We are approaching the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the engagement more closely associated with the Irish experience of the Civil War than any in the conflict. There will undoubtedly be much focus on the efforts of the Irish Brigade in the coming days, but I want to take an opportunity to remember that the majority of Irishmen went into action that December without a sprig of boxwood in their caps. To that end, I am focusing on one particular group of Irishmen, all of whom served in an ethnically mixed regiment. They were in earshot when Thomas Francis Meagher addressed his brigade before their fateful advance– later that day some of them would follow their countrymen into oblivion.
The soldiers of the 7th Rhode Island Infantry had spent the early part of Saturday 13th December waiting. Positioned in the town of Fredericksburg, many of them wandered in and out of the town’s houses and premises, searching for what they might ‘liberate.’ The pickings proved rich; men scurried to and fro with everything from barrels of salt mackerel and boxes of smoked herring to sugar and molasses. One Captain even directed his servant to attempt (unsuccessfully) to drag a piano back across the Rappahannock. But it was surely Company B who were most satisfied with their efforts, emerging from a tobacconist’s store laden down with both tobacco and the pipes to smoke it with. The furore quietened though when the Rhode Islanders spotted a body of troops moving purposefully up the street. It proved to be the Irish Brigade, now only moments from launching the most famous attack of their existence. One of the 7th remembered how the Irishmen:
…halted directly abreast the row of our stacked muskets, and, when at attention, the general [Meagher] made a brief address from his saddle, informing the men they were immediately to proceed to the front where he expected each one would do his duty and add to their honors. At its conclusion the column passed on to the battle front. A few moments after they disappeared one of our batteries suddenly opened fire, working its pieces with exceeding rapidity for a few moments, and then slacking down when a crackle of rifles ensued that increased to a continuous rattle. In less than half an hour the wounded of that brigade began to come in, some on stretchers and others less seriously injured leaning on their muskets as on a crutch or cane. The waiting soldiers calmly discussed their individual chances for making a similar exit from the field. (1)
Like almost every Federal unit in the Army of the Potomac, the 7th Rhode Island had its own liberal sprinkling of Irishmen in the ranks. Many came from the sizeable immigrant communities who worked in the State’s industries, most notably her textile mills. One wonders what they made of the sight of the unit that even then had come to represent the embodiment of their island’s contribution to the Union cause. The battle to come would be their first; their compatriots in the Irish Brigade had already proven themselves on the Peninsula and at Antietam. The Ocean Staters still had a couple of hours to wait before their own date with destiny, but before long increased Rebel shellfire on the town began to drop some of the men. At last they were ordered forward. Moving through the town’s streets and into the outskirts towards Marye’s Heights, the regiment gradually came under an ever-increasing fire, though the casualties were still light enough that each caused notice. Eighteen year-old Irish boy Michael Kerr of Company D was one, and his fate was remembered by William Hopkins:
Michael Kerr…was stricken by a bullet that cut a horribly ragged hole in his right temple, the side opposite the enemy unless he was looking around. His face quickly turned dark purple. I was one of those who placed him on a stretcher and carried him to the rear. We were obliged to stop and rest frequently though flying bullets and shells spattered mud upon us and shivered and splintered the fences and roofs. Each time we halted he cried, “Carry me away! Carry me away!” It required one man to hold him while we were removing him. We left him in charge of a New Hampshire surgeon whom I saw insert a probe deep in the wound.” (2)
Hopkins had misremembered, as Kerr had actually been struck in the left rather than right temple. The ball had destroyed the left side of his frontal bone and taken his eye. Remarkably he survived, though the wound debilitated him for the rest of his life; he maintained only partial vision in his surviving eye. As the 7th continued their stop-start advance on Marye’s Heights, the officers tried to take advantage of swales in the ground to reform the men as they sought to press on. As the Confederate fire ranged against them reached fever pitch– a “perfect volcano of flame”– the dreadful carnage of the preceding assaults was everywhere to see:
At every impediment whether fence, ditch or ridge where the progress of the line of battle had been delayed, was a line of dead and wounded. None would believe men could bleed so much except as it was seen. Barrels of blood had apparently been poured on the ground along those places. (3)
Eventually the Rhode Islanders could advance no further and tried to hold their advanced position by lying down under cover at the front, with most having to wait hours before they could retreat to Fredericksburg and assess their losses. Many of those losses were Irish, and Michael Kerr was far from the only Irish Rhode Islander who would bear the scars of Fredericksburg for the rest of his life. Others included men like Denis Foley of Company B, who sustained the first his two war wounds there– he would pass away almost three decades later in the Eastern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. (4)
We tend to forget that for the majority of Irish families, it was to the fate of regiments like the 7th Rhode Island Infantry that they looked, not that of the Irish Brigade. They included women like Elizabeth Boyle of Co. Tyrone, who had emigrated with her husband and five children to America in the early 1850s. By 1862 she was a widow living in the town of Johnston, Rhode Island. There she made her home in a tenement owned by the Merino Mill, where her eldest son Charles had worked as a spinner before the war. The awful news drifted back to her from Fredericksburg that two of her sons had been wounded, both serving in different units. Charles had fallen in Company E of the 7th, his left lung pierced by a rebel bullet as he advanced towards the Heights. Carried off the field and taken to Armory Square Hospital in Washington D.C., he lingered for weeks before death claimed him on 4th February 1863. (5)
There was to be no lingering hope for women like Margaret Gallagher in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Her husband Owen had been a factory wool carder before becoming a member of Company G of the 7th Rhode Island in August 1862. After Fredericksburg she was informed that her husband had been shot in the head and killed in the assault of the 13th December. The young Irish couple’s eldest child Francis was 2 at the time of Fredericksburg– Owen Junior had just turned three weeks old. Margaret surely knew fellow Irish emigrant Mary O’Neil, who also made her home in South Kingstown, whose husband James had also been a factory worker, and who had like Owen enlisted in August 1862. Unlike Owen, James did not lose his life on the battlefield, surviving long enough to be carried to Sturgis Hospital near Falmouth where he died three days after sustaining his injuries. His death left Mary to care for their four young children. (6)
Yet another whose military career had barely begun was former laborer Jerry Leary, who had also enlisted that August, seeing his service in Company H. Jerry was also a new husband, having married fellow immigrant Honora Connor in Norwich, Connecticut the previous March. Honora had given birth to their daughter Mary in Westerly, Rhode Island only three months later, suggesting that there may have been some urgency to formalise the couple’s relationship. It may well have been this chain of events that motivated 20-year-old Jerry to enlist in the first place. Either way, Honora barely had time to adapt to her new life as a wife and mother before Fredericksburg widowed her. (7)
As with so many battles where the Federals didn’t hold the field at the close of action, many Irish mothers and widows faced a long and tortuous road in attempting to prove the fate of their loved ones. Such was the trials that faced the mother of Thomas Malloy, who had joined Company E of the 7th as a private in September 1862. Thomas’s mother Mary had struck out from Co. Dublin with her family following the death of her husband, and by the coming of war was living in Fall River, Massachusetts. It was more than 14 months after the battle before her attorney received the following confirmation from Thomas’s former officer:
Camp 7th R I Vols near
Post Isabelle KY Jany 26 1864
Benjamin F. Winslow Esq.
I received your letter this day asking for what information I could give concerning the late Thomas Maloy, in answer to which I would say that he was a member of company “E” 7th R.I.V. and was with the company until the thirteenth day of December 1862. On that day while engaged in the battle of Fredericksburg, Va. he was struck in the neck by a ball which lodged in his chest. I saw him gasping for breath and loosed his equipments. About four o’clock in the afternoon he was taken to an old church used as a hospital where he died that night. Thinking of nothing further to write I will close.
Remaining yours & c.
1st Lieut Comdg Co “E” (8)
The Irish Brigade are rightly remembered and commemorated for their actions with the Army of the Potomac. There is an argument to be made, however, that their fame and celebrity has been so all-consuming as to obscure the true scale and breadth of Irish service in the Union military. That service amounted to some 180,000 Irish-born, not to mention the tens of thousands of American, Canadian, Scottish and English-born men who identified themselves as ethnically Irish. The impact on Irish communities of losses in units where we rarely consider the Irish– such as the 7th Rhode Island Infantry– help to us to recover something of the scale of that involvement, and of its impact.
*None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.
(1) Hopkins 1903: 42-3; (2) Hopkins 1903: 43-4, Register of National Home; (3) Surgical History 1.2: 331, Hopkins 1903: 45-6; (4) Register of National Home; (5) WC13003, 1860 Census; (6) WC105279, 1860 Census, WC6120; (7) WC61316, 1860 Census; (8) WC14436, 1860 Census;
1860 Census, Johnston, Providence, Rhode Island.
1860 Census, South Kingstown, Washington, Rhode Island.
1860 Census, Norwich, New London, Connecticut.
1860 Census, Swansey, Bristol, Massachusetts.
Record of Michael Kerr, Register of Eastern Branch, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.
Record of Dennis Foley, Register of Eastern Branch, National Home for Disable Volunteer Soldiers.
WC6120 of Mary O’Neal, Widow of James O’Neal, company G, 7th Rhode Island Infantry.
WC13003 of Elizabeth Boyle, Dependent Mother of Charles Boyle, Company E, 7th Rhode Island Infantry.
WC14436 of Mary Malloy, Dependent Mother of Thomas Malloy, Company E, 7th Rhode Island Infantry.
WC61316 of Honora Leary, Widow of Jerry Leary, Company H, 7th Rhode Island Infantry.
WC105279 of Francis and Owen Gallagher, Minor Children of Owen Gallagher, Company G, 7th Rhode Island Infantry.
US Army Surgeon General’s Office 1870. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion Part 1, Volume 2.
Hopkins, William P. 1903. The Seventh Regiment Rhode Island Volunteers in the Civil War 1862-1865.