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Rochester's Forgotten Regiment:
The 108th New York in the Civil War

By terence G. Crooks

Chapter One:
The Union Now and Forever

Oliver Hazard Palmer toyed absently with the pommel of the new saddle and bridle, personal gifts from his friend, Isaac Elwood of Western Union.1 To his front, the men scrambled to form a column of fours by company. A cool breeze from the Genesee River suffused Camp Fitz-John Porter on the southwestern shore of Rochester, New York and ensured that the heat of the late August afternoon remained comfortable. The breeze languidly rippled through the coarse mane of the Colonel’s horse who impatiently waited the familiar nudge to walk.  But the Colonel was deep in thought and the signal to move remained ungiven.  Only twenty-seven days before, Oliver Palmer had been a successful business man, now he was a regimental colonel and responsible for the lives of 980 men.2  Soon he would lead the regiment through the streets of Rochester. Up Court St., across  the river to Clinton,  from Clinton back to Main St. then State St. to the Central Depot and from there southward to join the Army of the Potomac. The men were forming quickly. Soon he would have to give the order.  He thought of his lack of military experience and wondered how he would lead while under fire. Would he maintain a bold front and rely on guile as he did in his early years while a student of law? In those days his “deception” was

when clients came in for advice I would patiently and carefully hear and analyze all the facts. I would then manage to say to them that I was very busy for a short time but if they would call in an hour or so, I should be able to talk further. No sooner did their coat tails disappear than everything else was dropped and I was head and ears among the books to get at the legal principle applicable to the case stated. And upon their return I was enabled to talk to them profoundly enough to satisfy them that I was master of the subject.

He smiled at the memory but quickly dismissed the premise. Nevertheless, his present responsibility “appalled” the newly minted colonel when he reflected that “I was charged with a thousand precious human lives, each one having some fond domestic attachment, followed by the tears and prayers perhaps of a doting mother and affectionate father, brother, sister, wife or lover and I am to account for each one of them.” Did he have “the courage to assume so fearful a responsibility”?  The battlefield was no place for pretense. The men knew his limitations beforehand and still they were ready to march with him to whatever fate awaited. Hopefully he would learn the art of warfare and become a trusted soldier as he led the 108th New York State Volunteers into the second fall of the civil war.3

During the years before the war, the city, like the nation, was changing.  Rochester, on the southern shore of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Genessee River, was the heart of Monroe County, “the sixth largest county” in New York State. In the late fifties, with the growth of farming and “rival milling cities” in the West, Rochester, also known as the Flour City, was forced to transform itself from dependence on the wheat trade to “a new horticultural era in the valley” dependent upon “expanding nurseries” and “fruit orchards spread along the lake”. The Flour City became the Flower City.  The Erie Canal, opened in late 1823, still served as “the chief freight artery” running east of Rochester to the state capital at Albany “and the river remained the dominant power source until cheap coal arrived in the late eighties.” Economically, the advent of the civil war provided a boost to already established local business and, in other instances, stimulated the creation of new business. The first “industry to reflect the upturn in business was the press.” Rochester was home to three separate daily newspapers, each of which reflected diverse viewpoints towards the possibility of war. The Union & Advertiser, or simply the Union, warned of the dire consequences of Lincoln’s election and the need to placate the South in order to maintain economic stability.  The rival Democrat favoured a compromise and accused the Union of being alarmist in its “attempt to play up the bogey of civil war.” As could be expected the third daily, the Express, was more radical than the other two and “urged courageous action in line with the results of the election and the dictates of conscience.” In the various local regiments sent to the war, each of these papers had soldier-correspondents who would keep the public apprized of the latest activity of the army.4

Army contracts led to a rejuvenation of older businesses but also “encouraged the establishment of a number of new concerns.” Just after the attack on Fort Sumter, a “tent and flag factory appeared” in the city, and was soon followed by a shop for belt-making. The shoemaking industry revived as did the flour industry. Horses were needed, either from the local counties or Canada, and sold at $125 a mount. Pork retailing increased by twenty percent. Local wool merchants saw prices soar to $1.04 per pound. The telegraph industry, under the control of Western Union, developed so rapidly in Rochester that by 1864 a fifth office was required in the town. Cloth shops introduced sewing machines to expedite the filling of army contracts. The enlargement of the Erie Canal, completed in 1862, “permitted the launching of bigger boats and the use of steam tugs.” In general, business was good in Rochester and Monroe County.5

As the eighteenth largest city in the United States, Rochester at the start of the civil war boasted a population of over 48,000 which meant that just under half of Monroe County resided in the city. When the war came, the city and the county would both pay a heavy price in manpower to sustain the Union. With the attack on Fort Sumter “a sense of patriotism overcame the city that was not unlike that which most other northern communities experienced.” On April 18, 1861, six days after the attack, the “people of Rochester “pledged their support to “the rightfully constituted authorities of the land.” The people also responded to Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers and thus the first Rochester Regiment, “built around the Rochester Light Guard”, was created, later to be designated the 13th New York. The regiment reflected the population mix of the area, consisting of American born citizens, Irish, British and German immigrants and was “mustered in for two years service” to the state of New York on April 25, 1861. On May 3, “eight local companies were ready to leave for camp. A cheering multitude of about twenty thousand lined State Street as the troops marched to board the cars for Elmira, where ten days later, the 13th Regiment of New York Volunteers was mustered” into “United States service for three months.” The confusion of time of service between the state muster and the federal muster would create a major problem later on. In the first flush of patriotic fervor the “people of the Rochester area cared much for its first regiment, the 13th, as a great amount of concern was given to these first volunteers”, who, with their brand new Springfield rifled muskets, “rushed with zest into the First Battle of Bull Run.”6

Professor Isaac F. Quimby of the University of Rochester was chosen to be the colonel of the 13th New York. As part of Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman’s Brigade in Tyler’s Division, McDowell’s Army of Northeast Virginia, the West Point trained Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy led the regiment into its initial battle on July 21st ,1861. Here at Bull Run, the fantasy of soldiering met the hard reality of war. A member of the 13th New York wrote that the “gullys (sic) fairly ran with blood” and “we knew that we murdered hundreds” of the enemy. Colonel Quimby “carried a rifle and made some splendid shots.” To these farm boys and city boys, the destruction that they witnessed in their first battle was staggering. They learned that when “a bullet goes into a man’s head it makes a crash among the bones that can be heard instantly for some feet.” The “piteous cries of the wounded for water”, the “ghastly look of the dead” and “the horrible contortions of the dying” would forever destroy the romantic image of the war.7 When the first news of the battle arrived at the telegraph office in the Reynolds Arcade on the evening of July 22, 1861, a huge crowd of people gathered “to find out what happened to their first local regiment.” Of the 600 men engaged, the 13th New York had lost 12 killed, 26 wounded and 27 captured. Considering the casualty lists later in the war, these statistics were not horrendous but, possibly for the first time, the people of Rochester realized that they were sending men to face the horror of a real war “not a romantic adventure.”8

About three weeks after the battle, the men of the first Rochester Regiment, the pride of the city, mutinied. At the center of the problem was the apparent confusion over the length of muster.  On May 14, 1861, the 13th New York was accepted for three months service by the Federal government which normally could be interpreted to mean that on August 15, 1861 their term of service would be over and they could return home. However, the men had initially signed a two year term of service to New York State and by “a little-noticed provision, the Governor of the State was empowered to order the men to serve the federal government beyond three months, up to the full period of their state enlistment.” Some of the men wished to stay on anyway, some wished to home immediately, undecided others wished time to decide. In a letter home the words of Sam Partridge specifically reflected the feelings of the volunteers from Rochester.  He noted that

This glorious 13th that left home so proudly that fought so nobly and would have shown its bravery all through the war was ruined by bad policy in a Government which  cheated and lied to them. Demoralized disgraced debilitated and not worth a_ _ _ _.

Various other issues were cited as ‘grievances’, such as their equipment (or lack thereof), army food (to use the term loosely), their clothing (or lack of) but in the end the men felt that they had been hoodwinked and played falsely. They wanted to do their duty and would, but, as volunteer citizen-soldiers, they also desired to be dealt with above board and fairly without the resorting to the legal chicanery of “a little noticed provision. Ultimately, the revolt boiled down to some thirty die-hards who were sent to the Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida for punishment and the 13th New York would remain for two years.9

Even after the defeat at Bull Run and the so-called mutiny of the 13th New York, Rochester “still remained relatively enthusiastic about the war” but enlistments “began to decline slightly by the fall of 1861.”Consequently the Second Rochester Regiment, the 108th New York was raised in response to Lincoln’s call on July 1st,1862 for 300,000 three-year volunteers. McClellan’s setback on the Peninsula, where, in his own mind, he had been outnumbered by “vastly superior numbers”, had turned the tide in favor of the Confederacy and the early Union successes, in the west at Forts Henry and Donelson and in the east with Burnside’s expedition on the North Carolina coast, seemed to be for nought. Consequently, with the realization that the war would continue, Lincoln issued his call. New York’s quota would be 59,705 new volunteers, 1548 of which would come from Monroe County.10 The 108th New York, organized in Rochester and mustered in on Aug.18,1862,11 was composed of purely Monroe County men and therefore unlike the "Bloody Thirteenth" could claim to be more deserving of the title "The Rochester Regiment.12  On the other hand, the 13th New York was a true volunteer regiment and felt that since the recruits of the 108th New York were bounty men, who could collect from $350 to $400 for enlistment13, such men were "milksops" and not "solid  men of the north."14 The bounty system was introduced late in 1861 to stimulate voluntary enlistment and thereby avoid the use of the state draft. In fact, the 108th New York received bounty payments on the day of their departure from Rochester.

            From the very start , perhaps,the 108th was doomed to obscurity since no one wanted to command it. Initially, “Mr. John Williams was authorized on July 10,1862 as Colonel to recruit this regiment in Monroe County" but he declined to take command. Colonel Oliver H. Palmer succeeded Williams 15 and took an active role in recruiting the 108th but

after it was duly equipped it was found difficult to obtain a person to take command. One day, in a fit of desperation at this condition of matters, he declared that if no one else could be found willing to assume responsibility, unfitted as he regarded himself for such a position, he would take it. To his astonishment the committee at once recommended him to the governor for the colonelcy, and on the 28th of July he received notice of his appointment.

Oliver Palmer was forty-seven years old when he became Colonel of the 108th.  A native of the Rochester area, he spent his early years working on his father’s farm, with little formal education until he entered Genesee Weslayan Seminary at Lima, New York. In 1839, he studied law in the offices of Judge Theron R. Strong of Palmyra but in subsequent years  he was an English scholar, a teacher, a judge and finally, a partner in his brother-in law’s company.16  To the people of Rochester, Colonel  Palmer was a popular, well-known dignitary. With his piercing eyes, his full patrician beard and his reserved bearing, he looked the way a colonel of infantry should look yet he had never been a soldier. His appointment as colonel was hardly a political plum since all his life Oliver Palmer had avoided "the dirty pool of politics." Before the war he “supported President Lincoln and worked earnestly for his election, not on account of the man but because the great issue was forced and involved in the result whether Freedom was the rule and Slavery the exception, or Slavery the rule and Freedom the exception.”  From a "simple Democrat" he evolved into “what was called a Radical Democrat” when he saw slavery as a threat to the larger concept of freedom.  He was not an abolitionist but rather wished to see the issue of slavery subject to the laws of the union. For Palmer, the North “has but one voice, and cries out in thunder, ‘The Union now and forever’” - a viewpoint generally shared by the populace of upstate New York and the Flower City in particular.17

The city of Rochester’s attitude to the secession question did not fully articulate until the South fired on Fort Sumter in April of 1861. After the attack, the people of Rochester viewed the action of the South as an attack on the Union and did not see the preservation or abolition of slavery as the central issue under dispute. A Rochester historian wrote:

It is a matter of curiosity to later generations, once they discover how earnestly the Northerners of Civil War days disavowed any intention of taking up arms to stamp out slavery, to determine just what, concretely, the men of that time believed they were fighting for.. The key word, of course, was "the Union". Doubtless, even as many today risk their lives for "democracy" or "the American way of life" without having any clear picture what those symbols mean, so many men of Civil War days were ready to fight for "the Union".18

Before the war, the city of Rochester was no stranger to the controversy generated by the issues of slavery and abolition. The abolition of slavery had been championed in Rochester by Frederick Douglass in" his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star," and by Susan B. Anthony, the renowned social activist, but their effort drew little support from the community.  Douglass,      and Anthony organized an anti-slavery meeting in 1858 at City Hall which degenerated into mob violence, followed by accusations that the organizers "invited the violence as a publicity tactic."  John Brown, the self-appointed administrator of God’s vengeance against slavery, "was a frequent visitor to the Rochester homes of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass" and in "April of 1859 ‘Old Brown’ spoke at City Hall in Rochester". Ostensibly, Brown was present to explain "the cause pursued by himself and his friends during the late troubles in Kansas", but he also managed to recruit "several blacks for his planned attack on Harper’s Ferry" later in the year.19  When Brown was arrested and sentenced to death for his botched effort at Harper’s Ferry, Anthony tried to organize a protest meeting at Corinthian Hall but she found that not " one man of prominence in religion or politics would identify himself with the John Brown meeting."20 On the day of Brown’s death, while “Susan B. Anthony, Parker Pillsbury and a few others stood vigil at Rochester City Hall, the majority of the city’s populace displayed little interest.  Although Rochesterians were cognizant of the slavery problem, most felt that it "was not a national issue" but rather one to be dealt with by the individual states.21 The most pronounced fear seemed to be that the problem of slavery would threaten the foundation of free government. Oliver Palmer articulated the concern in the May 10, 1861 edition of the Democrat where he wrote:

it is most difficult to believe the fact that we are to-day in the midst of a great Revolution. It seems more like a dream than a reality. The idea is so monstrous that our Government, prospered as no other Government on earth has ever been, ....should be seriously assailed, and its overthrow and destruction sought by a portion of its subjects.22

To preserve this Union, the city of Rochester once more answered Lincoln’s call for men in the summer of 1862.

Within sight of Susan B. Anthony’s family home, 23 the 108th New York broke their camp at Camp Fitz-John Porter, located south of the city on the west bank of the Genesee, on Aug.19, 1862 at 2:00 a.m. The regiment had ten companies, composed of approximately 83 enlisted men each, with an overall aggregate, including field and staff officers, of  980. Later in the evening the Rochester Regiment entrained for Albany, crossed the Hudson and headed for New York City, where they arrived at 11:00 a.m. on the 20th of August.  After they marched down Broadway, the men stayed in Park Barracks and were given weapons but no equipment. On the 22nd, they boarded a steamer for Philadelphia and from thence to Baltimore. Once on board, the men experienced some trepidation about their passage through the Maryland city which was notorious for its divided sentiment about the war as well as the near-riot with the 6th Massachusetts in the year previous. Once the regiment arrived, the ladies of Baltimore "gave the boys delicious looking cakes" but the officers of the 108th, perhaps just as nervous as the men, “gave the order not to eat" the delicacies which they feared were poisoned and believed the ladies "were taking this way to assist their brothers in the southern army in destroying Union soldiers." Such fears proved unfounded and the New York troops continued their journey but, typical of the spirit of cooperation in civil-war Baltimore, they were provided odoriferous cattle cars to transport them to the Capitol. Colonel Palmer was outraged by the mode of transportation, but to no avail as his regiment was herded into the waiting cars. On the morning of the 24th  of August,1862 the New Yorkers arrived in Washington.  Early in the afternoon, they camped on Arlington Heights in Camp Seward and proceeded to learn about soldiering.24 A few days later the 108th New York was "transferred to Brigadier General Whipple’s Division" and moved about 2 miles north opposite Georgetown. They christened their new camp "Camp Palmer" on honor of "our attentive and generous hearted Colonel."25

During the final days of August,1862 and twenty five miles to the west of Camp Palmer, the Second Battle of Bull Run exploded into the consciousness of the green recruits. They could clearly hear "the roar of artillery" and see the plumes of smoke. Rumors of action and "heart-throbbing" excitement ran wild.  Those in the know claimed that Robert E. Lee and the invincible Jackson had turned the right flank of Pope’s army and soon would descend on Washington via the eastern bank of the Potomac while the troops on the western bank would be isolated and destroyed.26 These rumors seemed to be confirmed when the 108th New York was unexpectedly ordered to fall in. However, the regiment marched several hundred yards westward to Fort DeKalb where the scholarly Palmer gave a lecture that "enlightened the men" about the purpose and nature of a fort. A short while later the regiment marched back to camp. The Colonel’s diversions worked since the men calmed down and were able to return to the more mundane task of constructing the camp defenses "between Fort DeKalb and Fort Ethan Allen."27 Over the next few days, the human evidence of the defeat at Second Bull Run began to materialize in Camp Palmer. Lt. Samuel Porter reported to his father that the “13th is just cut to pieces not many more than 100 left. We have some of them in camp every day and they tell pretty rough things about the battle.” The original ‘Rochester Regiment’, “The Bloody Thirteenth”, as part of the Fifth Corps’ unsuccessful attack on Jackson’s position on August 30  were later caught in Longstreet’s  crushing assault on their exposed left flank.28 Sam Porter further recalled that:

When I went over to supper tonight, I saw 1200 paroled prisoners that were taken in the fight of Friday & Saturday. They say the enemy treated them very well but could not give them anything to eat. All the officers of Pope’s division were stripped of their clothing and sent then prisoners to Richmond.29

The glamour of the war began to take on a stark reality for the men of the 108th.

On Sept. 5, in order to prepare his own regiment for combat, Colonel Palmer "issued an order prescribing the drills, exercises and discipline which were to entered upon the next day." But on September 6, the colonel "received an order from General Whipple which upset my orders of the evening before and came upon me like a clap of thunder from a clear sky." The 108th was ordered to report to Rockville

and to report to Major General Sumner - to move without tents, knapsacks or cooking utensils or camp equipage of any kind but with haversacs [sic] and three days cooked rations and forty rounds of ammunition to each man only; in other words, in light marching order.

Palmer was somewhat distraught and rushed to see Whipple for clarification. Did the order intend "active service in the field" or did it mean "simply a temporary duty" and eventual return to their camp?  As could be expected in the subsequent panic and confusion after the defeat at Second Manassas, no one in authority could or would answer the inquiry with any degree of  certainty.  Except for a fraction of the regiment, the 108th "had had no time for drill" 30 , yet the men had been called into action since "General Lee was on the wing, with a large army" and was "pushing troops across the Potomac" into Maryland.31  Consequently at" four o’clock on the morning of the 7th of September, Sunday morning, the line was formed and the order given." The 108th New York marched 18 miles to Rockville to join the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac, commanded by General Edwin Vose Sumner.32 In ten days they would enter their first battle, Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.

Prologue

 

Endnotes.

1Oliver Hazard Palmer, The Civil War Diary of Oliver Hazard Palmer (Santa Monica, CA.: Peter Leigh Garrett, 1997), p. 20. Mr. Garrett is the great-grandson of Oliver Palmer and he graciously provided me with a copy of the diary. All further references to the diary will be cited as Palmer-Diary, followed by page number.

2George H. Washburn, A Complete Military History and Record of the 108th Regiment New York Volunteers from 1862 to 1894 (Rochester,N.Y.:E.R. Andrews, 1894),pp.10-16. Hereafter cited as 108th New York.  The pages cited contain all the names of the regiment as mustered in but the total comes to 1040. Later in the regimental [p.188] the number given is 980 which also coincides with Palmer’s diary [p.20] therefore 980 will be used as the original strength of the regiment as mustered into the Army of the Potomac.

3Palmer-Diary, p.6 ; 108th New York,p.353.

4Donald M. Fisher, “The Civil War Draft in Rochester, Part One”, Rochester History, vol.53, no.1 (Winter, 1991), p.7; Blake McKelvey, “Rochester’s Mid Years: Center of Genesee Country Life:1854-1884", Rochester History, vol.2, no.3 (July,1940),pp.1-2 ; Blake McKelvey, “Rochester and Monroe County An Historic Partnership”, Rochester History, vol.33,no.2 (April,1971), p.7.

5Blake McKelvey, “Rochester’s Part in the Civil War”, Rochester History, vol.23, no.1 (January,1961), pp.3, 9-11.

6“The Civil War Draft in Rochester, Part One”, pp..7,10 ; “Rochester’s Part in the Civil War”,pp.5-6 ; “Rochester’s Mid Years..”p.5; Frederick Henry Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, 3 Parts (Des Moines, Iowa: The Dyer Publishing Company,1908), Part 3, p.1410. Hereafter cited as Dyer , followed by part and page number.

7Samuel Partridge, “ The Civil War Letters of Samuel S. Partridge of the Rochester Regiment”, Rochester in the Civil War, Blake McKelvey, editor(Rochester: Rochester Historical Society Publications, 1944) pp.79-81.  Hereafter cited as Partridge-Letters.

8“The Civil War Draft in Rochester, Part One” p.11; “Rochester’s Part in the Civil War”, p.1.

9 Ruth Marsh, “A History of Rochester’s Part in the Civil War”, Rochester in the Civil War, Blake McKelvey, editor (Rochester: Rochester Historical Society Publications,1944) pp.19,27 ;Partridge-Letters p. 86.

10 “The Civil War Draft in Rochester, Part One”, pp. 11, 14, 16 ; Stephen Sears, ed., The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865 (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989), p.321 ; James McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) ,p.19 ; Brian Bennett, The Sons of Old Monroe (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside House Inc.,1992),p.17.

11Dyer, 3, p.1448.

12Frederick Phisterer, New York in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865,  3rd ed.,vol.1,(Albany: J. B. Lyon Company,1912), pp.72-77. Hereinafter cited as Phisterer followed by volume number and page. The 13th New York consisted of men from Monroe County, Livingston County to the south and Wayne County to the east.

13Donald. M. Fisher,"The Civil War Draft in Rochester, Part Two", Rochester History, vol.53,no.2(Spring,1991), p14.

14"The Civil War Draft in Rochester, Part One ",p.19.

15 Phisterer, vol. 4, p.3269.

X16108th New York, p.188.

17Palmer-Diary, pp.9, 10 ; quoted from a speech by Palmer in Ruth Marsh,op.cit.,p.10

18Ruth Marsh,, pp.9-10.

19Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck, "A Growing Agitation: Rochester Before, During, and After the Civil War", Rochester History, vol.46, nos.1 and 2(January and April, 1984), pp. 7,11,13.

20Alma Lutz, "Susan B. Anthony and John Brown", Rochester History, vol.15, no.3 (July, 1953),p. 14.

21" A Growing Agitation.......", pp.11, 5.

22Palmer-Diary, p.15.

23Blake McKelvey, "Susan B. Anthony", Rochester History, vol. 7,no.2 (April, 1945), p.3.

24108th New York,  pp.17-18, 106, 261 ;Palmer-Diary, pp.19-24. The published facts of the time line and events for the trip south are confused. Washburn has the regiment arriving in New York at 11.00 a.m. and staying for two nights. Boyd, in his diary published in the regimental, says the men arrived in New York at 9.00 p.m. then left the next day. Palmer’s diary reports different times and dates. Col. Palmer also remembered the "cattle-car" incident differently. According to Palmer(p.22), he did procure comfortable transportation to Camden! -he mentions nothing of Baltimore. Therefore, the trip has been reconstructed by using a combination of these sources. I chose to leave the "cattle-car"incident as the regimental depicts it since Palmer’s account is somewhat self-serving.

25Palmer-Diary, p.24; 108th New York, p.18.

26Samuel Porter, Letter to Father, dated Sept.3, 1862, A.P. 84 Porter Family Papers, Folders 7,8,9,10. Originals in the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, University of Rochester. Hereafter cited as Porter-Letters.

27108th New York, p.18; Palmer-Diary, p.25.

28John Hennessy, Return to Bull Run (New York: Touchstone, 1994), chapter 19, pp.339-391.

29Porter-Letters, Sept.3,1862.

30Palmer-Diary, pp.25-26.

31108th New York, p.18.

32Palmer-Diary, p.28.

 

Prologue

 

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