Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What About The 39th Missouri Infantry?

The 150th anniversary of Centralia is approaching, which reminds me of the nearly forgotten 39th Missouri Infantry. Which Civil War infantry regiment suffered the most killed in a single engagement during the War? Most would readily answer that the 5th New York Infantry had that unlucky distinction with its 120 men killed at the battle of Second Manassas. Certainly, historian after historian has stated as much over the years. But, is it correct? Read through the following sample quotations on the subject:

Alfred Davenport: “No other regiment suffered an equal loss in so short a space of time, on the Union side during the war.” (Camp and Field Life Of The Fifth New York Volunteer Infantry (Duryee Zouaves). New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, 1879; reprint ed., Gaithersburg, MD: Olde Soldier Books, 1995, page 286.)

William F. Fox: “One of the most remarkable losses in the war, both in numbers and percentage, occurred at Manassas, in Gen. Fitz John Porter’s Corps, in the celebrated Duryee Zouaves (Fifth New York), of Warren’s Brigade, Sykes’ Division….The deaths from wounds increased the number killed to 117, or 23 per cent of those engaged, the greatest loss of life in any infantry regiment during the war, in any one battle” (Regimental Losses In The Civil War. Albany, NY: Brandow Printing Co., 1898; reprint ed., Dayton, OH: Morningside, 1974, pages 27-28.)

John J. Hennessy: “During those ten awful minutes atop that ridge, the 5th New York lost nearly three hundred men shot—120 mortally. For a single infantry regiment it was the largest loss of life in any single battle of the entire Civil War.” (Return to Bull Run: The Campaign And Battle Of Second Manassas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993) page 373)

Thomas S. Bradley and Brian C. Pohanka: “The killed and mortally wounded that day numbered at least 120, the heaviest fatality in a given battle of any Federal Infantry regiment.” (Introduction to the Olde Soldier Books reprint of Camp and Field Life Of The Fifth New York Volunteer Infantry (Duryee Zouaves), page number not listed.

Scott C. Patchan: “His regiment [5th New York], though, had suffered the greatest loss of men killed and wounded by an infantry regiment during the entire Civil War.” (“Second Manassas.” Blue & Gray. Vol. 29, #3 (2012), page 24.)

Ethan S. Rafuse: “Although they eventually managed to rally on Henry Hill, 120 of the approximately 500 men in its [5th New York] ranks had been killed. In the entire Civil War, no other infantry regiment would have more men killed in a single engagement.” (Manassas: A Battlefield Guide. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014, page 116.)

Alfred Davenport served in the 5th New York, and he only claimed that his regiment lost more men in a shorter amount of time than any other. However, when he wrote his history in 1879 there was not much comparative data available to him.

William Fox’s statement is odd because he actually listed another infantry regiment that lost more in a single engagement than the 5th New York. Tucked away in the back of the book Fox stated, “The 39th Missouri [Infantry] lost 2 officers and 120 men killed in a massacre at Centralia, Mo., September 27, 1864” (Fox, page 522). He clearly noted, then, that the 39th Missouri Infantry lost more men in a single engagement than the 5th New York Infantry, and yet he did not include the 39th Missouri in any of his comprehensive listings earlier in the book. Why he failed to do so is not something I can answer with any certainty. Fox’s book was probably the source that has led so many subsequent historians astray.

The number of men killed at Centralia and Second Manassas by the two regiments was quite similar, and perhaps more complete records would show that indeed the 5th New York lost more men than the 39th Missouri. For now, though, unless someone can prove otherwise, it appears that the 39th Missouri Infantry and not the 5th New York Infantry suffered more men killed in a single engagement than any other Union infantry regiment.

This is not an attempt to denigrate the services of the 5th New York Infantry but to simply correct the record. Both the part of the 39th Missouri engaged at Centralia and the 5th New York at Second Manassas found themselves in untenable positions and paid a heavy price. It’s about time that the sacrifices of both regiments are remembered. Please read my January 11, 2o12 posting about the 39th Missouri at Centralia if you’d like more information.


  1. Thanks for your work on the 39th Missouri. Without you, I wouldn't have known about them or their fate at Quantrill's hands or included them in my Civil War course lecture on guerilla warfare.

    One possibility for why Fox and others don't consider the 39th as having sustained the greatest loss of life in a single battle: Some don't consider massacres to be real battles, but in a class by themselves. I've seen this particularly in the writings of 19th-century historians.
    Will Hickox

  2. Pleased that I could contribute in some way to a course lecture! I too have considered the possibility that the losses of the 39th Missouri are regarded differently because they occurred during an event considered a massacre. Fox may have had that attitude, but modern historians would probably not differentiate between losses suffered in battles and massacres--it would be interesting to know, however! As for Fox, his opinions on the matter can not be determined from his book. He does state on page 522 that the 39th Missouri's losses occurred during "a massacre at Centralia." On the other hand, he includes the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry (79th U. S. Colored) in his list of 300 fighting regiments even though they suffered heavy casualties at Poison Springs and Flat Rock; many historians consider the latter two as massacres. Interestingly, Fox does not label them that way in his write up on the 1st Kansas. He states that the 1st Kansas suffered heavy casualties at Poison Springs when they "were complete surrounded [and]...cut their way out." He labels Flat Rock as an "affair" and writes that Company K was surprised and "nearly annihilated." Fox failed to list either the 39th Missouri or the 1st Kansas Colored (111 killed at Poison Springs) in his list of "maximum of regimental loss in killed...in particular engagements." In such a big, complicated book this may have been an oversight. Or perhaps it did reflect that he differentiated between "battles" and "massacres." Sounds like an interesting topic for someone to pursue for a journal article or a conference presentation.

  3. If you count Heavy Artillery regiments, the 1st Maine Heavies suffered a casualty rate of 612 killed and wounded out of 900 men that took part in an attack at Petersburg on June 18, 1864. Out of those 612 casualties 241 were killed or died of wounds. If Heavy Artillery regiment are included, than the 1st Maine Heavies suffered the highest number loss and fatality loss of the ACW.

  4. It gets tricky doesn't it? The authors that I quoted were very careful to state "infantry" as a qualification. As far as I know, the First Maine Heavy Artillery did indeed suffer the most killed and mortally wounded in a single engagement of any Civil War unit. However, the heavy artillery units had two more companies than infantry regiments, and correspondingly had many more men that served in them. The First Maine H. A., for example, had 2,202 men serve in it; by contrast the Fifth New York Infantry had a total enrollment of 1,508. Whether it's appropriate to compare "infantry" with "heavy artillery" regiments is a topic that I'll leave to others, but I appreciate you raising an interesting issue.