|Historical Art Prints
The 28th Massachusetts during the attack on Marye's Heights, as painted by artist Don Troiani.
In 1862, the second year of America's Civil War, Meagher's Irish Brigade made two of the most gallant charges in American history, crashing bloodily against a Confederate strongpoint at Antietam's "Bloody Lane" and, 87 days later, attacking Confederates, many Irish, behind Fredericksburg's "Stone Wall." WGT is proud to present the story of the Irish at Fredericksburg in a three-part series.
by Joseph E. Gannon
"I thought as I saw the Federals come again and again to their death that they deserved success, if courage and daring could entitle soldiers to victory."
-- Lieutenant General James Longstreet, C.S.A.
|A map of the Marye's Heights portion of the Fredericksburg battlefield drawn at the time of the battle.|
What must have been going through the minds of the men of the Irish Brigade as they stepped off up the inclining slope of Marye's Heights? Already, they had seen French's Division of the 2nd Corps and Zook's Brigade of their own division fail in their assaults of the Confederates nearly invulnerable position.
The three New York regiments must have noted how reminiscent this was of the position they had assaulted with such appalling casualties at Antietam three months earlier. But the Confederate position here, anchored by the looming stone wall, was more heavily manned, with better artillery support.
Most must have held at least some small glimmer of hope. But they must have all known how incredibly long the odds were as they bent their heads down as if into a lead rain storm and started up the rising ground.
The venerable 69th New York, the heart and soul of the Irish Brigade, was on the right of the Brigade. To its left was the 88th New York, the second original regiment of the Brigade, the one called "Mrs. Meagher's Own" since she had presented them with their colors.
In the middle, with the only green flag carried by the Brigade that day, was the newly assigned 28th Massachusetts. Though the Irish regiment was new to the Brigade, having recently replaced the non-Irish 29th Massachusetts, its men were veterans of 2nd Bull Run and Antietam. To its left was the 63rd New York, the third of the original regiments, which included two companies of men from Boston.
On the left of the brigade was the 116th Pennsylvania, which had started the day untested, and was about to endure what as severe a baptism of fire as any Civil War regiment ever suffered. That test began as soon as the regiment started from town, when a shell burst in the ranks, killing several men, including Sergeant John Marly, who was decapitated, and wounding several more, including its Colonel Dennis Heenan. At the canal bridge, Lieutenant Robert Montgomery, of Co. I, tumbled into the water mortally wounded. The battle had barely commenced, and it was about to get much worse.
As chaos and sudden death whirled around them, Lieutenant Colonel St. Clair Mulholland, echoing an epiphany common to soldiers in combat, reflected: "How different is the real battle from that which one's imagination had pictured."
|Historical Art Prints
The famous Washington Artillery, Army of Northern Virginia, as painted in action at Antietam by artist Don Troiani.
After giving the order to advance up the muddy slope, and following a short way, General Meagher, who was still suffering from an ulcerated knee injured at the Battle of Antietam, was forced to return to town on his horse as the Brigade went to the double quick.
The Washington Artillery, on top of Marye's Heights, had the ground the Irish were about to march over well ranged from firing at previous brigades. As the soldiers of the Irish Brigade started up the incline, the
|Did Irish Brigade commander Thomas F. Meagher feign a knee injury to avoid the fighting at Fredericksburg?Read more on this controversy.|
hailstorm from those guns ripped and tore at their lines, whittling them away as they advanced closer to the wall.
Imagine the scene in front of them as they advanced. Smoke and fire belched out at them from Marye's Heights. The sky-blue greatcoats of the dead and dying soldiers who preceded them speckled the plain leading toward the stone wall. The survivors of those attacks now lay on the ground, as well; higher up, toward the wall, flattened against it, attempting to escape the impenetrable volley after volley fired by the men commanded by Irishman Robert McMillan, standing four deep behind the wall on Telegraph Road.
|Osprey's "Campaign Series" book on Fredericksburg is a great reference on the battle, great maps, pictures and information on the participants. Buy it here:Fredericksburg 1862: 'Clear the Way' by Carl Smith|
Soldiers in blue used dead comrades as cover in a desperate attempt to escape the devastating fire. Many of them cried out to the Irish marching over them to stop, and pulled on their pants legs as if to physically stop this futile advance, but the line moved forward.
As the brigade advanced, Rebel guns slashed huge gaps in their lines. Those still moving dressed the lines ever forward and then to the colors, replacing the dead and wounded and maintaining their solid front facing the enemy.
Captain John O'Neill, commanding the 116th's Company K, took a ball through the lung, and four more wounds before the day was out. Later, when asked where he was hit, he replied, "I'm wounded all over," but he would survive. Thirty five years later, during an assault on another high ground, his son William "Buckey" O'Neill would not be as lucky, falling with Teddy Roosevelt's famous "Rough Riders."
|United States Army Military History Institute
Captain John O'Neill, who was "wounded all over" at Fredericksburg, but survived to father a legend of the American west.
About 100 yards from the Confederates, the Brigade encounter a plank fence. Behind the stone wall on Telegraph road, McMillan decided the enemy was close enough. If the men of the brigade could have heard him shout "Give it to them now boys!" it would have been the last thing many of them ever heard.
From the wall came an eruption of sound and flame, filling the air around the Brigade with deadly slugs. The brigade crumpled under the force of the blow as the bullets struck flesh, and finding means of survival quickly supplanted any notion that the brigade could possibly take the wall. Still, the brigade advanced a bit further, perhaps carried by the momentum of their charge, despite huge gaps in their lines, and no men left to close them.
They had done all that men could do, so they lay down where they were, and began to fire buck and ball from their smoothbore muskets in the direction of the well-protected Confederates. Some would find a way down the hill while it was still light, others would remain on the slopes into the night.
There has been controversy ever since over what unit got closest to the wall. It may have been members of the Irish Brigade, but in truth it matters little. More than 540 of the approximately 1,200 men of the Irish Brigade were dead or wounded.
The next day, incredibly, with every officer of the 69th either killed or wounded, and the other regiments scarcely in better shape, the brigade "celebrated" the arrival of their new colors from New York. The banquet was held in a Fredericksburg concert hall. Many high-ranking Federal officers were invited. The Confederates, without invitation, lobbed a few shells into the town in the middle of what was later recalled as the brigade's "Death Feast."
Said General Winfield Scott Hancock, "Only Irishmen could enjoy themselves thus." Like John O'Neill, the brigade was "wounded all over," but would survive -- as a battalion.
|The Irish Brigade did not have a monopoly on Irish in the ranks on December 13, 1862, there were many in the Confederate ranks as well. Read the stories of all the Irish in Robert E. Lee's army in "Clear the Confederate Way" by Kelly J. O'Grady|
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