John W. Burke memoir  1861-1862
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The Civil War memoir/journal attributed to John W. Burke is unsigned and of uncertain provenance. The author provides innumerable clues to his identity: he was from Sag Harbor, had served previously in the 16th and 71st State Militias (the latter in the three months' service), had mustered in on December 19th, when Capt. John Raulston appointed him clerk of Co. H and Col. Rose named him "his private Secratary to take charge of the regimental mail with a promise of promotion to rank of Lieut. at the first vacancy" (p. 6). At one point, the author mentioned as well that he had "sold my surgeon's sash," though he appears to have been neither surgeon nor assistant surgeon to the regiment.

The author is very tentatively identified as John W. Burke, who came with the Sag Harbor contingent and was mustered into Co. H as a private on December 19th, later becoming Sergeant and Lieutenant (shortly after the end of this diary). On balance, internal references in the memoir seem to indicate that the author might have been a sergeant in Co. H, however Burke's presence in the 71st Militia has not been confirmed. It remains a possibility that the author may have been assistant surgeon Carrington MacFarlane (who published an unavailable memoir of his experiences); although the author treated wounded and appears to have been somewhat knowledgeable about doing so, there are no indications that medical care was part of his regular duties. An even less likely possibility for the author's identity is found in an enclosed petition sent to Col. John T. Sprague, requesting that the position vacated by the discharge of Lt. George W. Steadman be filled by Sgt. Drayson Fordred. Fordred also died at Cold Harbor, but served in the 7th Militia (not 71st), while Steadman was a member of Co. I, not H.

Although the problem of identity remains unresolved, the memoir stands as an outstanding document of one man's Civil War service. It was clearly written after the events described, though apparently from notes or a diary made at the time, and if the author were truly Burke, it must have been written prior his death at Cold Harbor in June, 1864. Whoever he was, the author was a proficient writer, able to convey the emotions of the battlefield, the sights and smells of death, and the trivia of daily life in camp with a pleasing vibrancy and intelligence. The author's comments on the Peninsular Campaign, and particularly the period from the Battle of Williamsburg through the end of the Battles of Fair Oaks and Seven Pines, are of particular interest. Although severely ill at Fair Oaks and Seven Pines, the author had the unusual liberty to roam around from the front to the rear -- with the front sometimes overtaking him -- seeing the battle develop from several different perspectives. He was pressed into service to treat the wounded, came under intense enfilading fire himself on more than one occasion, and was able calmly, almost dispassionately, to view the artillery batteries attached to the brigade perform their work on Johnston's charging rebels.

The memoir also provides very good accounts of Burke's semi-disoriented perambulations around the Peninsula in the day before the Battle of Williamsburg, the carnage following the battle, and the morale and slowly deflating siege at Yorktown. He provides some wonderful vignettes of miscellaneous facets of a soldier's life, from keeping pets, to visiting friends, interacting with devastated Virginia citizens, to an interesting story of an Irish-American soldier's wife (also Irish) who had followed the regiment.

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