Regimental History, 61st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry (1861-1865)

Summary:

  • The 61st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry (PVI) was commissioned as a 3 year regiment on July 24, 1861 under Colonel Oliver Rippey and was first organized at Pittsburgh the next month.
  • Six companies "went South" in early September to join the Army of the Potomac. They became companies A, B, C, E, F and K.
  • Four companies transferred in from the 23rd Pennsylvania Volunteers (Birney's Zouaves) on March 1, 1862 to form companies D, G, H and I.
  • The soldiers came from the following counties: Allegheny, Philadelphia, Indiana, Luzerne and Mercer.
  • The regiment was first assigned to the Fourth Corps, but it was affiliated with the Sixth Corps for most of its history.
  • The original term of enlistment expired in early September 1864. The remaining and reenlisted troops were then designated as a seven company battalion. Companies H, I and K were reformed with new recruits in February 1865 to allow the unit to regain regimental status for the war's final campaign.
  • The regiment was formally mustered out on June 28, 1865.
  • The 61st PVI participated in all major campaigns of the Army of the Potomac and engaged in particularly hard fighting in the Peninsula, Chancellorsville, "Overland" and Petersburg campaigns. It also saw considerable action in General Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864.
  • Total recorded combat deaths were 237, which ranked 15th highest among all Union regiments and 3rd highest among the Pennsylvania volunteer regiments. Eight men were awarded Medals of Honor for heroism in battle.


Regimental Commanders:

Col. Oliver H. Rippey - killed at Fair Oaks, May 1862
Col. George C. Spear - killed at Marye's Heights, May 1863
Col. George F. Smith - mustered out, September 1864
Lt. Col. John W. Crosby - killed at Petersburg, April 1865
Col. Robert L. Orr - mustered out, June 1865


Major Engagements:

Battle Date(s) Deaths
Fair Oaks (Seven Pines), VA May 31/June 1, 1862 92
Malvern Hill, VA July 1, 1862 4
Fredericksburg, VA December 13, 1862 2
Marye's Heights/Banks Ford, VA May 3-4, 1863 15
The Wilderness, VA May 5-6, 1864 34
Spotsylvania, VA May 8-21, 1864 44
Cold Harbor, VA June 1-3, 1864 2
Fort Stevens, D.C. July 12, 1864 6
Charlestown (Summit Point), WV August 21, 1864 8
Opequon (Winchester), VA September 19, 1864 3
Fisher's Hill, VA September 22, 1864 2
Cedar Creek, VA October 19, 1864 6
Fort Stedman, VA March 25, 1865 4
Petersburg, VA April 2, 1865 10

Also participated at: Yorktown, Antietam, Salem Heights (Salem Church), Gettysburg, Williamsport, Rappahannock Station, Siege of Petersburg, Sailor's Creek and Appomattox Court House.

 

Chronology:

1861
  • Commissioned on July 24th as a three year regiment with Oliver Rippey, a Mexican War veteran, placed in command.
  • Sent to Washington, DC on September 1st when only recruited to 600 men.
  • Trained at Camp Advance (near Mount Vernon, VA) from late September to the following February.

1862

  • Recrossed the Potomac and moved to Camp Stanton (near Bladensburg) in February. Received four companies and a Lt. Colonel from the 23rd PVI on March 1st to reach full strength.
  • Attached to the 4th Corps, Couch's Division with the March 13th reorganization of the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan.
  • Journeyed via transport to Fortress Monroe on March 26th to start the Peninsula Campaign.
  • Little engaged on the Peninsula until May 31st at Fair Oaks (or Seven Pines) when the regiment, though fighting bravely on the 4th Corps right, was severely mauled in a flanking attack by a larger Confederate force under Col. Micah Jenkins. All field officers were killed, wounded or captured in this engagement.
  • Played an important role at Malvern Hill, the final chapter in the Seven Days battle, by protecting one of the Federal batteries on the right flank from a series of Confederate assaults.
  • Remained on the Peninsula until late August before being transported back to Alexandria from Yorktown. The 61st then marched to Fairfax where the men helped protect the rear of Pope's army during its retreat from Second Bull Run.
  • Assigned to guard the Potomac crossing at Great Falls in early September as Lee mounted his Maryland campaign.
  • Arrived on the devastated battle ground of Antietam late in the day on the 17th and was involved in skirmishing and pursuit activities on the succeeding days, including an engagement with enemy cavalry on the 20th at Williamsport, MD.
  • Transferred to the 6th Corps in late September and returned to Virginia at the end of October. Remained in Virginia during November as McClellan was replaced by Ambrose Burnside.
  • Crossed the Rappahannock below Fredericksburg on December 11th. Along with the rest of the 6th Corps, the 61st was little engaged at the calamitous battle on the 13th and remained positioned below the town and the stone wall at Marye's Heights. They recrossed the river three days later and returned to camp.

1863

  • Participated in Burnside's infamous "Mud March" in late January which finally precipitated his removal from command and the promotion of Joseph Hooker.
  • Received the honor of being selected on February 2nd as one of the regiments in the new Light Division of the 6th Corps. This outfit was positioned as a "quick response" force. The much respected John Sedgwick assumed Corps command the next day. The division wintered at Belle Plains, VA.
  • Marched at the formal review of The Army of the Potomac before Abraham Lincoln on April 8th.
  • Accompanied the 6th Corps to their position on the Fredericksburg front of the Chancellorsville Campaign and crossed the Rappahannock River on May 1st.
  • Led the right column of the force which stormed Marye's Heights on May 3rd and, while battered by cannon and gunfire, helped carry the position which had caused so many casualties in the failed assaults of the prior December. Were little engaged in the action at Salem Heights which immediately followed, but helped preserve the 6th Corps lines at Banks Ford on the 4th when Lee tried to annihilate Sedgwick's troops as they prepared to recross the river after Hooker failed to come to their assistance.
  • The Light Division was dissolved on May 11th and the regiment was assigned to the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Division, where it remained until its final muster out in 1865. Thomas Neill, Daniel Bidwell and Thomas Hyde were successively the commanders of this brigade.
  • Camped along the Rappahannock until mid-June and then started on an extended march where they crossed into Maryland on the 27th, the day that George Meade relieved Hooker and assumed command of the Army.
  • Began a memorable forced march with the 6th Corps late on July 1st. This arduous trek in very hot weather took them 35 miles from Manchester, MD to Gettysburg, where they arrived late in the afternoon on the 2nd. The 3rd Brigade was detached from the rest of their Corps around 6PM and deployed in support of the 12th Corps on the Union right.
  • The regiment was not significantly engaged at Gettysburg. Most of their time was spent positioned on Powers Hill or near Wolfs Hill (where a regimental monument now stands) on the far right flank at the very end of the famous "fish hook" shaped formation of the Union battle line.
  • Involved in the unsuccessful pursuit of Lee's army after the battle and returned to Virginia before the end of the July. Then spent most of the next few months in a variety of encampments in Virginia but with little action other than guard and picket duty.
  • Was peripherally involved in the very successful attack on Rappahannock Station in early November and participated in the aborted assault on Mine Run, across the Rapidan River, later that month before entering their winter encampment at Brandy Station.

1864

  • Crossed the Rapidan with Grant's army on May 4th as he began his "Overland Campaign" with the unit at a strength of about 500 men.
  • Along with their brigade, became engaged in The Wilderness fighting the next day north of the Orange Turnpike and fought strenuously but inconclusively until the evening of the 6th when the 61st was instrumental in halting Gordon's surprise attack and its resulting panic on the Federal right flank.
  • Continued the march south to Spotsylvania Court House and was involved in repeated skirmishing and fighting from the 8th through the 10th.
  • Fought near the famous "Bloody Angle" on May 12th – including at least two hours in the front firing line – and were also involved in much of the other Spotsylvania fighting. The 61st sustained 290 casualties between May 5th and May 21st or nearly 60% of its strength. Horatio Wright assumed 6th Corps command after Sedgwick's untimely death on the 9th.
  • The regiment did not suffer severely in the debacle at Cold Harbor though they did participate in the June 3rd assault there.
  • Marched to and crossed the James with the rest of the Army on the 16th and spent the balance of the month guarding the Weldon Railroad near Petersburg.
  • Were rushed to Washington in early July, along with most of the 6th Corps, to protect the capital from Jubal Early's advancing Corps. The 61st then helped defend that city on the 12th at Fort Stevens in a small battle observed by Abraham Lincoln. The regiment spent the balance of the month on lengthy and uncomfortably hot marches in Virginia and Maryland fruitlessly tracking Early's troops.
  • Transferred with the rest of the 6th Corps to Phil Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah in early August which then moved into the Shenandoah Valley to destroy its capacity to supply the Confederate armies. They were involved in a bloody skirmish at Charlestown, WV on the 21st.This was the last action for those survivors of the original regiment who chose not to reenlist. These men were mustered out on September 7th at Harrisburg, PA.
  • The 61st was reduced to a battalion and participated with distinction in the victories of Opequon (Winchester) and Fisher's Hill though suffering about 15% casualties among its small force.
  • The battalion and its division held firm on the left flank during the setbacks at Cedar Creek on October 19th and participated in the subsequent counterattack and rout of Early's Corps after Sheridan's renowned ride to the front. The 61st had another 18 casualties here. It now numbered less than 100 men, though 150 draftees and substitutes were added by the end of the month and returning wounded brought the troop total to about 350 in November.
  • After the thrilling Valley campaign, the 6th Corps returned to Petersburg in early December and was reassigned to the Army of the Potomac. The 61st was placed on the line between Forts Welch and Fisher to help man the final period of grim siege duty.

1865

  • The unit regained regimental status on March 2nd being recruited to nearly 500 men.
  • It carried the outer line of the Confederate fortifications it faced during the March 25th Fort Stedman assault ordered by Grant.
  • The 61st contributed significantly in the final assault on Petersburg on April 2nd when its brigade was placed as the lead point of the Corps attack. It captured 2 battle flags but suffered 62 casualties, including another commander killed.
  • It made the last hard march in pursuit of Lee's army, firing its final shots in a small support role at Sailor's Creek on the 6th, and was subsequently present at Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House on the 9th.
  • It was part of the honor guard which presented all battle flags captured by the 6th Corps in the final campaign to General Meade on the 17th.
  • Moved to Danville by the end of the month and stayed there on provost duty until May 21st after the surrender of Johnston's army, then marched back to the capital.
  • The regiment participated in the special public review of the 6th Corps that was held on June 8th in Washington D.C.
  • Having never lost a battle flag and consistently done its duty, the 61st was finally mustered out on June 28th in Pittsburgh to close the circle in a history that epitomized the tragedy, suffering and eventual triumph of the Army of the Potomac.

 

Casualty Statistics:

Total Battle Wounded or Prison Other Total
Enrolled Deaths Missing/Captured Deaths Deaths Casualties
1987 237 635 19 82 973
  • More officers (19) were killed in combat than in any other Federal regiment.
  • Total battle deaths were 15th highest out of the approximately 2000 Federal regiments and 3rd highest of the PA regiments, after the 83rd and 105th.
  • Casualties were most severe at Fair Oaks (263), The Wilderness (151) and Spotsylvania (139).
  • The deaths and total casualties at Fair Oaks were the highest of any regiment in that battle and the deaths were the 11th highest regimental loss in any battle of the war.

 

Organizational Relationships (from March, 1862):

Brigade Division Corps Army From To
2 1 4 Potomac Mar 1862 July 1862
3 1 4 Potomac July 1862 Sept 1862
3 3 6 Potomac Sept 1962 Oct 1862
1 3 6 Potomac Oct 1862 Feb 1863
N/A Light 6 Potomac Feb 1863 May 1863
3 2 6 Potomac May 1863 July 1864
3 2 6 Shenandoah Aug 1864 Dec 1864
3 2 6 Potomac Dec 1864 June 1865

 


Compiled by: Richard F. Walsh
Version: 2.9 - March, 2014  © 1995-2014

Genealogy: Corporal William J. Nimon, my maternal great grandfather, served in Company G. He enlisted in September of 1861, was wounded at Spotsylvania on May 12th, 1864 and was discharged in September, 1864.

Main Sources: Bates; Brewer (regimental history); Dyer; Fox; Sauers (flag lore); and the Official Records

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