Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

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spotsylvania-feat
Fighting by the Irish Brigade at Spotsylvania lasted 20 hours on May 12, 1864.

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On May 15, 1864, Sergeant Peter Welsh of the 28th Massachusetts Regiment of the Irish Brigade had written to his wife to tell her that he had been “slightly wounded” in the arm at Spotsylvania Courthouse in Virginia. He wrote to her that the Union army had won a great victory there and had “licked [the] saucepans” out of the Confederates on May 12 in “the greatest battle of the war.”1

Welsh had been wounded in the first part of the Battle of Spotsylvania when the Irish Brigade participated in a dawn assault by 20,000 Union troops on an entrenched Confederate line at the Muleshoe and Bloody Angle. Thousands of Confederates were captured or killed and thousands more fled from the onslaught. But the “very perfectness of the victory” wrote one Irish Brigade commander, “had destroyed all organization” among the Union troops. 2

Soon after Welsh’s wounding, Robert E. Lee had personally ridden to the battlefront and reorganized his panicking men. Later in the day, the Confederates counterattacked and the two sides spent hours in close combat, with men of the opposing armies on either side of the defensive walls thrown up by the Confederates. One Irish Brigade officer of the 116th Pennsylvania Regiment described the fighting after Peter Welsh was wounded:

The men [of the Irish Brigade] fell back before the vigorous blows of the enemy, leaving behind many of their comrades who fell at every step; finally all were forced out, and took position on the outer face of the [entrenchments]. The men… were still mixed up… when they recrossed [sic] the works that they had captured but an hour before. The men… were scattered in groups along the works, No sooner were the men over the works than the furious attacks of the Confederates commenced the assaults that were destined to continue all day and late into the night. No language can describe this hand-to-hand fight… Men fired into each others’ [sic] faces, were shot through the crevices of the logs, bayonetted over the top of the works. In their wild enthusiasm men would leap up on the works and fire down upon the enemy standing there, while freshly loaded muskets were handed to them, keeping up a continuous fire until they in turn were shot down. The dead and dying were in piles on both sides of the works…3

A witness from the Irish Brigade wrote that “the long bloody day of May 12th [when Peter Welsh was wounded] did not end until midnight, when the exhausted troops of both armies sank on the wet ground to sleep among the dead and dying.”4

spots-bloody-angleThe fighting at the Muleshoe and Bloody Angle lasted for 20 hours after Peter Welsh joined the initial attack. A Confederate wrote later that “the question became, pretty plainly whether one was willing to meet death, not merely to run the chances of it.”

In past battles, gallant charges that overran positions might lead to an army’s withdrawal and an end to fighting for weeks. At Spotsylvania, charges and countercharges led to a bloody stalemate for days of fighting over the bodies of the dead. The Civil War had entered a new phase, one where individual battles no longer took place and the fighting never seemed to end. 5

spotsylvania-entrenchmentsUnion and Confederate soldiers fought for hours on either side of these entrenchments at Spotsylvania.

Peter Welsh had been wrong. The Irish Brigade had not participated in a great war-ending victory at Spotsylvania. Instead, its charge had helped inaugurate 11 months of daily combat between two armies always within shooting distance of one another.6

Peter Welsh’s wife Margaret had tried to dissuade her husband from serving in the Union army. In spite of her obvious anger at his decision, when he was wounded she left New York and rushed to Washington where he was being treated. On May 17, the bullet that had hit his arm was removed and he seemed to be recovering, but a few days later he took a turn for the worse. The wound began discharging blood and pus. Welsh was suffering from blood poisoning. He had nausea and chills and could not eat or drink.7

Soon Margaret Welsh sent a short telegram back to her relatives in New York: “HE IS DEAD AND WILL BE IN NEW YORK IN MORNING.” On June 1 he was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens. 8

After her husband’s death, Margaret, the wife of an immigrant carpenter, had few means of support at her disposal. She had a small pension of $8 per month in compensation for the loss of her man and she would eventually receive $342.86 owed to Peter in back pay and bounties. In poor health, she came to rely on her family for succor. 9

margaret-welsh-finalMargaret Welsh

In spite of her modest means, Margaret had a large monument erected over Peter’s grave. The monument identified him as an immigrant and read: “Peter Welsh: Color Sergeant…Irish Brigade.” She also carefully preserved the letters he had sent her, most written by him to explain his disagreement with her over the nature of the Civil War and the immigrants’ identity in American society. She had thought that as victims of nativist prejudice, immigrants were marginalized outcasts who owed the Federal government little. Peter had said that the United States belonged to the immigrant as much as it did to the native born. 10

In one of the letters Margaret saved, Peter had told her father that he had only one regret, that his “dear wife” was “lonesome and freted [sic] on my account.” Her lonesomeness must have increased tremendously after his death. In an age when women were defined as wives and mothers, she never remarried and she had no children. She found solace in religious devotion at St. Vincent de Paul’s Church in New York City and in the company of her parrot. Like tens of thousands of immigrant women, her dreams of married life with the man she loved ended on a Virginia battlefield. 11

Perhaps Margaret sometimes read Peter’s letters to remember his love for her. In one letter from the battlefield he had written:

Now my dear wife I must conclude with the fervent wish that God may bless and protect you until I see you again… fare well for the present my dear and loving wife… may angels guard you.12

peter-welsh-grave-finalResource:

The Civil War Trust has a magnificent new interactive map on the Overland Campaign including the Battle of Spotsylvania.

Sources:

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. 158; The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903); The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern by Gordon Rhea published by LSU Press (1997).
2. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 212.
3. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 214.
4. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 214.
5. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern by Gordon Rhea published by LSU Press (1997).
6. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern by Gordon Rhea published by LSU Press (1997).
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. 157.
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. 157.
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) Preface.
10. 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) Preface.
11. 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) Preface.

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

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

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