On July 2, 1863 the Battle of Gettysburg was raging in its second day. Men from Albany were dug in on a boulder strewn hill, fighting for their lives and for the hill that would come to be known as Little Round Top.
Gettysburg was a defining moment in the lives of the men who fought on both sides, including men from Albany. We estimate that about 8,000 men from the city of Albany and environs served in the Civil War. (Pretty amazing considering the entire population of the City was about 62,000 when the War broke out). Of those, about 4,000 were probably at Gettysburg. (Most of the men from Albany who fought at Gettysburg served in 4 regiments, but there were Albany men scattered throughout the Union Army, taking part in the battle that sprawled over 10 miles – in the infantry, artillery, cavalry and men from Albany County hill towns who were among some of the best sharpshooters in the Army.
We spend a lot of time discussing the Battle of Saratoga and how it changed the outcome of the Revolution. About 90 years later the Battle of Gettysburg was no less fateful in preserving the nation created by the Revolutionary War. Men of the 44th NY Regiment, mustered from Albany in August and September 1861, were in the thick of it on Little Round Top. The fight for that hill is considered by many historians to be the key point in the Union Army’s defensive line that day and perhaps of the entire Battle. The Union Army’s victory at Little Round Top prevented Meade’s Army from being outflanked by General Lee.
The 44th NY Regiment was known by 2 names – “Ellsworth’s Avengers” after Col. Elmer Ellsworth from Mechanicville (who was killed while removing a Confederate flag from the roof of the Marshall House Inn of Alexandria, Virginia at the request of Abraham Lincoln) and the “People’s Ellsworth Regiment”. Several of the initial companies of the 44th were recruited from the city of Albany. (About a year later, another company was added, drawn mostly from students at the State Normal School.)
The expenses of the 44th Regiment were borne in large part by the city fathers. There were requirements for enlistment; at least 18 years of age and no older than 30, a minimum of 5’ 8”, single, of good moral character; previous military experience a plus. The men who joined were an eclectic mix – they represented all trades and professions and some were college graduates. My GGG uncles, Charlie and George Zeilman, joined up. Because Charlie had served in the local guard he was immediately promoted to sergeant of Company F, known as the “Albany Company”.
Much has been made about the men from the State Normal School who enlisted with the 44th the following year, so I thought I would tell you about 2 ordinary guys from Albany, since they’re more representative of most of the 44th and rest of the men from Albany who fought for the Union. The Zeilman brothers were the grandsons of a Hessian soldier who fought for the British in the Revolutionary War, and a German immigrant who settled in the Mohawk Valley and fought in Tryon County militia. The extended family ended up in the Albany in the late 1700s in what is now Arbor Hill. We know the family had a tradition of public service – some were captains and constables of the watch (what we would call police), others were strong proponents of public education as early as the 1830s and they were all staunch Republicans. For the most part they were tradesmen. Charlie was carpenter and George a paper hanger when they enlisted. Much of the Zeilman extended clan, which included relations by marriage, lived in small area of two blocks on Lumber St. (now Livingston Ave.) between N. Hawk St. and Lark St. So far we’ve found 5 cousins from the area who enlisted in other NYS regiments. There were millions of men who joined the Union army just like them. They were the heart and soul of the Northern forces.
The 44th recruits were housed in barracks in what that city had planned to be an Industrial school in the general area we call University Heights today, off New Scotland Ave. The barracks were near the Almshouse and far from the urban core.
The 44th NY were “Zouaves”. Their uniform was modeled after Col. Ellsworth’s unit, based on the Zouave Algerian regiment in the French Army – known for their “dash” and bravery. It consisted of a dark blue bolero type jacket, with red piping on the cuffs, dark blue trousers with a red stripe, a red billowy shirt, a dark blue forage cap, and a pair of leather gaiters.
And thus began the romantic phase of the War, before anyone could comprehend the brutality and death that was to come. It would be a glorious war. Officers were presented with gifts and feted at teas and receptions. The men and women of Albany drove up Madison Ave. in their carriages to watch drills; the recruits paraded through the streets to the cheers of city residents, accompanied by a regimental band of some of the best musicians in the city who had enlisted. The 44th was presented with a flag by the Mayor’s wife. The commander, Colonel Stryker, turned to the men and asked, “Boys, shall this flag ever fall?” The men responded in unison, “Never”. They left Albany in a great pageant of patriotism- flags waved and the crowd cheered – they were off to whup Johnny Reb in a matter of months and return as heroes.
The regiment, about 1,100 strong, left in October 1861; it was deployed in Virginia as part of V Corps of the Union Army and saw little action. That changed in late May 1862 at the Battle of Hanover Court House, north of Richmond. Then came the Seven Days’ Battle and the battles of Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill. The Second Battle of Bull Run in August followed. By October, 1862 only slightly more than 200 men from the original regiment remained – the rest has been killed, wounded, taken prisoner or were missing. After each battle, their families, like those across the country, frantically searched the action reports in the “Albany Argus” and the “Albany Evening Journal” praying they would not see the words “dead’, “killed in action”, “mortally wounded”.
Life in Albany continued against a back drop of sadness and anxiety. Dry goods stores stocked vast quantities of black crepe and other mourning goods. The Rural Cemetery which had rung the chapel bell for every internment stopped; the bell was now only rung in the morning and in the evening – the incessant din had become unbearable. Stone carvers and monument makers didn’t want for work.
By now the men of the 44th were battle tested veterans and war weary. It was no longer a glorious war. Uncle Charlie was commissioned a Second Lt. in October 1862 and First Lt. in January 1863. While we’re sure he was a fine soldier, officers who had fallen needed to be replaced. The Regiment served at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and the debacle at Chancellorsville. By June, 1863 the 44th was matching north towards Gettysburg, along with thousands of soldiers from the North and South.
On the afternoon of July 2, after a double time march that lasted over 12 hours, part of the 44th NY, including Company F, with Uncle Charlie and Uncle George, found itself on a strategic hill in the southern part of the battlefield. They were part of Strong Vincent’s brigade, and joined remnants of the 12th NY, and men from Pennsylvania in the center of the line. They were flanked by Michigan and Maine regiments. The fight that ensued is the stuff of legend. Waves of Texas and Alabama soldiers hurled themselves towards the boulder strewn hill; they were pushed back, only to advance again. The furious struggle lasted hours without a break, into the evening. The men from Albany grew weary, tired and thirsty. Fire was thick and relentless from both sides. Gun smoke enveloped the hill like a cloud. At times the Confederates broke through the line and hand to hand fighting pushed them back.
The Union men on the hill, including Company F, ran low on ammunition – they rifled the cartridge boxes of their dead and wounded. Finally reserve forces from the 140th NY arrived, just as the 44th was being flanked. The famous Col. Paddy O’Rorke, from Rochester, lead his men headlong into the battle,. O’Rorke was killed, but his men pushed through. On the other flank, Joshua Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine, ordered his men, now out of ammunition, to fix bayonets and drive into the rebel onslaught.
The Confederate soldiers retreated. There were 300 men from the 44th on the Little Round Top when the fighting started; when it was over 100 men were dead, wounded or missing – including Uncle Charlie who suffered a chest wound. The entire Brigade suffered 34% casualties, including 26 year old Strong Vincent who was mortally wounded.
Little Round Top was only one of several brutal battles across Gettysburg, The 2nd New Hampshire lost almost half its men in the Peach Orchard; men were mowed down in the Wheatfield and on Cemetery Hill. Over 3 days 160,000 men faced one another in an epic struggle. At the end of the Battle there were over 7,000 men dead, another 35,000 wounded and 10,000 missing. On the morning of the 4th of July 1863, with a third of his Army dead, Lee withdrew to the south. The Southern invasion into the North had been halted, Northern critics of the War were silenced and it became clear to the Confederacy that Lee’s juggernaut could be stopped, and for the first time, the South had to consider it might not prevail.
The War would continue for almost another 2 years and the men from Albany in the 44th would continue for much of that time. They fought at Rappahannock Station in Fall 1863, In the Spring campaign of 1864 the remnants of the 44th fought in the Battle of the Wilderness – Uncle Charlie was wounded again. The regiment went on to fight at Spotsylvania and Bethesda Church; he returned just in time to join the 44th at the Battle of Cold Harbor and the siege of Petersburg that lasted most of the summer 1864. Finally, after the Battle of Popular Grove in Fall 1864 what was left of the Regiment limped home and were mustered out in Albany in October 1864. Uncle Charlie was done soldiering, but Uncle George and several other men from the “Albany Company” who had managed to survive 3 years of horror transferred to other regiments, serving until the end of the War.
About 1500 men served in the 44th NY over the course of 3 years; 750 were killed or severely wounded or went missing.
A monument to the 44th NY, one of the largest on the Gettysburg Battlefield, stands on the ridge of Little Round Top where the men from Albany may have turned the tide of the War and saved the Union.
Of course the monument was designed by Uncle Charlie. After his meritorius service (and I think because he actually managed to survive, he was breveted to Captain after he mustered out of the 44th). The brevet rank was honorary, but he was rewarded by a grateful nation, as were many Union soldiers, through the Federal government patronage system. After the War he became one of the first 5 letter carriers, when mail delivery started in Albany in 1865. By the mid-1880s he was Deputy Postmaster of the City.
The other Zeilman cousins’ War experience is like many of the millions of men who served in the Union Army – 1 was promoted from corporal to captain, 1 died of disease, 1 deserted (and re-appeared in Albany years after the War was over), 1 was captured and released, and another just served his 4 years as a private – as they say, he was either lucky or kept his head down.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor