Medal of Honor: Sergeant Thomas Plunkett, 21st Massachusetts Infantry

This second post exploring the stories of Irish born Medal of Honor winners focuses on Sergeant Thomas Plunkett of the 21st Massachusetts Infantry. He received his award for actions at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia on 13th December 1862, when he participated in the fateful Union charge against the Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights.

Thomas Plunkett

Sergeant Thomas Plunkett with the bloodstained flag of the 21st Massachusetts (University of South Florida)

Irishman Thomas Plunkett lived in West Boylston, Massachusetts before the war. He mustered into service on 23rd August 1861 as a 21 year old, joining Company E of the regiment. On 13th December 1862 the Sergeant and his comrades in the 21st Massachusetts were serving under Lieutenant- Colonel William Clark, part of Ferrero’s Brigade of Sturgis’s Division in Willcox’s IX Corps. (1)

Thomas had watched as soldiers of the II Corps, including his countrymen in Meagher’s Irish Brigade, dashed themselves against the almost impregnable Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights. It was now up to the Massachusetts men to try to breach the stone wall. Even as they dressed their line for the attack,  shells began to rain down. Warren Webster of Company I was decapitated before the men could surge forward at the double-quick. As they closed the range on the Confederates, canister and small arms fire were added to the deadly mix. (2)

The regimental colors were a key target for the rebels; Color Corporal Elbridge C. Barr of Company C, carrying the state colors, and Color- Sergeant Joseph H. Collins of Company A who held aloft the national colors both fell mortally wounded. Thomas Plunkett was positioned at the rear of the regiment with orders to prevent straggling when Collins went down. Throwing away his gun he picked up the stars and stripes and moved to the front of the advancing men as they closed towards the stone wall. Now a valued target himself, the Irishman had a near miss when a bullet pierced his cap. He was fortunate on that occasion, but Thomas’s luck would soon run out. (3)

As the 21st Massachusetts pressed on towards the stone wall and fire continued to intensify, a shell exploded in front of the Sergeant, killing three of his comrades. A shrapnel fragment almost tore away his right arm near the shoulder, leaving it hanging by a strip of flesh. The deadly projectile continued towards his chest, where it impacted a book that Thomas had picked up in Fredericksburg earlier in the day. The book saved his life, but the deflected metal journeyed on to smash into his left wrist, creating another terrible wound. Still the Irishman did not go down, somehow managing to keep the banner aloft while shouting out ‘Don’t let it fall boys, don’t let it fall’. He remained there, with the flag quickly becoming soaked in his blood, until Bradley R. Olney of Company H relieved him of his charge. Assisted by Lieutenant-Colonel Clark, Plunkett managed to make his way back towards the rear, eventually being stretchered to a temporary hospital in Fredericksburg. (4)

Clara Barton

Clara Barton as photographed by Mathew Brady in 1865

Unfortunately for Thomas his arms could not be saved, and later that day he endured a double amputation. He was not expected to survive, and was fortunate that a soon to be famous nurse was in Fredericksburg to offer him assistance. Clara Barton, the future founder of the American Red Cross, had a special affinity with the 21st Massachusetts and stayed with Thomas as the surgeons did their work. She was shown the flag that he had carried and remarked that his blood ‘literally obliterated the stripes.’ Sergeant Plunkett was moved from a field hospital towards the rear on 25th December, along with other wounded from the regiment. On their way to the train station their comrades in the 21st stood at ‘present arms’ in their honour, wishing them well on their road to recovery. (5)

Clara Barton continued to be of assistance to the Irishman during 1863. Thomas had recovered sufficiently in the Armory Square Hospital to leave, but his brother was unable to get permission from the military authorities to collect him. Clara took Thomas to see Senator Henry Wilson on the Capitol to sort the matter out. After introducing him, the Senator extended his hand saying ‘How do you do, Sergeant?'; Clara interceded, gently telling the Senator ‘You will pardon the Sergeant for not offering you a hand, he has none.’ Shocked, Wilson exclaimed ‘No hands!, No hands! My God, where are they?’. Clara explained the situation, and the Senator speedily resolved the difficulties, allowing Thomas to return home. (6)

Thomas Plunkett was discharged from service on 9th March, 1864. He met Clara Barton again that April, letting her know that he had been the recipient of $4000 from charitable donors; he was also granted a full pension. The Irishman was awarded the Medal of Honor on 30th March, 1866. His citation read: ‘Seized the colors of his regiment, the color bearer having been shot down, and bore them to the front where both his arms were carried off by a shell.’ Thomas went on to marry and have two children, and later in life he would spend 15 years as a messenger in the State House at Boston. Thomas Plunkett died on 10th March 1885 at the age of 44, in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he is buried in Hope Cemetery. The bloodstained flag that he carried that December day still survives, and is preserved in the Massachusetts State House. (7)

(1) Walcott 1882: 459; (2) Ibid: 241; (3) Walcott 1882: 241, New York Times obituary 1885; (4) Walcott 1882: 241, New York Times obituary 1885, Oates 1994: 113; (5) Oates 1994: 114, Walcott 1882: 258; (6) Oates 1994: 122; (7) Walcott 1882: 459, Oates 1994: 134, Broadwater 2007: 159, New York Times obituary 1885;

References & Further Reading

Broadwater, Robert P. 2007. Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients: A Complete Illustrated Record

Oates, Stephen B. 1994. A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War

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

Walcott, Charles F. 1882. History of the Twenty-First Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers, in the War for Preservation of the Union, 1861- 1865

New York Times 11th March 1885 ‘A Heroic Color-Bearer Dead’

Civil War Preservation Trust Fredericksburg Page

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

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Categories: Battle of Fredericksburg, Massachusetts, Medal of Honor

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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23 Comments on “Medal of Honor: Sergeant Thomas Plunkett, 21st Massachusetts Infantry”

  1. February 22, 2011 at 11:02 pm #

    Really nice work in summarizing the story of this incredibly brave individual. In reaching Clark and the 21st Mass, I had the honor of being escorted to the flag vault in the State House where the curator produced the 21st’s national colors. Not to be macabre, but seeing the stain of Plunkett’s blood on that flag made it all very real. The most profound experience I have ever had in viewing an artifact.

    On a lighter note, Plunkett apparently worked at the State House after the war and there is a tradition, probably apocryphal, that one of the doors to the House chamber was outfitted with a square doorknob to accommodate his prosthesis. Possibly I’m spreading mythology here, but I’ve been told it’s still there.

    • March 1, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

      Many thanks! I can imagine it must be quite an experience to see the flag up close, it is an amazing survival. Also a great story about the doorknob, well worth the telling even if it is a myth!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. Chris Conlin
    March 18, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    Plunkett was a relative of my family. Thomas, to accomodate his loss of limbs; had a special tankard that he could hoist his beer with.

  3. March 18, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    What an incredible relative to have! It is good to see that he was still able to enjoy a drink in later years!

    Kind Regards,

    Damian.

  4. Judy Fitzpatrick Parisi
    April 18, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    Wow, I found this site by accident. I too am a relative of Thomas Plunkett. My dad had compiled our family tree and as I recall Thomas’ mother was Catherine Fitzpatrick. Sadly my dad passed away before we could do a family road trip out to Mechanic’s Hall to see Sgt Plunkett’s portrait. I have seen photos of his grave.

    My husband and I are civil war reenactors with the 28th Mass Irish Volunteer Infantry. Quite by accident, when we were in Gettysburg in 2007, I happened to be in an antique store and was speaking with a friend about my great great great uncle. A man overheard me and said he was from the same town and grew up in the house next to where the Plunkett’s lived. He was a civil war buff and had actually had a couple of original photographs of Thomas Plunkett. I would love to get in touch with this man again. Now that we’re gearing up for the 150th events I want to learn as much as I can before we go back to Fredericksburg. When I visited there in 2004, a national park service guide showed us on the map the area where Plunkett fell, it was a humbling experience.

    I’ve always been curious, where is the Medal of honor he received? I understand a cousin has his rifle.

    Would love to learn more,
    Judy

    • April 22, 2011 at 5:39 pm #

      Hi Judy,
      A great relation to have and a fantastic story! I have been looking to see where his Medal of Honor might be but I haven’t come across it as yet, I will keep you posted if I can get any more information on it and anything else that might be of interest!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

    • Scott
      August 23, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

      My mom is a Fitzpatrick and her brother, now my brother has one of the rifles used by Thomas Plunkett.

      • August 26, 2013 at 9:15 am #

        Hi Scott,

        many thanks for getting in touch! Do you have any photos of the rifle that you could share with us? i would love to see it!

        Kind Regards,

        Damian.

      • Judy Fitzpatrick Parisi
        August 27, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

        Is your mother Florence? I did hear about his gun. Does anyone know what happened to the Medal of Honor ?

      • scott baker
        August 28, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

        Yes. Do you know my mother? I believe the flag and medal of honor are in the archives in Worchestr

      • Judy Fitzpatrick Parisi
        August 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

        Lets talk off line. My email is judyfhcg@aol.com

  5. Steve
    January 20, 2014 at 2:46 am #

    My relative was a Lt Col of company E MA 21st Joseph P Rice Great site. I am interested in seeing the flag . It is at the Statehouse? I have tons of items from the 21st as well as photo’s I will look through them.. You must be proud

    • January 25, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

      Hi Steve,

      I haven’t seen it myself, but as far as I am aware it is in the Statehouse- it would be quite something to see!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

      • Judy Parisi
        January 27, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

        It was in the State House but it has not been there for a long time, now there is a digitized version there. I understand it is now in the Mass Archives but I don’t believe it is on display.

      • January 27, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

        Hi Judy,

        Thanks for that- is there any indication of what type of condition it is in these days?

        Kind Regards,

        Damian.

    • Donald Dineen
      May 6, 2014 at 12:56 am #

      Steve; I am greatly interested in learning much much more about the 21st Mass. I have had the pleasure of reading Walcott’s history and other published material as well as a few manuscripts. Can we get in touch to learn more of your collection and photos. I am in central MA. Please feel free to contact me at donalddineen@gmail.com.

    • Donald Dineen
      May 6, 2014 at 1:06 am #

      Steve; I am greatly interested in learning much much more about the 21st Mass. I have had the pleasure of reading Walcott’s history and other published material as well as a few manuscripts. Can we get in touch to learn more of your collection and photos. I am in central MA. Please feel free to contact me at donalddineen@gmail.com. Thank you.

  6. Jane
    February 22, 2014 at 6:07 pm #

    Thanks for great information. Can anyone confirm the story that was printed in the Hartford Post (and excerpted in the Andover (Mass.) Advertiser on Jan. 1864, where I saw it.) titled “A Romantic Story if True,” “When he left for the wars, Plunket was engaged to a Miss Lorrimer. Upon his return, he considered his helpless condition and offered a release to his betrothed which was readily accepted. Her sister [Miss Nellie Lorrimer] was so indignant at this that she said she would marry the brave man herself if he was agreeable, and agreeable he was; and they were married.”

    • February 26, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

      Hi Jane,

      What a fantastic story! I would be interested to hear if any readers have more on it!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  7. Donald Dineen
    May 5, 2014 at 11:49 pm #

    My great great grandmothers youngest brother Pvt Joseph Mead, born in Middleton, County Cork, Ireland, immigrated to the US in July 1850 with his mother and five siblings. He served with Plunkett and the 21st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment that day and was in 18 named battles from 1861 to July 30 1864 when he was taken prisoner at the battle of the Crater. He died in the rebel prison at Danville VA five months later. He is buried in the National Cemetery at Danville. Is there an e-mail address by which we can correspond in greater detail? Thank you.

    • May 20, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

      Hi Donal,

      Many thanks for your comment- this is a story that interests me greatly- I have sent on an email to you regarding it.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Irish-Born Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients: The Complete List? | Irish in the American Civil War - January 26, 2012

    [...] Plunkett, Thomas [...]

  2. Irish-Born Medal of Honor Project | Irish in the American Civil War - December 30, 2012

    [...] Plunkett, Thomas [...]

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