Friday, June 20, 2003

In June 1861, the 34th New York Infantry, known as the “Herkimer Regiment” because it was recruited in Herkimer County, was mustered into service for two years. It left for Washington in July, was assigned to the 2nd Brigade of Gen. Charles P. Stone’s division, and spent the next few months in the vicinity of the capital. In March 1862, it moved to join Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula campaign and saw action at Yorktown, Fair Oaks and during the Seven Days Battles.

At Antietam in September, the regiment suffered its greatest losses — 150 killed, wounded and missing out of 311. After Antietam, it was engaged at Fredericksburg and at Chancellorsville. The 34th left for home on June 9 and was mustered out on June 30 at Albany, N.Y.

The identity tag of Sgt. John Johnson of Company K of the 34th New York is typical of Civil War ID tags that were sold to the soldiers. It is brass and has a shield with the words “Against Rebellion 1861” on one side. On the reverse, Johnson stamped his name, rank, company, unit and a list of battles in which he had fought. The inclusion of battles was not common, but it was done by some soldiers who obviously were proud of their service.

It appears that Johnson had “Fair Oaks, 7 Days Bat’s” and “Antietam” stamped, probably buying the tag after Sept. 17, 1862, when the Battle of Antietam was fought. At any rate, he bought it after June 1, 1862, the date of his promotion to sergeant, which is the rank stamped on it. It looks as though he later added “Fredericksburg.” You can see that the sutler stamped “Ch,” then went back over that with “Fr.” The sutler probably started to stamp Chancellorsville, then caught the mistake. Chancellorsville may not have been added because of space limits.

Who was Johnson? The following information is in his service records (a copy of which can be acquired from the National Archives for most Civil War soldiers if the name and unit are known):

John Johnson mustered in on June 15, 1861, at Albany as a corporal in Company K, and he gave his age as 24. From June 1861 to April 1862, it is “not stated” whether he was with his unit (not uncommon during this period). He is shown as “present” from May 1862 until his discharge on June 30, 1863, which indicates that he saw combat in all the actions in which the 34th New York was involved during his enlistment.

Knowing that he was at Antietam enables a visit to one of the sites of his engagements. The 34th has a monument on the field at Antietam. It is on the north end of the battlefield, along a modern road that passes through what was the West Woods, and stands west and north of the Dunker Church.

The large cloverleaf design on the monument is the symbol of the 2nd Corps in the corps badge system. Corps badges were ordered to be worn by troops in the spring of 1863 by Gen. Joseph Hooker when he took command of the Army of the Potomac. The badges were to develop unit pride as well as to allow fast identification of units by commanders. Although the symbol hadn’t been instituted at the time of the Battle of Antietam, the men of the 34th New York were proud of their association with the 2nd Corps and had the badge placed on their monument.

To know that Johnson was on this same ground is to touch history. In the “War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies” is the report of Col. James Suiter, commander of the 34th at Antietam: “[A]rriving at about 20 yards in rear of a school-house, when I discovered the enemy under the hill. I immediately ordered my command to fire, which they did in gallant order.” Later he wrote, “Rallying my command, I formed them in line of battle, supporting a battery some 400 yards in rear of the battle-field. … In this engagement the casualties were 32 killed, 109 wounded, 9 missing.”

Johnson made it through that battle and all the following actions. He went home with the unit, and in October 1891 filed for an Invalid Pension. On this Declaration for Pension, he gave his description at enlistment as 5 feet 6 inches tall, complexion dark, dark eyes, dark hair and that he was a carpenter. His picture has not yet been located.

He stated that he was born on April 17, 1837, in Little Falls, N.Y. The pension files show that he was married on Nov. 14, 1866, to Cathrine A. Bateman and that they had two sons. He received his pension and lived until July 2, 1913, spending his final years in the National Home for Disabled Soldiers in Tennessee. His wife survived him for another eight years.

• Joseph Stahl writes from Fairfax.

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