Fredericksburg Was The Worst Day In The Young Life of Private William McCarter Of The Irish Brigade

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Fredericksburg Was The Worst Day In The Young Life of Private William McCarter Of The Irish Brigade

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On Wednesday December 10, 1862, Private William McCarter was issued 80 rounds of ammunition for the battle that loomed at Fredericksburg. His cartridge box could only hold 40 rounds, so he stuffed his pockets with the rest. On the evening of the 12th, it was clear that the Union troops would fight the next day.1

“Sleep,” McCarter would later write, “was unknown to the majority of my regiment during the night.” The officers urged the men to rest “but few did,” he wrote “for the reason that the approaching struggle counteracted all such inclination.” McCarter and his comrades, who had crossed over the Rappahanock River into Fredericksburg during the day, were now just 1,000 yards from the Confederate lines.2

The Confederates were dug in on a ridge west of the city. They were behind a stone wall and sheltered by a sunken road from Union fire. They had weeks to fortify it and held it with tens of thousands of troops. While the Irish Brigade waited in the city to be called to battle, Private McCarter watched a Union division under General French move against the wall and come back “beaten crushed, demoralized.”  When some of McCarter’s comrades asked a lieutenant of the Irish Brigade what was happening on the battlefield he replied: “Well boys, French is licked to beat hell…We are soon to go over the same ground and try the same job that he failed to accomplish.”3

McCarter was serving as a clerk to the Irish Brigade’s commander, Brig. General Thomas Francis Meagher. The general told McCarter to stay behind and tend to his duties, but the private had snuck into the ranks when the brigade marched off to fight. When the Irish Brigade assembled on the morning of December 13th, Meagher gave each man a green sprig of boxwood leaf to put in his hat. The evergreen twig symbolized that this was an Irish fighting unit.4

modern-reenactors-of-the-28th-mass-with-boxwood-thumb

Reenactors from the 28th Mass. of the Irish Brigade with boxwood sprigs in their hatbands recreating Meagher’s distribution of the leaves before the assault at Fredericksburg. Source

As the Brigade moved through the town, stopping and starting as it went, McCarter saw the effect of war on civilians caught between two armies. “Here and there,” he wrote, “Negro women could be seen rushing out of half demolished houses, frequently with young children in their arms or crying and clinging to their skirts, perfectly frantic with fright.” It pained the men that they could do nothing for these refugees. The memory of one woman horrified him even years later. She was an older African American woman trying to save three children. Running from the Confederate artillery fire she was just fifteen yards from McCarter when a shell “struck her, cutting her body literally in two and killing her instantly.” Two of the children were killed by the same shot and the third died later.5

As McCarter and his comrades waited to go into action, the wounded from General French’s division were carried past them. “They presented to us who were just about to go into it fearful pictures of the horrors” that awaited the Irish Brigade, wrote McCarter. The private recalled in particular one poor officer whose arm had nearly been cut off by a cannon ball. An Irish soldier had to amputate his arm with a pen knife to relieve the officer’s anguish.6

The shelling was rapidly reducing houses in the town to ruins. One shell wounded McCarter’s colonel, killed his sergeant, wounded seven other privates and hit McCarter as well. When the Irish Brigade was finally ordered to move forward it had already lost dozens of men felled by artillery fire in the supposed shelter of the town.7

The brigade advanced to the edge of the city, at the base of the killing zone when it was again halted and the men were ordered to “fix bayonets.” McCarter says that the men realized this meant they were to make a desperate charge on the entrenched Confederates. They then dashed forward, occasionally stopping in depressions that offered some shelter for them to catch their breaths.8

The Irish Brigade made its final lunge up the hill that led to the Confederate line behind the stone wall. They charged up over dead and wounded Union troops, trampling the dying and slipping in their blood. When their rush brought them close to the wall, perhaps half the length of a football field from it, concealed Confederate troops rose up and fired a devastating volley into the Irish Brigade. Then the Confederates fired again and again nearly destroying the brigade.  McCarter wrote that it “it was simply madness to advance as far as we did and an utter impossibility to go further.” After only a few minutes, the brigade was “pretty well torn up.”9

The Irish Brigade tried briefly to shoot it out with the Confederates but while the Irish bullets bounced off the wall, the Confederate musket balls buried themselves in the chests, arms, and legs of the Union men. Many of those shot down were the officers supposed to command the Irish regiments and companies. The brigade’s firing line was only moments from collapse. Just then a bullet ripped into Private McCarter’s shoulder. His arm “dropped powerless to my side,” he wrote in his memoir. He had fired seven shots.10

When McCarter’s arm fell, he said, he did not realize he had been shot. He wondered why he couldn’t control his limb, but then he saw blood “rushing down the inside and outside sleeve of my uniform.” He became dizzy and his vision blurred and a terrible pain overcame him. He fell to the ground smashing his face into the soil. He tried to drag himself to the rear for help, but was nearly shot when he got up. He said that he realized that “to rise up would be fatal.” A friend of McCarter’s was killed right in front of him, and the wounded private now used the dead man’s body as a shield from the Confederate fire.11

“My situation was now an awful one,” he wrote later, “I was not 50 paces away from a large, victorious enemy.” Danger did not come only from the Confederates. Union artillery trying to hit the stone wall threw explosives into McCarter’s position immediately in front of their target. He watched friends shot down and crying for their mothers as their lives bled out. For all the human suffering of his comrades, McCarter looked around and saw “no success at any point” for the Union troops. Instead, only “death, havoc, and carnage was visible.” The trauma of that long day echoed in word’s he wrote two decades later; “I laid disabled, disheartened, hope a mere shadow.”12

McCarter believed that the final assault of the Irish Brigade had lasted fewer than twenty minutes. McCarter said that they “were blown back as though by the breath of hell’s door suddenly opened.”13

As the afternoon drew on, McCarter watched as Confederate sharpshooters began to take aim at the wounded men lying around him, killing them one by one. When he saw friends killed, he did not have the calluses to brush the pain off. Each new death sent him into mourning.14

McCarter was trapped. On top of the danger of being killed, he had to cope with not being able to fulfill basic bodily functions like getting a drink of water and urinating away from the place where he lay. Even when night came on, the Confederates would periodically fire into the darkness in hopes of catching soldiers who were moving about. The evening also brought with it bad weather. McCarter wrote that:

Soon after dark, rain commenced to fall and continued until morning, making the battlefield still more horrible than before, aggravating the sufferings and condition of the wounded.15

With a damaged body and facing dehydration, McCarter decided to risk being shot by the Confederates still firing into the night and run back to his now disorganized and retreating army in between volleys from his enemies behind the stone wall.  When he reached his own troops he found that “before 11 pm that night, the Army of the Potomac was a defeated, dejected, and demoralized mob.”16

Fredericksburg-Sumners-attack-thumb

The Union right flank at Fredericksburg. The Irish Brigade was part of Hancock’s Division. Source

Video: National Park Service historian Frank O’Reilly explains how two Irish Brigade regiments crossed a canal at Fredericksburg. Private McCarter was a member of the 116th Pennsylvania, discussed in the video:

Resources:

The Civil War Trust has a fascinating (if slow-loading) animated map of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The Army War College has a free book on the battle used for training contemporary army officers available here.

Private McCarter’s memoirs were not published until decades after his death. They are unusual in that his military career essentially began and ended at Fredericksburg. His description of his small but intense part in the battle is vivid and realistic. He occasionally falls into the conventions of 19th Century heroic military writing, but many of his observations seem honest. Interestingly, while he records many encounters with African Americans, he has a real blind spot on slavery. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996).

Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable published by the University of North Carolina Press (2002) is an excellent scholarly study of all aspects of the battle.

The leading blog on the battle is Mysteries and Conundrums which is maintained by National Part Service experts.

Sources:

1. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 1971; The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by David Power Conygham published by Fordham University Press (1994); Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1 Vol. 21; Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1 Vol. 19 pts. 1-2; The Antietam and Fredericksburg by Francis W. Palfrey (1882); The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock edited by Gary Gallegher published by the University of North Carolina Press (1995); Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable published by the University of North Carolina Press (2002); The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battles of Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg by Jay Luvis and Harold W. Nelson (1988); The Battle of Frederickburg by James Longstreet in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. III; The Confederate Left at Fredericksburg by Lafayette McClaws in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. III; Sumner’s Right Grand Division by Darius Couch in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. III; The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock by Francis Augustin O’Reilly pub. by LSU Press (2006).
2. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996).
3. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 2319-2334.
4. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 2032.
5. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 2372, 2382.
6. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 2391-2400.
7. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location
8. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location
9. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location
10. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location
11. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location
12. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location
13. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location
14. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location
15. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location
16. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

 

Cultural

Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

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The Real Story Behind The Immigrants’ Civil War Photo

Why I’m Writing The Immigrants’ Civil War

The Five Meanings of “The Immigrants’ Civil War”

No Irish Need Apply: High School Student Proves Yale PhD. Wrong When He Claimed “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Never Existed

The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

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Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War

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Should Lincoln Have Lost His Citizenship?

The First Casualties of the War Were Irish-Was that a Coincidence?

Civil War Anniversaries-History, Marketing, and Human Rights

Memorial Day’s Origins at the End of the Civil War

Germans Re-enact the Civil War-But Why Are They Dressed in Gray?

Leading Historians Discuss 1863 New York City Draft Riots

The Upstate New York Town that Joined the Confederacy

Civil War Blogs I Read Every Week

First Annual The Immigrants’ Civil War Award Goes to Joe Reinhart

Damian Shiels Wins Second Annual The Immigrants’ Civil War Award

Mother Jones: Civil War Era Immigrant and Labor Leader

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Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites

Fort Schuyler-Picnic where the Irish Brigade trained

No Irish Need Apply: High School Student Proves Yale PhD. Wrong When He Claimed “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Never Existed

The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

Books for Learning More About The Immigrants’ Civil War

Free Yale Course with David Blight on the Civil War

Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is Director of Legal Services at CARECEN and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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