From Gettysburg to the “March to the Sea,” the 149th New York Regiment of Syracuse fought bravely in the Civil War


On September 23, 1862, the 149th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment left Syracuse to join the Union Army of the Potomac, under the command of Colonel Henry Barnum.

As it was the Fourth Infantry Regiment bringing together men from Onondaga County to fight during the Civil War, it became known locally as the Fourth Onondaga. These brave, selfless men from the great city of Salt City headed south. Over the next two and a half years, the 1,150 soldiers of the 149th NY fought bravely in some of the war’s most important battles, including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Lookout Mountain, and the Sieges of Atlanta and Savannah during the General Sherman’s “March to the Sea”.

Upon arrival, the 149th joined some 12,000 other Union troops and marched against a Confederate force occupying Charleston, VA (now West Virginia).

Extract from the Syracuse Standard, September 23, 1862. Courtesy of the Onondaga Historical AssociationCourtesy of Onondaga Histori

In May 1863, they joined the 130,000 men of General Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac and fought the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Although the Confederates were successful in repelling Hooker’s forces, one of Lee’s most capable commanders, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, died from wounds sustained in the battle.

From July 1 to 3, the 149th took part in the Battle of Gettysburg.

During this historic and bloody battle – the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil – the regiment came under fire from the rebels at Culp’s Hill as musket balls shattered the shafts of the regiment’s first national colors, which had been planted in the ground in front of the defensive parapets.

These flags were of crucial importance during battles, as they marked the locations of regiments and troops and were essential for rallying troops during and after engagements with the enemy. Thus, they had to be kept upright at all times.

Under fire and incredible stress, Staff Sergeant William Lilly left the defensive works and repaired the flagpole using wood splints and backpack straps. Against all odds, he held on. The 149th NY and their Union colleagues pushed back Lee’s forces at Gettysburg, stopping his attempted invasion of the north.

149th New York

Sgt. John Kiggins, holding the first national colors in 1901. Lilly’s repair work can be seen on the flagpole. After the war, Kiggins lived in Syracuse until his death in September 1914 at the age of 77. He is buried in Bath, NY. His medal of honor is part of the collection of the Onondaga Historical Association. Courtesy of the Onondaga Historical AssociationCourtesy of Onondaga Histori

Following Union successes at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Chattanooga campaign was launched in September 1863 to rout all remaining Confederate forces in Tennessee and pave the way for an invasion of the Deep South.

The 149th joined a larger Union force commanded by General Hooker during the Battle of Wauhatchie at the end of October. After Wauhatchie’s victory, Syracuse’s men joined Hooker’s army of Cumberland to attack the Confederate garrison at Lookout Mountain.

The Confederate stronghold of Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga prevented supplies from reaching General Ulysses S. Grant’s main force along the Tennessee River.

On November 24, under cover of a huge artillery barrage, the 149th New York Infantry was ordered to advance on Lookout Mountain; they hastily built a bridge over Lookout Creek. Expecting a quick victory by overtaking the outnumbered Confederates, the 149th found itself caught between the Union and Confederate main lines.

Because thick fog limited visibility, Union forces were unaware that the regiment had advanced beyond their own lines and began to bombard their position, which was also under attack by Confederate artillery.

Braving Union and Confederate fire, Kiggins grabbed an American flag, climbed to the top of a nearby tree stump, and began waving the flag back and forth. Union forces quickly recognized their standard and stopped firing. Kiggins had saved his comrades from friendly fire, but in the process had drawn more Confederate fire.

His head was grazed by a bullet, he was shot in the thigh; in all, his uniform had nearly a dozen bullet holes, but Kiggins survived the battle.

The next day, Union forces had captured Lookout Mountain and, in the process, gained control of the Tennessee River and the Chattanooga Railroad, confirmed their supply lines, forced the Confederate Army to withdraw into Georgia and ultimately opened the door to an invasion from the Deep South.

Kiggins and his unit then participated in Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. They captured Atlanta and continued Sherman’s “March to the Sea” in the winter of 1864.

In the final push of Sherman’s army, the 149th continued in the Carolinas in early 1865 and defeated the Southern Army of Confederate General Joseph Johnston at the Battle of Bentonville in March. A month later, in April 1865, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant’s forces at Appomattox Court House, thus ending the Civil War.

After the fighting ended, Barnum, Lily, Kiggins and the rest of the 149th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment were withdrawn from service and returned to Syracuse at the end of June 1865.

For his heroism at the Battle of Lookout Mountain, Sergeant John Kiggins received the Medal of Honor from President Benjamin Harrison on January 12, 1892, twenty-nine years after the battle.

His quote read: “Raised the flags to save the lives of men firing their own batteries, and thus drew concentrated enemy fire upon him.”

He lived in Syracuse until his death on September 29, 1914, at the age of 77.

Incredibly, Sergeant. Kiggins was one of five men from the 149th to win the Medal of Honor.

He was joined by his commanding officer, Henry Barnum, Sgt. Phillip Goettel, Staff Sgt. William Croisier, and Pvt. Peter Kapesser. Goettel, Croisier and Kapesser all received their medals for their bravery at Lookout Mountain.

Of the nearly 1,150 men who served in the 149th New York Volunteer, 620 never returned to Syracuse.

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