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