Chautauqua Institution Holds 154th New York Infantry Ancestors Reunion

CHAUTAUQUA – The 154th N.Y. Infantry was mustered-in in 1862 and mustered-out in 1865, but the infantry’s ancestors remember its work today.

On Saturday, Mark Dunkelman gave a lecture about the 154th N.Y. Infantry’s involvement in the American Civil War, and welcomed ancestors of soldiers in that infantry to listen.

From the podium at the Hall of Philosophy in Chautauqua Institution, Dunkelman outlined the 154th N.Y.’s participation in the significant battles of the American Civil War. Dunkelman focused specifically on Gettysburg and the events leading up to it.

To preface, Dunkelman’s retelling of the 154th N.Y. tells a tale of tragedy, one which guided the infantry through a 77 percent casualty rate at the battle of Gettysburg.

In addition to its participation in Gettysburg, the 154th N.Y. Infantry also suffered massive casualties on May 3, 1863 in Chancellorsville – the second bloodiest day in American history.

“Robert E. Lee boldly left a small portion of his army to confront Federals at Fredericksburg,” said Dunkelman. “He sent the rest of his army to confront (Joseph) Hooker’s force that had moved over the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers. But then he made another bold move. He further split his army, leaving a small core to confront Hooker’s force in the Chancellorsville area. He sent his most trusted man, Stonewall Jackson, with 26,000 men on a long, looping march through the wilderness, to come out at a position opposite the far flank of the Union Army – the 11th Corps, which the 154th N.Y. Infantry was a member of.”

According to Dunkelman, Stonewall’s attack began around 5:15 p.m. Jackson decimated the 11th Corps.

“They called it a rout, and it was a rout,” said Dunkelman. “As our ancestors retreated, it became chaotic. … It was not an ideal way to face the enemy for the very first time. Once the Confederates came into view, they overwhelmed those who stayed to fight.”

Once the 154th N.Y. realized the futility of trying to stay and fight, they retreated into the woods. In turning and attempting to escape into nearby woods, soldiers were vulnerable to Confederate fire. Many soldiers were killed, and those who survived had to endure the chaos that reigned once they reached the woods.

“The 154th N.Y. took 590 men into Chancellorsville,” said Dunkelman. “They lost 240 there – killed, wounded or captured. That was the fourth highest lost of any Union regiment in the battle. It was the highest loss of any New York state regiment in the battle, and it was a 40 percent casualty rate.”

Two months later, the 154th N.Y. was thrust into battle at Gettysburg. The march to Gettysburg was exhausting and done in terrible conditions.

Once in Gettysburg, soldiers from the 154th N.Y. were posted on Cemetery Hill. According to Dunkelman, they heard the noise of battle occurring from the west.

“In these two fights, coming within two months of each other, the 154th N.Y. was decimated,” said Dunkelman. “It was down to one-tenth of what it began with. The 154th N.Y. brought 265 men into (Gettysburg), and they left 205 of them there. That night on Cemetery Hill, only three officers and 15 men were present for duty.”

Despite the terrible casualties that the 154th N.Y. suffered, many ancestors of the soldiers of that infantry were present to hear Dunkelman speak. Ancestors came from as far as Edmonton, Alberta to be present. Even a few familiar faces, such as Cristie Herbst, former editor for The Post-Journal, were present, citing John Jackway as her ancestor.

Following the lecture, a brass band playing Civil War era music played at the Hall of Christ, adjacent to the Hall of Philosophy.

For a more thorough accounting of the 154th N.Y. Infantry’s involvement in the American Civil War, visit Dunkelman’s website, hardtackregiment.com/154thNewYorkHistory.html.