"When anything absurd, forlorn, or desperate was to be attempted, the Irish Brigade was called upon."
George Alfred Townsend
"Perhaps the best known of any brigade organization, it having made an unusual reputation for dash and gallantry. The remarkable precision of its evolutions under fire, its desperate attack on the impregnable wall at Marye's Heights; its never failing promptness on every field; and its long continuous service, made for it a name inseparable from the history of the war."
William F. Fox
"I have not a word, other than that of unqualified commendation, to bestow upon this well-regulated and admirably disciplined regiment."
Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher
The 28th during the year 1861
When Governor John A. Andrew had first issued a call for volunteers in May 1861, the state experienced considerable success in quickly raising a regiment composed almost entirely of men of Irish birth or heritage. This unit was designated as the 9th Massachusetts Infantry. As additional calls were made for more troops after the defeat at Bull Run in July, Governor Andrew hoped to build on this success by raising two more all-Irish regiments from the large ethnic population of the state. Aid and encouragement in this endeavor was offered by influential Irish-Americans in the state and region. Most prominent was Patrick Donahoe, the publisher of The Pilot which was one of the most important Irish-American newspapers in the country at the time. The two new units were ambitiously designated under the titles of the "Second and Third Irish Regiments." They were authorized by the governor on September 24, 1861 with recruitment slated to begin on October 8th. They would ultimately be designated the 28th Infantry, which was recruited at Camp Cameron in Cambridge, and 29th Infantry, which was raised in Framingham.
New recruits were promised pay and rations would begin upon enlistment, while the state would provide for families. In addition, each enlistee was to be given a $100 bounty when the campaign was over. Finally, it was widely advertised that a Catholic chaplain would accompany the regiment in the field. These efforts were undoubtedly bolstered by the well-timed appearance of Thomas Meagher on September 23 in Boston. One of the best known of the many immigrant Irish nationalists in America, Meagher attracted a capacity crowd in the Boston Music Hall, with a large overflow crowd of people milling out in the street. He made good use of his well-known oratorical skills, whipping up a frenzy through his skillful use of Irish and American patriotic symbolism. While his dedication to the cause was unquestionable, the ambitious Meagher was seeking at the time to raise an entire brigade of ethnic Irish regiments which he ultimately hoped to command in the field. Apparently, if this effort never bore fruition, Meagher secured a promise from Gov. Andrew of a commission in one of the Massachusetts Irish regiments.
In spite of these efforts, recruiting of additional Irish-Americans during the fall of 1861 failed to meet the anticipated numbers, at least in part because many Irishmen had already joined other state regiments such as the 15th and 19th. Both were recruited over the previous summer and contained large numbers of Irish, although they were never designated specifically as ethnic units. Faced with two half-strength ethnic units, those Irish recruits who had signed up in Framingham were moved to Cambridge and assigned to the 28th Regiment, while the ranks of the 29th Regiment were filled by mostly yankee volunteers from around the state. The 28th Regiment was recruited up to strength by the late fall and officially mustered into federal service on December 31st, 1861. Although there were a small number of skilled artisans and clerks, the vast majority of the soldiers were common day laborers with few skills. There were also many sailors and farmers. Virtually all were from Boston and vicinity, with significant contingents also coming from interior milltowns such as Milford, Lawrence, Worcester and Lynn. Known proudly by its members as the "Faugh-A-Ballaugh Regiment" (Irish for "clear the way"), the command of the regiment was handed to William Monteith. Like many of the other officers at the formation of the regiment, Monteith was of uncertain military ability. A close friend of Donahue, he had many powerful political connections among the large New York Irish community, all of which helped him secure the appointment from Governor Andrew.
According to his original plan, Governor Andrew had promised to send one of the two Irish regiments from the Bay State to Meagher for his planned "Irish Brigade." The other Irish unit was to be sent to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, who was also eagerly seeking regiments at the time. While it would have been logical for Governor Andrew to send the 28th Massachusetts along to Meagher's Irish brigade, Butler had a lot political pull in the state. A prominent criminal lawyer and pro-war Democratic politician popular among the Irish in the state, he had made use of his position as brigadier general of state militia to lead the first Massachusetts regiments to the relief of defenseless Washington at the outbreak of hostilities . Out of gratitude for his actions, President Lincoln had commissioned Butler as the first Major General of volunteers in the war. In August 1861, Butler had been given overall command of the land forces operating along the coast of the Carolinas, and was anxious to have his force of New England units assembled as soon as possible.
Since the 28th Regiment was
mustered up to strength earlier, it was assigned to Butler's force,
while the 29th Regiment was eventually dispatched by Andrew to
join the Irish Brigade in camp around Washington, DC!! Neither
unit was particularly pleased about the situation. The men of
the 28th Massachusetts were particularly dismayed, since had been
told at the time they were recruited that they would be joining
Meagher as the "Fourth Regiment" of the Irish Brigade.
Apparently, there was even talk in the camps around Boston that
this brigade would form the basis for a future army that would
fight for the independence of Ireland after the war was over.
The 28th during the year 1862
As the 28th Massachusetts was preparing to leave Camp Cameron on January 11, 1862, a stirring ceremony was held to commemorate the presentation of its regimental colors. Mayor Joseph Wightman and Boston City Council members joined Governor Andrew and other prominent state officials in presenting the national and state flags to Col. Monteith and his assembled men. Particularly notable was an emerald-green banner bearing Gaelic slogans and Irish symbolism that was to be carried in place of the standard white and blue state flag carried by other Massachusetts volunteer regiments. The regiment spent the next month at Fort Columbus, located in New York Harbor for further drill and training. The regiment then embarked for Hilton Head, South Carolina on February 14, arriving on February 23rd, and joining Gen. T.W. Sherman's Expeditionary Corps. It moved on April 7 to a position on Daufuskie Island opposite Fort Pulaski, serving by detachments in support of the siege operations for the next two months. Companies A and K were sent to Jones and Bird Islands from April 18 to May 6the before being sent back to the Daufuskie Island. Companies A, C, D, F, and K were then moved to Tybee Island, Georgia on May 12, and remained detached from the regiment until May 28.
During this time, the men were mostly engaged in planting batteries, working chiefly at night to avoid enemy fire. It was hard work, as they were often up to their middle in water and ordered not to make any loud noise. The islands were largely composed of marshy ground, so soft that a man could not stand upon it without danger of sinking out of sight and being either drowned or suffocated. Mosquitoes and rank mud were everywhere, accidents were common. Soon, dozens of soldiers were leaving the regiment for the hospital, stricken with malaria and other illnesses. By the end of July, at least 22 died of disease, and many others were so weakened they would be discharged in the months ahead. Still, their efforts were successful and a formidable series of batteries were erected by the men, laying platforms of plank and long timbers and then hauling the heavy guns by hand from nearby flat boats.
On May 30, the 28th Massachusetts was sent to James Island as part of the Col. William Fenton's 1st Brigade of Maj. Gen. Isaac Stevens' Division. Numbering some 520 men, all ranks, the regiment came under hostile fire for the first time on June 1 and 2 in skirmishes on James Island, losing 5 men wounded. More severe combat lay ahead as the regiment took part in the assault on Fort Johnson (better known as the Battle of Secessionville) on June 16. Bogged down in an impassable swamp during the charge, the regiment suffered 67 casualties which included the death of Sgt. John J. McDonald who was killed carrying the colors. Afterwards, they were commended for their poise and bravery under the severe fire they faced from enemy forces firing behind entrenched positions.
At the end of this inconclusive engagement, the regiment returned back to Hilton Head. At this time, Col. Monteith, who had been separated from his command since May 20 when he was placed under arrest by Gen. David Hunter, resigned and was subsequently discharged from the army on August 12 at Newport News, Virginia. For the moment, he was superseded by Major George W. Cartwright, a capable subordinate who had resigned from the 12th New York State Militia to take the post of Adjutant back in 1861. Henceforth, Cartwright would provide steady and able leadership for the regiment for the next two years.
Throughout the first several months in the field, the 28th Massachusetts had suffered from internal dissension and inadequate leadership. Part of the difficulty lay in an ongoing conflict between a number of New York Irishmen like Montieth and those from Boston. From the beginning, Gov. Andrew had faced a continual onslaught of patronage requests from the powerful Irish political community and used his authority to provide appointments to Bay State regiments to assuage factional battles among rival Irish-American politicians and newspapermen. In addition, although the regiment was touted as an ethnic Irish unit, it never was of 100% Irish-American composition. Because of this, many additional problems stemmed from stress and strain that existed between Irish and American soldiers in its ranks.
When Monteith faced a possible court martial for his excessive drinking and numerous violations of army regulations, Gen. Isaac Stevens tried to persuade Gov. Andrew to appoint his son to lead the 28th, arguing that an American was needed to command an Irish regiment properly. When Monteith was eventually dismissed, however, Andrew named Lt. Col. Maclelland Moore as his replacement. Soon after, Moore himself resigned, unable to cope with the feuding officers. Despite all of this, the 28th Massachusetts performed well in its first baptism of fire at Secessionville, and for all intents and purposes, its fighting qualities seemed unaffected by these internal squabbles.
On July 16, the regiment left South Carolina and proceeded via water transports back to Virginia, landing at Newport News on the 18th. On the 20th, they were re-designated as part of the newly formed IX Corps under the overall command of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. On August 3, they were transported to Aquia Creek, where they proceeded to Fredericksburg to set up camp on the 6th. With Maj. Gen. John Pope's Army of Virgina facing the threat of Lee's combined army to the east, the IX Corps was ordered to march through northern Virginia, finally joining Pope's army in its fallback position along the Rappahannock River near Bealton. In the days that followed, they were marched and counter-marched until August 28th, when they arrived at Centerville. They remained in a position supporting a battery through the next day. On August 30, they were put into the line of battle along the federal right flank and took part in the Battle of Second Bull Run. In the confusing action that followed, the regiment was heavily engaged in the attack on the Confederate positions, and later provided battery support that exposed them to heavy musket and artillery fire. By day's end, the 28th Massachusetts took part in the retreat back to Washington, having suffered a very high number of 135 killed and wounded, including Lt. William Flynn.
Two days later, with the right flank and rear of the Union army facing the imminent threat of a flanking maneuver by Confederate Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson's forces at Chantilly, the 28th Massachusetts was again ordered into the fight. Despite the enormous odds, they joined the 79th New York in a desperate charge, making their way across a cornfield. About two-thirds of the way across this field, they encountered a shattering volley of fire from Hay's and Field's Confederate brigades concealed in woods at the opposite end. The line staggered, wavered, and then let go a cheer as Gen. Stevens rode to the front and urged his men forward just as a blinding thunderstorm began to pour down. Within minutes, the rain had turned the bare earth of the cornfield into a quagmire and many men could no longer fire their wet rifles.
Despite the heavy storm and hail of bullets, the renewed Union attack carried forward into the woods with confused hand-to-hand fighting taking place in the dark woods. Just as the Confederate front line gave way, Gen. Stevens fell from his mount, killed instantly by a bullet through the head. Disheartened by their brave general's death, low on ammunition, and facing heavy Confederate reinforcements, the regiment withdrew from the isolated foothold they had won. That night, another 99 men failed to answer the roll call, including the mortally wounded Lt. Alexander Barrett. In the days that followed, the IX Corps joined in the retreat back toward Washington. At this time, Pope's army was absorbed into the Army of the Potomac, now again under the overall command of Maj. Gen. George McClellan.
There was little time for rest, since Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee moved his victorious armies northward for an invasion of Maryland. In the campaign that followed, the 28th Massachusetts left camp at Meridian Hill on September 7, marching with McClellan's army until arriving at Turner's Gap on the 14th, where they were held in reserve supporting the IX Corps assault at South Mountain. That night, the regiment was put out on the picket line and suffered 6 casualties in the midst of sporadic but heavy firing that went on between the lines. They were under fire again at the bloody battle of Antietem that followed on September 17.
Forming a part of Col. B.C. Christ's brigade of Willcox's Division, the regiment crossed Burnside's bridge and advanced along the north side of the Lower Bridge road leading into Sharpsburg. All along the steep and broken fields, they faced a hot fire from Confederate artillery along with skirmishers concealed about the Sherrick farm and in the high ground beyond it. Joining in the assault, the regiment finally stormed the strongpoints at bayonet point, pushing Jones' Confederate division back into the outskirts of town. With the collapse of the left flank of the Ninth Corps line soon afterwards, Willcox was ordered to withdraw his victorious troops to avoid being outflanked. Receiving the order with curses and furious at having to relinquish ground so hard-won, the 28th Massachusetts was compelled to retire with the rest of the division back to defensive positions along Antietam creek, counting 54 casualties that included the death of Lt. Nicholas Barrett. Even so, the efforts of the 28th contributed mightily in compelling Lee to abandon his invasion of the North and retreat back to Virginia.
Later that Fall, while the regiment was recuperating at Nolan's Ferry, they were joined by a new Colonel on October 18th. Richard Byrnes had risen through the ranks of the pre-war Regular Army affiliated with the 5th U.S. Cavalry. He was renowned for his stern discipline, rigid attentiveness to army regulations, and since the outbreak of the war, had earned a reputation for aggressive, courageous leadership under fire as a lieutenant in the cavalry. Although an Irish immigrant himself, Byrnes wanted to keep his regiment up to fighting strength as well as retain his commission as colonel. In the months ahead, he therefore insisted that recruiting encompass any and all potential volunteers, not just Irishmen. This may have also been an acknowledgment of the declining enthusiasm of the Irish for the war by this time.
Henceforth, a significant and growing proportion of the rank and file were non-Irish, many even came from outside of Massachusetts. Even so, the unit did retain its essentially Irish character and continued to attract ethnic Irish recruits until the end of the war. As for Byrnes, most of the volunteer officers in the regiment initially opposed the appointment of an outsider to lead the regiment, and protested loudly to the governor, threatening to resign. In the intervening weeks between Byrnes' muster and taking command, seven of the officers signed a petition sent to the governor expressing their outrage since it implied that none of them were sufficiently competent to hold the post. Andrew stood firm behind his man, however, believing that Byrnes' stern character and past experience was needed to both end the squabbling among the officers and restore discipline among the men. In time, he proved to be a wise choice. He was an excellent combat officer, noted for his coolness and bravery under fire even if he was never endeared to the soldiers in the ranks.
Under these circumstances, it is clear that Byrnes believed he had a mandate to fix a broken outfit. When he arrived, he found that the few officers who were not attached to other units, on furlough, or absent without leave were defiant of his authority. Routine regimental paperwork was ignored, daily guard mounts and drill were neglected, and discipline problems appeared to be rampant. Byrnes acted decisively and without tolerance toward anyone who did not appear to do their duty. He immediately issued orders returning men assigned to other duties in the army back to the regiment. The Sergeant Major was relieved of duty and Byrnes appointed a new one in his place. The Quartermaster Sergeant and a number of other non-commissioned officers were reduced to the ranks for glaring inefficiency; drums were ordered since the regiment had none; non-commissioned officers were ordered to wear their chevrons, and new standards of conduct in strict accord with regulations were imposed. Each company drilled for an hour in the morning, all companies were drilled together for an hour in the afternoons, and dress parade with full inspection was instituted.
Another significant change occurred at this time as well. Almost a year after the it was formed, the regiment was finally transferred to Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher's famed Irish Brigade on November 23, 1862. From that point on, they were designated as the "Fourth Irish Regiment" of the Second Brigade, First Division, II Corps. In doing so, the 28th Massachusetts joined three under strength Irish-American units that had already won an enviable record in the army. These consisted of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York, along with the 116th Pennsylvania which had joined the brigade just a month earlier. Meanwhile, the 29th Massachusetts was in turn reassigned to the IX Corps, much to their satisfaction.
The men of the 28th found their shelter tents to provide meager comfort from the harsh winter weather that set in at this time, and soon set to work building ten large log houses fifty by fourteen feet in size, one for each company. Before they could get too comfortable, the regiment was called upon to join their new brigade in the Fredericksburg campaign. The army's new commander, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, was determined to renew efforts to push the rebel armies back toward Richmond. Initially hoping to surprise the Confederate forces at the town of Fredericksburg, the attacking column suffered from numerous delays and then bogged down at the Rapahannock River crossing, giving Gen. Robert E. Lee an opportunity to concentrate his inferior numbers on Marye's Heights above the town and entrench. Still determined to press the assault, Burnside elected to throw his entire force against the Confederate army anyway. The Irish Brigade crossed the river on December 12, and spent a cold night in the town of Fredericksburg. On the morning of December 13, Gen. Meagher ordered his Irish Brigade to place sprigs of green boxwood in their caps to distinguish them from all other units. This was important to him because the three New York units had recently sent their own tattered green regimental banners back to New York City for replacement, and the 116th Pennsylvania did not carry a distinctive green banner.
Meagher 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. In the tense hours that followed, they watched the first line go up the hill ahead of them, suffering heavy casualties. Then, they too advanced toward the Confederate position under a murderous fire of grape shot, canister, and bullets, suffering horrendous casualties all along the way. The advance of the brigade was actually impeded by the large number of bodies piled upon one another, the slaughter was so great. Even so, the brigade did manage to take a portion of the Confederate outer picket posts along a fence line located some fifty yards from their main position along the sunken road. However, any attempts to move beyond this position were beaten back by the close range rifle fire. A Confederate officer noted afterward that the brave men of the Irish Brigade "pushed on beyond all former charges, and fought and left their dead between five and twenty paces of the sunken road." Still determined to give a good fight, the survivors then took cover in a slight depression behind the two-foot high fence and blazed away at the enemy. Orders arrived to fall back, but many either elected to stay on the firing line until they were out of ammunition or perhaps realized that the way back down the hill was even more perilous than staying here they were. At this time, some of the men of the 28th Massachusetts sidled over to an abandoned brick house and delivered a hot fire in the rebel line.
Bravely holding their flag at the forefront of the attack all the way up the hill, the 28th Massachusetts lost 158 men (38%) in the assault of the 416 who followed their colors up the bloody slope-- the highest number it would suffer in a single engagement during the entire war. Among those who died in the assault were Lieutenants Edwin Weller, William Holland and John Sullivan. The toll was equally heavy among all of the five regiments of the Irish Brigade, which suffered a sum total of 535 casualties, two-thirds its strength, in the fruitless assault.
At dusk, the survivors of the regiment still at the fence joined the rest of their comrades in the Irish Brigade in falling back down to the safety of the town of Fredericksburg. Colonel Byrnes stood by the colors, seeking to piece together the shattered fragments of his regiment, which he feared had been totally annihilated. When Gen. Edwin Sumner, commander of the II Corps rode up and rebuked a man of the 28th Massachusetts for not being in company formation with his comrades, he replied, "This is all my company, sir." The regiment remained that night and the next day on the base of the hill, suffering from the severe cold and unable to reach many of their comrades strewn all over the hill due to hostile fire by rebel pickets.
The regiment remained in Fredericksburg for the next two days, expecting a counterattack from the Confederates that never came. Finally, on the night of December 15th, they crossed back over the river and returned to their old camps at Falmouth by morning. During this time, Byrnes continued his efforts to instill the regiment with discipline and restore its sagging morale. More sergeants and corporals were reduced to the ranks for incompetence and neglect of duty and promotions quickly made to fill the many vacant positions left by the recent battles. Officers who had absented themselves on sick leave for extended periods of time were ordered to resign or return to duty, and several left the regiment at this time. While Byrnes was unsuccessful in gaining any more recruits, he did manage to procure much-needed supplies, especially clothing and shoes for men who had fought and marched almost continuously over the previous 8 months.
The 28th during the year 1863
In the first months of January, 1863, Gen. Burnside was pressured to resume the offensive against his foes across the Rappahannock River. On January 23rd, the Army of the Potomac was roused out of their camps at Falmouth and put in motion in what turned out to be known as the infamous "Mud March." As the army moved out, storm clouds burst forth a relentless onrush of rain that quickly reduced the poor country roads into quagmires. The 28th Massachusetts and much of the II Corps were fortunately spared the worst of the march owing to their fortuitous position at the end of the line. They then spent the remainder of the winter in camp, refitting for a new spring campaign. Despite the grievous losses suffered by the Irish Brigade over the preceding months, they fully lived up to their traditions with an boisterous, rollicking celebration of St. Patrick's day that attracted the attention of the entire army and news media.
It was during this time that the men of the 28th Massachusetts were ordered to wear a new corps badge consisting of a red trefoil, along with the rest of the First Division. Also at this time, they were was rejoined by its newly promoted Lt. Colonel, George Cartwright, who had recovered from his wounds suffered at 2nd Bull Run. On April 6th, four 2nd lieutenants arrived in camp to accept commissions in the regiment for positions left open as a result of past battle casualties. This immediately raised an uproar, since all had come from other Massachusetts volunteer regiments, rather than from the 28th. Col. Byrnes had previously found only three non-commissioned officers in the unit who he felt were worthy of commissions, and therefore had relied on assistance from the adjutant general of Massachusetts to locate other deserving candidates. Once again, he was swamped by the protests of many soldiers from the lower ranks as well as a formal petition from a number of the officers that was presented to Byrnes in front of the entire regiment. This was too much for Byrnes, and his response was swift and predictable. He immediately had three captains, Charles Sanborn of Company K, John H. McDonnel of Company H, and Jeremiah Coveney of Company F who he suspected of being ringleaders brought up on charges of "mutinous and seditious conduct" and sought a court martial.
On April 27th, the regiment was ordered to depart from their camp at Falmouth to participate in the coming Spring campaign, and so Byrnes was compelled to have his two subordinates released to take charge of their companies. According to Sgt. Peter Welsh of Company K, "when they came to take command we gave them three rousing cheers and that made him (Byrnes) so mad that he ordered them both under arrest again." In the end, both captains were sentenced to be publicly reprimanded for lesser charges, but the damage had been done. By the beginning of May, three captains, five 1st lieutenants, and two 2nd lieutenants had resigned from the regiment, many apparently out of displeasure with Byrnes. It is evident that Byrnes himself was appalled at the leniency shown the three insubordinate volunteer officers. These internal problems aside, the regiment was in fact shaping up into the model of discipline that Byrnes had sought. In a report of Major Gen. Winfield Hancock, the commander of the II Corps, Byrnes was complimented for having "a fine, disciplined regiment."
By the end of April, the 28th Massachusetts joined the rest of the army in the campaign that ended in the debacle at Chancellorsville under the newly appointed Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. The Irish Brigade marched in support of the advance across the Rapidan river, but as it turned out, played largely a defensive role in the battle. During the movement of the army on April 27-29, they guarded the roads leading to the crossings across the Rappahannock River, and remained near their posts until ordered to join the main army on the 30th. Remaining in the rear near Scott's Mill, they were called up to help stem the tide of retreating soldiers from the XI Corps on May 2nd.
Early the next morning, the Confederates resumed their attacks on the fortified Union lines, which were in the process of withdrawing. Amidst the confusion, the Irish Brigade was called up to assist in this effort, being posted at the edge of woods near the Chancellorsville house clearing. Just as the Union lines were being re-established in the rear, a strong line of Confederates soldiers advanced on the exposed 5th Maine Battery located near the position of the 28th Massachusetts. With most of its crews casualties and battery horses down, the guns faced imminent capture. A detail of men from the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania were called upon to rush the aid of the artillery and assist in withdrawing the guns. Unfortunately, the guns were stuck in the mud, and it was only with great effort and the loss of a number of men to enemy rifle shots that they were successfully pulled out of action.
For the remainder of the day, the 28th Massachusetts held a position along the breastworks in the center of the Union line, fending off Confederate sniper fire and awaiting the next attack that never came. While thus engaged, the regiment suffered a total of 26 casualties. They left this position on the night of May 5, and re-crossed the river the next morning. They returned to their camp at Falmouth to await further orders. The only significant break in the monotony of camp life was a morale-lifting visit from President Abraham Lincoln on May 7th. The men of the Irish Brigade passed in review with the rest of the troops of the army, catching glimpses of their president in the process.
Just two weeks later on May 14th, Brig. Gen. Meagher informed the soldiers of the Irish Brigade that he was resigning from his post in command of the brigade. Since February, he had sought out permission to return his three New York regiments back home so that they could recruit back up to strength and enjoy a much-deserved furlough. Rebuffed repeatedly in these efforts, he finally chose to resign rather than continue in command of a brigade that was only a skeleton of its former self. He was subsequently replaced by Col. James Kelly of the 88th New York, the senior regimental officer of the brigade. A veteran of the brigade's battles since Seven Pines, General Meagher called Kelly "a true, conscientious, unwearied, uncomplaining, indomitable, absolutely fearless soldier."
After the battle of Chancellorsville, the regiment remained in camp and was exercised in drill while Byrnes took pains to make sure that every man in the unit was well outfitted with good shoes and necessary clothing. Regular target practice was also instituted, motivated at least in part because the 28th Massachusetts was the only unit in the brigade with rifled muskets. Finally, on June 13th, it was ordered to march to the banks of the Rapahannock. Anticipating some hard marches ahead, Byrnes ordered an officer to be positioned at the head and tail of each company at all times to prevent straggling.
The next day it marched to Stafford Courthouse in what was the first leg of a long and arduous series of forced marches that were a part of Hooker's attempt to ward off Lee's second invasion of the North. Amidst suffocating dust from the dry roads and summer heat, they marched northward over the next two weeks through Fairfax Station, Centerville, Thoroughfare Gap, crossed the Potomac at Edward's Ferry, and then headed through Frederick. On June 29th, they marched to Uniontown, Maryland, a distance of some 32 miles that left much of the regiment lying prostrate from the heat on the side of the road. According to Sgt. Peter Welsh, just 40 men out of 225 were present with the colors at the end of this exhausting march. After a day's rest, they rushed with the rest of the II Corps into Pennsylvania to assist the beleaguered Union army that had become engaged just north of Gettysburg. They arrived too late however to participate in the savage fighting that took place on July 1st.
The next morning, they were positioned in the center of the Union line along the crest of Cemetary Ridge, waiting in reserve for much of the day. Then, Maj. Gen. Hancock ordered Caldwell's 1st Division to form up for a move to restore the faltering left end of the line. Before advancing, Father William Corby, the brigade chaplain, stood on a rock and pronounced general absolution to the kneeling Irishmen around him. Just moments later, the regiment along with the Irish Brigade charged into the blood-soaked Wheatfield, and then into a forested area beyond it known as the Stony Knoll. The rebels were taken by surprise in this rapid advance, and a large number of prisoners were captured while the rest fled into the woods and beyond to the Rose farm.
This was an important attack, as it helped to repel the Confederate assault which was poised to break through the entire Union position. Before they could celebrate their hard-won victory, the Irish Brigade was flanked on the right (North) by Confederate reinforcements who had broken through in the Peach Orchard. Facing imminent capture, Col. Byrnes picked up the regimental colors and coolly led the regiment back through the Wheatfield, all the while ordering volleys to be fired at the pursuing Confederates. The charge and subsequent withdrawal through the blood-stained Wheatfield had cost the regiment dearly. Altogether, a total of 107 men were lost, which was almost half of the 224 men it had brought into the battle. Unfortunately, many of these were wounded men who were left on the field to be captured in the hasty retreat.
The remnants of the Irish Brigade were ordered back to their original position on Cemetary Ridge where they spent the remainder of the night, busying themselves with building rough breastworks made from fence rails and rocks. Still in this position on following day, the 28th Massachusetts traded occasional shots with Confederate pickets while awaiting the next moves of Gen. Lee. Suddenly, the ominous stillness was broken when the Confederate artillery opened up on the federal positions along Cemetary Ridge. Although the air around them was filled with projectiles, the men of the Irish Brigade saw most of them fly over their heads and land on the higher points of the ridge behind them. Only a few were slightly wounded, and none seriously by this barrage. When the artillery ceased firing, the Confederate advance began, with its object the center of the II Corps position located over a mile to the right of the Irish Brigade. Even so, the men of the 28th did manage to fire a number of long range volleys at the passing rebel troops, and helped bring in a number of prisoners who surrendered near their lines. After this attack was repulsed, they remained in position on Cemetary Ridge for the next two days, seeking the locate and bury their dead left on the field after the Confederate withdrawal on July 6th.
Following Gettysburg, the war returned to Virginia as Meade sought to exploit his victory and renew the offensive toward Richmond. The 28th Massachusetts left Gettysburg on July 7th, marching through Taneytown and Frederick, Maryland over the next two days. They crossed South Mountain at Crampton's Gap on the 10th, and reached Falling Waters opposite Harper's Ferry on the 15th. They then crossed the Potomac on the 18th of July, moving south by regular marches through Snicker's Gap, Bloomfield, Ashby's Gap, and into Manassas Gap by the 24th.
The exhausting marches proceeded on to Warrenton Junction on the 30th, not ending until the regiment went into camp at Morrisville on the 31st. It would remain there for the entire month of August, resting and refitting. On September 10th, the much depleted ranks of the regiment were partially restored to over 300 men in the ranks with the addition of 175 draftees from Massachusetts. While some of these men would prove to be good soldiers, many were reluctant fighters if not altogether opposed to the war. Consequently, desertions, which had always plagued the regiment, multiplied. This was especially the case as the regiment joined in the long, difficult marches and frequent skirmishes that were a constant part of the movement back to Virginia.
On the last day of August, the 28th Massachusetts marched to U.S. Ford, supporting efforts by the cavalry. Returning to camp at Morrisville on the 4th, they were again ordered out on the 12th, marching via Culpepper to Rapidan Station by the 17th. They remained on picket duty until October 6th, when they moved back toward Culpepper and Bristoe Station. On October 12th, the regiment was shelled at Auburn Hill, and forced to retreat back toward Bristoe Station, skirmishing along the way and losing 6 casualties. The regiment acquitted itself well in this action, as Brig. Gen. John Caldwell mentioned, "the men showed but little confusion, and kept their ranks while moving around the hill, the conscripts moving nearly as steady as old soldiers."
Acting as the rear guard for the army, they continued on through Catlett's Station and finally arrived at Bristoe Station. Here, the 28th Massachusetts joined the main II Corps line along a railroad embankment, enduring heavy artillery fire. Once the artillery fire diminished, Lee sent several divisions forward to attack the Union line, but these attacks were easily repulsed with great loss to the rebels. In this engagement, the regiment suffered no casualties. They remained in and around the vicinity of Manassas and Warrenton until September 23rd, when they moved back toward the Rappahannock, crossing the river at Kelly's Ford on November 7th.
The regiment remained in camp at Shackleford's Farm for the next 3 weeks, many believing that they would stay there for winter's quarters. However, on November 26th, they were ordered out of camp and crossed the Rapidan at Germania Ford, taking part in what would become known as the Mine Run campaign. Moving forward with the II Corps on the 29th, the regiment was deployed as skirmishers with its left on the Plank Road near Robinson's Tavern. Ordered to charge, they drove the enemy skirmishers from their rifle pits, capturing prisoners and scattering all opposition before them. Byrnes' men eventually reached the crest of a hill well ahead of the rest of the II Corps, in the process losing 9 men. They were halted until the rest of the Corps advanced forward and prepared for an attack early the next morning.
The next day brought renewed worries, since the Confederates had used the lull in the fighting to strengthen their works and position reinforcements at all weak points. For this reason, Meade's planned attack was called off, and 28th Massachusetts joined in the movement back across the Rapidan River to Brandy Station. On December 5th, the 28th Massachusetts arrived at Stevensburg, Virginia, where it established winter quarters. It would subsequently remain in camp until ordered to join in the new invasion of Virginia under the overall direction of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant six months later. Its monotony was only interrupted by a reconnaissance to the Rapidan River on February 6th, 1864.
By the end of year, it had become apparent to the high command of the federal armies that the enlistments of many veteran regiments would expire by the middle of 1864, with dire consequences for the war effort. Congress therefore took actions to encourage its volunteer soldiers to re-enlist as "veteran volunteers. " It was announced that those regiments that were able to re-enlist 2/3 of their men would be authorized to continue on in the service. Units that failed to re-enlist with sufficient numbers would be disbanded at the expiration of their term of service. As an inducement to encourage re-enlistments, a 30-day furlough was offered to all those who stayed with their regiment along with a substantial cash sum of $402. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts offered an additional $325 to the money offered by the federal government to all of veterans who re-enlisted by January 1, 1864.
Whether for reasons of high morale, patriotism or simply the prospect of earning a huge financial bonus, some 157 of the old veterans who had enlisted back in 1861 and 1862 re-enlisted. Perhaps an additional incentive during this time was the welcome news that Col. Thomas A. Smyth, formerly of the 1st Delaware Infantry was selected to command the Irish Brigade. Smyth was a fellow Irish immigrant who had attained a laudable reputation as a brigade commander in the II Corps for his "bravery almost amounting to rashness." Even though he was a strict disciplinarian, he was ever attentive to the needs of the men, and never stayed in the rear long when the brigade became engaged with the enemy.
The 28th during the year 1864
While the regiment was in winter camp, Col. Byrnes returned to Massachusetts on mFebruary 14th accompanied by four officers for the purposes of seeking to recruit the regiment back to strength. They traveled to New Bedford, Lowell, and Milford, but found the greatest success in Boston. With the assistance of Irish community leaders, some 326 men were enlisted, of whom 288 were accepted between February and May. This was enough to bring the regiment back to a respectable number of 504 men all ranks by the end of April. Undoubtedly, these recruiting efforts were bolstered by the attraction of high enlistment bounties-- huge sums of $600 or more, far exceeding a year's salary for an average worker. These late-war recruits brought an entirely new character to the regiment. The majority were non-Irish, and many were not from Massachusetts or even U.S. citizens. Almost 90 were from Canada alone!
While a number of these recruits deserted at the first opportunity, many were good men, and they would contribute much to uphold the honorable traditions already established by their predecessors who had served before them. Despite the influx of these recruits, who now far outnumbered the old veterans, the distinctive Irish martial spirit of the regiment remained, as is exemplified in a speech Col. Byrnes made that May upon the occasion of receiving a new green regimental flag from citizens of Boston at the Parker House Hotel:
"I can promise you no more, than to assure you that (this flag) will be a fresh incentive to the brave men who are periling their lives in defense of that flag which typifies Union and liberty, and beneath which the shamrock has ever bloomed. In a few days, this flag will throw its emerald folds to the breeze, and the smoke of battle will encircle it; its freshness and beauty may be tarnished, but while there is an Irish arm to strike in its defense, its honor shall never, never be sullied or impaired. I can only point to the past history of my regiment to vouch for the future. Neither Massachusetts nor the historic fame of our race need blush for such a regiment."
During this time, Byrnes also took it upon himself to use his influence in the governor's office to secure appointments for four vacant lieutenancies in the regiment. Once again, all positions were filled by individuals who were not from the 28th Massachusetts, in spite of the availability of many deserving non-commissioned officers in the regiment who had served faithfully in the ranks for over two years of hard service. As might be expected, this stirred up much bitterness among many of the old veterans, especially since two of the new officers, Henry M. Binney and Patrick Black were initially signed up as enlisted men, which entitled them to the enlistment bounty that was not legally permitted for commissioned officers. Sgt. Peter Welsh of Company K wrote in a letter home, "it is generally believed here that he (Byrnes) has been selling commissions in Boston, some of them are men who were dismissed from the service in other regiments." In fact, after investigations had been conducted by the governor's office, it was determined that neither had ever been paid any bounty money, but the hard feelings remained.
Due to Byrnes' absence from the regiment, his subordinate, Lt. Col. Cartwright, once again was assigned to lead the regiment as he had during the spring and summer of 1862. The regiment departed from its winter camp at Stevensburg on May 3rd. On May 5, 1864, the 28th was heavily engaged in the Battle of the Wilderness, taking part in the II Corps attack through dense woods and undergrowth that was launched along the Brock Road. After being pushed back through the woods, they held on tenaciously to their entrenchments on the Brock Road until they ran out of ammunition and were withdrawn. Among those mortally wounded were Captains James McIntyre and Charles V. Smith, while Lt. Col. Cartwright received a severe wound that would eventually result in his resignation at the end of the year.
Now under the experienced leadership of Major Andrew Lawler, they spent the morning of May 6 improving their breastworks with dry logs, brush, and fence rails. That afternoon, Lee launched a counterattack, and a swarm of Confederates emerged from the dense thicket fifty yards in front of the Irish Brigade without any warning. The rebels were able to advance up to the federal works, but got no farther as the Irish Brigade poured volley after volley at them. For a moment, the breastworks caught fire between the lines, causing some confusion, but ultimately Lee's attack was repulsed with high casualties. The men of the 28th Massachusetts spent the next day on the Brock Road line, trading shots with Confederate pickets in the woods. They were then ordered to leave their lines on May 7, moving by night marches to Todd's Tavern on the 8th. The ferocity of the fighting in the Wilderness is illustrated by the loss of some 119 men. On May 9, the regiment crossed the Po River. The next day, they were subjected to severe artillery fire, throwing up breastworks at a cost of 12 casualties.
Although these initial movements had brought high casualties and largely failed to dislodge Lee's army from their defensive positions protecting Richmond to the South, Grant was determined to continue on. He was not going to pull back and rest as had so many previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Instead, Grant kept the pressure on Lee's Army of Northern Virginia continuously, with the knowledge that the North could replace its heavy losses while the South could not. This strategy meant relentless action for many veteran units in the hard-fighting II Corps, but they were cheered by the prospects of ultimate victory.
The armies met head-on again at Spottsylvania Courthouse, where Grant hoped to outflank the Confederate lines. On May 11th, Grant decided to assault the Confederate works at a salient known as the "Mule Shoe." The Irish Brigade marched through dense woods and pouring rain for most of the night as attempts were made to have two divisions of the II Corps in line of battle at daybreak. As the first streaks of dawn appeared the next day, the 28th Massachusetts joined in the gallant charge on the Confederate works. Ordered to fix bayonets and advance with their rifles uncapped, the 28th Massachusetts ran across an open field and tore into the rebel entrenchments.
After a brief hand-to-hand struggle, they shared in the honor of capturing some four thousand enemy soldiers and many pieces of artillery. Capt. James Fleming reported that a man of the 28th single-handedly captured a Confederate general in his tent. Unable to advance beyond the reserve line of works, they then steadfastly held on to the captured entrenchments for the rest of the day, repelling all of Lee's repeated efforts to retake them. In the midst of the battle, a drenching rain began to fall and the opposing lines moved up until they were on opposite sides of the trenches. Men fired into each other's faces across the barrier, shot through crevices in the log wall, and furiously sought to bayonet one another over the top of the works. The dead and dying were piled up on either side of the barrier as artillery shells rained down from above. Finally, about midnight, the Confederates left the bloody ground in the hands of the victorious Union troops. In this struggle, the 28th Massachusetts lost 62 more men.
On May 14, a part of the regiment was on the picket line losing two more men. For the next two days, they were in the trenches under fire almost constantly since the opposing lines were so close to each other. Then, on the night of May 17, they formed in column behind their works and prepared for another attack at dawn. In the assault that followed on May 18, the 28th Massachusetts charged over the same ground they had earlier charged near the saliant amidst heavy shelling from well-placed Confederate batteries. With the gallant Major Lawler leading boldly at the head of the column, they succeeded in taking the first line of Confederate works. However, the attack was repulsed at other points along the line, and the men of the Irish Brigade were forced to dig in and face Confederate counterattacks from their front and left flank. In spite of enfilading fire of grape and cannister from rebel artillery, they managed to hold on until ordered back to their original lines.
Among the 42 who fell in this second assault at Spottsylvania was Major Lawler, who died before the day was over. It was truly a grievous loss to the regiment, as he was enormously popular among the men. In one account, he is described as being "beloved by all, possessed of an ardent, hopeful temperament which no hardship, however severe, could dampen... he was the life of a bivouac, while his rollicking humor and endless jokes often shortened the weary march." Also among those mortally wounded in the regiment were two other experienced officers, Captains William F. Cochrane and James Magner.
The regiment then moved along with the rest of the army to the left as part of Grant's relentless effort at pressing the flanks of Lee's army. On May 20th, they were rejoined by Col. Byrnes, who immediately assumed command of the Irish Brigade in place of Smyth. Byrnes was undoubtedly dismayed to learn that his own regiment had been reduced to 315 men. After two days of much-needed rest near Anderson's Mill, they moved at night on May 20 and 21 to Milford Station, making it to the North Anna River by the 23rd, and crossing the river on the 24th. They acted as guards for the wagon train during this time, and then were held in reserve during the II Corps attacks along the North Anna. May 25th and 26th were spent destroying railroad track and a bridge along the Richmond-Fredericksburg line.
After re-crossing the North Anna on the 27th, they reached Tolapotomy Creek on the 28th, altogether losing 13 casualties on the picket line and many dozens more who simply succumbed to the effects of heat exhaustion. Indeed, the weather had become very dry and water was scarce. The men suffered severely from the clouds of dust kicked up by their marching, and food was in short supply. These conditions were made worse in an all-night forced march that was begun on the 27th and lasted through the next day, not stopping until noon on the 28th. After a much-needed day's rest, they were called to make a reconnaisance along the Totopotomoy River on the 29th. The next two days were spent in positions of support behind the main Union lines, with the men undoubtedly being grateful that they were not compelled to bear the worst of Grant's assaults on the entrenched Confederate positions. The regiment was called to the skirmish line on May 31st, pushing up close to the enemy breastworks and suffering a few casualties in the scattered firing that characterized such contests.
By the end of May, the command of the regiment had passed to Capt. James Fleming, who had begun his service as a sergeant in Company B and been advancing steadily through the ranks despite several wounds. "Small in stature, very quiet and unassuming in his deportment, distrustful of his own powers, it was only when under fire that he was seen to advantage. Cool and brave, he was quick to seize any advantage the enemy might leave open." The men of the 28th were pulled out of the line along the Totopotomoy on the night of June 1st and began marching toward Cold Harbor to the south. Unfortunately, this night movement was slowed down by confusion over which roads were to be taken, and the column did not meet up with the rest of the army until mid-morning of June 2nd. Lt. Martin Binney, acting adjutant related that the regiment "had a long, weary, rapid march; the dust lay very heavy. This was the most severe march of the campaign, marching ten and a half hours." Forming up on the left flank of Grant's army, the wearied men finally were permitted to rest for the remainder of the day.
When day broke on June 3, the men of the regiment were again moved forward and readied for another assault, being a part of the second line of Barlow's First Division. The first line advanced and was successful in capturing the enemy positions posted along a sunken road and sending many prisoners to the rear. The second line along with the Irish Brigade, were not sent forward in a timely manner, however, so that the initial breakthrough was not followed up quickly. By the time the men of the 28th and their comrades had reached the federal position, the southern defenders had managed to bring up infantry and artillery reinforcements and pour a terribly destructive enfilade fire into the regiment. Still determined to move ahead, Byrnes pushed his brigade forward over the earthworks, advancing over two ridges and reaching a hill well in advance of other union forces. Under the command of Lt. James B. West, they gallantly held on to this isolated and exposed position for over six hours.
At nightfall, they finally moved back to a safer position before digging a new line of trenches. In this engagement, the regiment suffered another 48 casualties, including their commander, Lt. West, killed in action. As the brigade was falling back from the hill, Col. Byrnes was mortally wounded in the back. He was carried back to Washington, and succumbed to his wounds on June 12th. Deeply moved by the loss of one of his most able officers, Maj. Gen. Hancock later noted in his report that Byrnes was among a group of the "most promising young officers who had never failed to distinguish themselves in battle."
Stymied at Cold Harbor, Grant's next move was to swing around Lee's entire army, cross the James River below Richmond, and capture the crucial rail junction at Petersburg. In the meantime, the regiment remained in their entrenchments at Cold Harbor for the next two weeks, losing 3 casualties and suffering intensely from the heat and absence of water. On June 14th, they were ordered along with the rest of the II Corps to quickly march south and cross the James River. At this time, casualties from Cold Harbor and the effects of the hard marches that followed had reduced the regiment to just 100 enlisted men and two lieutenants fit for duty under the command of Lieut. John B. Noyes.
Late in the afternoon of June 16, the regiment once again charged entrenched rebel positions in front of Petersburg. They helped to take the first line of works, but an attempt to press the assault up a steep hill was stopped short, followed by a severe Confederate counterattack that was in turn repulsed. In this action, the 28th Massachusetts suffered another 19 casualties. Tragically, among the killed was Col. Patrick Kelly, who had taken over command of the Irish Brigade for the second time after Byrnes' death two weeks earlier. Captain Richard Moroney of the 69th New York assumed leadership of the brigade, being the most senior officer still left in the ranks. Since the rebels had once more won the race ahead of Grant's advance, the two armies settled down for a long siege.
By this time, the original Irish Brigade had for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist as a brigade-sized unit due to its much depleted ranks. The 28th Massachusetts alone had lost over 400 men along with 8 of its officers killed and 12 wounded. On June 20th, it was transferred to the 1st Brigade and joined together with a number of other depleted II Corps regiments that included the 26th Michigan, 5th New Hampshire, 2nd N.Y. Heavy Artillery, 4th N.Y. Heavy Artillery, 61st N.Y., 81st Penn., 140th Penn., and 183rd Pennsylvania. This combined brigade was placed under the command of Col. James Lynch in Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles' First Division. For the next four months, no other Irish Brigade units remained in the field alongside of the 28th Massachusetts in this brigade. Despite these changes, the already well-established gallantry of the regiment was sustained through a number of engagements that followed. At the battle on the Jerusalem Plank Road fought on June 22, the 28th Massachusetts took the field deployed as skirmishers and helped turn back a vigorous enemy attack that resulted in 12 casualties. Their conduct was so meritorious that they attracted high compliments from both Gen. Barlow and Gen. Miles in their official reports.
From this time until the 9th of July, the 28th was kept in reserve, and then served in relatively quiet picket and fatigue duties until the 26th. It then made a long and weary night march, crossing both the James and Appomatox Rivers as part of a general movement against the Confederate left flank located near Richmond. At Deep Bottom, they were once again deployed as skirmishers, joining in the attack on the right side of the line on July 16. Once again under the brave leadership of Capt. James Fleming, the 28th succeeded in getting around the left flank of the enemy. Through a well-directed fire along the breastworks, they caused the rebels in their trenches to retire in great confusion. The men of the 28th Massachusetts then were among the first to enter the rebel works ahead of their brigade. In the process, they captured four 24-pounder Parrott guns, caissons, ammunition, and several prisoners that included the battery commander-- all at a loss of only 4 casualties. Col. James Lynch, in command of the brigade praised Captain Fleming in his official report, stating "to his gallantry was due, in great measure, the success of the assault, which resulted in the capture of four guns and a number of prisoners."
While this may have appeared to be a significant victory for the men in the ranks, the attack was launched only as a diversion to take attention away from the major federal effort against Petersburg lines. On the evening of July 28, the II Corps moved back along the New Market road and built breastworks, and subsequently returned back to the Petersburg lines on the 30th. That day, it remained in the trenches ready to support the IX Corps' failed assault at the Crater. On August 12, the regiment left its old Petersburg encampment, once again being ordered back to the James River. This time, however, they were ordered to board a small fleet of water transports that were gathered at the docks. As the transports began to move downriver, rumors flew wildly among the depleted ranks of the II Corps that they were being sent to Washington for a much-needed rest and recruitment effort. However, the movement of the water transports downriver turned out to be a ruse, and as night descended, the transports turned around and docked in the vicinity of Deep Bottom.
At the break of what turned out to be an oppressively hot morning, the II Corps was ordered to advance in support of a planned X Corps attack against Confederate positions. The 28th Massachusetts was sent in to make a demonstration against a rebel battery, suffering a loss of 15 casualties that included the death of Captain Patrick Nolan. On the 16th, they acted as skirmishers in support of Gen. Gregg's cavalry on the right of the Union line. After a stubborn resistance against superior numbers of the enemy near Charles City Cross Roads, the regiment was obliged to fall back upon its brigade, losing 18 casualties and 22 captured.
With these efforts at capturing Richmond stymied, Hancock's II Corps was ordered to return to the Petersburg lines on August 17, having accomplished little for all their efforts. Less than two weeks later, the 28th was ordered to proceed on a 35-mile forced march back around the Union lines with the rest of the II Corps to participate in Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock's effort to destroy the Confederate rail line leading from Petersburg to Weldon, Virginia. For the next four days, they assisted in these efforts to break up the tracks. On August 25th, the 28th fell into line to resist the fierce rebel counterattack at Reams' Station. After resisting three successive Confederate assaults, they were finally driven out of the breastworks. However, it is reported that they were among the last to leave the Union works and first to reoccupy them after the federals successful counterattack. In this engagement, 10 more men of the regiment were casualties and an additional 24 were captured or reported as missing in action.
After this engagement, the 28th Massachusetts fell back with its division to Williams' farm in the vicinity of the main federal lines, remaining here until the 27th. They were encamped at Fort Davis and vicinity from the end of August through December 1864, being called upon periodically to man the trenches and construct works in front of Petersburg. While not actively engaged in any major battles, the regiment did endure regular bombardments and suffered 3 casualties on the picket line. On December 19, the terms of service of those men who had not re-enlisted the previous December expired. Just one officer, Colonel Cartwright, and 20 enlisted men were left among this group and able to return home to Boston. Altogether, 1864 had been a very long year for the regiment. It lost some 408 men to death, wounds, disease, and disability, that included eight commanding officers. In fact, only one officer escaped unhurt during this fearful campaign.
The 28th during the year 1865
With numbers severely reduced, the officers and men who had re-enlisted or whose term of service had not expired were formally reorganized into a five-company battalion known henceforth as the "28th Battalion Massachusetts Volunteers." They were made ready for the coming campaign under the supervision of Capt. John Connor until Major Fleming returned to the regiment in early January. As the war wound down in the ensuing months, the men from Massachusetts were once again reunited with their proud old comrades in a newly reconstituted Irish Brigade.
After the brigade had been\ broken up in June, Col. Robert Nugent, the former commander of the 69th New York, had worked diligently with the New York political establishment to re-establish his famous brigade back to its original strength and composition. Recruiting efforts were resumed in the fall of 1864, and all three of the old New York regiments were brought back up to strength. As a reward for his efforts, Nugent was given command of the Irish Brigade by the Union command. The only difference was that the 7th New York Heavy Artillery took the place of the 116th Pennsylvania among the brigade. This was largely due to the efforts of Nugent, who faced losing his status as senior Colonel in the brigade if the 116th Pennsylvania were returned to it. They were later replaced with the 4th New York Heavy Artillery in February, 1865.
Numbering some 185 men fit for duty, the 28th Massachusetts participated faithfully alongside their Irish Brigade comrades in a number of actions around Petersburg in the spring of 1865. Most significant for the regiment was the battle at Hatcher's Run, fought on March 25. Immediately following the successful repulse of the Confederate attack on Fort Stedman, General Meade ordered the II Corps to assault the rebel entrenchments on the far left end of the line in anticipation of a breakthrough. The 28th Massachusetts participated in this advance as it led the way in capturing the outer picket lines long thought to be impregnable. The men then held tenaciously to their position, repulsing two determined Confederate charges launched from the main line. As the rebels moved around the right flank of the Irish Brigade, the 28th Massachusetts was exposed to a galling crossfire that left 71 as casualties, among them Lieutenant Thomas Parker, who was mortally wounded. They steadfastly held their position, expended most of their ammunition and only retired when their brigade was replaced by units from the Fifth Corps late in the day. Among the many wounded that day was Major Fleming, who had been in his usual place at the front of the regiment.
The last engagement under fire experienced by the regiment occurred at Sutherland Station on the South Side Rail Road on April 2nd. After nine long months of siege, Grant's army finally broke through the Confederate entrenchments, resulting in the capture of Petersburg. In this battle, the Irish Brigade was sent forward to attack Lee's rearguard that was protecting the now retreating army. The first effort was repulsed due to enfilading fire of artillery, but a second rush launched soon after was successful in taking the Confederate works. Over 150 prisoners were taken, along with two cannon and a battle flag. Once again, the casualties of the 28th included their commander, this time Capt. Patrick Black, who had assumed command in place of the wounded Fleming, and five others.
The 28th Massachusetts then participated in the long hard marches in the pursuit that followed. On April 4th, they had a chance meeting with Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan, a fellow Irish- American, who saluted them amidst cheers from the jubilant soldiers. They were present but not actively engaged at Sailor's Creek on April 6th, and Farmville on April 7th. After Lee's surrender at Appomattox on April 9th, the battalion encamped at Burkesville, Virginia until May 2nd.
The five companies of the 28th returned to Washington, D.C. on May 15 under temporary command of Capt. Patrick H. Bird. They subsequently participated in the Grand Review in Washington on May 23, every man proudly sporting a sprig of evergreen in his cap. Guard duty in Washington followed until June 25. Soon after, the remaining soldiers of the 28th Massachusetts were mustered out of federal service on June 30th. They then traveled back to Massachusetts together, and were paid and discharged at Readville on July 5th.
The 28th Massachusetts was almost constantly in action during its three and a half years of existence, participating in every major campaign in the eastern theater after the Peninsula. It was one of 24 Massachusetts volunteer regiments listed in Fox's 300 Fighting Regiments (having lost 130 or more killed in battle). According to Fox, among all Union regiments in the Civil War, the 28th Massachusetts stands 7th in the total number of killed and mortally wounded soldiers it lost-- 250 altogether (official Massachusetts records of the Adjutant General show the number to be 231). Another regiment of the Irish Brigade, the 69th New York, ranks sixth in this list. Out of a total of 1,703 men who served in the regiment during the war, some 1,133 were counted as killed, wounded, or missing.
The 28th in Action
The 28th Massachusetts was almost constantly in action during its three and a half years of existence, participating in every major campaign in the eastern theater after the Peninsula. It was one of 24 Massachusetts volunteer regiments listed in Fox's 300 Fighting Regiments (having lost 130 or more killed in battle). According to Fox, among all Union regiments in the Civil War, the 28th Massachusetts stands 7th in the total number of killed and mortally wounded soldiers at 250 altogether. The official records of the Massachusetts Adjutant General published in 1867 show the number to be 231. However, a close study of the roster of the regiment, published by the Adjutant Generalís office in 1933 reveals an even higher figure than that reported by Fox. Out of a total of 1,746 men who served in the regiment during the war, 257 (25%) were killed in action, mortally wounded, reported as missing in action. Another 444 (43.2%) died of disease or were discharged or transferred out of the regiment to the Veteran Reserve Corps due to debilitating wounds.
List of Engagements and Casualties of the 28th, 1861 - 1865
Note: All figures were taken from the roster of the 28th Massachusetts as recorded in the Adjutant Generalís report, published in 1933.
Battle Date Killed Wounded Captured Missing Total Secessionville 2/16 18 47 7 0 73 2nd Bull Run 8/30 28 80 6 10 24 Chantilly 9/01 25 59 2 5 91 South Mountain 9/14 0 8 0 0 8 Antietem 9/17 18 32 0 1 59 Fredericksburg 12/13 32 116 1 11 160
Battle Date Killed Wounded Captured Missong Total Chancellorsville 5/03 0 15 6 1 22 Gettysburg 7/02 14 56 16 7 93 Bristoe St/Auburn 10/11-17 2 0 11 0 13 Mine Run 11/29 0 5 0 0 5
Battle Date Killed Wounded Captured Missing Total Wilderness 5/05 19 71 9 6 105 Wilderness 5/06-07 5 10 2 2 19 Po River 5/09-10 3 5 2 1 11 Spottsylvania 5/12 11 41 4 3 59 Spottsylvania 5/18 10 33 4 0 47 N. Anna/Cold Harbor 5/23-6/01 1 9 5 0 15 Cold Harbor 6/03 14 39 0 0 53 Petersburg 6/16 4 19 1 2 26 Jerusalem Plank Rd. 6/22 1 8 4 0 13 1st Deep Bottom 7/27 2 2 0 0 4 2nd Deep Bottom 8/14 4 11 0 0 15 Chas. City Crossrd. 8/16 0 8 22 1 31 Reams' Station 8/25 1 7 36 0 44
Battle Date Killed Wounded Captured Missing Total Hatcher's Run 3/25 17 53 0 0 71 South Side R.R. 4/02 0 6 0 0 6
Killed and mortally wounded 228 Missing in action 30 Died of accident/disease 84 Died as prisoners of war 51 Total 393