Report by John Murray
The fluctuations in the present for duty strength of the 55th Virginia Infantry Regiment during the course of the war were the subject of Richard O'Sullivan's presentation at the National Army Museum on 14 February 2004. Richard produced various statistics in the course of his talk, statistics which were extracted, over a five year period, from the Compiled Service Records of the 55th in the US National Archives.
Of the 1,322 total enlistments, some died and some (including a field artillery company) were transferred out of the regiment, 140 men in total, prior to active campaigning. 1182, therefore, saw active service.
There were 12 companies at various times and replacements came from the local area. There was a good deal of social cohesion. 45% came from Essex and Middlesex counties. Others came from Westmoreland, Lancaster and Spotsylvania counties and from Richmond. The 55th formed part of a "local Brigade ". Indeed, Richard likened them to a "chums' battalion" from WW1.
Richard's first list of statistics concerned the 747 "losses", made up as follows:
• 108 killed in action • 29 died in prison in enemy hands • 171 died of disease • 2 executed for desertion • 57 incapacitated by wounds • 95 discharged on grounds of broken health • 25 discharged at the end of service • 41 transferred to other units 8 obtained substitutes • 12 officers were dropped or permitted to resign• 199 Deserted.
Richard then produced a breakdown of the diseases suffered:
• Typhoid 30% • Dysentery 20% • Smallpox 12% • Pneumonia 10% • Measles 7% • Congestion of the brain 5% • Malaria 3% • Bilious fever 2% • Exposure 2% • Atrophy 2%.
Men were discharged for the following reasons:
• TB - consumption 20% • Rheumatism 15% • Deficient sight or hearing 12%
• Heart disease 12% • Dislocated limbs 9% • Hernia 9% • Dropsy 6%
• Mental alienation 3% • Scrofula 3% • Bronchitis 3%.
Richard then presented a chart showing the fluctuating strength of the 55th during the period 25 May 1861 to 9 April 1865 and against this backdrop he related the story of the 55th in terms of key events and impact of rest and recuperation and of battle up until Appomattox.
After Sumter, there was a rush to arms. Quickly 6 companies were raised; two based on the pre - war Essex and Middlesex Battalions. Many of their officers had trained at the Virginia Military Institute. Francis Mallory was appointed regimental Colonel. Initially stationed at Fort Lowry (with two artillery companies and the Essex Light Dragoons), the war largely passed the 55th by until McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign.
As the 55th were sent to Fredericksburg to stop McDowell, the 12 months' enlistments were coming to an end. The Conscription Act was passed and had a dramatic effect. In Richard's view, without that Act, the South would have been overwhelmed. While men between the ages of 18 and 35 went into the Provisional Army, extra men joined the 55th in new companies. There were by now 11 companies instead of the usual 10 because it was expected that an artillery company would leave the regiment.
The strength of the 55th then collapsed in May 1862. This was mainly the result of the weather and appalling levels of sickness. Ordered south to Richmond, there was an outburst of desertion as 100 men simply went home. Most of these men came from companies I and L (the so-called "militia companies"). In contrast, only 5 men from Essex County went absent without leave. By the end of the fighting at Fraser's Farm, during the Seven Days' Battles, the strength of the 55th fell to 270 men.
The 55th then demonstrated its huge power to recuperate and its strength then increased to 500 men. Its strength was reduced by the Manassas and Sharpsburg Campaigns and, with its strength down to 120 men; the 55th did not fight at Sharpsburg.
Richard's graph showed further recuperation by the 55th in time for Fredericksburg in December 1862 and by Chancellorsville in May the following year its strength had climbed to 480 men. The 55th suffered significant losses at Chancellorsville.The cost of then going on the offensive in the Gettysburg Campaign followed by the Falling Waters disaster saw 75% losses over a 10 week period. The switch to the tactical defensive and recuperation over the winter and spring months saw the strength of the 55th at 280 men.
Richard turned to look at the Wilderness Campaign noting that on 5 May 1864 the Brigade in which the 55th fought withstood six Union assaults. 2,500 Confederates beat off each of these assaults. At Spotsylvania, the 55th repulsed Burnside's XI Corps. The commonly held view of the fighting at this time was that Grant was grinding down the South. However, in Richard's view, Grant was grinding down his own army. Confederate opinion at that time was that they did not believe that they were losing. The Union forces were "shot to pieces "at Cold Harbor and suffered a severe set back at the Battle of the Crater.
The 55th suffered little desertion at this time. On 21 August 1864, Heth attacked Howard's Corps at Weldon Railroad, seizing trenches and a battle flag. The Union army was in a bad condition and, according to Richard, the US Stock Market agreed. Realising he was unable to take Richmond; Grant was urging Sherman to take Atlanta before the next election.
The 55th were sent to Richmond and, largely because of the poor quality of the troops with whom they had to serve, their morale was badly affected. Richard noted the change in Union policy towards Confederate deserters which had previously been to treat them as POWs. Instead of being sent to Point Lookout, such prisoners often went free. Desertions began to increase dramatically and more of the 55th left at Sayler's Creek and Appomattox.
Richard concluded his talk by looking at the strength of the 55th at the end of the war. There were 435 men on the rolls : • 200 present for duty • 21 prisoners of war • 24 detailed within the army • 32 Detailed outside the army. Of the 158 absent: • 10 were absent without leave • 40 were wounded • 50 were sick in hospital • 25 were sick on furlough • 33 Were awaiting discharge.
There then followed a lengthy and very interesting question and answer session. Asked about what happened to POWs , Richard said some did join the Union army after taking the Oath of Allegiance , some joining the 3rd Maryland Cavalry (but then probably deserted straightaway!). At Point Lookout, many were encouraged to take the Oath of Allegiance only then to be returned to their fellow prisoners.
Were desertions low because the 55th was often stationed close to home? Richard thought that fighting close to home was not necessarily a benefit. Some deserted but were then caught and imprisoned.
The discussion covered the 55th's command structure being shot to pieces at Chancellorsville and the impact of that disaster on the regiment's performance at Gettysburg where Richard thought they had performed well on 1 July but were badly used on 3 July. The 480 men available at Chancellorsville had reduced to 280 at Gettysburg.
The discussion turned to the topic of officers being "dropped" by their men. A Lieutenant Baker of Company E was got rid of by his men - he was "scrupulous in the maintenance of good order ". "Dropped" officers could be conscripted as privates.
One member of the audience remarked that Richard's graph would have been very similar for Louisiana and North Carolina regiments up until Gettysburg. From 1864, strength of Louisiana regiments went into "nose dive". Prisoner exchanges went on to 1864 and while North Carolina returnees went into their regiments, Louisiana returnees deserted.
Asked if the regimental battle flag survived, Richard confirmed it had - twice. The best way for it to survive was to let the enemy capture it! As they did at Falling Waters and at the Wilderness.
On his research, Richard confirmed that in addition to the National Archives, he had read the memoirs of Patrick Waring (Company F) and Alan Redwood (Company C).
On the subject of deserters and their punishment, Richard said that they would be court-martialed and face fierce sentences at Castle Thunder where some died of smallpox. Some were let out at the time of the Gettysburg Campaign when the President passed an amnesty. Some came back to the regiment. This was worrying because the best had been captured at Falling Waters and were replaced by released deserters.
Richard's talk and participation in the Q & A session were warmly applauded by an appreciative audience.