Corcoran's Irish Legion

Under Ulysses Grant the Army of the Potomac was bulling its way towards Richmond in the spring of 1864. After hard fights in the Wilderness and at Spottsylvania, Grant again sidestepped Robert E. Lee’s troops, threatening to come between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond. At the end of May the opposing armies faced off at the vital road junction at Cold Harbor, Virginia. After preliminary fighting on June 1, 1864, a major assault planned for the Second was delayed until the Third because of weather. Grant later ruefully wrote that he always regretted that attack which cost some 7,000 men in his futile attempts to break through the Confederate entrenchments. One of those men, Colonel James P. McMahon of the 164th New York Volunteer Infantry, actually climbed upon the Confederate fortifications with a color bearer and planted the regimental colors before falling mortally wounded, “pierced with six bullets”. His men were forced to retreat, unable to recover their dying colonel. Grant then again sidestepped Lee and the war went on.


The 164th New York was one of the four regiments recruited in the fall of 1862 from Irish-Americans for a brigade to be known as the Corcoran Legion. It was organized by the famed Brigadier General Michael Corcoran, formerly of the 69th New York State Militia. Corcoran, however, died when his horse fell on him in December of 1863, so his brigade and the 164th fought without him. The Legion and the164th was assigned to Gibbon’s Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac in May of 1864, in time to join Grant’s bloody march on Richmond. The regiment’s first significant action was at Spottsylvania in May, but it was the assault at Cold Harbor that resulted in its major casualties of the war with six officers in addition to Colonel McMahon killed, 16 enlisted men dead, 59 wounded and 82 missing. The regiment would again have significant casualties in attacks on Petersburg in June of the same year. The 164th was mustered out on July 15, 1865, after having gone through some of the bloodiest fights of the Army of the Potomac.


In some ways the regiment began its career haltingly. Shortly after being sent to Virginia in the winter of 1862-1863, Lieutenant Colonel James C. Burke wrote to the New York City Quartermaster Department that his regiment (the 164th) “never received a full supply of uniforms, many of them have drawn no clothing since their departure from East New York and Staten Island. Some are clad in jackets and some in dress coats, about four companies have the light blue regulation pants well worn, the balance dark blue. So you can see we are rather a motley crew”.


The New York Quartermaster responded quickly in January of 1863, asking if the regiment would take “uniforms similar to those furnished the ‘Hawkins Zouaves,’ or if the regiment had already been supplied with the “regulation clothing”. Obviously the regiment had no objections to wearing zouave uniforms and by February new clothing was ordered to be sent to the 164th, of the Hawkins pattern. An article in the Irish-American of March 7, 1863, described the arrival of these uniforms on February 20, 1863, as pants, vest and jacket of blue cloth, but fezzes which were “blue with green tassels”.


The zouave uniforms were indeed of the “Hawkins pattern”. The jackets were nearly exact copies of the original French pattern with double rows of dark red tape and cord trim on the edges and tombeaux or false packets of worsted tape ending in trefoils and attaching to the jacket edges. The vest opened on the side and was trimmed around the neck and down the front with the same dark red worsted tape. The Hawkins pattern trousers, however, were not of the zouave style. Instead they were made loose to the legs and of dark blue wool rather than like the baggy nearly legless red garment of true French zouaves. These trousers were then tucked into standard issue federal leggings which were worn by standard infantry as well in the Union armies, and the leather jambieres or greaves such as worn by the Duryee Zouaves were unknown in the 164th. The blue fez and green tassel were unique to the Irishmen of the regiment and different from the French models. It was a distinctive yet functional uniform, wholly suited to the rough-fighting Irishmen of the Corcoran Zouaves. 


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