‘Simply Madness to Advance’: The 116th Pennsylvania at Fredericksburg

It was just past 9am on 13th December 1862 when Private William Dehaven of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry was given the order to fall in with the men of his regiment. He and the rest of the Irish Brigade prepared to move through the streets of Fredericksburg and attack the Confederate positions beyond the town on Marye’s Heights. It would be a long wait. For three hours William and his company stood in position as Confederate shot and shell screamed over their heads and into the city. They were not the first to attack the enemy position, and it was clear from the stream of wounded coming from the front that the assault was not going well. William had not seen this type of battle before, and the horrendous injuries he was now witnessing began to affect him. A maimed German soldier was wheeled past in a barrow with his legs dangling over the side. Although he was calmly smoking a pipe, William could not tear his eyes away from the fact that one of his feet had been shot off, with blood pouring from the stump. The shock of the sight caused the young private to collapse to the ground, and he did not recover his senses for some minutes. When he did so he found the 116th had moved out, in the direction of the fighting. Despite what he had seen, and the terror he must have felt, William Dehaven did not choose to hide or run away. He picked up his weapon and ran after his comrades, onto what was fast becoming one of the most horrendous fields of slaughter of the entire war. It was to be the first of many acts of bravery by a man of the 116th Pennsylvania Regiment that day (1).

Confederate Dead at the Stone Wall, Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg. Although taken in 1863, it was this same wall that was the object of the 116th Pennsylvania attack on 13th December 1862.

The 116th Pennsylvania had not been in a major battle before; Fredericksburg was to prove a merciless introduction. As the attack of French’s Division petered out, the 116th and the rest of Hancock’s Division were ordered into the meat grinder. All the men placed a sprig of green boxwood in their caps, to identify them as members of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. The regiment marched down towards Liberty Town near the junction of George Street and Hanover Street, where they and the rest of the Brigade paused to await the advance (2). While stationary they began to take their first serious casualties.  A shell impacted amongst the ranks of the 88th New York, causing a staggering 18 casualties. Soon after, the first deadly projectile thundered into the ranks of the Pennsylvanians. Four men were killed, amongst them Sergeant John Marley. His head was shorn off, his lifeless and headless body dropping to its knees, musket still in hand. The 116th’s commander, Colonel Dennis Heenan, also took a wound in the hand (3). As the shells rained in Private William McCarter of the 116th remembered that he and the other men began to involuntarily duck, paying ‘due respect in the way of a low bow or curtsy, having no desire whatever to make a closer acquaintance with the flying messenger or to interrupt him in his course‘(4). The order for the men to advance seemed to take an eternity as they stood and endured the fire from the Confederate batteries. At last it came. Lieutenant-Colonel St. Clair A. Mulholland shouted out the words everyone hoped to hear: ‘Attention! Shoulder arms, forward, double-quick. Now, men, steady, and do your duty. March’ (5).

The 116th Pennsylvania emerged in column of fours into the open space beyond the town and saw the scale of what faced them. A raging inferno of fire was concentrated on the fields in front. They had to first negotiate a canal before advancing against Marye’s Heights across an open, exposed plain towards Confederate positions bristling with artillery. In addition, the base of the Heights was defended by troops sheltering behind a stone wall, a position which would soon become infamous. Confederate artilleryman Edward Porter Alexander boasted that ‘a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it’.

The canal was the first obstacle to face the 116th. The bridge which had traversed it had been largely shot away, so some men plunged into the water while others tried to negotiate the surviving fragments of the original span. Casualties continued to mount, amongst them Lieutenant Robert Montgomery of Company I who fell mortally wounded into the stream. A slight rise beyond the water allowed the Pennsylvanian’s to take momentary cover and form line of battle. They initially found themselves on the extreme left of the Irish Brigade line as they advanced towards the Rebel positions. Just as they moved out they sustained yet another casualty among their officers; Lieutenant Seneca G. Willauer was hit by a shell that tore all the flesh from his thigh, exposing the bone. Incredibly, he went to his Colonel, remarking: ‘do you think that I should go on with my company or go to the hospital?’. The regiment pressed on once more: ‘Right shoulder, shift arms, battalion forward, guide centre, march’ (6).

Lieutenant Robert T. McGuire, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry. Wounded at Fredericksburg, he died of his wounds some years later.

A series of fields lay between the Brigade and the enemy behind the stone wall. As St. Clair A. Mulholland described it, the men ‘advanced into an arc of fire….fire in front, on the right and left. Shells came directly and obliquely, and dropped down from above. Shells enfiladed the lines, burst in front, in rear, above and behind; shells everywhere. A torrent of shells; a blizzard of shot, shell and fire’ (7). When the 116th had finally closed to within some 50 yards of the stone wall, they were greeted with a stomach churning sight. Private McCarter remembered: ‘Cobb’s solid brigade of Rebel infantry, said to have been 2,400 strong, suddenly sprang up from behind it. They had been entirely concealed from our view until that moment. The Rebs poured volley after volley into our faces, at once stopping our further progress…It was simply madness to advance as far as we did and an utter impossibility to go further (8). Officers and men were falling like skittles. Lieutenant Garret Nowlan of Company C took a bullet in the thigh. Major Bardwell was also wounded, and Lieutenant Bob McGuire and Captain John O’Neill both fell with balls through their lungs. The Orderly Sergeant of Company H wheeled around to stare at Lieutenant Francis Quinlan, blood pouring from a hole in his forehead all over the young officer’s face. Huge gaps were torn in the 116th line as they withstood the incredible fire. Colonel Heenan was wounded again and carried from the field. Lieutenant-Colonel Mulholland was hit. No officer seemed to escape the murderous fire. Private McCarter stayed in position and had discharged six or seven shots when his turn came. He had begun to ram home his cartridge when ‘a bullet struck me in the uplifted arm, close up to the shoulder. The limb dropped powerless at my side. I knew something serious had happened to me.’ Color Sergeant William Tyrell fell to one knee when his other leg was shattered, but continued to defiantly wave the flag. He was hit a further five times and fell with the broken flagstaff. Finally the order came to retire, and Lieutenant Quinlan dashed forward to rescue the colors from the death grip of Tyrell (9).

Lieutenant Christian Foltz, 116th Pennsylvania. Killed while trying to assist his wounded friend William McCarter near the Stone Wall.

As the retreat began, Lieutenant Foltz looked to help his friend William McCarter from the field: ‘Bill, we’ve got to get. Are you badly hurt? I wish to God I could get you out of here.’. Foltz then grabbed McCarter’s musket and took aim, saying to him ‘Bill, I see the bastard that laid you there. I’ll fetch him.’ McCarter remembered: ‘he knelt down on the ground with his left knee, placed the butt end of the musket upon his shoulder, and took deliberate aim at something in the direction of the stone wall. I watched him closely. Before he pulled the trigger the musket fell out of his grasp. He nervously raised his hand to his brow and then fell to the earth a bleeding corpse, pierced through the head by a rebel bullet. His face was towards me, revealing the fatal wound immediately above the left eye. The profound sorrow that I then experienced no tongue or pen could describe’ (10).

Though the 116th Pennsylvania and the Irish Brigade retreated they did not quit the field, and further waves of Union infantry passed over them to dash themselves into pieces against the stone wall. Wounded men were forced to spend all night on the field where they had fallen. The assault at Marye’s Heights on the Confederate left had been seen as a necessity to give the Federal attack on the Confederate right a chance at success. The tactic did not work, and the Army of the Potomac was forced into a retreat. What the attack did achieve was the wholesale destruction of thousands of lives; the Irish Brigade was decimated and would never again recover its pre-Fredericksburg strength. Irish opinion would begin to turn against the war as a result of the terrible casualties inflicted upon it. William Dehaven, William McCarter and St. Clair A. Mulholland all survived the maelstrom at Fredericksburg and the war. However, the horrors they witnessed that December afternoon must surely have never been far from their thoughts for the remainder of their lives.

Winfield Scott Hancock paid tribute to the 116th Pennsylvania in his report on Fredericksburg. He noted that the ‘regiment suffered heavily, and, although comparatively young in the service, behaved handsomely. This regiment marched on the field with 17 commissioned officers and 230 enlisted men. Its loss was 12 officers wounded and 77 men killed, wounded, and missing. The fourth officer in command during the battle brought the regiment off the field, the others being disabled.’ (11)

St. Clair A. Mulholland lists the following men of the regiment in the Roll of Honor as having been killed or who died of wounds received at Fredericksburg:

Officers: Lieutenant Robert Montgomery, Lieutenant Christian Foltz, Lieutenant Robert T. McGuire

Company B: Private John Rodgers

Company C: Sergeant Franklin B. Missimer, Sergeant Elhanan W. Price, Sergeant Thomas M. Rowland, Corporal William E. Martin, Corporal Samuel J. Willauer, Private George W. Biddle, Private William Cawler, Private William Gallagher, Private A.S. Hendricks, Private Glenn Harrison, Private Aaron J. Landis, Private A. Landenberger

Company D: Sergeant Andrew E. Ker

Company F: Private John Baxter

Company G: Sergeant John C. Marley, Private William Hare, Private James Kelly, Private John Walls

Company H: Sergeant John Farley, Corporal Horace Greenleaf, Corporal James Slavin, Private Daniel McCarty

Company I: Sergeant George Cole, Corporal Alexander Downey, Private William Gaw, Private Barthol W. Johnston, Private Samuel McClune, Private Albert J. Van Dien, Private John Winchester

Company K: Sergeant Daniel Root, Corporal Joseph Hudson, Private John Burns, Private Peter Finegan, Private Thomas Wilson

(1) Mulholland 1903: 43; (2) O’Reilly 2003: 301; (3) Mulholland 1903: 45; (4) McCarter 2003: 172; (5) Ibid: 174; (6) Mulholland 1903: 47; (7) Ibid: 46; (8) McCarter 2003: 178; (9) Mulholland 1903: 48-50, McCarter 1903: 179; (10) McCarter 2003: 182; (11) Hancock OR

References & Further Reading

Conyngham, David Power (edited by Lawrence Kohl) 1994. The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns (1st Edition 1867)

Gallagher, Gary W. (ed.) 1995. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock

McCarter, William (edited by Kevin E. O’Brien) 2003. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry

Mulholland, St. Clair A. (edited by Lawrence Kohl) 1996. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion (1st Edition 1903)

O’Reilly, Francis Augustin 2003. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock

Official Records 11. Report of Brigadier General  Winfield S. Hancock, U.S. Army, commanding First Division

Civil War Preservation Trust Fredericksburg Page

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park



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Categories: 116th Pennsylvania, Battle of Fredericksburg, Irish Brigade, Pennsylvania, Virginia

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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7 Comments on “‘Simply Madness to Advance’: The 116th Pennsylvania at Fredericksburg”

  1. December 14, 2010 at 1:00 am #

    Very gory details of what must have been horror personified.

  2. December 14, 2010 at 2:17 am #

    “To charge the enemy or enter a battle when one knows that there is no hope of success, requires courage of a much higher order than when the soldier is sustained by the enthusiasm born of hope.”

    This quote from Colonel St. Clair A. Mulholland, 116th Penn. Infantry, says so much about what may have been going through the men’s minds as they crossed the pontoons and advanced up the slope.

  3. December 16, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    The accounts of the fighting are among the most harrowing I have read. There were other heroic charges towards slaughter such as the Confederates on the last day of Gettysburg and at Franklin, but what singles out Fredericksburg for me is that brigade after brigade of men had to wait to go into action, knowing what was happening to those who had gone before. Yet they still went. How they were able to do it is beyond my comprehension.

  4. Deborah Weeks
    January 2, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

    Thanks for this horrifying description of the battle. My relative, George Mahaffey, was a member of the 116th for a short time until his death from tuberculosis. He must have been at Fredricksburg and this may have been when he was promoted to private.

    • January 2, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

      Hi Deborah,

      It was truly a horrific engagement, and anyone who was present showed the most incredible courage to advance against that position when they must have known their slim hope of success.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention ‘Simply Madness to Advance’: The 116th Pennsylvania at Fredericksburg | Irish in the American Civil War -- Topsy.com - December 14, 2010

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by colm moloney, Damian Shiels. Damian Shiels said: 'Simply Madness to Advance': The 116th Pennsylvania at Fredericksburg: http://wp.me/pVa7P-mV [...]

  2. Illustrations of the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg | Irish in the American Civil War - November 27, 2011

    [...] (for an account of the 116th Pennsylvania’s experiences on that day see a previous post here). McCarter also told the story of the brigade’s fateful charge in the July 29th 1886 edition [...]

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