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Philip Riley

Researcher: Jason Baillio

            Philip Riley was born in the year 1823, in Ireland. He then emigrated from Ireland to the United States, where he later became a resident in Norfolk, Massachusetts, or present day Franklin Massachusetts. Philip Riley ended up marrying a woman named Elizabeth, who was six years younger than him, and Elizabeth and he had a daughter named Catherine in 1861, only a year before he left to fight. After his eventful career as a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War, Philip settled down and made his living in a Woolen Mill. He also sent his daughter off to work in a straw hat factory as well.

            As a member of the 7th Rhode Island infantry regiment, Private Philip Riley and his fellow E company soldiers played a crucial role in preserving the Union of the United States of America from collapsing. His regiment took part in many key battles, and suffered regrettable casualties, however they proved to be a very brave and capable fighting unit, and it is certainly an honor to research someone who was a part of it all. The regiment was started on May 22, 1862 in Providence, Rhode Island, and the soldiers were instructed in drills at Camp Bliss. After the regiment had learned how to march, and all about military formations and battle skills, they were able to leave the preparatory Camp Bliss, in order to go to Washington D.C on September 10, 1862. The regiment traveled by train part of the way, until they were able to get on the steamboats “Commonwealth” and “John H. Potter” all the way to New Jersey. Finally, the troops finished up their journey by train, and on September 17, 1862 they set up camp at Arlington’s Heights near the Potomac River, and assumed duty and training under General Gabriel Paul who commanded the 2nd brigade of Casey’s division. The soldiers received even more training at this location, and then moved on again to Sandy Hook, Maryland. At this new camp, the regiment was even reviewed by General Burnside. After a rather uneventful beginning, the regiment finally moved out again on October 27, 1862, and they started marching all the way to Berlin, on the Potomac where they were able to cross the river on a pontoon bridge. The soldiers were then ordered to keep on marching all the way to Fredericksburg, and the entire trip took them 24 days. After months of drilling and marching, the 7th Rhode Island finally gained battle experience on December 13, 1862 at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where they fought as part of the Army of the Potomac under General Ambrose Everett Burnside. Even though it was a Confederate victory, the Regiment still performed very bravely. The death toll ended up at 31, and 122 men were also seriously wounded, and finally the regiment was ordered to retreat once they used up their ammunition at 7:30 at night.

            After retreating from Fredericksburg, the 7th Rhode Island Infantry was forced to return to one of its old camps in Falmouth, Virginia. In this location, many of the men became sick from malnutrition and disease, and some members of the unit died. Finally in February 1863, the regiment was able to move to Newport News, and was able to receive a much needed supply of vegetables, as well as 300 boxes of personal comforts, donated from home and shipped by the schooner “Elizabeth and Helen”. After the regiment recovered from its horrible time in Falmouth, they were moved out with the 9th Army Corps under General Burnside once again for the Department of the Ohio. The 7th Rhode Island was fortunate enough to catch a ride on the steamboat “Swan” all the way to Baltimore. From Baltimore Philip Riley’s regiment had to then take a train all the way to Lexington, Kentucky, and they passed through Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati on the way before they finally got there on March 31, 1863. This length of travel could not have been easy on the soldiers, but they still never gave up, and continued to do their duty.


          Another major battle Philip Riley took part in was the siege of Vicksburg. His regiment left on June 1st to join the Army of the Tennessee under General Ulysses S. Grant at Sherman’s Landing. They then were moved to Snyder’s Bluff off of the Yazoo River, where they helped defend Grant’s army from the confederate forces under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Although Philip Riley’s regiment never fired a shot at the town of Vicksburg, they played a huge role in discouraging an attack on Grant’s army surrounding Vicksburg; and in that way, helped the Union gain a key victory at Vicksburg which effectively split the Confederacy in two because the Mississippi river was then in Union control.

More hardships were endured by the regiment on the return march from the Mississippi campaign however, and the troops were forced to march 60 miles in 80 hours, they even had to march at night! Finally on July 24 they were able to get aboard a steamboat, but its rudder broke on the Yazoo River, and the men had to wait for so long that many men developed Yazoo fever, and three men died.

The 7th Rhode Island Infantry’s last important contribution in the Civil War was as a part of the Army of the Potomac commanded by General Grant. On May 10th the 7th Rhode Island lost one man in fighting around the Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia. Even more fighting continued, and it came to a head when the Regiments position came under heavy fire on May 18, 1864, by an enemy battery, for six terrible hours. In the end, the regiment never moved from its position even though two previous regiments had retreated from it, and they lost 62 men. Next, on June 2, at Cold Harbor and also at another Skirmish at Bethesda Church on June 3, the regiment fought and lost 48 men combined in the two battles.  The heavy losses suffered at Cold Harbor by General Grant’s Union troops was 7000 in all, and the Union was forced to retreat across the James River, but the 7th Rhode Island did its part bravely.

          Life in the Civil War did have a few bright rays of hope and fun in it though, even in the dark and evil times of battle. One example of this happened to the 7th Rhode Island Infantry Regiment on November 24, 1864, when they were able to find time to celebrate Thanksgiving. 90 turkeys were sent by Rhode Island friends to the Regiment, as well as seven cases of fixings, and they enjoyed two days of feasting and partying, which must have been a great break from months and months of hard fighting and marching.

          On April 2, 1865 at Petersburg, Virginia, the 7th Regiment was ordered to remain in Fort Sedgwick, but they also sent supplies after the troops in charge of attacking Petersburg, which ended up becoming a siege, and they were under bombardment from Confederate batteries during the attack. In the end, the regiment lost 14 men, including three officers in the fighting and supplying at Petersburg.

The regiment finally was called back to Washington after General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army surrendered to Grant on April 9th 1865. On May 23, after Philip Riley and his regiment made it all the way back to Washington D.C, they took part in the Grand Review, and it was finally taken out of service on June 9, 1865. In all, 199 men were killed in the regiments many battles, with many more men wounded, but the Regiment never faltered once in all its hard days of fighting, and it played a huge role in keeping the Union together.

          After the war, The 7th Rhode Island returned to Providence along with the 35th Massachusetts volunteers, aboard the steamship “Oceanus” on June 13, 1865 and they were met by a huge celebration, which Philip Riley undoubtedly found extremely gratifying and heartwarming, as did all of his fellow soldiers. After more than three years in the army, and ten major battles, Philip Riley must have felt relieved and happy to just go home and settle down in Norfolk, Massachusetts, where he lived out the rest of his days quietly as factory worker in a Woolen Mill with his wife Elizabeth and their 4 yr. old daughter Catherine.

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