Nearly surrounded and shot to pieces, the Rochester Racehorses stumbled back amid a smoldering mass of oak and vine that opened into a Virginia cornfield, through which they had charged minutes earlier.
The Union men scrambled across the hardscrabble clearing, past the broken and maimed bodies of their comrades, to the place where they had stacked their knapsacks a few hours earlier.
This spot, located in the choking vegetation and scrub trees of The Wilderness, became a gathering point on May 5, 1864. Here, the stunned survivors counted casualties of the charge that decimated their regiment, the hard-fighting 140th New York Infantry. About 529 of their number had disappeared—dead, wounded or missing. Among those unaccounted for were two popular officers, Capt. Henry Belding Hoyt and Lt. Joseph H. Pool.
Less than a year earlier, during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, fortune shined on Hoyt, Pool and their fellow soldiers. The New Yorkers arrived on the barren elevation of Little Round Top that afternoon just in time to bolster Col. Strong Vincent’s distressed right flank on the boulder-studded southern slope. Rushed into line aside the faltering 16th Michigan Infantry, the 140th held steady. The plucky western New Yorkers, boys from Rochester and its rural environs, were recruited as the Rochester Racehorses in the fall of 1862. They, and other federal forces along this sector of the field, slammed the door on an assault by Confederate Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s division. Losses in the 140th were heavy, with 25 killed and 89 wounded, including the death of their esteemed colonel, Paddy O’Rorke. Their sacrifice helped win the day—and perhaps saved the Union. Hoyt and Pool survived, the latter, earning a citation for bravery during the fight.
Shortly after the close of the Gettysburg Campaign, and possibly as a reward for meritorious service, Hoyt and Pool were ordered home to Rochester on recruiting detail. They spent the next five months in the city, where deep connections to family and community likely re-invigorated their spirits, after the stresses of camp and campaign in a war that seemed without end. Though their exact whereabouts during this time are unknown, it is easy to imagine jovial 22-year-old Joseph Pool re-connecting with his raucous Delta Psi fraternity brothers at the University of Rochester and his militia mates in the local Union Blues. And, the low-key Henry Hoyt, a couple years Pool’s senior, quietly visiting with his seven brothers and sisters. A member of Rochester’s high society by birthright, Hoyt’s father had a successful career as a bookseller and investor, and had built his family an impressive Greek revival mansion in the Corn Hill neighborhood.
Both officers had set privilege aside to serve their country after the onset of the war. Their return home, perhaps accented with stories of heroism and success about their Rochester boys, may have comforted friends and family, who had expressed concerns about the risks associated with their enlistment.
When Hoyt and Pool returned to camp in Warrenton Junction, Va., in late 1863, their good fortune continued. Regiment leadership elevated Pool to first lieutenant. Soon, after New Year’s Day, the regiment rejoiced over the arrival of long-awaited zouave-style uniforms. Resplendent in their fresh North African-inspired duds, the men, including Hoyt and Pool, rushed to have their pictures made. While not clad as zouaves in the photograph here, the distinctive painted camp backdrop used in this image mirrors that seen in many known images of soldiers from the 140th New York from this period. This portrait features Capt. Hoyt, left, and Lt. Pool. Pool leans into Hoyt, his forearm resting on his comrade’s shoulder. Both men draw from their pipes while their free hands nearly touch just below the center of the frame. Their expressions and posture suggest an air of confidence and faith in the future.
Unbeknownst to them, however, some of the hardest fighting lay ahead in Virginia. If they believed that the glory achieved at Gettysburg would offer some type of respite from future travails, they were wrong.
By late morning on May 5, 1864, nervous excitement gripped the 140th as it moved deep into enemy territory. Earlier, jittery Union pickets reported Confederate infantry swarming nearby—primarily under the command of Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell. The federal high command sensed an opportunity for a donnybrook, and ordered the 140th into line of battle along the Orange Turnpike. Capt. Hoyt and Lt. Pool led Company I and Company C, respectfully. After an anxious pause for further instruction, officers and men advanced west along the turnpike, tripping through the malignant undergrowth of the Wilderness. The men hacked their way towards a little opening in the woods known locally as Saunders Field. Orders soon came down to dislodge rebel forces along the opposite tree line.
As the first boots tramped into the cornfield, a booming volley erupted from across the clearing. The men fell among the stubble. Those unscathed ran back to chimerical safety among the skinny trees. Commanders barked orders: lie down, load and wait. During this stressful pause, men nervously considered their mortality. That most consequential of orders finally came: charge. Veterans later recalled a deafening yell from the men that punctuated those first fateful steps back into the clearing.
The New Yorkers struggled towards the opposite tree line. Rebel infantry, holding a superior position, struck down the Union men from all angles. Desperate officers sounded the retreat. The charge failed at terrible cost. Hoyt and Pool, who had just experienced their best months at war, encountered their worst. Both were reported killed in action, according to initial newspaper reports and letters.
But reality differed.
Rebel lead struck Lt. Pool at least once during the initial volley, rendering him senseless. His faculties partially returned, however, and, though visibly unsteady, he caught up to his regiment. Hit twice more, he finally staggered and collapsed. Confederates found him on the field and dragged him away. An enemy surgeon would remove one of Pool’s arms. He survived the amputation, only to succumb to typhoid three months later in a rebel hospital in Gordonsville, Va. His remains were buried and the place marked by a coarse wood board upon which was painted “Yank.” He was 23.
Hoyt sustained a wound to his foot during the charge and, unable to walk, also fell into enemy hands. He spent six months in prison camps at Richmond, Va., and Macon, Ga. Paroled in December 1864 and later exchanged, Hoyt left the army in March 1865 with a disability discharge and a brevet rank of major. He lived until 1905 and was survived by his wife, Elizabeth.
One may be forgiven for admiring the impressive monuments on Little Round Top, even as the war pressed forward. For the courageous officers and men of the 140th who held the hallowed ground and gained a measure of immortality at Gettysburg, a seemingly endless stream of engagements were yet to come. In fact, 13 actions lied ahead, including the butchery at Saunders Field during the Battle of The Wilderness. The story of Hoyt and Pool, so confident and full of life in their post-Gettysburg photo, reminds us of this harsh reality. Their poignant portrait is a sobering perspective about the Civil War’s relentless grind.
References: Brian A. Bennett, Sons of Old Monroe: A Regimental History of Patrick O’Rorke’s 140th New York Volunteer Infantry; Brian A. Bennett, The Supreme Event in Its Existence: The Defense of Little Round Top by the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry; New York State Civil War Muster Roll Extracts; New York Town Clerks’ Register of Men Who Served in the Civil War; Rochester Evening Express, July 21, 1863, and May 7, 1864.
Kevin D. Canberg, a regulatory compliance attorney specialized in government affairs, studies and collects cased images from the American Civil War era. He also enjoys researching and writing about this period, and has been featured in publications including the Baltimore Sun. Kevin lives in New Jersey with his wife, Sarah, daughter, Darcy, and lovable mutt, Toby.