“Boys, lie down or you’ll surely be hit!”
– John T. Sinnott, July 3rd, 1863
“John Sinnott, a schoolteacher from Rutland — raised up to caution the men to stay low and was himself mortally wounded, struck in the head by a shell fragment.”
Lt. John Sinnott’s Hardee Hat
Today’s post is centered around the highlight of an upcoming (March 25th, 2017) militaria and sporting goods auction from the collection of Vermont Civil War collector Marius Peladeau. I was able to check out some of the fantastic items that will be highlighted at the auction and was especially blown away by one item in particular. It’s a rare occasion to be able to tie a 150+ year old item to a particular soldier – it’s an even rarer occasion to tie that item and soldier to an exact moment during a historically significant battle that changed the course of American history. In this case, that soldier was Lt. John Sinnott, and the event was the repulse of Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd, 1863.
Lt. Sinnott took a piece of Rebel shrapnel in the forehead shortly after telling his troops in his Irish brogue:
Boys, lie down or you’ll surely be hit!
This last utterance was noted by Heman W. Allen in the Pictorial History of the 13th Regiment of Vermont Volunteers, 1861-1865. This quote was spoken in the heated moments of the Confederate artillery bombardment preceding Pickett’s Charge. Close friend and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Captain John Lonergan said of the death of his close friend:
I lay by his side when wounded that terrible day…I tied his head with my kerchief and dropt a tear on his aching brow. He could not speak – he was senseless! His eyes were closed by the enemies’ guns. My eyes burned with tears for his relatives and friends… his father, mother, sisters, brothers, three thousand miles away the exile dies in a foreign land in defense of Ireland’s hope, the starry flag. For nearly a year we marched together, we fought together.
Sinnott apparently anticipated his fate and died shortly thereafter (July 6th) in a field hospital with a note in his pocket that bid farewell to his bethrothed as well as where to send his property in case he should die in battle. His shrapnel-ridden hat was sent back to Vermont along with his body. He was buried in Bridget’s Cemetery in West Rutland. His hat was kept and passed down in his family where it was later purchased by Vermont Civil War collector Marius Peladeau. Mr. Peladeau has consigned the hat along with hundreds of other items in his collection to the Duane Merrill and Company auction house in Williston, Vermont.
The hat is estimated to sell for $8,000-$12,000 on March 25th, 2017. I will update this post with a final selling price at that time.
Want to bid on this item? Click the hat below!
Want to know more about Vermont’s involvement at Gettysburg?
In early July of 1863, as tens of thousands of men in blue and gray clashed in battle, a Burlington resident distinguished himself with conspicuous gallantry in his only fight during the Civil War.
Midway through the war, two key victories for the federal army struggling to preserve the Union marked a turning point in the conflict. The audacious invasion of the north by Gen. Robert E. Lee that posed a threat to the nation’s capital was repulsed at Gettysburg on July 3. The next day Maj.r Gen. Ulysses S. Grant forced the surrender of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, which gave the Union control of the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two.
Lee’s defeat prevented a situation that might have ended the conflict with victory for the southern states. Public reaction to the capture of Washington by the rebels or yet another stunning defeat of Union forces — this time on their home territory — could have forced President Lincoln to come to terms with the Confederacy, allowing them to secede from the Union as they desired.
The crucial task of opposing Lee at Gettysburg fell to a new commander as Lincoln replaced “Fighting Joe” Hooker with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade on June 28. Hooker had constantly demanded that more soldiers be assigned to his Army of the Potomac. Before Lincoln ran out of patience with Hooker, the president had agreed to transfer major units from the defenses of Washington to augment the field troops pursuing Lee north.
One such unit was the Second Vermont Brigade composed of five regiments from the state, the 12th through the 16th, nearly 5,000 soldiers who had enlisted for nine months service the previous fall. Their enlistments had almost expired when the brigade was assigned to the First Corps, the lead element of Meade’s forces already well to the north. Guarding a quiet sector of Virginia along the Occoquan River with only an occasional skirmish against rebel cavalry, these Vermont units had never been tested in battle.
Despite worn-out shoes and the summer heat, the brigade marched 120 miles from Virginia to Pennsylvania in six days, each day rotating the less dusty place at the head of the column among the five regiments. Arriving at the First Corps camp on July 1, the 12th and 15th Vermont were assigned guard duty and the three remaining regiments rushed to join the Battle of Gettysburg lready underway.
Capt. John Lonergan’s Company A, 13th Vermont, was leading the column early that afternoon when they reached the crest of a hill and saw the battlefield awaiting them.
Lonergan had recruited Vermont’s only ethnic unit, mostly Irishmen from Burlington and Rutland, plus a dozen Yankees from Westford. His ultimate purpose was to provide trained soldiers for the Fenian Brotherhood dedicated to liberating Ireland from British rule. In 1861, Lonergan had supplied a company for the 2nd Vermont from his Emmet Guards militia unit in Burlington, but it was disbanded by Gov. Fairbanks for failing to assemble on time. for the regimental muster (perhaps some drink had been taken on the eve of departure for war.) The teetotaler Republican governor disliked Lonergan for being an immigrant, an Irishman, a Catholic, a Democrat and a drinker.
Lonergan received authorization in 1862 from Fairbanks’ successor to raise another company. Always brash, Lonergan claimed seniority in the 13th Vermont based on his earlier captaincy and was granted the designator “A” for his new company, even though official state records do not show him being commissioned for either post.
As senior company, his soldiers held the right flank of the battle line at Gettysburg, the traditional position of honor.
Brig. Gen. George J. Stanndard’s Second Vermont Brigade, three regiments near the authorized strength of a thousand men each, were welcome reinforcements to the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge south of Gettysburg. Although “green” troops not yet tested in battle, the Vermont units were used to plug gaps in the line. On the evening of July 2, five companies of the 13th Vermont held in reserve were ordered by Second Corp commander Maj. Gen. Winfried S. Hancock to retake four Union cannon captured at nearby Emmitsburg Road.
Longergan led his “Irish Company” as they shouted the ancient Gaelic battle cry “Faugh a ballagh!” warning the enemy to “Clear the way!” and reached the cannon first. Once the heavy weapons were safely on the way back to the Union lines, the captain turned his attention to a nearby farmhouse from which rebels were firing on the Vermonters.
Clearly Lonergan “had his Irish up.” He stationed his 50 men near the house, kicked in the door, and demanded that the rebels come out and surrender. More than 80 rebel soldiers and officers meekly complied, only to discover that they outnumbered their captors. On the triumphant return to Union lines in the gathering dusk, a veteran soldier on Cemetery Ridge who had watched the nearly suicidal tactics of Lonergan asked the returning “Irish Company” who they were. “We’re the Green Mountain Boys,” an Irishman proudly answered, whereupon the veteran commented drily, “Well, I knew you were green or you would never have charged down there.”
For this gallant action, Lonergan was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
Fitfully dozing among the dead rebels killed in the assault earlier that day, the 13th and 14th Vermont spent that night in the main Union line while the 16th Vermont deployed as skirmishers along Emmetsburg Road. Lonergan’s unit, the senior company in the senior regiment on the field of battle, crouched on the right flank of the Vermont brigade behind a low stone wall. A prolonged artillery duel began at 1 p.m. on July 3; even the greenest soldier knew this was preparation for another infantry attack. Capt. James Rorty’s New York battery next to Lonergan’s company took heavy losses and needed volunteers to help keep the cannon firing. Rorty, secretary of the Fenian Brotherhood for the Army of the Potomac, called on his fellow Fenians nearby and they left their shelter to join the cannon crew. (Rorty, stripped to the waist like an Irish warrior of old, was killed at his guns before the battle ended.)
To escape the fierce pounding of the Confederate artillery, the 13th and 14th Vermont moved forward a hundred yards into the slight protection afforded by the swale of Plum Run, now down to a trickle of water in the July heat. Behind hasty fortifications of fence rails, the men hugged the ground and waited for the rebel assault that was sure to come. As the artillery firing slackened, Lonergan’s second in command — John Sinnott, a schoolteacher from Rutland — raised up to caution the men to stay low and was himself mortally wounded, struck in the head by a shell fragment. When the bombardment ceased, the soldiers could see a Confederate battle line almost a mile wide forming across the valley on Seminary Ridge. The Vermonters were facing some 15,000 well-armed and hardened fighters, now reinforced by Pickett’s fresh division. Stannard brought the 16th Vermont back from its vulnerable position as skirmishers, reuniting the three regiments of his brigade in an isolated pocket in front of the Union line.
When the rebel troops came within range, Stannard’s men opened fire with great effect and seemed to drive the attacking soldiers aside, rather than charging right over the Vermonters. In reality, Pickett’s units were marching deliberately to their left in order to achieve the shock effect of a column and punch a hole in the Union line at the copse of trees used as a landmark for the maneuver. As they passed by on the right of the Vermont line, the rebels were masked from the Vermonters’ muskets, except for a few in Lonergan’s company.
To rectify this situation, the order was given — both Hancock and Stannard later claimed credit—for the 13th and 16th Vermont to move forward by the right flank. This placed Lonergan in the lead of the two regiments as they displaced in a column to march within “half pistol shot” distance from the flank of the rebel mass now charging up Cemetery Ridge.
Lonergan placed his orderly sergeant James Scully, also from Burlington, to mark the pivot point and ordered his men to “change front forward” to form a double row of muskets leveled at Pickett’s soldiers. In turn, each company of the 13th and then the 16th Vermont performed the same action to connect up with the “Irish Company,” first moving in a column of fours and then forming a battle line extending almost to Emmitsburg Road. A ripple of volleys smashed into the mass of rebels; then each Vermonter loaded and fired as rapidly as he could, hardly necessary to take aim at such a large and essentially defenseless target.
Met with concentrated small arms fire to their front — some smoothbore muskets left by rebels on July 2 were now turned on them with deadly double loads of buckshot — and canister from cannon now acting as giant shotguns, the rebel charge stalled and hung in the balance. Then Pickett’s men on the right flank also began suffering devastating casualties as Vermonters poured .58 caliber rifle slugs into them at short range.
Some Vermonters fired a dozen and more times, particularly the first men to arrive on the new battle line. Those few Confederates on the edge of the attacking column who could bring their weapons to bear began to return fire and soldiers in the Vermont units also fell dead or wounded. Lonergan lost four men killed and six wounded as they were exposed the longest to this exchange of lead from musket and pistol, yet he was himself unharmed. Finally the rebels broke, streaming back down the hill and leaving hundreds of dead, wounded, and prisoners behind.
The Second Vermont Brigade joined in the pursuit of Lee on his retreat to Virginia. As their enlistments expired, the regiments were pulled out to return for discharge. The 13th Vermont left on July 10 and was mustered out at Brattleboro on July 20. Lonergan’s company took a train back to Burlington, dropping off the contingent from Rutland en route. The next day the remaining members were greeted as heroes in ceremonies at City Hall Park in Burlington and the “Irish Company” faded away into the mists of history.