 1865 and was present for the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia two days later. The regiment participated in President Johnson's Grand Review of the Federal Armies on May 23, 1865 and was mustered out of the service in New York City on July 15, 1865. In three years of conflict, the 155th NY suffered a total of 189 deaths and roughly 280 wounded, captured, or missing, for an overall casualty rate of about 60%. 

Right, members of the 155th New York portray members of the 7th Regiment, Irish Republican Army, at the 130th Anniversary Fenian Raid Reenactment, June 1, 1996, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. 155th NYVI Photo

Many soldiers of the 155th NY were members of the Fenian Brotherhood (the forerunner of the Irish Republican Army) and, in June, 1866, participated in the Fenian invasion of Ontario. The Fenians planned to occupy Canada and use it as a bartering tool for Irish independence. The Fenian force of approximately 1,000 men met and defeated a similarly sized Canadian/British force in the Battle of Ridgeway (about 12 miles east of Buffalo, NY). However, they were forced to withdraw to Buffalo when the Irish in Canada failed to rally around the Fenians. As well, U.S. authorities closed the border, which deprived the invaders of reinforcements and supplies.

Kevin O'Beirne is a corporal in the 155th New York Volunteer Infantry (Reenacted), and the editor of The Irish Volunteer, published by The Irish Volunteers re-enactment association.

Today's 155th NYVI: 1989 - 1997

THE MODERN-DAY 155th NYVI reenactment unit, formed in 1989 and presently numbering approximately 110 members, portrays Company "I" of the 155th NY and civilians of the mid-19th century. The unit includes infantry, a full regimental field hospital, and a civilian portrayal of the "Soldiers' Aid Society of Buffalo". In addition to Civil War reenactments, the unit participates in Irish-American activities in the Western New York area. The regiment is a member of the Irish Volunteers Civil War Reenactment Battalion. Long recognized as one of the most authentic units in the upstate New York area, the 155th NY stresses proper first-person impression and drill; camp impressions include use of dog-tents or going campaign-style, and consumption of period rations.

Below, the green flag of the 155th NY in battle with the Irish Volunteers Battalion, Genesee Country Village & Museum Reenactment, Mumford, NY, July 1994. 155th NYVI Photo

The 155th NY is a principal organizing entity and sponsor of the annual Civil War reenactments in Clarence, NY (with about 800 total participants) and Arcade, NY (with about 300 participants). The Clarence site features over 1,200 feet of earthworks constructed by 155th NY members in a 150-acre rural setting; the Arcade event is unique in that reenactors ride and fight battles from a 19th-century-style locomotive and train (with spectators) that traverses 16 miles of track in rural countryside with few visible 20th-century anachronisms. In the past, the unit sponsored the former Springville NY reenactment (which was relocated to Clarence in late 1994) and was the sponsor of the 125th anniversary Fenian Raid Reenactment in Ridgeway, Ontario. The unit also hosts an annual Victorian-style ball around the Christmas holidays, which is attended by approximately 200 guests in period attire. In 1997, the 155th NY initiated proceedings of incorporation as a non-profit organization in New York State and commenced fundraising and design of a monument to the Irish soldiers of the Corcoran Legion recruited in Buffalo.

For more information about the 155th NY reenacting unit, go to their web site at: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~dbertuca/155.html or you can email members Richard Roschè at 02406.142@compuserve.com or Kevin O'Bierne at Irish155NY@aol.com.

-- Irish155NY

Bibliography

 

  • "Official Records of the War of the Rebellion"
  • "New York In the War of the Rebellion" by Frederick Phisterer
  • "A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion" by Frederick Dyer.
  • "The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns, With Some Accounts of the Corcoran Legion" by D. P. Conyngham
  • Letters of Sergeant George Tipping, 155th NYSV Co. I, (Benedict Maryniak, ed.), n.p., n.d.
  • "The Story of the 155th New York State Volunteers" by Newell Mott Smith, 155th NYSV Co. K (Benedict Maryniak, ed.), n.p., n.d.
  • "Irish American" newspaper, New York City, NY 1862-1866
  • "The Courier" newspaper, Buffalo NY, 1862-1865
  • "The Morning Express" newspaper, Buffalo NY, 1862-1865

    Other sources include regimental letter books (155th NYSV, 164th NYSV) in the National Archives, New York State Adjutant General's reports, other newspapers, various campaign studies (many in the VA Battles & Leaders Series by H.E. Howard Publishing), and "Battles & Leaders" (Volume 4).

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