The Death of Color Sergeant Peter Welsh, 28th Massachusetts Infantry

Color Sergeant Peter Welsh of the 28th Massachusetts Regiment has become one of the best known members of the Irish Brigade. The publication of his Civil War letters in 1986, under the title Irish Green and Union Blue, revealed the picture of a man devoted to the cause of Union. In the summer of 1862 he had travelled from his home in New York to Boston to settle a family dispute, only for both sides of the argument to turn on him. Despondent, he embarked on a drinking spree, spending all the money he had travelled with. He was so ashamed of his actions that he enlisted in Company K of the 28th rather than return home. (1)

One of the green flags carried by the 28th Massachusetts Infantry (Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Welsh appears to have been a born soldier, and on St. Patrick’s Day 1863 he had his proudest moment when he was promoted to carry the regiment’s green flag. His letters are in the main written to his wife, Margaret, and many seek to allay her concerns for his safety and to justify his service in the army. When she expressed her fears that he would be even more of a target when carrying the colors, Welsh wrote a detailed explanation to counter this, telling her ‘there is no such thing as taking shure aim in the battlefield’ and that ‘those on either side of the colors…are more likely to get struck then the color bearer’. His attempts to protect his wife as much as possible from the brutal reality of warfare are heart-warming. (2)

Peter Welsh fought with the 28th Massachusetts from South Mountain to Spotsylvania. On 15th May 1864 he wrote the following letter to Margaret:

Washington May 15th/64

My dear wife

i write those few huried lines to let you know that i got slightly wounded on the 12th  it is a flesh wound in my left arm  just a nice one to keep me from any more fighting or marching this campaign  we have had a prety tough time of it  we had been 8 days constantly fighting before i got hit  that was the greatest battle of the war  we licked saucepans out of them  My dear wife i think i can get sent to new york to hospital  if not i will get a sick furlow to go home  Dudly Burns has lost the first finger of his left hand  James was all right when i left the front  my dear wife do not be uneasy about me  i am all right here  give my love to all our friends  God bless and protect you  write to me as soon as you get this and send me five dollars if you can  good by for the present

your loving husband

Peter Welsh 

Pieces of Peter Welsh's left ulna removed during surgery, with the deformed bullet at top (Medical and Surgical History)

Margaret rushed to her husband’s side. He had been sent to Carver Hospital in Washington, where on 14th May Surgeon O.A. Judson reported his injury as a ‘gunshot wound of left forearm, by a conoidal ball, producing compound comminuted fracture of inferior third of left ulna. On 17th May, two days after Welsh had written to his wife, Acting Assistant Surgeon J.S. Wentz operated on his injury, removing broken pieces of his ulna and the bullet. After the procedure he was apparently doing well, but his health began to deteriorate on 20th May. It transpired that he was suffering from pyaemia, a type of blood poisoning. Color Sergeant Peter Welsh died on 28th May 1864. Margaret, who must have been distraught, sent a telegram to her uncle in New York; it read simply ‘HE IS DEAD AND WILL BE IN NYORK IN MORNING’. Peter Welsh is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, Queens, New York. His war letters remain, providing us with some of the most insightful and poignant information on the Irish experience of the American Civil War. (3)

(1) Welsh 1986: 4, 81; (2) Welsh 1986: 156 (3) Welsh 1986: 156-157, Otis 1876: 959;

References

Otis, George A. 1876. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion, Part 2, Vol. 2, Surgical History

Welsh, Peter (edited by Lawrence Kohl with Margaret Cossé Richard) 1986. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers

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Categories: 28th Massachusetts, Battle of Spotsylvania, Books

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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One Comment on “The Death of Color Sergeant Peter Welsh, 28th Massachusetts Infantry”

  1. August 6, 2011 at 2:00 am #

    Those letters are amazing and deserve to be read widely.

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