Civil War Top 100

Regimental History: 1862 (continued)

here was little time for rest, however, with Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee moving his victorious armies northward for an invasion of Maryland. The 28th Massachusetts left camp at Meridian Hill on September 7, marching with McClellan's army until arriving at Fox's Gap a week later. There, the Irishmen were held in reserve, supporting the 9th Corps assault at South Mountain. That night, the regiment was put out on the picket line and suffered six casualties during sporadic but heavy firing.

On September 17, the 28th Massachusetts again showed its mettle during the bloody Battle of Antietam. As 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, facing hot fire from Confederate artillery and skirmishers concealed in the area of the Sherrick farm and on the high ground beyond. Finally, with bayonets fixed, the 28th and the rest of Christ's brigade assualted these strong points, driving Jones' Confederate division back through the outskirts of town.

But the left flank of the 9th Corps line soon collpased, and Willcox was ordered to withdraw his victorious troops to avoid being outflanked. Cursing and furious at having to relinquish ground so hard-won, the 28th Massachusetts had no choice but to retire with the rest of the division to a defensive position along Antietam Creek. The regiment suffered 54 casualties in the fight, including the death of Lt. Nicholas Barrett. The battle ended with Gen. Lee abandoning his invasion of the North and retreating back to Virginia.

Later in the fall, while the 28th Massachusetts was recuperating at Nolan's Ferry, Gov. Andrew appointed a new commanding officer for the regiment. Col. Richard Byrnes, who joined the unit on October 18, had risen through the ranks of the pre-war Regular Army. Known as a stern disciplinarian with a rigid attentiveness to army regulations, he had earned a reputation since the outbreak of the war for aggressive, courageous leadership under fire as a lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Cavalry.

Byrnes was not a popular choice to command the 28th Massachusetts. Most of the regiment’s volunteer officers initially opposed the appointment of this outsider, protesting loudly to Gov. Andrew and threatening to resign. In the weeks that passed between the news of his selection and his arrival to take command, seven of these officers signed and sent to the governor a petition expressing their outrage at Byrnes’ appointment, since it implied that none of them were competent enough to be promoted.

Gov. Andrew stood firm behind his man, however, believing that Byrnes' experience and character were needed, both to end the squabbling among officers and to restore discipline to the rank and file. In time, even if he never endeared himself to the soldiers in the ranks, Byrnes was proven to be a wise choice. He was an excellent combat officer, noted for his coolness and bravery under fire.

It is clear that Byrnes believed he had a mandate to fix a broken outfit. When he arrived, the few officers who were not attached to other units, on furlough, or absent without leave openly defied his authority. They were ignoring routine regimental paperwork, neglecting daily guard mounts and drill, and allowing discipline problems to run rampant.

Byrnes acted decisively and without tolerance toward any man who did not appear to do his duty. He immediately ordered men on detached service back to the regiment. Byrnes relieved the Sgt. Major of duty, appointed a new one, reduced the Quartermaster Sgt. and a number of other non-commissioned officers to the ranks for glaring inefficiency, and ordered all NCOs to wear chevrons, which many of them had refused to do. He ordered new drums since the regiment had none and imposed new standards of conduct in strict accord with army regulations. Byrnes insisted that each company drill for an hour in the morning, ordered all companies to drill together for an hour in the afternoon, and required a daily dress parade with full inspection.

Although an Irish immigrant himself, Byrnes wanted to keep his regiment up to fighting strength as well as retain his commission as colonel. So, in the months ahead, he insisted that recruiting encompass any and all potential volunteers, not just those of Irish birth or heritage. This might also have been an acknowledgment that Irish enthusiasm for the war was waning. Henceforth, a significant and growing proportion of the rank and file were non-Irish, many even coming from outside of Massachusetts. Even so, the unit retained its essentially Irish character and continued to attract ethnic Irish recruits until the end of the war.

There was another significant change at this time. Nearly a year after being formed, the 28th Massachusetts was finally transferred to Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher's famed Irish Brigade on November 23, 1862. The new "Fourth Irish Regiment" of the Second Brigade, First Division, 2nd Corps joined three under strength Irish-American units that had already won an enviable record in the army – the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York – along with the 116th Pennsylvania, which had been added to the brigade just a month earlier. At the same time, the 29th Massachusetts was reassigned to the 9th Corps, much to that unit’s satisfaction.

As harsh winter weather began to set in, the men of the 28th Massachusetts found that their shelter tents provided only meager comfort and soon began working to build ten large 50’ x 14’ log houses, one for each company. Before they could get too comfortable in these much improved winter quarters, however, the regiment was called upon to join its new brigade in the Fredericksburg campaign.

The Union army's new commander, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, was determined to push Confederate forces back toward Richmond. Burnside initially hoped to surprise the rebels at Fredericksburg, but due to poor planning and numerous delays, the federals became bogged down at the Rapahannock River crossing. This gave Gen. Robert E. Lee an opportunity to concentrate and entrench his inferior numbers on Marye's Heights above the town. Still determined to press the assault, Burnside elected to throw his entire force against the Confederates, anyway.

The Irish Brigade crossed the river on December 12 and spent a cold night in the town of Fredericksburg. On the next morning, Gen. Meagher ordered the men of his Irish Brigade to place sprigs of green boxwood in their forage caps to distinguish them from all other units. This was important to him because the three New York units had recently sent their tattered green regimental flags back to New York City for replacement and the 116th Pennsylvania did not carry a distinctive Irish 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 of Union soldiers 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 slaughter was so great that the Irish Brigade’s advance was actually impeded by the large number of bodies piled on one another. Even so, the Irish managed to capture some of the outer Confederate picket posts along a fence line about 50 yards from the main rebel position along the sunken road. But 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 instructing them 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 where they were. At this time, some of the 28th Massachusetts men sidled over to an abandoned brick house and delivered a hot fire into the rebel line.

Bravely leading the attack, the 28th Massachusetts lost 158 (38 percent) of the 416 men it sent up the bloody slope; the highest number of casualties it would suffer in a single engagement during the entire war. Among those who lost their lives were Lts. Edwin Weller, William Holland and John Sullivan. The toll was heavy among all five regiments of the Irish Brigade, which suffered 535 total casualties, two-thirds of its strength, in the doomed assault.

At dusk, the survivors of the regiment still at the fence joined the rest of their Irish Brigade comrades in falling back to the relative safety of the town of Fredericksburg. Col. 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 2nd Corps, rode up and rebuked a man of the 28th Massachusetts for not being in company formation with his comrades, the soldier replied: "This is all my company, sir."

The men of the 28th remained on the edge of town, at the base of the hill, that night and the following day, suffering from the severe cold, unable to reach fallen comrades due to hostile fire from rebel pickets, and waiting for a Confederate counterattack that never came. Finally, on the night of December 15, the regiment crossed back over the river and by morning was back at its old camp in Falmouth.

Over the coming winter, Byrnes would continue trying to instill the regiment with discipline and restore its sagging morale. Worthy enlisted men were quickly promoted to replace the many sergeants and corporals lost during the battle. At the same time, a number of non-commissioned officers were reduced to the ranks for incompetence and neglect of duty. Officers who had absented themselves on sick leave for extended periods were ordered to return to duty or resign, and several of them opted for the latter.

While Byrnes was unsuccessful in gaining any more recruits, he did manage to procure much-needed supplies, especially clothing and shoes, for his men who had fought and marched almost continuously over the previous eight months.

Continued >

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