That is perhaps a hyperbolic title. But one brigade of all New York soldiers saved two Federal armies in the summer and fall of 1863, at Gettysburg and Chattanooga – thereby arguably doing more to assist the Union cause in 1863 than any other single brigade in the Union Army. These men have never really gotten their due, however. Here is their story.
The brigade in question is the 60th, 78th, 102d, 137th, and 149th New York Volunteers of the Union XII Corps. Commanded by Brigadier General George S. Greene and then Colonel David Ireland, these men came literally from every region of New York State. This brigade may have been the closest to a full representation of their state of any like-sized unit in either army during the war.
At Gettysburg, Greene’s brigade held Culp’s Hill on the afternoon of July 2d, securing the Union right flank and its supply line (the Baltimore Pike) behind it. They stayed behind when the rest of XII Corps moved toward the Union left. Greene ordered his men to spread thin and cover as much front as possible, and dig in. In the evening a 4-brigade Confederate division under Major General Edward Johnson attacked their position; while the 60th, 78th, 102d and 149th stood their ground in heavy fighting as night fell, the 137th (on the far right and the end of the line) was flanked by several Confederate regiments and bent back at right angles to the rest of the brigade. As the 137th neared collapse, defeat for Greene’s men (and by extension the Army of the Potomac) loomed as a real possibility. Timely reinforcements and counterattacks by the 137th, 6th Wisconsin, and the 14th Brooklyn stalled the Confederate advance in the darkness. The next day the entire XII Corps regained the lost ground in heavy fighting.
In contrast to the more celebrated action of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top, here the odds and the stakes were much greater. The Mainers faced roughly 1-1 odds, whereas the New Yorkers faced 1-3 or worse all along the line. The fall of Culp’s Hill would also cut the Army of the Potomac’s main supply line, likely forcing a retreat and rendering the rest of Union heroics on July 2 moot. Greene’s stand arguably made possible the Union victory at Gettysburg.
Greene’s New Yorkers transferred west with the rest of XII Corps in the fall of 1863. They helped open the Army of the Cumberland’s supply line (the Cracker Line) in late October, holding it open at Wauhatchie against attacks by Confederate troops. General Greene fell seriously wounded on October 29, and brigade command passed to Ireland.
During the Battles for Chattanooga, Ireland’s brigade helped storm Lookout Mountain on November 24 (the famous “Battle Above the Clouds”). On November 25, Ireland’s men spearheaded the attack on the far south end of Missionary Ridge, helping break the Confederate line and routing the Army of Tennessee. These attacks today are immortalized on monuments at both Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.
These New Yorkers in October and November 1863 helped save the Army of the Cumberland and Union fortunes at Chattanooga, which set the stage for the campaigns in 1864.
Why do we not know these men? Greene was 62 years old in 1863, and until his death in 1899 preferred to let his actions speak for themselves. Ireland, the other key commander during this period, died of disease shortly after Atlanta’s fall in 1864. Unlike the 20th Maine, no wordsmiths (or future politicians) from the unit chose to tell their story – indeed, only a couple of reminiscences were ever published from this brigade. Nonetheless, this band of steady, tough, unheralded New York troops made a decisive contribution to the Union cause in 1863.