Private Peter Welsh of the Irish Brigade survived the Battle of Fredericksburg. A week after the slaughter, Welsh wrote to his worried wife “thank God I came out safe.” But the brigade was not as lucky. Welsh reported that “our brigade got terribly cut up.” He lamented that it was “so small now that it was not fit to go into any further action unless it is recruited up.”1
The Irish Brigade had suffered blow after blow in the last third of 1862. The brigade’s men were hailed for their bravery at Antietam and Fredericksburg. That heroism was paid for with the blood of half of its men. The removal of their beloved General George McClellan as commander of the Union Army of the Potomac was felt throughout the brigade. Furthermore, the January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was not welcomed by many soldiers, who worried that it would harden the determination of Southern whites to fight on to the end and prolong the war.2
News from Massachusetts that the governor was recruiting blacks for the army divided the men. Welsh wrote that “the feeling against n—-s is intensely strong in this army… [Blacks] are looked upon as the principal cause of this war and this feeling is especially strong in the Irish regiments.”3
Welsh disagreed with his comrades about Massachusetts Governor John Andrews’s plan to recruit what would soon be the 54th Massachusetts. Welsh wrote, “I hope he may succeed.” He rejected the notion common among soldiers that blacks had “caused the war”, instead believing that wealthy men in league with the British crown were behind the conflict. He wrote that “England’s whole course has been in aid of the rebels.” The British tried to dismember the U.S. because “all monarchial powers hate republics,” he wrote.4
The months of devastation might lead you to think that Welsh and his comrades were ready to desert. Welsh’s own wife wrote a letter to him asking him to find a way to come home. In a moving response, Welsh reminded her that she had immigrated from a nation where a person from the lower class could never rise. He fought for the United States, he said, because here “the poorest mother may look with joy and satisfaction on her offspring” knowing that child could rise to the highest level of respect in society. American freedom was particularly important for the oppressed peoples of the world for whom the United States is “an asylum which is superior to any the world has ever known…And is this not something worth fighting for?” he asked her.5
Welsh’s willingness to fight would soon be tested. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1863, he was made the flag bearer of the 28th Mass. Volunteer Regiment. Only the bravest and most reliable men were allowed to carry the flag. Welsh wrote to his wife of his promotion; “I shall feel proud to bear up that flag of green, the emblem of Ireland and Irishmen and [especially] having received it on that day dear to every Irish heart the festival of St. Patrick.” 6
The green regimental flag of the 28th Massachusetts was carried by Peter Welsh.
Peter’s wife immediately shot back a letter saying she was “uneasy about [him] carrying the flag.” Flag bearer was no ceremonial position. The flag led the regiment, and all of its men looked to it in the confusion of battle to know where to go and how to align. Shooting the flag bearer could freeze the entire regiment. Union flag bearers were the favorite targets of Confederate sharpshooters and Peter’s wife knew that.7
Welsh wrote a response that his wife could not have found reassuring. He said that in seven battles, only three of the regiment’s color bearers had been shot. “Only” one had died.8
Peter Welsh would spend the rest of his life as the color sergeant of the 28th Massachusetts Regiment of the Irish Brigade. The first campaign he would carry the green flag in was Chancellorsville.9
Video: David Kincaid performing The Opinion of Paddy Magee
1. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 40 12/18/1862. Note: I have corrected Welsh’s spelling throughout and made minor additions of punctuation.
2. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986)
3. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 62 Feb. ? 1863
4. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 62 Feb. ? 1863
5. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 67 Feb. 3 1863
6. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986)
7. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 79-81 March 19 & 31 1863
8. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 81 March 31 1863
9. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986)
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.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
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.
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.
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.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites