The Colorful 44th New York Regiment
Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine may have won the most fame during the grueling fight for control of Little Round Top, but the largest regimental monument on the battlefield today commemorates a brother regiment that fought alongside the 20th Maine that desperate afternoon–the 44th New York, the “People’s Ellsworth Regiment.”
The New York regiment was raised to pay tribute to the first Union martyr, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a former law partner of Abraham Lincoln’s who was shot dead after hauling down a Confederate flag in Alexandria, Va., in May 1861.
Ellsworth had won fame before the Civil War as the founder of the National Guard Cadets, later re-named the U.S. Zouave Cadets of Chicago, an organization that he patterned after France’s colonial troops, down to the baggy pants, sashes, short jackets and fezzes worn by French Zouaves in Algeria.
The Zouave Cadets toured the East the summer before the war, performing crack drill maneuvers before rapt audiences from New York City to Washington. When the war began, Ellsworth traveled to New York to raise a regiment of Union volunteers. Recruiting heavily among the city’s fire departments, he clothed the volunteers in his favored exotic regalia and dubbed the colorful regiment the 1st New York Fire Zouaves in honor of their origin. Renamed the 11th New York, the regiment subsequently saw action at First Bull Run (Manassas).
Following Ellsworth’s martyrdom, the state of New York authorized the organization of a new regiment, the “People’s Ellsworth Regiment.” The regiment was to be an elite organization, composed entirely of unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 30. Each man was to be at least 5 feet, 8 inches tall and of good moral character; recruits were raised from each town or ward of the state, and each recruit had to personally contribute $20 to the regimental fund. Many of the regiment’s officers transferred over from the Fire Zouaves.
At Little Round Top, fighting alongside the 20th Maine, the New Yorkers picked up 90 Rebel prisoners following the melee on the ledges. (A 91st prisoner fell before Captain Nathanial Husted, shot from behind by one of his fellow Confederates.) Another regimental captain, Lucius S. Larrabee, a former Fire Zouave, was himself fatally wounded in the fighting after having told two fellow officers that he had a premonition he would die that day.
The commander of the 44th at Little Round Top, Colonel James C. Rice, was later promoted to brigadier general. Rice was fatally wounded 10 months later at the Battle of Spotsylvania. His last thoughts were of his old regiment. With his dying breath, Rice asked: “Tell the 44th I am done fighting. Turn me over and let me die with my face to the enemy.”
Today, the memorial to the 44th New York stands at the southern end of Little Round Top’s crest, the largest regimental monument at Gettysburg.
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