Robert Sherry papers  1861-1867
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Sherry, Robert, ca. 1829-1863

Rank : Private

Regiment : 21st New York Infantry Regiment. Co. E (1861-1863)97th New York Infantry Regiment. Co. I (1862-1865)

Service : 1861 May 7-1863 November 26

In early May, 1861, the 21st New York Infantry Regiment was raised in Buffalo for three month's service, becoming the first unit from that city to be organized for duty in the Civil War. From the time of its mustering-in at Elmira, however, through its service in Virginia, the 21st was beset with discipline and logistical problems, and by a pattern of mutual animosity between officers and enlisted men. Robert Sherry, a 32 year-old carriage maker with a wife and two sons, Charlie and Louis, enlisted in Company E, one of the companies at the center of the controversy for the 21st New York.

Trouble began as soon as the regiment was sworn in, when several men refused the oath and returned home. Others took the oath and soon deserted. Sherry, in fact, became the happy recipient of a bag filled with clothing that was left behind by one deserter. There appears to have been a general feeling among the volunteers that they had been lied to by recruiters, including the colonel and other officers in the regiment, over the issue of pay. Discipline among the remaining men eroded, with as many as eleven men lying under arrest at one time, and after being assigned to Virginia, the troubles only increased. Chronically underfed and undersupplied, camped under miserable, unhealthy conditions, and paid less than they had been promised when they were paid at all, disaffection rose in the unit to the point that by late June some soldiers stacked their arms and refused all orders. Sherry believed that harsh and arbitrary discipline meted out by the unit's officers exacerbated the situation.

The flash point came on August 19th, when the three month's enlistment period ended. Most of the enlisted men were glad to be heading home, but they were told that they would be expected to remain for a full two years. Several "disaffected" men objected, refusing to serve beyond the three months under their present officers, and the next morning when Col. Rogers asked those who felt that they had fulfilled their commitments to stack their arms and come forward, 21 responded, 16 from Company E. All were immediately arrested and sent to the Navy Yard for confinement. When Company K, which had been on picket, returned from duty at noon, the spirit of mutiny spread, and when they refused to appear at roll call, they, too, were arrested. Though the Colonel allowed the "repentant" among the company to return to duty, 20 more men were confined at the Navy Yard. The mutineers were later sent to the Tortugas to serve "without arms, until they show themselves more worthy to bear them."

The end result of the mutiny was the steeling of attitudes among the enlisted men against their officers. "I hope that I shall live long enough," Sherry wrote, "to see the day when we will get into some battle that will be the means of getting a great portion of our Officers killed or wounded so that they will never be fit for duty again" (1861 November 30). A few men compacted to kill their officers when they went into battle, and at least one attempt on an officer was actually made. Sherry later wrote that Companies E and K were the best officered companies in the regiment because the officers were so much in fear of their men that they would not order them around.

Not surprisingly, the animosity was mutual. For example, the Captain of Company E butchered Sherry's pet dog with an axe in front of his tent as a show. "[I]t made me very mad at the time," Sherry wrote, "and I called him any thing but A gentleman and he threatned to have me court marshield but I guess that he is afraid to do so for I told him as much as to say that I would as soon or rather shoot him as the dog in the battle field and a great deal rather than one of the enemy" (1861 October 13). The inactivity of camp life was a further problem, compounded by worsening conditions as cold weather set it. While Sherry seemed to enjoy life on picket, looting farm houses and playing at ambushes with the enemy and civilians, he found waiting for battle tedious. "[T]he men are getting mad for a fight[.] [T]heay would not care if theay thought one half would be killed for theay are getting tired of this kind of soldiering theay want to end the matter if theay can and if we are not going to have the grand battle of the Potomack send us of[f] south where we can have some fighting and less cold weather" (12 December 1861).

In May, 1862, Sherry was hospitalized with a severe case of bronchitis. From Fredericksburg, he was sent to Cliffburne Hospital in Washington at the end of May, and finally to Fairfax Seminary Hospital. Sherry was appalled at conditions in the hospital, at the dearth of physicians and nurses, and lack of treatment. In July, he requested to return to his regiment even though his health was not yet fully restored. On his way back to the regiment, still too weak to stand for any length of time, he had what little money he had remaining stolen, along with a silver medal given to him by a nurse at Cliffburne. Sherry rejoined the 21st Regiment at Cedar Mountain, where they were present for, but not engaged in, the battle on August 9th. Over the next month, however, the regiment was involved in five battles or skirmishes during the Bull Run Campaign, which Sherry survived unharmed. In mid-September, though, his health failed again, forcing him out of action days before his comrades were decimated in the fighting at South Mountain and in the cornfield at Antietam.

Sherry was detached as a Ward Steward at the U.S. General Hospital in Frederick, Md., where he found himself broke and bereft of clothing, since all of his possessions had been burned at Bull Run. At about this time, Caroline became an increasingly poor correspondent. Sherry complained bitterly that she never responded, and at one point that he did not even know her current address. When G. R. Buerger wrote in January, 1863, to inform Caroline that Sherry has been wounded in the thigh, he noted that Sherry had written twice without response.

Sherry remained hospitalized until he mustered out of the service when the regiment disbanded in May. Interestingly, Sherry decided to reenlist in September, joining the 97th New York Infantry. He held up through several skirmishes during the Bristoe Campaign and the battle at Bristoe Station, but by the end of the campaign in November, his health had again failed. He died in hospital of disease on November 26th, 1863.