There were hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides who joined for a variety of reasons and came home safely to continue their lives.
Michael Patrick Murphy was one such soldier. An Irish immigrant who arrived in New York with his brother Patrick in December 1852 on the ship “New World”. Early on he was a bell hanger. It seems that he married Margaret Kelly in Ireland but she must have come over on a different ship. In April 1853 their first child was born, John Stephen. Stephen was his father’s name. Three more children followed: Julia, Thomas and Margaret with Catherine in 1863 following his return from the Army.
In the summer of 1861 Michael enlisted in the Union Army with the 61st New York Volunteer Infantry. He was about 32 years old at the time. It was quite an advanced age in an era when most soldiers were 18 to 30. He was probably elected as the fifth sergeant of Company D due to his age. Mike Murphy stood at 5’9″ with dark hair and blue eyes. In the Union Army during the Civil War sergeants served as file closers in battle and paymasters, quartermasters and other mundane jobs in camp. By mid 1862 he had been promoted to third sergeant.
The 61st NY, 800 strong, left New York in the fall of 1861 and was assigned to the Army of the Potomoc. The regiment was stationed for a short time in Washington, but moved on November 28 – with Howard’s brigade, Sumner’s division – to Manassas in Virginia. In March of 1862 the 61st N.Y., as part of Howard’s brigade, became part of the 1st division, 2ndcorps, Army of the Potomac.
In the early spring of 1862, the 61st moved on to the Peninsula (Va.) campaign and took part in the siege operation at Yorktown and for the first time became closely engaged in battle at Fair Oaks. Of the 432 men who went into action, 104 were killed or wounded and 6 were reported missing. Colonel Francis C. Barlow, who had replaced Colonel Cone (who had resigned), led the regiment into battle. By the end of this campaign, known as the Seven Days Battles, the 61st gathered at Harrison’s Landing with even greater losses. The 61st fought in most of the battles during the Seven Days campaign including the Battle of Malvern Hill where Robert E. Lee first commanded the Army of Northern Virginia.
After several months of rest, drilling and replenishment (from recruiting), the 61st and the Army of the Potomac were in the thick of it, blocking General Lee’s invasion of the North at Sharpsburg, Maryland. We know it as Antietam and by the end of September 17, 1862 it was the ‘Bloodiest Day’ in American history. At least 23,000 men on both sides were killed or wounded.
As Gen. John C. Caldwell’s brigade advanced around the right flank of the Confederates, Col. Francis C. Barlow and 350 men of the 61st and 64th New York saw a weak point in the line and seized a knoll commanding the sunken road. This allowed them to get enfilade fire into the Confederate line, turning it into a deadly trap. In attempting to wheel around to meet this threat, a command from Gen. Robert Rodes was misunderstood by Lt. Col. James N. Lightfoot, who had succeeded the unconscious Col. John Gordon. Lightfoot ordered his men to about-face and march away, an order that all five regiments of the brigade thought applied to them as well. Confederate troops streamed toward Sharpsburg, their line lost.
Before the battle Sgt. Murphy was assigned to escort six sick men to the military hospital at Harpers Ferry. After a long march he was told that the men couldn’t be admitted because they weren’t sick enough. He reversed course and set off after the army which was now heading to Sharpsburg, Maryland and their fateful encounter with the Confederates. By the time that he rejoined his unit all six men had fallen by the wayside. According to his later affidavit Murphy was the only sergeant left in his company, the others having died of sickness, been discharged or deserted. His description of their action is worth repeating. “We forded the creek and lined up on a rocky ground. We had it hot for some time”. General McClellan insisted that the creek couldn’t be forded and used that as an excuse not send in his 30,000 reserves to break the Southern line and possibly end the war. The adjoining picture illustrates the damage that the 61st and the 64th caused among the Confederate troops in the “Sunken Road”.
After the battle Sgt. Murphy complained of chest pain so his company commander sent him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a heart ailment. He received a medical discharge in October 1862 and returned to New York where he resumed his life. In 1863 he and Margaret’s youngest child, Catherine, was born. The following year Margaret Kelly Murphy died at 35 on August 17th. Michael Murphy did not remarry for thirty years.
Murphy was a founder of two chapters of the Grand Army of the Republic. He eventually became a prominent Real Estate broker in Westchester County, New York, buying and selling many properties. He was also elected First Justice of the Peace for Westchester County in the 1890’s. The poor Irish immigrant was known as Squire Murphy until his death in 1902.
You may wonder how I know so much about one soldier. You see a piece of him is in me, he was my great-great grandfather and everytime that I look in a mirror his blue eyes are looking back at me, just like my grandmother told me they would when I was a child. We, his descendents have a fierce pride that one of our ancestors helped to save the Union.