The 41st New York Infantry (DeKalb Zouaves)

Yes, the following post only mentions Gettysburg toward the end. I debated whether to do a specifically “Gettysburg” post because today marks the 148th anniversary of the stand of the 1st and 11th Corps at Gettysburg. As you can read, I ultimately decided against that but found a part of the Gettysburg story directly related to this post.

This week’s post takes a vacation from Sulphur Springs, although that location will make its appearance very briefly. One of my objectives is to look at the 11th Corps units at a regimental or even company level when possible, instead of simply focusing on the generals who typically get the attention if not the glory for what the common soldiers performed. Starting off with the 1st Brigade (Von Gilsa’s) of the 1st Division (Barlow’s) at Gettysburg, I’ll examine the regiments irregularly over future posts.

The 41st New York Infantry was one of the 11th Corps regiments that truly was made up almost entirely of Germans. One of the things that are interesting about this New York unit is that not everyone was from New York. Companies G and H came from Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey. To make things even more interesting, Company F was artillery! The regiment was organized by Leopold von Gilsa (more on him in a later post). Company A was originally known as the De Kalb Zouaves, but the regiment adopted the name.

The 41st travelled to Washington, arriving on July 10, 1861. They were not engaged at First Bull Run but helped cover the retreat. In October, they were assigned to Stahel’s brigade of Blenker’s division. In November, Company F became the 9th New York Independent Battery. In April 1862 they were ordered to join Fremont’s command in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, arriving in May. Their first battle was at Cross Keys on June 8, 1862.

Shortly thereafter, the brigade was assigned to Schenck’s division of Sigel’s corps in Pope’s Army of Virginia. The 41st was on the Rappahannock line in August 1862 and was present at Rappahannock Station, Waterloo Bridge and Sulphur Springs. Over 100 men were lost at 2nd Bull Run, shortly after which the 41st became part of the 11th Corps. The 41st was the only Zouave regiment in the 11th Corps. They were in reserve during the battle at Fredericksburg. At Chancellorsville they were commanded by von Einsiedel (who continued in command until his death in August 1865).

The 41st lost 75 men at Gettysburg. After Gettysburg, they were transferred to the 10th Corps in South Carolina operating near Charleston. In September, 1864, the reorganized 41st returned to Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, and was present at Cedar Creek. They spent the winter at Bermuda Hundred north of Petersburg and were mustered out December 9, 1865.

For those readers interested in arms and equipment, the 41st New York began the war with Model 1842 smoothbore muskets, but received Model 1861 rifled muskets in 1863.

The patient reader who has made it this far has been subjected to a typical abbreviated regimental history easily available with a few keystrokes and a mouse-click. Now, as Paul Harvey used to say on the radio, here’s the rest of the story…

The 41st New York Infantry, with 371 men, formed the right of von Gilsa’s brigade at Chancellorsville. Von Gilsa’s brigade formed the right of the 11th Corps; the 11th Corps was the right of the Army of the Potomac. Therefore, the 41st New York Infantry would be the right of the entire Federal line. Since the 11th Corps was facing south this means that the 41st New York would have been the first unit to be hit by Jackson’s flank attack. Where does a researcher go for details?

An obvious start is available secondary sources such as Sears’ Chancellorsville, which corroborates that the 41st New York, along with the 45th, were the first two units slammed by Jackson’s massive attack. Sears also points out how the 13th New York Independent Battery, 54th New York Infantry, and 153rd Pennsylvania Infantry were facing west. This accounts for von Gilsa’s entire brigade along with the only division artillery unit.

Looking at multiple secondary sources such as Sears, Swinton’s Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, and others, a reader finds two conflicting stories of what happened.  First, if one finds and reads the Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg (New York at Gettysburg) by the New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga, published in 1903, the 41st New York and von Gilsa’s brigade seemingly emerge from Chancellorsville as heroes.  The 11th Corps’ right flank was crushed by Jackson’s troops. When the 41st New York broke without firing a shot, the 45th followed suit, along with the rest of the brigade and eventually the entire division with only a couple of volleys, until finally the entire corps was running for the rear down a single road. The quality of these troops, according to many, was in question; they were foreigners, had never been part of any winning engagement, their courage was doubtful and they proved (as many expected) useless at Chancellorsville.

Second, there was a failure in command where almost every general (without question division commander Devens and corps commander Howard) seemed to ignore obvious signs of an impending attack from the west. Regimental officers, on the other hand, saw signs of what was coming and tried to prepare as best they could. The record would show they retreated, if not ran, but there were critical moments when they fought back and slowed down Jackson’s attack by two hours. So many veterans said.

The truth? It is safe to say the 41st New York ran and may or may not have fired three volleys into the advancing Confederates (as one veteran claimed in 1893). They likely did not have time to get in line of battle, but were in their camp when the attack commenced; two officers and some “sharpshooters” positioned to the west were the first to fire on the Confederates. One can fault the 41st New York, indeed the rest of the brigade, but only if one faults other units in other battles that acted in a similar manner (think Pittsburg Landing (a.k.a. Shiloh) in April 1862 or Cedar Creek in October 1864) and other commanders (for example, Pope at 2nd Bull Run) for confusing Confederate realignments and marches with retreat. Many damned “the Dutch” for what happened, but while I make it a point to be as objective as possible, I can not help but think as a North Carolina officer did about the 11th Corps at Chancellorsville – “They did run and make no mistake about it—but I will never blame them. I would have done the same thing and so would you and I reckon the Devil himself would have run with Jackson on his rear.”

The 41st New York was spared from the Gettysburg flight on July 1; they did not arrive on the field until after 10 p.m. and then, of course, they were positioned on Cemetery Hill. Even then, they were placed ahead of the main line in an area known as Culp’s Meadow below East Cemetery Hill and, with adjacent regiments, bore the brunt of a head-on Confederate attack on July 2. This time, however, only the left flank of the regiment collapsed. The right flank held, helped slow the attack, and allowed troops sent by Hancock to begin pushing the Confederates back. The 41st New York has a monument on Wainwright Avenue where the attack occurred.

When I return to Gettysburg I plan to spend time on East Cemetery Hill, visit the monuments there, and reflect on what was, very likely, the 11th Corps’ finest hour and the subject of a future post.

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