SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY (07/01/2011)-- Col. James E. Kerrigan, member of Congress from New York City and at the same time commander of the 25th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, was proud of his title and troops when he led them to to war on July 3, 1861.
But less than a year later Kerrigan, who had recruited the regiment at the start of the war, was court-martialed, convicted and cashiered out of the Army.
A West Point-trained general was shocked when he visited the 25th Infantry, known then as "Kerrigan’s Rangers" and found things not what he thought they should be.
"Officers and soldiers were quarreling in a boisterous manner," Brig. Gen. John Martindale later testified at Kerrigan’s court martial. "They were not soldierly. Many men had their pants unbuttoned or wore drawers instead of pants. Many were without shoes."
Though Kerrigan was thrown out of the Army in disgrace, the soldiers of 25th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment from New York City served with valor for two years in the Civil War, shedding blood at several key Civil War Battles before being mustered out in June 1863.
But it was at the Battle of Hanover Courthouse during the Peninsular Campaign in 1862 where the regiment truly distinguished itself, suffering 158 casualties while holding back a Confederate assault. About 90 soldiers and officers of the regiment would die in the war, two thirds from wounds suffered in battle, the rest from disease.
A Mexican-American War veteran, sometime New York City alderman and Tombs police court clerk, Kerrigan organized the 25th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment after the Civil War began in 1861. He was later commissioned colonel of the regiment, and its soldiers, who were recruited from New York City, came to be known as the "Kerrigan’s Rangers," or "Union Rangers."
Kerrigan, who was elected to Congress in March 1861 and continued to serve while leading the regiment, had also briefly been a member of a privately financed expedition led by William Walker to conquer Nicaragua. He was not, though, a very good regimental commander.
The problems which foreshadowed Kerrigan’s downfall were evident from the start.
While living in barracks on Staten Island in May 1861, the regiment suffered equipment shortfalls, according to newspaper accounts at the time. Kerrigan himself reported that his men "were suffering from sore feet, for want of shoes, and that they were otherwise badly clad."
While one newspaper reported the soldiers surprised civilians with their "competency and military intelligence" at public in-ranks inspection in May, it went on to lament the shortages.
"It is very unfortunate to think that these promising hale and hearty recruits for the armies of our country, should, in so large a measure be destitute of shoes and clothing," the newspaper said. "There is something clearly wrong about this, and it is right to mention that many of the men of this regiment are in a totally destitute condition, in want of everything that a soldier can require. They have the bone and the muscle, the courage and the determination, and all they ask for are the outside necessities to complete their equipments."
The soldiers’ departure was delayed "owing to the fact of their not having the proper equipments," according to another account. "There is a great deal of complaint among the men as to the quality of the clothes that have been furnished them. They appear to be all made of a size, and of course are totally unfit for a regiment of different sized men." The soldiers hadn’t been paid either, another paper reported.
But depart they did, heading to Washington, D.C. where they formed part of the city’s defense at Fort Albany until July 21, 1861, when they marched to Munson’s Hill in northeastern Virginia to stop rebel incursions on the capital. It was there, according to the formal charges later lodged against him, that Kerrigan shamefully abandoned his post by withdrawing his pickets in the face of a Confederate charge on Aug. 27.
But it was actually a skirmish with his new commander Brig. Gen. Martindale that initially drew Kerrigan into the bead of military justice, according to Thomas P. Lowry’s book, Tarnished Eagles. A West Point graduate, Martindale visited the regiment’s camp on Oct. 18 "for the purposes of examination and instruction" and found the soldiers dirty, their weapons foul and the camp in a state of chaos.
When Martindale assembled the officers to lecture them, Kerrigan walked away, apparently bored with the meeting. Martindale ordered Kerrigan to come back, but Kerrigan "did willfully and positively refuse to obey said command and order," according to the charges, which also specified Kerrigan allowed his soldiers "to appear on parade in a state of unseemly disarray and filth -- their pants unbuttoned and their underclothes and persons exposed."
Martindale was not amused, and had Kerrigan arrested. Though Kerrigan was aquitted of charges related to the Munson’s Hill incident, Martindale’s testimony, along with that of other officers, resulted in his conviction for "inefficiency, and of conduct unbecoming an officer in the gross neglect of his military duty, as manifested in the disorganized and disgraceful condition of his regiment," according to one newspaper. He was dismissed from the Army on March 6, 1862.
Kerrigan returned to New York to finish out his congressional term and then became an Irish Nationalist, opposing British control of Ireland. When former Irish-American Soldiers known as Fenians proposed winning Irish independence by conquering Canada in an invasion cross the New York Border in 1866, Kerrigan signed up for the fight, leading a company of volunteers into Quebec.
In 1867 he commanded a boat landing illegal arms in Ireland. He died in 1899.
More than 500,000 New Yorkers enlisted in the Army and Navy during the four years of the Civil War and 53,114 New Yorkers died. Throughout the period of the Civil War Sesquicentennial observance, the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs will produce short articles about New York’s Civil War experience researched by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.
For more information, go the NewYork State Military Museum Civil War Timeline Website at http://dmna.ny.gov/civilwar/