Thursday, May 24, 2012

Manning the Defenses of Washington: The 3rd Battalion New York Artillery (Heavy)

Over the last two years, I've dedicated quite a few posts to life in the camps near Washington during the first winter of the Civil War.  My primary focus has been the soldiers living around present-day McLean, including the Pennsylvania Reserves and the Vermont Brigade.  As part of my Sesquicentennial timeline, I've even followed the men in "real" time as they combated disease, went on foraging expeditions, fought Confederates, and celebrated the holidays.  By the spring of 1862, however, most of the Union soldiers in and around Northern Virginia had left the region and moved to points farther south.

Now seems like the perfect time to shift attention to the Union soldiers who remained behind while the rest of the army was off fighting Joe Johnston on the Peninsula.  (Or waiting impatiently to do so at Fredericksburg.)  Following the Federal defeat at First Manassas, Gen. George McClellan undertook an ambitious plan to protect Washington from possible Confederate attack.   The army erected forts, batteries, and rifle trenches in a defensive ring around the city, and various regiments were assigned the unglamorous but important job of garrison duty.  I'd like to take a closer look at the men who defended Washington while the armies were battling and campaigning elsewhere.  And what better place to start than the two forts located in my neck of the woods?

Troops under Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith crossed the Potomac and began construction on Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen in September 1861.  These two forts guarded the approaches to the Chain Bridge across the river above Georgetown.  I've written about Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen on more than a few occasions.  (See here and here.)  During this time 150 years ago, the 3rd Battalion New York Artillery (Heavy) had the responsibility of manning the two forts.

The 3rd Battalion was raised in New York City in the fall of 1861.  The men signed up for a three-year term of service.  Most of the recruits were either German immigrants, or descendants of German immigrants, and the 3rd Battalion quickly acquired the nickname of the "German Heavy Artillery."  The regiment was placed under the overall command of Lt. Col. Adam Senges, a 38 year-old immigrant from Baden who had participated in the German Revolution of 1848.  The artillerymen were soon en route to the nation's capital.  On November 28, 1861, the New York Times reported on the "Departure of Col. Senges' Company of Artillery":
Tuesday evening a company of artillery numbering ninety men, left this City, by the New-Jersey railroad for Washington. On their arrival there they are to report to the commanding officer of Gen. [Louis] BLENKER's Division, and will form a part of his command. Cannon, caissons, horses, &c., will be furnished them at the Capital.*
The 3rd Battalion was assigned to garrison duty at Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen, not far from the divisional camps of George McCall and "Baldy" Smith at Langley and Lewinsville.  The men passed a long, cold, and damp winter in Northern Virginia.  The days were mostly filled with drilling and other routine duties of army life. 

Lt. Col. Adam Senges (courtesy of, from Library of Congress).** Senges served as the commander of the 3rd Battalion until May 1863.
During the summer of 1862, the 3rd Battalion sought to fill the ranks with new enlistments.  In an August 14, 1862 article entitled, "German Recruiting," the New York Times informed readers:
[The 3rd Battalion] is now stationed at Forts Ethan Allen and Marcy, in the vicinity of Washington.  It requires about 150 men to complete its maximum regimental strength, and is now receiving recruits at No. 15 Bowery. Capt. FRANZ MATTUSCHEK is the officer in charge.
The Times had no doubts that the 3rd Battalion would meet its goal:
Lieut.-Col. SENGES, the Commandant of the corps, is much esteemed by his men, and the inducements, to join his regiment are so great that the close of the present week will probably find it filled.
As the 3rd Battalion was busy recruiting in New York, Robert E. Lee's Confederates were moving towards Northern Virginia.  Gen. John G. Barnard, the newly-appointed commander of the fortifications around Washington, was worried.  Many experienced troops had already been transferred to Gen. John Pope's Army of Virginia at the front.  Upon taking command in August 1862, Barnard counted just 5,989 men in the fortifications, including 310 in the 3rd Battalion.  (Barnard 105.)  About 2,000 of the defenders were three-month recruits whose terms expired at the end of August, and an additional 2,000 were slated for the front.  (Barnard 105.)  Barnard began to reassign his men in an effort to strengthen various points in the capital's defenses.

On August 22, the 3rd Battalion was ordered to leave Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen.  Six days later, as Pope engaged Lee near Manassas, Barnard reported to Gen. McClellan:
The Third Battalion New York Artillery, about 300 strong, was distributed as follows: Fort Barnard, one company; Richardson, one platoon; Scott, one platoon; Blenker, one platoon; Ward, one company; Worth, one platoon; Ellsworth, one platoon.  (OR, 1:12:3, 711.)***
The next day, McClellan directed the 3rd Battalion to concentrate at Ft. Lyon to the west of Alexandria, with the exception of one platoon, which was retained at Ft. Ellsworth.  The immediate threat to Washington was averted when Lee's Confederates trounced Pope and headed to Maryland. 

The 3rd Battalion remained on duty at Ft. Lyon.  (OR, 1:12:3, 782, 803; 1:12:3, 1:25:2, 181.)  According to historians Benjamin Cooling and Walton Owen, during its time at Ft. Lyon, "[t]he battalion was known for its singing, lager beer, and numerous pet dogs."  (Cooling & Owen 69.)  One solider observed:
If you wish any dogs, there are plenty of them at Fort Lyon as the Dutchman have thee dogs to every man and peck of fleas in the bargain.  (in Cooling & Owen 69-70.)
On June 9, 1863, twenty-six men from the battalion were busy re-filling shells outside of Ft. Lyon's north powder magazine.  The men first had to remove powder that was caked on the inside of the shells due to moisture damage.  The lieutenant in charge grew frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the wooden spoons being used for the task and distributed priming wires to some of the men to dig out the powder.  A spark caused by a priming wire triggered a massive explosion of around 28,00 pounds of powder.  The powerful blast destroyed the north magazine and sent debris and bodies flying through the air.  As Gen. John Slough, military governor of Alexandria, reported to headquarters, "[e]verything in the vicinity is a wreck," although "[n]o serious damage was done . . . to the guns or guncarriages."  (OR, 1:27:2, 871.)  Incredibly, most of the men were huddled in the bombproof at the time of the explosion and escaped unharmed.  In all, twenty-one lost their lives, and ten were injured.  The "severely wounded" were transported to the hospital in Alexandria. (OR, 1:27:2, 871.)  The following day, President Abraham Lincoln, accompanied by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, inspected the damage. 

The 3rd Battalion underwent organizational changes in September 1863, when the men were transferred to the newly-formed 15th New York Heavy Artillery.  The 3rd Battalion comprised Companies A through E of the regiment.  The 15th New York Heavy Artillery was initially based at Ft. Lyon, and other companies joined the old 3rd Battalion there. 

The 15th New York Heavy Artillery left the defenses of Washington and headed to the field in March 1864.  The regiment fought with the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac throughout the Overland Campaign and before Petersburg.  After Appomattox, the men returned to the defenses of Washington and were mustered out of Federal service in August 1865. 

The 3rd Battalion never saw combat as a unit.  Its biggest enemies were disease and boredom.  The time spent in the defenses around Washington was generally considered "soft" duty by the hardened soldiers in the field.  However, without units like the 3rd Battalion, the forts were worthless as a deterrent.  And the terrible tragedy at Ft. Lyon in 1863 reminds us that garrison duty was not always a risk-free adventure.  The history of the 3rd Battalion also highlights the contributions that German immigrants made to the Union war effort.  Senges and others like him endured the hardships of army life and war for their adopted homeland.  Their story helps us to put a human face on the defenses of Washington.


*Some sources report that the 3rd Battalion left for Washington on December 19, 1861. It appears that a company under Senges left at the end of November 1861, and that the remainder of the 3rd Batallion may have joined them in Washington in December.

**Nearly all captions I have seen, including on the Library of Congress website, indicate that the officer pictured above is "Lt. Col. A. Senger" of the 15th New York Heavy Artillery (a later iteration of the 3rd Battalion). However, "Lt. Col. A. Senger" does not appear on the rolls of either the 3rd Battalion or the 15th New York Heavy Artillery. Moreover, a military service record for Senges on includes this photograph. I am convinced that this photograph has been misidentified in most captions, and that it actually shows Senges.

***All of these forts were located to the north and west of Alexandria, Virginia.  For a map of the defenses of Washington from the OR, see here.


John Gross Barnard, A Report on the Defenses of Washington to the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army (1871); Benjamin Franklin Cooling III & Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (2010 ed.); Wolfgang Hochbruck, "Forty-Eighters" in the Union Armies: A Preliminary Checklist, on RootsWeb; George B. McClellan, Report of Major-General George B. McClellan Upon the Organization of the Army of the Potomac and Its Campaigns in Virginia and Maryland (1864); Military and Naturalization Records of Adam Senges, available on (subscription service); William J. Miller, The Men of Fort Ward: Defenders of Washington (1989); National Park Service, A Historic Resources Study: The Civil War Defenses of Washington, Parts I & II (2004); New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, 3d Battalion of Artillery (Heavy); New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, 15th Artillery Regiment (Heavy); New York Times, Nov. 28, 1861; New York Times, Aug. 14, 1862; New York Times, June 10, 1863; Frederick Phisterer, New York in the War of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1865 (1890); Adolf Eduard Zucker, The Forty-Eighters: Political Refugees of the German Revolution of 1848 (1950).


Anonymous said...

Adam Senge's is listed in the roster of the 15th NY Heavy Artillery; the book is online at the NY Military Museum's website. Senge's resigned May, 1863---the battalion was still the 3rd Battalion NY Artillery; Lt.Col. Louis Schirmer taking command.

Senge's is buried in Brooklyn's Evergreen Cemetery. The image of him is mislabeled as being a member of the 15th, it should read "Lt.Col., 3rd Battalion NY Artillery".


Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your comment. I find the history of the 15th a little confusing, given that Schirmer was authorized to raise the unit in May 1863, and that apparently one company was assigned to it in June 1863, but it wasn't until September 1863 that the five companies from the 3rd Battalion were transferred to it. I agree that the Senges caption is also incorrect as to unit identification.

Thanks for passing along your blog link. Any plans to include earlier material on the 3rd as well?