- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006

The 33rd New York State Volunteers was one of the many regiments formed in the summer of 1861 in response to President Lincoln’s call for troops.

The men came from the northwestern part of New York, and as a result, the 33rd became known as the Ontario Regiment. They were mustered into the Army for two years. One of the soldiers was Pvt. Robert Williams.

According to service records available in the National Archives, Robert Williams was mustered in on May 23, 1861, at Elmira, N.Y. He gave his age as 30, but there is no description of him in the records. As is common with early service records, Pvt. Williams’ status is “not stated” in the bimonthly returns from July-August 1861 to November-December 1861.

During this period, the regiment was stationed in Northern Virginia in defense of Washington. It was employed in the building of Fort Ethan Allen and Fort Marcy in northern Arlington County, according to Volume I of “The Union Army” (Federal Publishing Co., 1908).

Willliams probably helped build the forts. Today you can visit both these locations. What remains of Fort Ethan Allen is on Old Glebe Road in North Arlington, on the east side of the road and marked with a Civil War Trails sign.

According to the regimental history written by David W. Judd, “The Story of the Thirty-Third N.Y.S. Vols.: Two Years Campaigning in Virginia and Maryland,” published in 1864, “Camp Advance was abandoned for Camp Ethan Allen, which was taken possession of September 24th [1861]. The men were employed in working on Fort Allen, slashing timber, performing picket duty, &c.;,&e.;”

Williams is shown as “present” from January-February 1862 to his muster out. Sometime during his service, he bought an ID tag. It is a typical brass one, probably made by Scoville Brass Co. of Waterbury, Conn., and New York.

This company made tokens with the same design as early as 1858. This information is based on its ads for tokens with the eagle design before the war. The eagle is based on the image on the U.S. $10 gold coin. It also says “War of 1861.”

Similar tags were bought as early as February 1862, based on a letter from a soldier in the 2nd Vermont who was sending a tag home.

On the face of his tag, Williams had the sutler stamp “R. Williams Co. G 33rd Reg. NY. Vols. Buffalo.” Normally the soldiers had their hometown stamped on the tag, so Williams’ hometown probably was Buffalo.

So what actions did Williams survive during his two years? The regimental history says the unit “encamped at Cloud’s Mill near Alexandria. The Thirty-third remained here with other troops, until Sunday the 23rd [of March 1862], when it marched to Alexandria, and embarked on vessels for Fortress Monroe.”

The regiment was assigned to Maj. Gen. Erasmus Keyes’ IV Corps when it moved to the Peninsula, east of Richmond. It was in the Siege of Yorktown (April 5 through May 4) and the fighting at Williamsburg (May 5).

After the battle of Williamsburg, the regimental history reports, Maj. Gen. George McClellan addressed the unit and praised them, saying, “All did well — did all I could expect. But you did more; you behaved like Veterans. You are Veterans — Veterans of a hundred battles could not have done better! Those on your left fought well; but you won the day!”

After this engagement, the regiment would next be in the fighting at Mechanicsville on May 25. To quote the history, “The whole [Confederate] force commenced falling back in the direction of Richmond. Seeing this, [Brig.] Gen. [John W.] Davidson ordered a charge, when the Thirty-third and Seventy-seventh [New York] gallantly charged down upon the place, driving everything before them.”

The next engagement for the regiment was Gaines Mill on June 28. There the regiment, with the 49th Pennsylvania, fought off the attack of the 7th and 8th Georgia regiments, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy.

The 33rd was at Savage’s Station (June 29) and White Oak Swamp (June 30). The regiment’s final action on the Peninsula was on July 1, 1862, at Malvern Hill, where it was in reserve.

The regiment then moved back to Alexandria, along with the rest of McClellan’s army. The regiment was not involved in the Battle of Second Bull Run, although it marched as far as Cub Run before being ordered to move back toward Alexandria. However, it is interesting to read the regimental history’s comments about the battle.

“Gen. McClellan left in command of the fortifications simply, several of his Generals deliberately, we believe, plotted the new leader’s [Major General John Pope] ruin. [Maj.] Gen. [Fitz-John] Porter was unquestionably the most guilty one of the number, and merited a severer punishment than has been meted out to him. This was the general opinion entertained in the army, outside of his own Corps.

“However much they loved and admired Gen. McClellan, the troops came to regard his pet, Gen. Fitz-John Porter, with distrust and suspicion.”

In September 1862, the regiment marched into Maryland in pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia. The 33rd was assigned to Col. William H. Irwin’s 3rd Brigade of Maj. Gen. William F. Smith’s 2nd Division of Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s VI Corps. In the Battle of Antietam, the 33rd would suffer six killed and 41 wounded for a total loss of 47, according to “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies” (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901).

The brigade would attack toward the Dunkard Church on the Smoketown Road. The regimental history, giving a different casualty figure, says, “The Third Brigade, with two others, immediately pressing forward, put the enemy to flight, and established the lines far in advance of where they had been at the opening of the fight. This brilliant success cost us, however, many casualties. Fifty were killed and wounded in the Thirty-Third alone.”

The regimental history also asked, “Where was McClellan that he did not give orders to renew the conflict? No such orders came.”

Williams’ records list him as present for the battle. However, a note states that in September-October 1862 he was to have his pay reduced by $2 because he “straggled.” When he “straggled” is not shown in the records; possibly it was on the march to Antietam.

By May 1863, the brigade containing the 33rd would be commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Neill. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, the VI Corps remained at Fredericksburg to attempt to hold the Confederates there while the main body of the army marched around the left flank of the Confederate Army.

After most of the Confederates had gone to Chancellorsville, the VI Corps attacked at Fredericksburg. The 33rd was part of the attack on Marye’s Heights on May 3. “Neill’s Brigade, further to the left, has likewise swarmed over the wall and now unfurls its banners on the Heights,” the regimental history says.

As the attack continued, the 33rd lost six color bearers until “Sergeant Vandecar rushes forward, hoists the tattered banner on his musket, and the Regiment presses forward.”

The 33rd suffered 17 killed, 130 wounded and 74 captured or missing, for a total of 221, as reported in the “Official Records.”

The regimental history ends its account of the battle with this statement: “It was a sad sight, those thin and decimated ranks; of five hundred and fifty brave men, who two weeks before marched out to meet the enemy, less than three hundred now returned.” This was the highest loss in the brigade and the second highest in the entire corps.

In early June, the men who had enlisted for two years were mustered out. Williams went home. The final entry in his service records shows that he was mustered out on June 2, 1863, at Geneva, N.Y. At that time, Pvt. Williams owed the government $1.19 for a “cartridge box, belt, plate (belt buckle), one cap pouch & pick.” However the government owed him $1.71 for clothing not drawn and a bounty of $100.

Williams never filed for a pension and since the regimental history was written in 1864, he is gone from our view. But he left us his ID tag and his service records to tell his story and remind us of his service to his country.

Joseph Stahl is a longtime collector of Civil War memorabilia. He lives in Fairfax.

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