Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

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Spotsylvania was the second bloody battle of the Overland Campaign.

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One immigrant soldier’s road to The Wilderness had been a lonely and dangerous one.

On July 6, 1863, Peter Welsh, who carried the flag of the 28th Massachusetts Regiment of the Irish Brigade, wrote a short note home from Gettysburg to his beloved wife Margaret, “I came out of this terifick [sic] battle unhurt thank God.” A week later he wrote her a long letter describing the battle, asking her about the condition of her often-sore feet, and commiserating with her over their mutual loneliness since he went off to fight.1

28th-massachusetts-flagAn illustration of the flag bearer carrying the first flag of the 28th Massachusetts.

Welsh, a carpenter from New York, wrote that he had read of the “disgracefull” [sic] Draft Riots in his own adopted city. He said that the agents of Confederate President Jefferson Davis had likely incited the riots and he told his wife that the conspirators should be “hung like dogs.” Although many immigrant Irish were in the rioting mobs, Welsh saw them as nothing more than “bloody cutthroats” who could only be brought to their senses by cannon fire. 2

Like many soldiers, Welsh saw the riots as a stab in the back of the Union army, coming as they did immediately after the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Speaking of the rioters, he wrote to his wife, “A pretty time they are getting up mob riots when one unanimous effort might finish up this acursed [sic] war in a few weeks.” The rioters might have wanted the war to end, but by giving encouragement to the Confederates, Welsh believed, they had prolonged it 3

While Welsh’s letters in 1863 affirmed his devotion to the Union cause, he always regretted being separated from his wife. In August, 1863, he wrote to her, “I wish this war was over so that I could go home to you and nothing but death should separate us again.” A month later he wrote, “My dear wife I never felt so homesick… and I feel it most on your account.”  He ended his letter, “God grant that we may soon be together again… we will be alright yet.”4

28th-Mass-tiffany-flagIt is likely that Sergeant Peter Welsh carried this flag at The Wilderness and Spotsylvania.

Margaret worried that Peter might fall into his bachelor ways without her presence. Welsh had to reassure his wife often that he was abstaining from alcohol and looking after his moral state. “My dear wife,” he wrote her, “we have a priest continually with us.” Chaplain William Corby, formerly of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, was “always with us where ever we go,” he wrote, “and always ready to do anything he can for any one of the brigade.”5

After two years of heavy fighting, Welsh’s term of army service was nearly over at the end of 1863, but he chose to reenlist at the beginning of 1864. 6

In an April 25, 1864 letter to his father-in-law, Welsh showed his great enthusiasm for America, writing that his brother-in-law should immigrate from Ireland to New York as soon as possible, saying that “his chances of advancing himself are fifty per cent greater in this country then at home,” but he advised the young men in his family to “never think of soldiering” unless it was to free Ireland. Peter still believed in the cause of Union, but he did not want any more men of his family to suffer the dangers of combat.7

To a brother-in-law who had just arrived in the United States, Peter wrote in April 1864: “Let me give you a few words of advice… I give it from dearly bought experience… Never for heavens sake let a thought of enlisting in this army cross your mind it is right and the duty of citizens and those who have lived long enough in this country to become citizens to fight for the maintenance of law order and nationality but the country has no claim on you.”8

As the campaigning season of 1864 drew near, Welsh dreaded returning to Virginia, which he referred to as “a cursed state.” He called it the sepulcher, or tomb, of America. Battle after fruitless battle had been fought there and much of the blood spilled had been that of immigrants.9

Welsh’s dread would soon be realized. The new Union commander, Ulysses S. Grant began a massive move from Fredericksburg, Virginia, designed to destroy the main Confederate army under Robert E. Lee. Called The Overland Campaign, this movement by 120,000 Union soldiers would leave 55,000 Union soldiers dead, wounded or missing in just six weeks.10

In describing the area of Virginia through which the Union army was to march and fight after the war had ended, Lt. Col. St. Clair Mulholland of the Irish Brigade said, “The whole ground is a vast cemetery.” He wrote that while civilians visited the neat national cemeteries near the battlefields, many of the dead still laid where they had fallen.11

In the gardens and orchards, in the deep woods and by the murmuring streams, everywhere throughout the region, the men of both armies lie singly and in platoons, and where the forest fires swept through… their sacred dust rests among the fallen leaves.”12

The Irish Brigade was to leave its men and officers buried in shallow graves all along the course of Grant’s line of march. The Overland Campaign began with the Irish Brigade having “ten field officers present for duty,” wrote Mulholland, but, “within six weeks six of the ten were dead, killed in battle, and the other four were in the hospital badly wounded…”13

wilderness-paintingIn the Battle of The Wilderness the 28th Massachusetts suffered 124 killed, missing, wounded and captured, its second costliest battle of the war.

This meant that the soldiers were often led by inexperienced officers. Mulholland pointed out that, “In the Wilderness campaign promotion was rapid. An officer… was sure to be quickly advanced or surely killed.”14

The May 5-6, 1864 Battle of the Wilderness was the introduction to the new hell of warfare that would engulf the Irish and the native-born soldiers alike. Even when the fighting ended, men still died as raging fires ignited by cannon fire ignited dried woods and fields. One Union officer recalled the scene as the smoke and fire “became stifling, suffocating, blinding… Every moment some souls were leaving that atmosphere of hell, their bodies to be consumed by the devouring elements. Hundreds of wounded… unable to crawl away from the swiftly approaching flames, could only lay and moan and roast and die.”15

wilderness-fires Soldiers trying to rescue the wounded from The Wilderness fires might themselves be shot by snipers.

The Union army had suffered grievously in The Wilderness, but instead of retreating after the battle, Grant continued his advance south towards the Confederate capital at Richmond. Lee rushed to Spotsylvania, just 10 miles away, where his men quickly constructed fortifications to block Grant. 16

spotsylvania-map-1The move from The Wilderness to Spotsylvania, Union in blue. The Irish Brigade was in Hancock’s II Corps.

On the night of May 11, 1864 the Irish Brigade was ordered to fall in. “At ten p.m. the column was put in motion… with orders to attack at daylight. Of all the night marches… this one was the most trying. Through dense woods, in black darkness, the rain falling in torrents, dreary, weary, and in silence, the [Irish Brigade] tramped through the deep mud, slipping and splashing and falling over tree stumps…”17

Col. Dale of the Irish Brigade’s 116th Pennsylvania Regiment moved his men into attack position without really knowing his target. Recognizing the heavy odds against the attacking column he said, “Gentlemen… today may be for some of us the last on earth… [W]ould it not be well to say a prayer?” Dale told his men to “Strike for your God and country.”18

spotsylvania-map2Hancock’s Grand Assault on May 12 at 4:30AM on the Bloody Angle and the Muleshoe at Spotsylvania. The starting position of the Irish Brigade is marked “A”, its point of impact on the Confederate fortifications is at point “B”.

The Irish Brigade was to be part of an assault by 20,000 Union soldiers, a larger assault force than had charged with Pickett at Gettysburg. The massive attack was supposed to begin at 4 AM, but it was postponed for more than half an hour because the heavy fog made it impossible to see the target of the attack. “The men were ordered to use their bayonets only,” recalled Mulholland.19

Irish-Brigade-startThe men of the Irish Brigade began their charge at Spotsylvania at the treeline in the distance and moved over the open country towards the high fortified hill where the photo was taken.

The Brigade did not see the Confederates until dawn drove off some of the fog and the ground, according to Mulholland, “was altogether unknown to everyone.” The men were possessed of “a nervous uncertaintly [sic] as to what was coming,” he wrote, relieved only when the order to move forward came. 20

The Irish soldiers moved forward quietly and quickly. “[E]very man knew the importance of covering as much ground as possible before being discovered,” wrote the old officer. Confederate skirmishers began firing into the brigade, but the men stayed silent until they “caught sight of the red earth of the [Confederate fortifications] and, with a wild cheer that broke the stillness, they rushed up the sloping ground.”21

The Union troops tore away obstructions placed in front of the Confederate works and in doing so the men of different regiments and brigades mixed together. Mulholland recalled the scene:

“[T]he great mass of men, with a rush like a cyclone, sprang upon the intrenchments [sic] and swarmed over, beating down the defenses and using the bayonet… The surprise was complete. [M]any [Confederates] were still sound asleep, rolled in their blankets and dreaming. …Men became insane with the excitement of victory.” 22

spots-diaorama The Union attack on the Confederate fortifications at Spotsylvania from a diorama at the Chancellorsville NPS Visitors’ Center

The “insanity” had a basis. In the silent assault, the Union troops had captured many artillery pieces, several thousand men, and two Confederate generals. 23

Peter Welsh had carried the flag of the 28th Massachusetts as the Irish Brigade stormed over the Confederate fortifications at Spotsylvania. On May 15th he wrote to Margaret of the fighting at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. He told her that he had been for “8 days constantly fighting” and that “we have had a pretty tough time of it.” He wrote that Spotsylvania was the “greatest battle of the war” and he told her with pride that “we licked [the] saucepans out of them.”24

irish-brigade-spots-paintingThis painting depicts the assault of the Irish Brigade at Spotsylvania. The flag is that of the Irish 116th Pennsylvania. The soldiers on the right edge of the paiting have the insignia of the Fighting 69th New York Regiment, the original regiment of the Irish Brigade.

Welsh told his wife that she “should not be uneasy about me…I am all right here.” He did report that “I got slightly wounded” but he assured her that it is “a flesh wound in my left arm,” what he called “a nice one to keep me from any more fighting or marching this campaign.” In the last letter he would send Margaret from the war he wrote “good by for the present” and signed it “your loving husband Peter Welsh.”25

trenchline-at-muleshoe-where-Irish-brigade-broke-throughThe eroded trenchline where the Irish Brigade fought still remains. Peter Welsh was shot near here.

Video: Historian Gary Gallagher Talks About The Wilderness and Spotsylvania

Sources (Under Construction):

1. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Massachusetts edited by Lawrence Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard published by Fordham University (1986) p. 107-110.
2. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Massachusetts edited by Lawrence Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard published by Fordham University (1986) p. 110.
3. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Massachusetts edited by Lawrence Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard published by Fordham University (1986) p. 113.
4. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Massachusetts edited by Lawrence Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard published by Fordham University (1986) pp. 113-132.
5. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Massachusetts edited by Lawrence Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard published by Fordham University (1986) p. 128-129.
6. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Massachusetts edited by Lawrence Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard published by Fordham University (1986) pp. 141-142.
7. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Massachusetts edited by Lawrence Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard published by Fordham University (1986) p. 154.
8. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Massachusetts edited by Lawrence Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard published by Fordham University (1986) p. 155.
9. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Massachusetts edited by Lawrence Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard published by Fordham University (1986) p. 147.
10.
11.
12. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 252,
13. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 248.
14. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 248.
15. Emerging Civil War Kindle Location 361
16.
17. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 206.
18. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 207.
19. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 208.
20. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 208.
21. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 208.
22. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 209.
23. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 209.
24. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Massachusetts edited by Lawrence Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard published by Fordham University (1986) p. 158.
25. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Color Sergeant, 28th Massachusetts edited by Lawrence Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard published by Fordham University (1986) p. 147.

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

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

Cultural

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

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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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