The reader will please pardon some graphic details in this post. However…to really understand the extraordinary heroism of Sergeant Thomas Plunkett of the 21st Massachusetts Infantry, who was awarded the Medal of Honor, I think one has to explain exactly what he experienced during the Battle of Fredericksburg 150 years ago today.
Thomas Plunkett was born in County Mayo, Ireland about 1840. His parents, Francis and Catherine Plunkett, immigrated to the United States in 1844 and settled in West Boylston, Worcester County, Massachusetts. By the time the Civil War erupted, Plunkett was 21 and working in a shoe factory. Determined to fight for the Union, he enlisted with the 21st Massachusetts Infantry as a private.
The 21st Massachusetts, composed almost entirely of Worcester County men, first saw combat as part of Burnside’s Coastal Division in several amphibious operations in North Carolina. Then, in late summer 1862, Burnside’s Division was transferred to the Army of the Potomac in Virginia and became the foundation of the IX Corps. The regiment fought with the Army of the Potomac in the Second Battle of Bull Run. Two days later, on September 1, 1862, the regiment fought in Battle of Chantilly, an often overlooked after-shock of Second Bull Run, but nonetheless a vital engagement in that a few Union brigades managed to hold off a Confederate flanking maneuver and prevented what might have been calamity for the retreating Union Army. Chantilly, fought during a blinding thunderstorm, was the worst engagement of the war for the 21st Massachusetts Infantry.
As the regiment retreated out of a section of dense woods where they had been surprised by the Confederates and badly cut up, Private Thomas Plunkett put down his musket and walked alone back into the woods to find his friend, Private Louis Moultie. Plunkett did not find his wounded friend, but he did happen across a Confederate picket in the woods. Disarming his foe, Plunkett took the man prisoner and rejoined his unit. For this act, he was promoted to sergeant.
Heavily engaged at Burnside’s Bridge during the Battle of Antietam on September 27, 1862, the 21st Massachusetts marched on with the Army of the Potomac to Falmouth, Virginia in November 1862. Their old commander who had led their division in North Carolina, Major General Ambrose Burnside, was now in command of the entire Army of the Potomac. It was his plan to throw his massive army across the Rappahannock River and take the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Unfortunately, Robert E. Lee’s Confederates had plenty of time to dig in on Marye’s Heights west of the city. Their position was utterly impregnable.
In Burnside’s defense, it should be noted that the frontal assault across the open slope west of Fredericksburg towards the infamous stone wall was not meant to be the primary attack. He orchestrated a flanking maneuver to the left (a tactic he habitually used) which was supposed to carry the heights, but this maneuver failed. Thus the the frontal assault towards Marye’s Heights became his only hope for victory. And, tragically, he sent brigade after brigade up that slope to awful slaughter.
The 21st Massachusetts, commanded by Colonel William Smith Clark (a professor of chemistry at Amherst College), had spent the night of December 12, 1862, along with most of the Army of the Potomac, shivering in the streets of Fredericksburg, occupied earlier that day. As the army formed for battle on the morning of December 13, the 21st Massachusetts decided it best to discard their grey overcoats, preferring to go cold rather than be mistaken for Confederates.
Once the fog cleared, the Union assaults up the open slope began. Still in the city streets, the 21st Massachusetts did not have a clear view of all the action, but they saw enough. Over the course of about two hours in the early afternoon, men of the II Corps charged up that slope, fed in one brigade at a time. Kimball’s Brigade, Andrew’s Brigade, Palmer’s Brigade, Zook’s Brigade, Meagher’s “Irish Brigade,” Caldwell’s Brigade, Owen’s Brigade, Hall’s Brigade, and Sully’s Brigade. Some of these units took as many as 50% casualties. And the carnage was far from over.
Having used up the entire II Corps, Burnside turned to the IX Corps. Next up the slope would be Ferrero’s Brigade, of which the 21st Massachusetts was a part. As the regiment marched out of Fredericksburg and dressed their lines on the open plain west of town, they were exposed to the intense artillery fire that had been raining down from Marye’s Heights all afternoon. Before the lines were even dressed, a piece of solid shot took the head off of Private Warren Webster.
With that grim prelude, the 21st Massachusetts began to advance up the long slope towards the stone wall. Sergeant Thomas Plunkett had been placed as a file closer, behind the ranks, to help dress the lines and prevent straggling. Their advance was described by their regimental historian:
…Our well-ordered line was sweeping forward on the double-quick, under the best directed artillery fire that we had ever suffered or seen, and soon came within range of canister and the deadly fire of well-covered infantry. But our blood was up, and the men, looking only to the front, went pluckily on through that hell of countless projectiles which shrieked, burst, and hissed through the air, or tore the ground around us. Our colors fell again and again, but never halted on that charge…
At some point in the advance, Color Sergeant Joseph Collins was shot and fell dead. The regiment’s Stars and Stripes went down. Sergeant Plunkett immediately threw away his rifle and rushed forward to pick up the colors. Carrying the flag forward at the center of the regiment, Plunkett marched onward. Bullets tore through the silken flag and struck the flagstaff in his hands, nearly shattering it. A ball went through Plunkett’s cap. But thus far, he was unharmed and kept on.
Finally, when the regiment had advanced within close range of the stone wall, a shell exploded directly in front of Sergeant Plunkett. Three men around him were killed instantly. A large piece of the shell ripped through Plunkett’s right arm near the shoulder, almost severing it. The shrapnel then struck him in the chest but glanced off of a book he had placed in his waistcoat pocket. The impact left a long-lasting imprint on his chest matching the outline of the book. The book saved his life…it would be interesting to know the title. Rebounding off the book, the same piece of shrapnel then struck his lower left arm, and all but removed his left hand.
Astoundingly, when the smoke and dust of the impact cleared, Plunkett still stood. He planted a foot against the base of the flag staff and gripped it with what remained of his arms screaming, “Don’t let it fall, boys! Don’t let it fall!” The flag was soaked with his blood. Private Bradley Olney rushed to take the colors from him, and only then did Plunkett drop to the ground. Colonel Clark came to his side, cut his gear away and sent him to the rear.
Staggering back to Fredericksburg, horribly mangled and probably in shock, Plunkett was eventually picked up by stretcher bearers and brought to a make-shift hospital set up in some Fredericksburg house. The doctors believed his case was hopeless and left him alone for two hours. The pain he must have suffered is unimaginable. Finally, the doctors came to his aid, administering the blessing of chloroform and set to work. His right arm was amputated just below the shoulder. His left arm just below the elbow.
Clara Barton, the famous nurse from Oxford, Worcester County, Massachusetts, was present during Plunkett’s amputations and assisted the surgeons as best she could. Barton had been a teacher before the war and a number of her former students ended up in the 21st Massachusetts. She felt the 21st Massachusetts were her boys and made special efforts to look out for the regiment. Now, in Fredericksburg, she was determined to look after Sergeant Plunkett. Not long after the surgery, someone from the 21st Massachusetts, possibly Colonel Clark, showed her the flag Plunkett had carried. His blood, she recalled, “literally obliterated the stripes.” Barton cared for him after his surgery and Plunkett later repeatedly told her, “You saved my life.” She referred to him as the hero of four words.
Plunkett was transferred to a field hospital. Then, on Christmas Day 1862, he was placed on a railroad car to recover in a hospital in Washington. The entire regiment turned out at the station in Falmouth to see him off. Colonel Clark gave a heartfelt speech extolling Plunkett’s bravery. I wish we had his words.
Plunkett spent several months in great pain in a Washington hospital. Then, in May 1863, he was granted a furlough and returned home to West Boylston. Many comrades and friends made donations to support him…enough to guarantee that the hero of the 21st Massachusetts would live a relatively comfortable life. He moved to Worcester in 1864 and married, eventually having two sons.
In December 1865, with the war over and virtually all Massachusetts units mustered out, a great ceremony was held in Boston known as the Returning of the Flags. All available veterans of the many Massachusetts regiments paraded through Boston then presented their battle flags to the Governor. Sergeant Plunkett marched with the veterans of the 21st Massachusetts, and though unable to carry the flag, he marched near the standard which bore the stains of his blood.
On March 30, 1866, Plunkett was awarded the Medal of Honor.
About 130 years later, I stood in a vault in a sub-basement of the Massachusetts State House where the battle flags were kept in climate-controlled conditions. A graduate student at UMass Amherst, I gravitated towards the 21st Massachusetts through my studies on Colonel Clark who was essentially the founding father of UMass. I soon learned the story of Sergeant Plunkett and sought out the colors.
The curator of flags was extremely courteous and seemed to understand I was serious about my research. To my surprise, we were soon descending deep beneath the State House. I will never forget when the colors that Plunkett had carried were laid out on the table in that darkened vault. The blood stains are still there.
[Sources: Bonnie Fancy, “West Boylston’s Civil War Hero Remembered,” The Banner, June 2, 2011; “A Heroic Color Bearer Dead,” New York Times, March 11, 1885; Charles Walcott, History of the Twenty-first Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, (1882), p. 240-245; Stephen Oates, A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, (1995), 113-114, 119-123]