Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
John W. Burke Memoir, 1861-1862

James S. Schoff Civil War Collection

Finding aid created by
Rob S. Cox, September 1997

Summary Information
Title: John W. Burke memoir
Creator: Burke, John W., ca. 1834-1864
Inclusive dates: 1861-1862
Extent: 84 pages
This memoir, tentatively attributed to John W. Burke, documents one man's Civil War service. The writing style vividly conveys the emotions of the battlefield, the sights and smells of death, and the trivia of daily life in camp.
Language: The material is in English.
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1997. M-3351.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open to research.


Copyright status is unknown.

Preferred Citation:

John W. Burke Memoir, James S. Schoff Civil War Collection, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


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.

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.

Subject Terms

    • New York Infantry. 81st Regt--1861-1865.
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Health aspects.
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Medical care.
    • Virginia--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    • Peninsular Campaign, 1862.
    • War--Psychological aspects.
    • Yorktown (Va.)--History--Siege, 1862.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Volume   1  
    John W. Burke memoir,  1861 November 20-1862 June 3 [series]
    Additional Descriptive Data

    Bartholomew de Forest. Random sketches and wandering thoughts... (Albany, 1866).

    Partial Subject Index
    African Americans--Virginia.
    • 31
    April Fool's Day.
    • 24
    • 60-61
    • 53
    Camps (Military)--Virginia.
    • 18-34
    Casey, Silas, 1807-1882.
    • 63-64, 66-67
    Civilians--Virginia--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    • 35-36, 44, 55-56
    Cookery, Military.
    • 19, 36-37
    Crocker, Col.
    • 43b-44
    • 51-54, 60-61, 76
    Deserters, Military.
    • 15, 19, 43b-44
    Drill and minor tactics.
    • 38-39
    • 43
    Fair Oaks, Battle of, 1862.
    • 66-76
    • 10-12, 47
    Fords (Stream crossings)
    • 37-38
    Fort Ontario (N.Y.)
    • 2-9
    Fortification, Field.
    • 64
    Funeral rites and ceremonies.
    • 12
    Gilmore, John H. V., d. 1862.
    • 10-12
    Irish-American soldiers.
    • 21-24
    Johnston, Joseph Eggleston, 1807-1891.
    • 65
    • 27-29, 39-42
    Marshall House (Alexandria, Va.)
    • 31
    Merrimack (Warship)
    • 38
    Monitor (Warship)
    • 34, 38
    • 45, 62-63
    Oswego (N.Y.)--Description and travel.
    • 1-9
    Palmer, Innis Newton, 1824-1900.
    • 58, 61-62
    Peninsular Campaign, 1862.
    • 33-82
    • 20, 28
    • 43a-43b, 55-57
    • 16
    • 31
    Scorched-earth tactics.
    • 55-57
    • 44, 56
    Soldiers' wives.
    • 21-24
    Soldiers--Alcohol use.
    • 17, 21-22
    • 57-58
    • 15
    • 45
    • 46-47
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--African Americans.
    • 58-59, 79-80
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Health aspects.
    • 35-37, 42-43, 43b, 78
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Medical care.
    • 51-52, 71-74, 77-78
    United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Women.
    • 21-24, 55-56
    United States. Army--Barracks and quarters.
    • 29-31
    United States. Army--Officers.
    • 14
    Virginia--Description and travel.
    • 40-43
    War--Psychological aspects.
    • 52-53, 69-72, 74-75
    Warwick Courthouse (Va.)--Description and travel.
    • 43a-43b
    White House Landing (Va.)--Description and travel.
    • 81
    Williamsburg (Va.) Battlefield.
    • 51-54
    Williamsburg (Va.)--Description and travel.
    • 54-55
    Williamsburg, Battle of, 1862.
    • 47-54
    Wounded soldiers.
    • 51-52, 71-74
    Yorktown (Va.)--History--Siege, 1862.
    • 43-47