For the battle-hardened Sons of Ireland, the charge up Marye’s Heights proved the biggest challenge yet.
The town of Fredericksburg, Va., stood on a gentle incline that sloped down to the Rappahannock River. Behind the town rose a series of ridges, including Prospect Hill, Telegraph Hill and Marye’s Heights. During the last weeks of November and the first weeks of December 1862, General Robert E. Lee had occupied the high ground, carefully putting his men and artillery into place. The Army of the Potomac, led by General Ambrose Burnside, was massed on the other side of the Rappahannock. Earlier in the war, the bridges across the river had been destroyed; to attack Lee, Burnside would need pontoon bridges.
A rumor went around the Irish Brigade’s camp that Burnside planned to have them assault the ridges above Fredericksburg. The unit, formed in New York City in 1861, had been recruited to the Union cause by renowned orator and flamboyant Irish nationalist Thomas Francis Meagher. Some members of the Irish Brigade were professionals and Fenians who looked upon America’s Civil War as excellent experience for a future war to liberate Ireland from the English. Most were laborers—strong, tough, combative, short on the social niceties, but courageous and, as it turned out, utterly dependable in battle. They had stood their ground at Malvern Hill, suffered horrendous casualties at Antietam, and earned a reputation for ferocious valor. Still, the preparations at Fredericksburg made one young private apprehensive. He sought out one of the brigade’s chaplains, Father William Corby. “Father,” the young man said, “they are going to lead us over in front of those guns which we have seen them placing, unhindered, for the past three weeks.”
“Do not trouble yourself,” the priest replied, “your generals know better than that.”
It took 17 days for the War Department to deliver the pontoon boats Burnside needed to get his army across the Rappahannock. While the Yankees waited, they watched Lee’s army of 75,000 take up defensive positions on all the ridges above Fredericksburg. Burnside had an army of approximately 120,000 men, yet he was at a disadvantage because Lee had seized the high ground.
Lee sent a message to the citizens of Fredericksburg, urging them to evacuate before the battle began and they found themselves trapped between the two armies. It was December, and the snow lay deep. Major Robert Stiles, a Confederate artilleryman, witnessed the exodus. “I never saw a more pitiful procession than they made trudging through the deep snow, after the warning was given and as the hour drew near,” he wrote in his memoir, Four Years Under Marse Robert. “I saw little children tugging along with their doll babies—some bigger than they were—but holding their feet up carefully above the snow, and women so old and feeble that they could carry nothing and could barely hobble themselves….Where they were going we could not tell, and I doubt if they could.”
Burnside selected the locations for four pontoon bridges—two at the northern end of Fredericksburg, one at the southern end of town and the third a mile downstream at a place called Deep Run. As Union troops began to assemble the bridges, Confederate sharpshooters took up position in houses across the river and fired on the exposed Yankees; as a result, construction of the pontoons made slow progress. Only at Deep Run, which had escaped the Confederates’ notice, were the Yankee engineers able to build a bridge unimpeded.
At 4 a.m. December 11, the Irish Brigade—composed of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York, the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania—was roused and ordered to the Rappahannock River. As it marched by the camp of the 14th Brooklyn, their fellow New Yorkers cheered, and the 14th’s band struck up an Irish drinking song popular with Irish troops, “Garryowen.” General Thomas Meagher looked splendid in a uniform of his own design: a tailored dark green jacket embroidered with silver stars, with black knots at the shoulders. Across his chest he had draped a yellow silk sash.
First assault at sunrise December 13, the Confederates looked down on approximately 100,000 men in blue, waiting for the order to attack: They would be led by Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner of Massachusetts, a man so tough his men believed a musket ball once struck his skull and bounced off, and Maj. Gen. William Franklin of Pennsylvania, an engineer who before the war had supervised the construction of the dome of the U.S. Capitol. Sumner’s 57,000 troops stood ready to storm Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s 41,000 men on Marye’s Heights. Franklin would send his 51,000 men against Stonewall Jackson’s 39,000 on Prospect Hill.
Burnside’s plan for the battle was simple and suicidal: Sumner would send a single division— 12,000 men—up Marye’s Heights while Franklin would send a single division against Jackson on Prospect Hill. Burnside believed that if he could capture these two high points and turn the artillery batteries up there against Lee, the Confederate line would crumble.
Irish troops stood by, awaiting orders. General Meagher had each man slip a sprig of green boxwood into his hatband—a debonair gesture to identify the Irish Brigade.
The division that would attack Marye’s Heights had been selected from the II Corps, commanded by Brig. Gen. William H. French of Maryland. At the summit of the hill was Longstreet’s artillery, each cannon placed for best advantage. Anything that tried to cross the 800 yards of open ground below Marye’s Heights would be within easy range of Longstreet’s guns. Furthermore, at the base of the hill were a sunken road and a stone wall, about 500 yards long. Longstreet had sent Georgians to the wall and filled the ground behind it with South Carolina infantry.
About noon, Sumner’s division marched out of Fredericksburg. Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball of Indiana led the first assault on the Confederate position. The Federals were within 125 yards of the stone wall when the Rebels opened fire. Minié balls and artillery shells swept through the Union ranks; within minutes hundreds of men in blue lay dead or dying on the slope of the hill. Kimball was struck in the thigh and carried to the rear.
But the Union troops attacked again, and again, and again, and each time they were met by withering fire—just as Longstreet had planned. That afternoon Longstreet virtually destroyed French’s, Winfield Scott Hancock’s, Oliver O. Howard’s and Samuel D. Sturgis’ divisions. General Joseph Hooker rode to Burnside’s headquarters, where he maintained that further assaults on Marye’s Heights would be a “useless waste of life.” In spite of the horrific casualties, Burnside refused to back down; instead, he ordered Hooker to prepare to send in his division.
After watching the slaughter of French’s and Hancock’s divisions, the Irish had their turn. By chance, they were directed to attack the part of the stone wall defended by the 24th Georgia Infantry, a regiment filled with Irishmen. “What a pity!” one of the Georgian Irish cried. “Here comes Meagher’s fellows.” As the Union Irish Brigade advanced, a roar of Irish Confederate musket fire tore through their ranks. “Companies and regiments seemed to evaporate,” wrote historian George C. Rable.
Years later, Captain John H. Donovan of the Irish Brigade remembered, “It was impossible for human nature to withstand this, and yet we were left there all afternoon unrelieved.” Major James Cavanaugh rallied the Irish. “Blaze away and stand it, boys!” he cried. Cavanaugh got within 50 yards of the stone wall before he went down with a bullet through his thigh.
Captain John O’Neill fell, the bullet puncturing a lung before lodging by his spine. An exploding shell crippled Color Sergeant William H. Tyrrell. No longer able to stand, he went down on his one good knee, gripping the regimental colors until five musket balls tore into him and he toppled over, dead.
Meagher, sidelined earlier with an injury to his knee, had borrowed a horse and ridden up to make the attack with his men. In the face of the terrible slaughter, he did not call for a retreat, but massed his brigade together into two lines and shouted, “Load, and fire at will!”
The Irish behind the stone wall and the Irish on the slope released barrage after barrage into each other’s faces. A shell fragment struck Meagher in the leg, throwing him from his horse. For the second time that day, he was carried off the battlefield.
To escape the deadly Confederate fire, some of the Irish took refuge behind a small brick house on the slope. Others piled up wooden fence posts and, lying flat on the ground, hoped this pathetic barricade would protect them. But there were men still on their feet, cursing the Rebels as they fired.
The valor of the Irish Brigade deeply moved Confederate General George Pickett. After the battle he wrote to his fiancée, “Your soldier’s heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their deaths. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. We forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”
The bayonet charge in spite of the casualties, Burnside ordered yet another assault on Marye’s Heights. But now there were so many Confederate troops massed behind the wall that they stood several men deep. Longstreet took advantage of the situation by ordering rotating lines of fire, creating a relentless storm of musket fire.
A soldier from the 19th Massachusetts recalled picking his way among dead and wounded Yankees as he advanced on the wall; it was difficult to keep his footing because “the grass was slippery with their blood.”
In obedience to Burnside’s orders, Maj. Gen. Darius Couch sent in another division—it got no closer than 100 yards, then was obliged to fall back. Burnside sent in Hooker’s division. Hooker led his men into Fredericksburg, where he conferred with other commanders who had led assaults on the Heights. Convinced that another attack was futile, Hooker and his men stayed put in town.
When Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys’ turn came to lead his brigade up the hill, he decided to try a different strategy. Shouting “Officers to the front!” he ordered a bayonet charge. As the 116th Pennsylvania surged forward, wounded men on the ground called on them to stop; some grabbed the trouser legs of the charging men. As a result, for a few moments the line wavered, but ultimately the Pennsylvanians swept toward the stone wall. They were within 50 yards of it when four ranks of Confederates raised their muskets and fired. One of the Confederates at the wall that day described the charge: “The first line melted but the second came steadily on, over the dead and dying of the former charges, to share the same fate. Ye gods! It is no longer a battle, it is a butchery!” Humphreys’ charge failed, and left another 1,000 casualties at the wall.
The final assault came at sunset, led by Colonel Rush Hawkins, a New York City lawyer. Hawkins tried to flank the Confederates, but the Rebels saw what he was doing and shifted their position slightly to meet him. Confederate Brig. Gen. Robert Ransom Jr., who witnessed Hawkins’ attack, said the Confederates’ withering fire sent the men “actually howling back to their beaten comrades in the town.”
It was dark when the Union commanders gave up. There would be no more assaults on Marye’s Heights.
That night, Burnside considered still further attacks on the Confederate positions, but his commanders flat out refused to spill any more blood at Fredericksburg. On December 16, the Confederates awoke to find Burnside and his army gone—they had pulled back to Falmouth, Va., where the general made winter camp.
The Confederacy was jubilant. The Richmond Examiner proclaimed the Battle of Fredericksburg “a stunning defeat to the invader, a splendid victory to the defender of the sacred soil.”
In the North, news of the defeat and the terrible casualties plunged the nation into grief and the president into one of his spells of depression. Burnside tried to shift the blame from himself and began planning a new campaign in the Fredericksburg area. On January 20, 1863, the Army of the Potomac set out once again for the neighborhood of Fredericksburg. That night it began to rain; within hours, the shower had become a downpour—and it continued for four days. The roads were transformed into a thick gumbo of mud so deep that wagons, cannons, horses, mules and men became stuck in the mire. Burnside called off “The Mud March,” as his campaign came to be known.
Squandering lives in five hours the Union lost 7,000 men at Marye’s Heights; Longstreet lost 1,700 defending it. In total, the Union casualties at Fredericksburg were more than 13,000 killed, wounded or missing. The Confederates lost approximately 5,000.
“Our musketry alone killed and wounded at least 5,000,” General Longstreet later recorded, “and these, with the slaughter by the artillery, left over 7,000 killed and wounded before the foot of Marye’s Hill. The dead were piled sometimes three deep, and when morning broke, the spectacle that we saw upon the battlefield was one of the most distressing I ever witnessed. The charges had been desperate and bloody, but utterly hopeless. I thought, as I saw the Federals come again and again to their death, that they deserved success if courage and daring could entitle soldiers to victory.”
Of the 1,200 men of the Irish Brigade who marched out of the ruins of Fredericksburg to assault Marye’s Heights, 545 were killed, wounded or missing—in other words, the Irish lost almost 50 percent of their strength. The Battle of Fredericksburg was the Irish Brigade’s bloodiest day—it lost more men at Marye’s Heights than at any other battle of the Civil War. “Oh! It was a terrible day,” Captain William J. Nagle of the Irish Brigade wrote to his father. “The destruction of life has been fearful, and nothing gained.…Irish blood and Irish bones cover that terrible field to-day….We are slaughtered like sheep, and no result but defeat.”
The Irish American newspaper reprinted Nagle’s letter in its December 27, 1862, edition. The idea of slaughter was repeated by one of the brigade’s chaplains, Father Corby. In his memoirs he stated, “[T]he place into which Meagher’s brigade was sent was simply a slaughter pen with absolutely no protection for our ranks.…Needless to say, our brigade was cut to pieces.” Back home the Irish began to wonder whether the Irish Brigade suffered such high casualties because the Union commanders were at heart anti-Irish and did not mind squandering the lives of Irish soldiers. After Fredericksburg, Boston’s Irish newspaper, the Boston Pilot, lamented, “We did not cause this war, [but] vast numbers of our people have perished in it…the Irish spirit for the war is dead!…Our fighters are dead.”
Such suspicions were not limited to the Irish. Joseph B. Polley, a Texan who had fought at Fredericksburg, wrote to his sweetheart at home, “To assault [Marye’s Heights] was a desperate undertaking, and it would seem that the calculating, death-fearing, simon-pure Yankees shrank from it.…Foreigners, though, were plentiful in the Federal army, and the loss of a few thousand more or less would break no Yankee hearts; therefore, I imagine, Meagher’s Irish Brigade was selected for the sacrifice.”
On January 16, 1863—a little more than a month after the battle—at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, one of the brigade’s chaplains, Father Ouellet, sang a Solemn High Requiem Mass for the repose of the souls of the fallen men of the Irish Brigade. The clergy of the cathedral assisted him, and a military band joined the cathedral’s organ and choir to supply the music. In the congregation were Meagher and his wife; Colonel Robert Nugent, who had been wounded at Fredericksburg; and several other wounded officers from the Irish Brigade. In the center aisle before the high altar, draped in black and flanked by six tall candles, stood the catafalque, an empty coffin that represented all of the men of the Irish Brigade who had been killed at Fredericksburg and earlier engagements.
In 1861, when the Irish Brigade had marched through the streets of New York, Meagher commanded 2,250 men. After Fredericksburg, 600 were left. The men of the 116th Pennsylvania and the 28th Massachusetts, who had been assigned to the Irish Brigade, raised the number to 1,058 enlisted men and 139 officers. The 28th Massachusetts was not composed of Irishmen— in fact, they were all Yankee Protestants, all descended from the English families who had settled Massachusetts in the 17th century. Nonetheless, they and the Irish got on well together, and the soldiers of the 28th described themselves as “honorary Irishmen.” But the combination of the death toll at Fredericksburg and Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation dampened Irish enthusiasm for the war. To Meagher’s dismay, in the first months of 1863, the Irish Brigade received no new recruits to replace the men lost at Marye’s Heights.
Adapted from The Greatest Brigade: How the Irish Brigade Cleared the Way to Victory in the American Civil War, by Thomas Craughwell, Fair Winds Press, 2011.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.