The 15th New York Heavy Artillery regiment saw its initial service in the Wilderness as part of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. Author Edward “Andy” Altemos has written a new history of the regiment, From the Wilderness to Appomattox: The Fifteenth New Your Heavy Artillery in the Civil War (Kent State, 2023). I recently had the opportunity to talk with him about his book.
Who are these fellows from New York? What can you tell us, briefly, about the regiment and the backgrounds of the men in it?
Most of the soldiers in the regiment were recruited in New York City and its immediate environs. However, there were also men from across the state—in particular from Buffalo, the Troy area, and Orange County. After more than six months’ duty garrisoning forts in the Washington defenses, in March 1864, the regiment was sent to the Army of the Potomac.
Besides being a heavy artillery outfit, what set the regiment apart from most other regiments then in that army was that the Fifteenth was composed largely of German immigrants and German speakers from other European countries, such as Switzerland and Austria. Many of these men had served in the Washington defenses since 1861 in what was known as the “Third Battalion, Heavy Artillery”—which was almost exclusively German. In fact, their records and order books in the National Archives are written only in German. When two additional battalions were added to bring the outfit up to full strength for an artillery regiment—that is, to twelve companies or “batteries”—a number of English speakers joined. Still, the regiment was roughly seventy percent German speakers. In addition to the veterans of the old Third Battalion, many of the men and officers were veterans, having seen their prior service in the Army of the Potomac’s Eleventh Corps.
What got you interested in the regiment?
Like most Civil War enthusiasts, I suspect, I had never heard of the Fifteenth New York Heavy Artillery Regiment. But since childhood, I’d heard tales of my great-grandfather’s service in the Civil War, although I’d never seen documentation or any evidence of that service. In 2007, on a whim, I entered his name, Jacob Altemos, and state into the National Park Service’s Soldiers and Sailors Data Base. To put it mildly, I was shocked when I got a hit! I learned he had served in the Fifteenth, and a link on the NPS site took me to the page for the regiment maintained by the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center in Saratoga Springs. It was immediately apparent to me that the Fifteenth had seen a great deal of combat, but also that their story had never been fully told. It was then I concluded that it had fallen to my lot to recount the service and sacrifice of the men in this regiment, which history had largely forgotten.
Can you give us a quick synopsis of the regiment’s service record?
Authorization to raise the regiment was granted in June 1863. This necessitated recruiting two new, four-company battalions to augment the then-existing, old “Third Battalion”—resulting in a regiment with an aggregate strength of over 2,000 men. They garrisoned five forts in the Washington defenses south of Alexandria, Virginia. In March 1864, when newly minted general in chief Grant decided heavy artillerymen might better serve the Union cause as infantry in the field, the Fifteenth was ordered to Brandy Station where it joined the Army of the Potomac.
The Fifteenth first saw combat in the Wilderness. Continuing in Grant’s Overland Campaign, the regiment went on to fight at Spotsylvania Court House, including the Harris Farm action, the North Anna, Bethesda Church, and the initial attacks on Petersburg. Assigned to the Fifth Corps when at Spotsylvania, the regiment fought with that corps in all the battles in the Petersburg Campaign in which Grant and Meade extended the Union front to the west with a view to cutting the lines of supply to Petersburg and Richmond—an effort culminating in the crucial victory at Five Forks on April 1, 1865.
With the Fifth Corps, the Fifteenth joined in the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia to Appomattox Court House, where it formed line of battle for the last time and subsequently witnessed the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s vaunted army. The regiment then marched back to Washington, where it once again manned forts in the Washington defenses—ironically, for a time, the very same forts from which they had departed a bit over a year earlier.
The regiment was mustered out of Federal service in Washington on August 22, 1865, at which time it returned to New York City and was welcomed by the City’s large German community with “a bountiful repast” before final pay, processing, and disbandment.
You call the regiment “vitally important but little-known.” Why were they so important, and why have they been so little known?
I submit the regiment was vitally important on two different levels, one individual and another collective. On the individual level the Fifteenth played key roles in several important battles, including the Harris farm, Bethesda Church, and Globe Tavern—where, on the first day, the regiment arguably saved the Fifth Corps from being swept from the field after a vicious Confederate attack, allowing it to regroup.
At Hatcher’s Run the Fifteenth—in Frederic Winthrop’s First Brigade, Second Division—with their Zouave brigade mates prevented the Federal force attacking to the north from being taken in flank and rear, while at Five Forks that brigade fell directly upon the “return” at the eastern end of the Rebel line, routing the defenders and allowing the line to be “rolled up.”
On a broader level, however, the contributions of the Fifteenth—along with the other heavy artillery regiments that fought as infantry in the Army of the Potomac from May of 1864—cannot be underestimated. These large units infused new blood into a drained and depleted army, and, once acquainted with their new role as infantry, consistently fought hard and well—in the process sustaining horrific losses. How the army might have performed in the bloodbath occurring from the Wilderness to Appomattox without these valuable assets is, of course, subject to debate. But I believe there can be little doubt these “heavies,” as they were colloquially called, did much to tip the scale in the Union’s favor.
As far as being little known, I suppose the regiment has only itself to blame. I believe this is largely because they did little self-promotion after the war, as did—and I say this with the greatest respect—many of the veterans of Anglo-American and even Irish regiments. They left no regimental history, and any surviving letters and diaries I could locate in my years of research were written by the minority Anglo-American members. I assume this may in part be because English was not the first language of most of the men in the regiment.
I further believe this can be attributed to anti-German prejudices persisting after the war. These sentiments took root well prior to the conflict, and the blame game for the tragic Chancellorsville defeat, which assigned the loss to the largely German Eleventh Corps, and the unfortunate fate of that corps on the first day at Gettysburg, did little to dispel those biases. Consequently, I suspect the majority German members of the regiment were content after the war simply to return home and withdraw into their own communities.
Indeed, prominent historians who have devoted much study to the German experience in the Civil War have observed that such lingering nativist sentiments significantly slowed the full assimilation of these German communities into the larger population.
How did you go about researching your book? How long did it take?
I really didn’t know where to begin, since I was educated as an engineer and possessed no formal training in history beyond the high school level. The late Dick Sommers very kindly gave me some hints, which I began to pursue. These included examination of the regimental descriptive lists and order books, as well as Compiled Service Records held at the National Archives; analysis of accounts and records at the US Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle; and consideration of manuscripts, journals, and books in the Library of Congress.
A complete set of the Official Records soon found its way to my bookcase, which proved indispensable, as did information offered by the National Park Service historians at the various battlefield parks associated with the Overland, Petersburg, and Appomattox Campaigns. I also visited or contacted various other institutions holding information potentially of interest, such as the New York State Library in Albany and the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center.
As I pulled the information together, I commenced to write it up. However, although in my professional career I had acquired considerable experience with technical writing and writing and reading regulations, it soon became apparent an entirely new writing style was required for this project—and this led to several false starts and multiple iterations in preparing the manuscript. The entire project took about fifteen years to complete.
Is there a particular person from the regiment who jumped out at you as a favorite?
Without a doubt, that would be Lieutenant Colonel, later Brevet Colonel, Michael Wiedrich. Wiedrich moved up from executive officer to assume command of the Fifteenth around the middle of June 1864, when, near Cold Harbor, the regiment’s colonel, Louis Schirmer, departed the scene ill. Schirmer was subsequently arrested in New York City and court-martialed for alleged irregularities in handling large sums of soldiers’ bounty monies.
Alsatian-born, Wiedrich was a courageous, efficient, and diligent commander, and led the regiment in some very tough campaigns and battles, being wounded twice in the process. Before joining the Fifteenth, Wiedrich had commanded Battery I of the First New York Artillery (Light), and in that capacity had compiled an impressive record that included distinctive service in the Valley in 1862, as well as at Second Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga.
A monument to Wiedrich’s Battery I stands on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, and the battery and Wiedrich are immortalized in an inscription on the New York Peace Memorial at the crest of Lookout Mountain. After the war Wiedrich returned to his adopted hometown Buffalo—also my hometown—and I like to imagine the possibility of the colonel and my great-grandfather Jacob, the private, reliving their war experiences over a lager at the GAR hall near the old German “Fruit Belt” neighborhood of Buffalo.
What can the experience of this regiment help us understand about the war?
Two things come immediately to mind. The first is to better appreciate the contribution to Union victory of the Fifteenth, and the other heavy artillery outfits called upon to fight as infantry in the Army of the Potomac from the start of the spring campaigns of 1864.
The other—and this more for those only beginning their personal exploration of Civil War history—is that there was, indeed, a war in the east after Gettysburg. Too often, it seems to me, the battles fought in the eastern theater beginning in May of 1864—which were every bit as ferocious and bloody as Gettysburg, if not more so—are not, with the possible exceptions of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor, well understood or well known. This is especially true of the nearly ten months’ long series of battles around Petersburg, which, until recently—for example, through Will Greene’s trilogy on the Petersburg Campaign—have not been accorded the attention they deserve. They are, in my view, underappreciated in terms of their impact on the outcome of the war in the east. Hopefully, my project can add to the body of knowledge on these very significant battles by shedding further light on them.
Anything I haven’t asked you that I should have?
One aspect of the Fifteenth’s story that is interesting to contemplate is the fact that the men in the regiment spent most of their time in Federal service performing duties for which they had neither signed on to do, nor for which, at least initially, they had been appropriately trained or equipped. Nevertheless, they adapted to their new roles quickly, performing those duties with distinction. I believe this may resonate with many readers, as it does with me, who have found themselves—either in the military or the civilian world—called upon to execute tasks for which they had no prior training or experience, but, through resilience and determination, who answered the call and accomplished the mission.