We are coming up on the 150th anniversary of the dreadful Battle of Fredericksburg fought on December 13, 1862. So very many stories could be told of the many Union regiments that made the charge uphill towards the infamous stone wall on Marye’s Heights that day. One of the most remarkable is that of the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, part of the famed Irish Brigade.
Some context first. The autumn of 1862 had seen little action on the part of either Union or Confederate forces in the Eastern Theater. Both the Army of the Potomac (Union) and the Army of Northern Virginia (C0nfederate) had been badly mauled during the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 outside Sharpsburg, Maryland. This ended Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s attempt to invade Union territory. Lee spent the autumn positioning his forces to deflect the inevitable (but abysmally slow) advance of the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. And the Army of the Potomac spent most of October and November doing…not much.
Once again, Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac, was acting with his characteristic slowness. Rebuilding his army after such a shredding as Antietam must have been no small task. But as October wore on, and McClellan did nothing, the northern public, and especially President Lincoln, grew furious. “What malign influence palsies our army,” wrote the editor of the Chicago Tribune, “…If it is McClellan, does the President not see that he is a traitor?”
Lincoln did indeed see the problem. On November 7, 1862, Lincoln replaced McClellan with Major General Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside started off well, moving the Army of Potomac rather quickly to Falmouth, Virginia where he hoped to make a crossing of the Rappahannock and take the city of Fredericksburg. But the pontoon bridges he needed to cross the river and make the “surprise” assault arrived weeks late. The upshot being that Burnside’s assault on Fredericksburg would be anything but a surprise. Lee’s army was dug in and more than ready on the heights outside the city. Burnside made the assault anyway.
Meanwhile, the 28th Massachusetts in the wake of Antietam was in anything but fighting trim. The regiment had been mustered in during December of 1861 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It consisted mostly of Irish immigrants, one of the two “Irish” Bay State regiments (the other being the 9th Massachusetts). During the Battle of Antietam, as part Christ’s Brigade (IX Corps), the unit took heavy casualties. In the weeks following Antietam, the unit suffered from a serious lack of discipline. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew (much like Lincoln with McClellan) decided that a change of leadership was necessary.
Andrew appointed Colonel Richard Byrnes, an Irish-born Regular Army officer, as commander. Byrnes joined the unit at Harpers Ferry, Virginia on October 18, 1862 and assumed command. This caused considerable upheaval within the regiment. Many officers of the 28th Massachusetts, resenting the appointment of an outsider and feeling that they had been passed over for promotion, sent a petition of protest to the Governor. This was to no avail. Byrnes would remain in command.
There was something of a shake-up in the 28th Massachusetts after Byrnes arrived. He enforced paperwork, daily drills and other routines within the regiment that had been lacking. He demoted the regiment’s Sergeant Major and Quartermaster Sergeant. By December, the 28th Massachusetts would be a very different regiment.
Another major change for the 28th Massachusetts at this time was its transfer to the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the II Corps. Or, to put it more simply, the “Irish Brigade.” Led by Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher, formerly a freedom fighter in Ireland, the original regiments of the Irish Brigade had already won considerable renown. The brigade originally consisted of three New York Irish regiments. In a bizarre and ironic twist, during Peninsular Campaign in June 1862, the 29th Massachusetts Infantry (consisting mostly of old Yankee stock from Plymouth County, Massachusetts) had been added to the Irish Brigade. Although the 29th Massachusetts fought bravely with the Irish Brigade at Antietam, the blue-blood regiment was not a good fit. In November 1862 they were removed from the brigade and replaced, on November 23, with the Irish 28th Massachusetts…to the relief, I think, of almost everyone in all the regiments involved.
On the morning of December 12, 1862, the 28th Massachusetts, now fourth regiment of Irish Brigade, crossed one of the pontoon bridges into Fredericksburg. They spent a cold night in the streets of the city as the Army of the Potomac massed about them, preparing for a tremendous assault on Marye’s Heights in the morning.
Roused before dawn on December 13, 1862, the men of the 28th Massachusetts awoke with frost on their sky blue great coats. At that time, the distinctive Irish Brigade flags, emerald green and bearing the harp of Erin, were in short supply. The New York regiments’ flags had been so tattered that they were, before the battle, sent back to New York. The 28th Massachusetts, therefore, was the only regiment of the Irish Brigade to bear the Irish banner into battle. To compensate for the lack of green, General Meagher, as the regiments were awaiting their advance, ordered the men of the brigade to place a sprig of something green in their caps. Most of the men found some boxwood.
The Irish Brigade had a long and terrible wait that morning. While they stood in formation, French’s Division (three brigades) of the II Corps made its assault on Marye’s Heights. Around noon Kimball’s Brigade moved up the long, wide-open slope west of the city, up towards the stone wall under terrific artillery fire. The Confederates had an all but impenetrable position. Longstreet’s commander of artillery had so many guns aimed on the slope that he assured Longstreet, “A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
Kimball’s Brigade, advancing in perfect formation up the slope, was cut to pieces within 125 yards of the stone wall. Then went another charge by Andrew’s Brigade with even worse casualties. Then a charge by Palmer’s Brigade. By this time, the Confederate infantry was massed behind the stone wall four ranks deep. Then went Zook’s Brigade of Hancock’s Division. And next came the call for the Irish Brigade.
The Irish advanced at the double-quick under artillery fire, crossing a muddy canal on the western outskirts of town. With muskets at the right shoulder shift, they charged up the slope, over the wounded and the dead of the four brigades that had gone before them. The 28th Massachusetts was in the center of the brigade, bearing the green flag which the Confederates noted. One of the regiments behind the stone wall was the 24th Georgia, a Confederate Irish regiment. As they saw the 28th Massachusetts approach, one of the Irish Georgians cried, “Oh, God, what a pity! Here comes Meagher’s fellows!” Despite the awful fact that they were confronted by fellow immigrants, the Georgians leveled fierce fire on the charging Irish Brigade.
Sergeant Peter Welsh of the 28th Massachusetts carried the green Irish Brigade flag into the Battle of Fredericksburg and several other battles. Of that charge he wrote to his wife,
The storm of shell and grape and cannister was terrible, mowing whole gaps out of our ranks we having to march over their dead and wounded bodies. We advanced boldly despite it all…But the storm of shot was then most galling, and our ranks were soon thinned…we had but a poor chance at the enemy, who was sheltered in his rifle pits and entrenchments. I saw some hot work at South Mountain and Antietam in Maryland, but they were not to be compared to this.
About 50 yards before the stone wall, the Irish Brigade reached a make-shift barricade of wooden planks and abatis. As they were clambering over this, the Confederate infantry unleashed a well-timed and devastating volley of musket fire. For a time, the 28th Massachusetts and the rest of the Irish Brigade fired at the Confederates within just paces. The melee was chaotic. Finally, unable to withstand the fire, the Irish Brigade took cover in a slight depression on the slope, then later fell back to the town.
Many of the 28th Massachusetts refused to fall back with the brigade and instead crawled off a bit the the right, taking cover behind a brick building and continuing their fire. Late in the afternoon, Colonel Byrnes tried to regroup the 28th Massachusetts around the green flag back in the relative safety of Fredericksburg. For a time, he had only ten men with him and Byrnes feared that his new command had been utterly annihilated. Eventually more of the regiment straggled back. But the 28th Massachusetts had suffered 158 casualties out of the 416 men who went into the battle (38 percent).
This weekend, in Fredericksburg, there will be a reenactment of the charge on Marye’s Heights. The 28th Massachusetts will be one of the units portrayed. I have no doubt the reenactors will honor the memory of those brave Bay State Irish who fell. I only wish I could be with them.
Fág an Bealach!
[Sources: James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, (1988), p. 568; “Twenty-Eighth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry,” www.28thmass.org; James L. Bowen, Massachusetts in the War, (1888), p. 424-425; Joseph G. Bilby, Irish Brigade in the Civil War, (2001), p. 64-70; Peter Welsh and Lawrence Kolh, Irish Green and Union Blue, (1986); p. 43.]