Civil War Top 100

Regimental History: 1864 (continued)

y the end of May, command of the regiment passed to Capt. James Fleming, who had begun his service as a sergeant in Co. B and advanced steadily through the ranks in spite of being wounded several times. One contemporary wrote of Fleming: "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 28th Massachusetts and the rest of the Irish Brigade were pulled away from the Totopotomoy on the night of June 1 and began marching toward Cold Harbor to the south. Unfortunately, confusion over which roads they were supposed to take delayed them from meeting up with the rest of the army until mid-morning the next day. Lt. Martin Binney, acting adjutant of the 28th, remarked that the regiment "had a long, weary, rapid march; the dust lay very heavy. This was the most severe march of the campaign… ten and a half hours."

Arriving on the left flank of Grant's army, the exhausted men were permitted to rest for the remainder of the day. But at daybreak on June 3, the 28th Massachusetts was again moved forward and readied for another assault, assigned with the rest of the Irish Brigade to the second line of Gen. Barlow's 1st Division. The initial attack successfully captured enemy positions along a sunken road, with many Confederate prisoners being sent to the rear. But the second wave was sent in too slowly. By the time the men of the 28th and their Irish Brigade caught up, they were met with a relentless enfilading fire from Southern reinforcements.

Still determined to move ahead, Byrnes pushed his Irish troops forward over the earthworks. They advanced beyond two ridges to reach a hill well in advance of other Union forces. Under the command of Lt. James B. West, the 28th Massachusetts helped the Irish Brigade gallantly cling to this isolated and exposed position for more than six hours. At nightfall, however, the Irishmen finally moved back to a safer position and dug a new line of trenches. The 28th Massachusetts suffered another 48 casualties at Cold Harbor, including Lt. West, who was killed in action.

But for the regiment and the Irish Brigade, there was an even more significant loss. As the Irish were falling back from the hill, a Confederate bullet hit Col. Byrnes in the back and he fell mortally wounded. Transported to a hospital in Washington, Byrnes died there on June 12. Deeply moved by the loss of one of his most able commanders, Maj. Gen. Hancock later noted in a report that Byrnes was among a group of "most promising young officers who had never failed to distinguish themselves in battle."

Thwarted 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. For the next two weeks, however, the 28th Massachusetts would remain in its entrenchments at Cold Harbor, losing three more men to extreme heat and not enough drinking water. On June 14, the regiment was ordered along with the rest of the 2nd Corps to quickly march south and cross the James River. By this time, casualties and hard marches had reduced the regiment to just 100 enlisted men and two lieutenants, including commander John B. Noyes, fit for duty.

Late in the afternoon of June 16, the regiment once again joined in an assault against entrenched rebel positions in front of Petersburg. Helping take the first line of Confederate works, the attackers became bogged down on a steep hill, were turned back by a furious rebel counterattack, and then rallied to repulse enemy forces. But the rebels had once more outpaced Grant's advancing Union army, so both sides settled in for a long siege.

In the action of June 16, the 28th Massachusetts suffered another 19 casualties. Col. Patrick Kelly, who had taken over command of the Irish Brigade for the second time after Byrnes' death two weeks earlier, was among those killed. Capt. Richard Moroney of the 69th New York would succeed him, being the most senior officer remaining in the ranks, but by this time, the original Irish Brigade was so depleted that it had, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.

The 28th Massachusetts alone had lost more than 400 men, including eight officers killed and 12 wounded. On June 20, the 28th was transferred to the 1st Brigade, which included a number of other depleted 2nd Corps regiments: the 26th Michigan, 5th New Hampshire, 2nd and 4th New York Heavy Artillery, 61st New York Infantry, and 81st, 140th and 183rd Pennsylvania regiments. The new combined brigade was placed under the command of Col. James Lynch in Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles' 1st Division.

For the next four months, the 28th Massachusetts would be the only unit from the Irish Brigade to remain in the field, building on its reputation for dash and gallantry. During a June 22 battle along the Jerusalem Plank Road, the men of the 28th were deployed as skirmishers and helped turn back a vigorous enemy attack, losing 12 more men and earning compliments from Gens. Barlow and Miles in their official reports on the action.

From this time until July 9, the 28th was kept in reserve, then assigned relatively quiet picket and fatigue duties until July 26. The regiment was then ordered to make a long night march, crossing both the James and Appomattox rivers as part of a general movement against the Confederate left flank near Richmond.

At Deep Bottom, the men of the 28th were once again deployed as skirmishers, joining in an attack on the right side of the rebel line on July 27. Under the brave leadership of Capt. Fleming, the regiment successfully turned the enemy's left flank, sending the rebels fleeing from their trenches in great confusion. The 28th Massachusetts entered the Confederate works ahead of its brigade, capturing four 24-pounder Parrott guns, caissons, ammunition and several prisoners, including the commander of the rebel battery - all at a loss of only four men. Col. James Lynch, leading the brigade, praised Capt. Fleming in his official report, stating "to his gallantry was due, in great measure, the success of the assault."

While it may have seemed a significant victory to men in the ranks, the attack was launched only to divert rebel attention from the major federal effort against Petersburg lines. On the evening of July 28, the 2nd Corps moved back along the New Market road and built breastworks, subsequently returning to the Petersburg lines and remaining in the trenches there, ready to support the failed 9th Corps assault known as the Battle of the Crater on July 30.

The 28th Massachusetts left its old Petersburg encampment on August 12 and marched back to the James River. This time, however, the regiment boarded transport boats that were gathered at the docks. As the transports began to move downriver, rumors spread among the depleted ranks of the 2nd Corps that they were being sent to Washington for much-needed rest and recruiting. But the movement turned out to be a ruse, and as night descended, the transports turned around and docked in the vicinity of Deep Bottom.

At daybreak on what turned out to be an oppressively hot morning, the 2nd Corps advanced in support of a planned 10th Corps attack against Confederate positions. The 28th Massachusetts was sent in to make a demonstration against a rebel battery, suffering 15 casualties, including the death of Capt. Patrick Nolan.
On August 16, the men of the 28th deployed as skirmishers in support of Gen. Gregg's cavalry on the right of the Union line. After stubbornly resisting superior rebel numbers near the Charles City Cross Roads, the regiment fell back to its brigade, losing 18 killed and wounded and 22 captured.

Stymied in its attempts to advance on Richmond, Gen. Hancock's 2nd Corps was ordered back to the Petersburg lines on August 17, having accomplished little for its efforts. Less than two weeks later, the 28th was ordered on a 35-mile forced march behind and around the Union lines to join the rest of the 2nd Corps in destroying the Confederate railroad leading to Weldon. For the next four days, they assisted in these efforts to break up the tracks.

On August 25 came a fierce rebel attack at Reams' Station. After helping repulse three successive Confederate assaults, the 28th Massachusetts was finally driven from its breastworks. The regiment was reportedly among the last to abandon the Union trenches and first to reoccupy them after the federals launched a successful counterattack. In this engagement, the 28th lost another 34 men; ten killed or wounded and 24 captured or missing.

After this engagement, the 28th Massachusetts fell back with its division to the Williams farm near the main federal lines, remaining there until August 27. The regiment moved to Fort Davis and was encamped in and around that post through December, periodically manning trenches and fortifying earthworks in front of Petersburg. While not engaged in any major battles, the 28th endured regular bombardments and suffered three casualties on the picket line.

The terms of service for those men who had not re-enlisted the previous winter expired on December 19. One officer, Lt. Col. Cartwright, and 20 enlisted men remained among this group and were able to return home. Their departures punctuated a very long year for the 28th Massachusetts, during which the regiment lost 408 men - including eight commanding officers - to death, wounds, disease, and disability. Among all its commissioned officers, only one escaped unhurt during the fearful Overland Campaign.

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