The Bag Was Tied: The 146th New York in Saunders Field

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Jim Taub

It would seem appropriate that, as the last post centered on the men who charged across Saunders Field 151 years ago today, to write of their participation in that fight. Of particular interest is the 146th New York, who suffered more casualties than any other Union regiment during the two day Battle of the Wilderness save one.[1] Their attack was brief and unsuccessful, yet it perfectly illustrates to historians the level of intensity in a Civil War battle. The primary sources available from the 146th are extraordinary, and leave us with an up close and personal view of a Zouave regiment in battle.

On May 4th, 1864, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, beginning what would later come to be known as the Overland Campaign. Among the troops in the numerous columns was the 146th New York, a Zouave unit raised in Oneida County in the fall of 1862. In early June, 1863, they were issued with a brand new Zouave uniform in a sky blue materiel with yellow trimming and topped with a red fez. This was not the first fight the 146th had been in, nor would it be their last, but it was by far the most intense. The 146th had been lightly engaged at Fredericksburg in December, 1862, and at Chancellorsville the following May. On July 2nd, 1863, they stormed up the slopes of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg just in time to help save it from the Confederate attacks that day. The upcoming fight, however, would be the deadliest for the 146th.

By the night of the 4th the V Corps was encamped along the Wilderness Run deep in the thick Virginia woods.  Corporal Norton Sheppard of Company B said of that night, “The weather at this time of year in Virginia is so warm that we needed no tents or covering except our blankets. Under the sighing pine trees the boys all slept soundly, as the first day’s march wearies them more than a longer march does after they have become accustomed to it.”[2] The commander of the 146th, Colonel David T. Jenkins was sent to command the pickets of the V corps facing west down the Orange Turnpike. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was down the road, hoping to intercept the Federal forces before they made it out of the Wilderness where the superior Federal forces could be brought to bear upon Lee’s soldiers. General Grant planned for General Meade’s Army of the Potomac to continue south towards Richmond, V Corps Commander Major General Gouverneur K. Warren dispatched a message to Col. Jenkins instructing him to keep out his pickets until the entire corps was on the road ready to march. However, the Confederates had other plans.

Jenkins responded to Warren writing:

“The rebel infantry have appeared on the Orange Court House turnpike and are forming a line of battle, three quarters of a mile in front of General Griffin’s[3] line of battle. I have my skirmishers out, and preparations are being made to meet them. There is a large cloud of dust in that direction.”[4]

The large cloud of dust came from General Ewell’s Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Jenkins’ message was immediately passed to General Meade and then to Grant himself. This was the first notification Grant received of the Confederate advance that day. It was near 7:30 in the morning and the entire Federal army was about to be shifted to meet this threat first discovered by the colonel of the 146th New York.

Col. David Jenkins

Col. David Jenkins

With the Confederate pressure against the pickets increasing, two companies of the 146th, C under Lt. King, and F under Lt. Sweet advanced to form a reserve in case they were needed, posting themselves on both sides of the orange Turnpike. The ground in front of them was open for about 400 yards before becoming dense forest again. This area was known as Saunders Field.

Warren had acted quickly after the discovery of the Confederate presence.  The V Corps deployed with General Griffin’s division was posted along the Orange Turnpike. General Ayres Brigade, including the 146th New York deployed on the north side of the Turnpike in two lines. In front were assembled battalions of U.S. Regulars with the 140th New York, another Zouave unit, to their left, with their left flank resting along the Turnpike. Behind the 140th was the 146th, and two Pennsylvania regiments, the 155th and 91st, were positioned behind the Regulars the brigade, therefore forming two lines. General Ayres asked Col. Jenkins if he wished to remain with the skirmishers while the brigade advanced, but he refused, and rejoined the regiments with the two detached companies. Lt. Sweet later described the encounter between the two saying “The cool, brave, and determined manner of Colonel Jenkins when making this request impressed me so vividly that nearly a quarter of a century has not impaired the sharp outline of the picture.” [5]

By 1 P.M. the entire brigade was in position with another brigade to the south side of the Turnpike. The Zouaves of the 146th listened to the skirmishing in their front and mentally prepared themselves to advance.  Cpl. Norton Sheppard remembered later that:“As we advanced through the woods the comrades grew pale and resolute and as we became aware that the enemy was before us, there were very few who did not tremble with fear.”[6]

Norton Sheppard, Co. B, 146th New York

Norton Sheppard, Co. B, 146th New York

Ayres’s first line launched itself forward across Saunders Field at the Virginia and North Carolina regiments under General Steuart. Upon reaching a gully 3/4ths of the way through the field, the leading formations began to separate as flanking fire from Confederate breastworks pulled the 140th to the left, and the regulars moved into the woods to the right creating a gap in the center of Ayres’ line. The reserve line was needed to come forward. The 146th, now waiting at the eastern edge of the field still in the woods, were already hearing the bullets wiz around them. Norton Sheppard  later said that the bullets flew “past our ears a little too often to make it pleasant to stand still. Consequently we were glad when we heard the order ‘Forward, double-quick. March’”[7] Ayres sent the 91st and 155th Pennsylvania to help the regulars, and the 146th stepped off across the open ground of Saunders Field, already littered with the dead and wounded Zouaves of the 140th.

At a run the regiment moved forward. “Over the plowed ground, doubly rough by reason of the stubble, we dashed, our muscles tense, our nerves steeled for the approaching conflict.”[8] As they reached the middle of the field the 146th encountered the same issue that plagued the first line of Ayres’ Brigade. As Lt. Sweet described it; “Their fire oblique across the front of our line, and some of us were so close that we could feel the strong wind of their discharges.”[9] Norton Sheppard entered Saunders Field with Company B:

“As soon as we emerged from the woods into plain view there opened on us a storm of musket bullets that seemed like hail. I had gone but a few paces when a man who was directly in front of me halted suddenly. As I was about to say to him ‘go ahead,’ he fell to the ground in a heap- dead. I saw that he had been shot directly in the forehead.”[10]

Sheppard was unhurt for the time being, though he thought that “It seemed impossible that any should escape the storm of leaden hail.”[11]

The Zouaves rapidly crossed the gully and entered the woods on the western side of the field, driving the Confederates before them. Brief and deadly close range combat including hand to hand fighting with rifle butts and bayonets ensued. The Confederates reformed some distance into the woods and began pouring blistering fire into the 146th. Sheppard noticed that “We only had smoke and evergreen to fire at, whereas we stood out in plain sunlight, a good target for our foe.”[12] Col. Jenkins attempted to lead men forward into the rebel breastworks in front of the 146th but disappeared in the smoke. It would not be until several years later that the veterans of the 146th, and Jenkins’ family learned he was shot down and died just in front of the Rebel works.

Casualties mounted rapidly. Unbeknownst to the members of the 146th, and the 140th to their left, the rest of the brigade was being driven back in by a Confederate counter attack. That attack was beginning to envelope the Zouaves right, when a new Confederate formation appeared to their left. They were now in danger of being completely cut off. Lt. Sweet recalls that:

“I knew the danger of being flanked, as by charging over the open field we broke the continuity of our general line of battle and the rebels were adept in finding gaps. Twenty paces to the rear enabled me to look over the open field we had just crossed. We were not only flanked, but doubly flanked. Rebel troops covered the open field. We were in a bag and the string was tied.”[13]

There was only one option for the 146th, and that was to get back to the east side of Saunders Field as quickly as they could. With the loss of Col. Jenkins, command fell to Lt. Col Henry H. Curran, who calmly walked the ranks adorned in his finest uniform with gold braiding, and wearing the pin of his fraternity on his breast. Curran walked up to an officer of the 146th and placed his hand on the officer’s shoulder. “This is awful” he exclaimed. The officer responded “Where are all our men?” “Dead” was Curran’s response. Just then a bullet plunged into the young Lt. Col. Killing him instantly.[14]

Lt. Col. Henry Curran

Lt. Col. Henry Curran

There was no doubt now what action had to be taken, and the men began streaming to the rear. Norton Sheppard rose from the ground and raised his musket in order to give the Confederates “a parting shot”[15] when he was struck in the arm, the shoulder, and then finally in the abdomen. He fell unconscious at the edge of the field. As many other men of the regiment desperately attempted to get away. Color Bearer George Williams, whose father had charged with the Scots Greys at Waterloo, and who had previously served with Duryee’s Zouaves, was shot three times and fell. Several more colors bearers fell through the battle, and at one point the Confederates closed in on the banner, before it was carried away by Cpl. Conrad Neuschler, the last unharmed member of the color guard.[16]

Color Bearer George Williams. Williams would survive the battle.

Color Bearer George Williams. Williams would survive the battle.

The survivors of the 146th who made it safely to the Federal lines rallied around Major Grindlay. Only 254 enlisted men out of the 556 who had started across that field were still with the regiment, and of the 24 officers, only 10 remained. Many men, such as Charles Brandegee had been captured by the Confederates as they had closed in all around the Zouaves. Brandegee and many of his comrades were sent south to Andersonville, where they would endure the harsh realities of Civil War prison camps. Unlike many others however, Charles survived to return to his home in Berlin, Connecticut.[17]

The fight of the 146th New York at Saunders Field during the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness was a heart wrenching moment in the history of the regiment, and the Army of the Potomac. They took no further part in the battle, but their war was not over. Their most famous engagement had been fought but there were many more battlefields of Virginia where the Zouaves of the 146th had were destined to shed their blood. As the regimental history closes on the Battle of the Wilderness, it states, “The Battle of the Wilderness had been fought, the victory was uncertain, and months of hard service were still before us.”[18]

Works Cited

[1] The 2nd Vermont

[2] Norton C. Shepard, Out of the Wilderness: The Civil War Memoir of Corporal Norton C. Shepard, 146th New York Volunteer Infantry, ed. Raymond W. Smith (Hamilton, NY: Edmonston Pub., 1998), 3.

[3] 146th’s Divisional commander

[4] Mary Genevie Green. Brainard, Campaigns of the 146th Regiment, New York State Volunteers: Also Known as Halleck’s Infantry, the Fifth Oneida, and Garrard’s Tigers (Daleville, VA: Schroeder Publications, 2000), 179.

[5] Mary Genevie Green. Brainard, Campaigns of the 146th Regiment, New York State Volunteers: Also Known as Halleck’s Infantry, the Fifth Oneida, and Garrard’s Tigers (Daleville, VA: Schroeder Publications, 2000), 186.

[6] Norton C. Shepard, Out of the Wilderness: The Civil War Memoir of Corporal Norton C. Shepard, 146th New York Volunteer Infantry, ed. Raymond W. Smith (Hamilton, NY: Edmonston Pub., 1998), 3.

[7] Ibid.,

[8] Mary Genevie Green. Brainard, Campaigns of the 146th Regiment, New York State Volunteers: Also Known as Halleck’s Infantry, the Fifth Oneida, and Garrard’s Tigers (Daleville, VA: Schroeder Publications, 2000), 190.

[9] Ibid.,

[10] Norton C. Shepard, Out of the Wilderness: The Civil War Memoir of Corporal Norton C. Shepard, 146th New York Volunteer Infantry, ed. Raymond W. Smith (Hamilton, NY: Edmonston Pub., 1998), 5.

[11] Ibid.,

[12] Norton C. Shepard, Out of the Wilderness: The Civil War Memoir of Corporal Norton C. Shepard, 146th New York Volunteer Infantry, ed. Raymond W. Smith (Hamilton, NY: Edmonston Pub., 1998), 5.

[13] Mary Genevie Green. Brainard, Campaigns of the 146th Regiment, New York State Volunteers: Also Known as Halleck’s Infantry, the Fifth Oneida, and Garrard’s Tigers (Daleville, VA: Schroeder Publications, 2000), 192.

[14] Ibid., 198

[15] Norton C. Shepard, Out of the Wilderness: The Civil War Memoir of Corporal Norton C. Shepard, 146th New York Volunteer Infantry, ed. Raymond W. Smith (Hamilton, NY: Edmonston Pub., 1998), 5.

[16] Mary Genevie Green. Brainard, Campaigns of the 146th Regiment, New York State Volunteers: Also Known as Halleck’s Infantry, the Fifth Oneida, and Garrard’s Tigers (Daleville, VA: Schroeder Publications, 2000), 193.

[17]  Livingstone, Charles Brandegee., and Brian C. Pohanka. Charlie’s Civil War: A Private’s Trial by Fire in the 5th New York Volunteers-Duryʹee Zouaves and 146th New York Volunteer Infantry. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1997.

[18] Mary Genevie Green. Brainard, Campaigns of the 146th Regiment, New York State Volunteers: Also Known as Halleck’s Infantry, the Fifth Oneida, and Garrard’s Tigers (Daleville, VA: Schroeder Publications, 2000), 201.

There is still some question concerning the regimental formations of the Union attack in Saunders’ Field. For more information, see Gordon Rhea’s study The Battle of the Wilderness.

This entry was posted in Armies, Battles, Campaigns, Civil War Events, Common Soldier, Leadership--Confederate, Leadership--Federal, Memory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Bag Was Tied: The 146th New York in Saunders Field

  1. David Corbett says:

    Interesting account; thanks for posting !

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