Burke, John W., ca. 1834-1864
Rank : Private, Sgt., 1st Lieut. (Co. K, 1862 July 22)
Regiment : 81st New York Infantry Regiment. Co. H (1861-1865)
Service : 1861 November 20-1864 June 1
In November 20, 1861, John W. Burke traveled with a group of recruits from Sag Harbor, Long Island, to Oswego to enlist in the 81st Infantry (2nd Oswego Regiment), under command of a Long Islander, Edwin Rose. Burke had had previous military experience in the 16th and 71st N.Y. State Militia, "merely for the purpose of Holliday display and enjoyment" (p. 2), he claimed, and during his three months' service with the 71st, he may have taken part in the first battle at Bull Run.
Mustered into service on December 18th or 19th as a private, Burke was appointed company clerk under Capt. John B. Raulston of Co. H, and was named private secretary to Col. Rose, with a promise of a lieutenant's commission when one became available. His promotion to sergeant must have come shortly thereafter, although the date was not recorded. Clearly, whatever rank he held, he fraternized easily with his superiors, particularly those whom he had known in Sag Harbor, sharing a tent with the lieutenants of the company, eating with the staff, and socializing easily with all from captains to surgeons.
The 81st Infantry left Fort Ontario on January 21, 1862, and in Albany, a little more than two weeks later, were consolidated with the Mohawk Rifles, resulting in the demotion of a few officers and much grumbling. Finally fit for duty, the 81st, like many eastern regiments during the winter of 1861-62, were initially ordered to perform duty in the chain of forts surrounding Washington, and in March, they arrived in Kalorama Heights. The relatively luxurious tents brought by Burke and Lt. John W. Oliver elicited hard feelings on the parts of some enlisted men who felt that Co. H was given preference by the colonel, since they were from the same town. Their animosity, however, appears to have dissipated when the regiment was ordered into action on the Peninsula on April 1, 1862, and faced the greatest test of their character to date.
Assigned to Brig. Gen. Innis Palmer's 3rd Brigade, 3rd (Silas Casey's) Division, IV Corps, the 81st New York plodded along the Peninsula, experiencing the lumbering disappointment at Yorktown, the frustration of capturing an already evacuated city, and the danger posed by "torpedoes" left by the Confederates to impede their progress even further. As the Army of the Potomac inched forward, Burke was sent away from the regiment on an errand, and while straggling slowly back, caught wind of the Battle of Williamsburg. Arriving on the field shortly after the end of the battle, he witnessed an awful sight of looted and maimed bodies strewn carelessly about, and the overpowering stench of sulfur and death -- a smell he would encounter even more powerfully a few days later near White Oak Swamp. All his efforts to catch up with his regiment, however, and the soaking rain, left him barely able to straggle along. Although the surgeon advised him to turn in to hospital in Williamsburg, he refused, and continued with his regiment as they crossed the Chickahominy at Bottom's Bridge.
Advancing with the IV Corps, the 81st were positioned south of the river and thereby exposed to a serious threat from superior Confederate forces. Hastily erecting field fortifications, Casey drew his division into a defensive posture and withstood a furious series of assaults by Joseph E. Johnston's Confederates, repulsing them repeatedly before being forced to withdraw. The toll during the Battles of Fair Oaks and Seven Pines was exceptionally heavy on the 81st, which lost almost 150 of their 450 effectives.