Patrick was born in Jefferson County, New York on March 15, 1811. He worked on the Erie Canal and briefly taught school before his appointment to West Point. He graduated in 1835 and was commissioned in the infantry. In 1839 he served in the Seminole Wars. He served in the Mexican War where he was promoted to captain in 1847. Promoted to major in 1849, nevertheless he resigned his commission a year later.
Initially, he was president of the Sackett’s Harbor and Ellisburg Railroad. He later became an expert farmer, studying and using the latest farming practices. In 1859, he was appointed president of the the New York State Agricultural College, serving in that role for two years before the outbreak of the Civil War.
At the onset of the war Patrick enlisted in the New York State Militia as its inspector general. By March 1862 he was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers and given command of a brigade. His unit was part of a division commanded Brig. Gen. Rufus King. They were part of Irvin McDowell’s Army in the Shenandoah Valley. It was here that they battled the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah led by Gen. Thomas J. Jackson who had become the famous ‘Stonewall’ at the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas).
Patrick was almost immediately appointed military governor of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in April 1862. Transferred later in the year to the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, he commanded the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, I Corps in the defenses of Washington, D.C..
Patrick’s brigade (renumbered as the 3rd Brigade) suffered hundreds of casualties in the Maryland Campaign, seeing action at the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. At Antietam Patrick’s Brigade was part of the assaults on the West Woods on the morning of the battle.
Following the Battle of Antietam, the Army of the Potomac’s command structure was reorganized with the removal of McClellan and his replacement by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Patrick was named provost marshal of the Army of the Potomac on October 6, 1862 and given the equivalent of a brigade of troops to carry out his duties. At times this formation included the following units:
- McClellan (Illinois) Dragoons (Companies A & B)
- 9th New York Infantry (Company G)
- 93rd New York Infantry
- 2nd U.S. Cavalry
- 8th U.S. Infantry
- 2nd Pennsylvania Cavalry
- 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (Companies E&I)
- Regular cavalry
- 21st New York
- 23rd New York
- 35th New York
- 80th New York (20th Militia)
- Maryland Light Artillery, Battery B
- Ohio Light Artillery, 12th Battery
His unit was responsible for a variety of tasks including maintaining military discipline behind the lines. In November of 1862 the were unable to stop the sacking and looting of Fredericksburg, Virginia from vengeful Union troops. This incident was to dog Patrick for some time as political leaders blamed him for the actions of the out-of-control soldiers.
“The Soldiery were sacking the town!” Patrick wrote, uncharacteristically using an exclamation mark in his diary. “Men with all sorts of utensils & furniture, all sorts of eatables & drinkables & wearables, were carried off. I found the town in a most deplorable state of things. Libraries, pictures, furniture, every thing destroyed & the brutal Soldiery still carrying on the work.”
Patrick described his efforts to restore order with near-melancholy: “Couch sent over for me to clear the town. This was impossible although I put in my Cavalry & 4 companies of Infy.”
In 1863, new army commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker had Patrick create the Bureau of Military Information, a network of intelligence agents. Patrick assigned his deputy provost marshal, Colonel George H. Sharpe, to the task. Sharpe was assisted by John C. Babcock, a civilian and former employee of Allan Pinkerton.
His unit was also responsible for processing captured Confederate troops from the battlefield and into captivity. They policed the area behind the battlefields and behind the marching army for deserters and stragglers. In general, it was their job to main order and discipline for the Army of the Potomac.
Patrick’s job as provost marshal began with a marching army. Whether in advance or retreat, a force the size of the Army of the Potomac had to contend with clogged roads, narrow bridges, mud, swift rivers and a host of other situations bound to slow progress. Patrick had to keep the army moving while rounding up stragglers, looters or worse.
“Artillery, Packs, Ambulances, Servants, Orderlies & detached commands, with Stragglers of all kinds, began to pour in” as the army approached a narrow bridge, Patrick wrote in his diary. “I was at the Bridge & thereabouts, whip in hand, using it freely & directing the movement successfully, until every wheel & hoof had crossed the bridges.”
As battle neared, Patrick’s job evolved into helping concentrate the army. He had to round up drunks, skedaddlers, looters, stragglers and other unsavory men who were supposed to be in line against the enemy. On June 30, 1863, as the army approached Gettysburg, Patrick wrote, “I was called into town and sent for two Squadrons of Cavalry to go back to Frederick & clean out that town, which was reported full of drunken men & Stragglers.”
During battle, Patrick performed the thankless job of turning around or corralling the men who ran from the battle. He also had to deal with prisoners. During Pickett’s Charge, Patrick and his men were behind the main Federal line. “I had my hands full with those that broke to the rear, but we succeeded in checking the disorder & organized a guard of Stragglers to keep nearly 2000 Prisoners all safe.”
After the battle, Patrick saw to the dead and the mountains of government equipment left on the field. On July 6, 1863, Patrick wrote, “I was soon ordered by Gen. Meade to go into the town & make arrangements with responsible parties for the burial of the dead & Securing of the property on the battle field.”
When Ulysses S, Grant became General-in-Chief in March of 1864, He appointed Patrick as provost marshal for the combined forces operating against Richmond, Virginia. He carried out the same duties as he had previously but on a larger scale. After the surrender of Robert E. Lee, he was appointed as provost of the District of Henrico in the Department of Virginia.
Although appointed a brevet major general in the volunteer army, Patrick resigned from the Army a second time on June 12, 1865, preferring to return to civilian life rather than accept a role in the smaller postbellum regular army. In 1865, he ran on the Democratic ticket for New York State Treasurer but was defeated by Republican Joseph Howland.
Patrick moved to Manlius, NY, and from 1867 through 1868, Patrick served as president of the New York State Agricultural Society, then spent the next two years as a state commissioner, a role he again held from 1879 through 1880. He became a widely known public speaker, particularly on topics related to technological advances in agriculture.
Interested in the care of former soldiers, Patrick moved to Ohio and became the governor of the central branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Marsena Patrick died in Dayton, Ohio, and was buried in the Dayton National Cemetery. His diary, frequently critical of the Army’s commanders, wasn’t published until 1964.