The Battle of Fredericksburg is best known from an Irish perspective for the doomed advance of the Irish Brigade. But a number of Irishmen faced their more famous countrymen from behind the stone wall at Marye’s Heights, dressed in Confederate grey. Chief among them was Colonel Robert McMillan of the 24th Georgia Infantry, who played a key role in repelling the Union assault.
Robert McMillan was not a young man at Fredericksburg, having been born in Antrim on 7th January 1805. Prior to the conflict he had worked as a grocer and dry goods merchant in Elbert County, Georgia, and had served as a State Senator between 1855-56. He had been appointed Colonel of the 24th on 30th August 1861; his son also went to war with him, acting as the unit’s Major. After Fredericksburg McMillan unsuccessfully ran for Confederate Congress, and would eventually resign his commission on 9th January 1864. His military career wasn’t finished, however. He was later to serve as Colonel of the 4th Georgia Militia during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. The Antrim native died on 6th May 1868 in Clarkesville, Georgia, where he is buried in the Old Cemetery. (1)
Fredericksburg had been Robert McMillan’s finest hour. The Southern Press were quick to identify his performance in the battle, his Irish nativity and his role in repelling the Union assault. Less than two weeks after the engagement, on 26th December 1862, the Richmond Whig ran the following story about his performance in the fight:
A GALLANT IRISHMAN AT FREDERICKSBURG
The following extract from a private letter will show that Meagher met his match at Fredericksburg in a gallant son of the Emerald Isle, Colonel Robert McMillan, of the 24th Georgia. We should like to see McMillan at the head of the lamented Cobb’s brigade, pitted against Meagher or Corcoran in an open field:
“But the rejoicing ceased for a time, and mourning sat on every countenance, as four grief-stricken litter bearers passed down the lines, bearing the heroic Cobb, who had fallen in the first charge of the enemy. Lieutenant Colonel Cook, commanding Phillip’s Georgia Legion, was killed at this period of the action. A fixed resolution seemed at once to possess every heart, to avenge the death-wound given to their General, and it devolved upon Col. Robert McMillan, of the 24th Georgia Regiment, to lead them in the effort. An opportunity now offered. A column, stronger and heavier than the first, was seen to advance. Flash after flash was seen upon the opposite river bank. Shell after shell fell around us, which were responded to from the heights in our rear. Colonel McMillan directed the small arms to cease until the enemy should come within musket range. The artillery continued its thunder, the musketry remaining silent, till the enemy came within fire of our shortest range guns. Soon leaden hail commenced pouring from the clouds of smoke before us. The Colonel passed along the lines surveying the movements of the enemy, when suddenly, at his command, the brigade rose and sent a volley into the ranks of the foe, which carried ruin in its way. Again and again was the assault renewed, and again and again was it repulsed, with tremendous slaughter. For the troops, the position chosen was an admirable one, but on the part of the officer who did his duty, there was required the utmost coolness and courage. This, Colonel McMillan certainly manifested. While he was passing along the line, waving his sword, and encouraging his men, they seemed to catch the spirit of their leader, and redouble their efforts, while his own regiment turned, in the thickest of the fight, and gave him three hearty cheers. He possesses the confidence of his troops. They love him, and, if need be, will follow him to the death. In the battle of Fredericksburg, he won a laurel wreath, to which fresh leaves will doubtless be added, when the tocsin shall again summon him to the field.” (2)
(1) Allardice 2008: 269; (2) Richmond Whig 26th December 1862;
References & Further Reading
Allardice, Bruce 2008. Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register
Richmond Whig 26th December 1862: A Gallant Irishman at Fredericksburg
Civil War Trust Battle of Fredericksburg Page
Cotton Boll ConspiracyDecember 14, 2012 5:07 am
It’s hard to imagine a 57-year-old literally leading men into battle, or even being involved in the actual battle at all, rather than standing in the back and directing the action. It had to be an inspiration to his troops.