By John Rattigan
Special to the BIR
In the fall of 1862, the second year of the Civil War, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee undertook to invade Maryland. This decision culminated in the bloody Battle of Antietam where Lee’s forces were pushed back. It was now December of that year and the Army of the Potomac was on the offensive heading south. General Ambrose Burnside had been appointed its commander barely five weeks earlier and was under pressure from President Lincoln to make an assault upon the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
And so, on Dec. 13, 120,000 Union troops and 80,000 Confederate soldiers faced off against each other near the small town of Fredericksburg some 50 miles north of Richmond. This was to be the largest concentration of combatants in any Civil War battle.
Burnside’s advance through Virginia lacked the element of surprise, giving Lee sufficient time to concentrate his forces on a series of hills known as Marye’s Heights located just outside of the town. The Confederate forces were dug in behind a stone wall on the hillside – a highly defensible position. Behind them, artillery commanded the whole field below, ready to shell the approaching Union army, which included the Irish Brigade comprised of five regiments from New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
As part of the Brigade, the Massachusetts 28th Volunteer Infantry had been formed in May 1861 and was composed almost entirely of men who were Irish by birth or heritage. It was commanded by Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, a native of Waterford, an ardent Fenian, and one of the best known Irish immigrant nationalists in America.
On the cold and foggy December morning of the battle, Meagher ordered his men to place sprigs of green boxwood in their forage caps to distinguish them from other units. He then positioned the Massachusetts men in the center of the brigade line, both because they were by far the most numerous and because they possessed the sole green Irish flag in the brigade. This distinctive bright green flag was emblazoned with a golden harp and the brigade’s war cry “Faugh ah Ballagh,” Irish for “clear the way.” The Massachusetts 28th was the only regiment to carry the Irish Brigade colors that day because, after the battle of Antietam, the flags of the other regiments were sent to Tiffany’s in New York for repair or replacement.
In the hours that followed, they watched the first wave of Union soldiers go up the hill ahead of them, suffering heavy casualties. By coincidence, the stone wall entrenchment on Marye’s Heights was defended by the Irishmen of Antrim-born Col. Robert McMillan’s 24th Georgia Infantry.
Knowing that both McMillan’s and Meagher’s units contained members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Gen. Lee was concerned that such a kinship might interfere with his troops’ sense of duty and so he ordered reserves sent to that position. He need not have worried. These were men at war and the human survival instinct of “kill or be killed” trumped any brotherly bonds that day on both sides.
As the Irish Brigade stepped off, advancing up the slope, the Southerners knew full well who was coming against them. One Confederate who spotted the green regimental flag approaching cried out, “Oh God, what a pity! Here come Meagher’s fellows.” The Brigade moved toward the Confederate position under a murderous fire of grape shot, canister, and bullets, suffering horrendous casualties all along the way. The rifle volleys were withering and the federal troops slowed and then fell back, never getting closer than 50 yards from the stone wall.
Throughout the day, Burnside ordered seven Union divisions sent in, generally one brigade at a time, for a total of fourteen individual charges, all of which failed, costing the Union force between 6,000 and to 8,000 casualties. Confederate losses at Marye’s Heights totaled only around 1,200. During these futile frontal assaults, the Massachusetts 28th suffered the greatest losses of the five regiments that made up the Irish Brigade.
After the war, Burnside went on to distinguish himself as Governor of Rhode Island and later as a US Senator but to many Union veterans, he was simply known as “The Butcher of Fredericksburg.”
We now fast forward 129 years to the summer of 1991 when the Charitable Irish Society was contacted by the property manager of the Court Street office building in Boston where the Society’s office was situated until the late 1970’s. During a recent cleaning of the sub-basement, several boxes were found that bore the Society’s name. Two board members were dispatched to investigate. They found a collection of old records as well as a cylindrically shaped package wrapped in heavy brown paper. All of the items were covered with a thick layer of black coal dust, giving some clue to the length of time they had been in storage.
After unwrapping, it was discovered that the oddly shaped parcel contained a military drum. Painted on one side was a red shamrock as well as the regimental title and motto of the Massachusetts 28th Regiment.
The drum was in fairly good condition and subsequent research determined that it was crafted by the A.W. White Company, a musical instrument manufacturer established in the mid 19th century and located at 86 Tremont Street in Boston.
Thanks to the help and assistance of Robert Hall, Jr., President of the Olde Colony Civil War Round Table, the drum was professionally restored and in 1995 was presented by the Society to the National Park Service on a permanent loan basis. The drum is now the centerpiece of the battlefield artifacts collection at the Fredericksburg Visitor Center’s museum in Virginia.
The Massachusetts 28th drum and the young men it once called to arms and eventual death are reunited on this 150 anniversary of the battle, a small but fitting tribute to those fallen Irishmen whose life journeys ended on a cold Virginia hillside, far from their homes and so very far from their native land.