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James Riley was born in 1829 in the state of New Jersey. James Riley, however, was a pseudonym for his real name, Oliver A. Atwood. He had been a sailor before the war, but enlisted at Huntington, Long Island, New York at the age of 27 years on September 25, 1862 into the 155th New York Infantry as a Sergeant; for a period of three years. He mustered into Company "D" on November 17, 1862. A variety of documents, however, record his name being spelt in numerous manners, such as Reilly, Reily and as Riely. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall, with brown hair and grey eyes. 

The 155th New York was one of four regiments in an Irish Brigade known as the “Corcoran Legion”; one of only two such brigades in the entire Union Army and all four regiments served together throughout the Civil War. They saw their heaviest fighting in the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns of 1864. The 155th was a Volunteer Infantry raised in Buffalo in late summer 1862 and was comprised almost entirely of Irish immigrants; most of the 155th being recruited by Colonel William Mc Evily. Seven companies were comprised of men from New York City and Long Island, New York with the remaining company being recruited in Binghamton, New York. The regiment marched under both a National flag and a green silk battle flag decorated with a harp and shamrocks on one side, and the seals of New York and the Federal government on the reverse side. The majority of the 155th wore infantry dress frock coats with a sky blue piping around the collar and cuffs with a smattering of fatigue blouses, or sack coats.

The 155th New York Regiment left New York state on November 10, 1862 and went to Newport News, Virginia, where it was officially mustered into service on November 17, 1862; Riley mustering in as a Sergeant. His duties included serving as a file closer, helping lead guard details and pickets, leading fatigue details and leading a section, but in practice, some veteran regiments dispensed with file closers, because sergeants sometimes wound up commanding companies as losses mounted among the commissioned officers. In December 1862, the 155th New York, with approximately 820 men, arrived at the Union base at Suffolk, Virginia, near Norfolk, for six months duty. During that period few battles were fought but the regiment experienced nearly constant skirmishing.

With Colonel Murphy of the 68th Militia commanding the Brigade and General Corcoran commanding the Division, the 155th moved out with the Blackwater Expedition on January 29, 1863; their first encounter and battle with the enemy was a minor affair occurring on January 30, 1863, with a few thousand men on each side in a fight called the Battle of the Deserted House; some ten miles west of Suffolk. A battle which engaged 5,000 Union troops, 1,800 Confederate troops and a heavy two-hour artillery barrage. In April, 1863, Confederate General James Longstreet laid siege to Suffolk, and the 155th was actively engaged during the time in picket duty along earthenworks and in reconnaissances outside the Federal lines; for almost a month during April; from July 1863 through May 1864 it was stationed near Washington D.C..

In mid-July 1863, the 155th New York was moved to northern Virginia and guard duty along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, where the regiment was engaged for 10 months fending off Confederate cavalry raids; including attacks by "Mosby's Rangers." A notable engagement during that period occurred in December 1863, when Confederate General Thomas Rosser's entire cavalry brigade of some 1,000 men attacked a railroad bridge guarded by 70 or so men of the 155th. After a hard fight, the Rebels withdrew, leaving the bridge and railroad intact; in spite of the fact that the Company of the 155th defending the bridge was outnumbered by more than ten to one.

In May 1864, midway through the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, the 400 men of the 155th New York joined Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps of the Army of the Potomac. The regiment, together with the rest of the Corcoran Legion and the 8th New York Heavy was assigned to the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Division. The 155th New York suffered heavy casualties at Spotsylvania during the Federal assault of May 18, and also fought along the North Anna River and Totopotomoy Creek, arriving at Cold Harbor in early June; with barely 300 men left in the ranks.

Five days after a battle at Sangster’s Station, General Corcoran died of apoplexy while riding his horse; he was only 36 years of age. His command was assumed by Colonel Murphy, when the unit arrived to take part in the last battles around Spotsylvania; the 155th losing 58 killed, wounded or missing. The 155th, in the assaulting column at the Battle of Cold Harbor, suffered an additional loss of 154 killed, wounded and missing. The regiment then lost another 83 men in battles around Petersburg and 48 more men at the Battle at Reams Station. It was at Reams Station on the Weldon Railroad in Virginia that Riley was wounded. In a report by Colonel Matthew Murphy, Brigade Commander, which appears in the Official Report of the War of the Rebellion, Colonel Murphy stated;

CAPTAIN: In obedience to circular order, headquarters Second Division, Second Army Corps, August 27, 1864, I have the honor to report the part taken by my command in the operations at Reams' Station between August 22 and 26 instant:

On the 22nd instant this command was bivouacked in a field to the rear of the Ninth Army Corps. Having received orders, we marched from said position toward Reams' Station, Weldon railroad, stopping for the night by the roadside, and the following day, at 3 a.m., resuming the journey, we arrived at the station and were placed in the intrenchments to the east side of the railroad. At 6.45 a.m., on the 25th instant, the brigade proceeded a short distance south of Reams' Station, left resting on the railroad, and was afterward ordered back to occupy a light line of rifle-pits, the direction of which for 150 yards was very nearly perpendicular to the line of works held by First Division, Second Army Corps, and the left of which line refused, so as to make its continuation almost parallel to the line held by First Division.

Throughout the whole this command occupied said line of rifle-pits we were exposed to the fire of the enemy advancing on the front occupied by First Division. For an hour, between 5 and 6 p.m., we were subjected to a most terrific shelling from three different quarters, front, flank, and rear, which made great havoc. About 6 p.m. the First Division broke in great disorder, the men thereof running to our line and thoroughly exposing our flank, deserting some pieces of cannon. I immediately directed two small regiments of this command (One hundred and fifty-fifth and One hundred and seventieth New York Volunteers) to occupy the works, thus abandoned, which was done, though I must admit rather tardily, the men having to advance under a very severe fire. While this was being done the left of my brigade, including the One hundred and sixty-fourth New York Volunteers and part of the Eighth New York Heavy Artillery, advanced over the corn-field, together with the Third Brigade of our division. On my return to the left I found the command much disorganized, partly from contamination with the runaways of some heavy artillery regiments not in our division, and partly from the destructive fire of the enemy's batteries. Measures were at once taken to restore order, which I am sorry to say was but partly done.

The One hundred and fifty-fifth and One hundred and seventieth New York Volunteers being engaged with the enemy on the right, the rest of the command still occupied the rifle-pits, but by some mistake for which I am not able to account at present, myself having been to the right, they were moved to the left. While so situated they had to cross the rifle-pits as many as four times, being forced to do so by the enemy's fire, which at one time would come from the rear and then change again to the front. The brigade remained in this position until the advance of the enemy on our front and flank made the capture of the greater part of the command very probable, if it had not retired, which was executed in any way but the best order. the Eighth New York Heavy Artillery on its right had a hand-to-hand fight with the enemy, losing their colors after retaking them from the enemy. The loss of the colors of the One hundred and sixty-fourth New York Volunteers I am not able to account for, their commanding officer, Malor Beattie, being missing. I think that Major John Byrne, One hundred and fifty-fifth New York Volunteers, and Major J. B. Donnelly, One hundred and seventieth New York Volunteers, both missing, and Major Baker, Eighth New York Heavy Artillery, are deserving of praise for their exertions in trying to have their commands face fire. The members of brigade staff acted well. At about 8.30 p.m. the command started for Williams' house, where it arrived at about 2 a.m. of the 26th”.

They also participated in and lost men at the Battle of Boydton Plank Road in October 1865 and in the assault on the Petersburg works in March 1865.

Records reveal that Riley was always present with his regiment until he was confined at Fort Norfolk, on June 30, 1863. On February 14, 1864 Riley was reduced in rank to a Private, then on June 24, 1864 Riley was again promoted; to Sergeant Major and then transferred from Company D to a non-commission Field and Staff position as Sergeant-Major; on June 24, 1864. As a ranking non-commissioned officer of the battalion, Riley assisted the Adjutant in general. He also assisted the Adjutant at parade and guard mounting, supervised the Regimental Clerk, kept the duty roster of the battalion’s sergeants, assisted the Officer of the Day with keeping time at battalion headquarters and supervised the First Sergeants. He was absent on a furlough on December 31, 1864, however, and was reduced to ranks and transferred back to Company D on February 15, 1865. He was then promoted to 1st Sergeant on April 2, 1865. As the First Sergeant, Riley was responsible for running the company’s day-to-day operations and supervising the company’s non-commissioned officers. Riley was finally discharged near Washington D.C.; on July 15, 1865. In 1864, Riley was badly wounded by gunshot in the right thigh at the battle of Reams Station on Weldon Railroad, and nearly lost his leg as a result; causing him trouble the rest of his life. 

Back in Monmouth County, New Jersey, Riley filed a claim for an invalid pension; on February 14, 1873. His claim stated he was partially disabled due to a gunshot wound he received to his right thigh during the Battle of Reams Station, Virginia on the Weldon Railroad; on August 25, 1864. Major John Byrne, commanding officer of the 155th, who had been taken prisoner at Reams Station, supported his claim by a sworn affidavit. Other pension papers revealed his use of the name James Riley instead of his own. Oliver Atwood apparently enlisted under the name James Riley after being captured, paroled and reenlisting. It was a common practice to avoid execution if he were recaptured again.

A Bureau of Pension questionnaire filled out by Riley in 1892 stated he was married under the name Oliver A. Atwood on April 16, 1864 to Nancy L. Taylor at Springville, Pennsylvania; who had subsequently died at Aberdeen, Mississippi on September 6, 1871. He then married Mary Reid on January 25, 1886 at Beechworth, Victoria.

Riley, or Atwood, apparently arrived in Australia sometime around 1870, working as a common laborer in 1884 or 1885 at Beechworth, Wahgunya and Baddaginnie, Victoria; Wahgunya being located 10 kilometers northwest of Rutherglen on the Murray River. In 1886 Riley married Mary Reid at Beechworth, having previously been married in American and left as a widower.  Riley was eventually admitted to a hospital in the Ovens District in Beechworth, Victoria on September 9, 1901, for acute alcoholism and heart failure; where he died nine days later on September 18, 1901. He was originally buried in an unmarked grave, number 1221 in the Presbyterian Section of Beechworth Cemetery. In 1991 though, a headstone for his grave was applied for, and supplied, by the American Veterans Administration in Washington D.C.


“A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion”, Frederick H. Dyer, 1959.

 “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the War of Rebellion”, United States

     War Department, Washington: GPO, 1891-95.

 “Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, From its Organization,
    September 29, 1789 to March 2, 1903”, Francis B. Heitman,  1903.

 Kevin O'Beirne, Researcher

 “Official Army Register of the Volunteer Force of the United States Army 1861 –

    1865”, United States. Adjutant General's Office, Washington: 1865.

 “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion”,

        Govt. Print. Off., Washington -  Report of the Adjutant General, New York

 Susquehanna County Historical Society -  “The Columbia Examiner”, magazine, Feb.-Apr., 2004

 “The Union Army A History of Military Affairs in the Loyal States 1861-65, Records

    of the Regiments in the Union Army”,  1908.

Beechworth Walking Tour Guide

Travis Sellers, Researcher


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