Dec 1862–A Resurrected Peninsula Campaign Suffers a Bloody Death

By Gary Farrow, Danville Historical Society

With the armies expected to shut down for the winter, December was anticipated to be a quiet month, but Lincoln had other ideas.

December 20, 1862 North Star–The War

The Battle of Fredericksburg

Our war news this week is of the most exciting character – of a nature calculated to painfully interest the public. Great events have transpired at Fredericksburg. Again have the Union forces met the enemy, have fought severe and bloody engagements, and again has that enemy been found too strongly posted to be overcome… The preliminary shelling and occupation of Fredericksburg by our troops appeared to be a success. So was the crossing of the Rappahannock in the face and eyes of a deadly foe – that was one of the most daring military exploits on record.


Mapa-de-la-Batalla-de-Fredericksburg-Guerra-Civil-Estadounidense--13-Diciembre-1862The Federals were slaughtered. One of the most one-sided battles of the American Civil War was fought by General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of North Virginia and the Army of the Potomac, now commanded Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. It was waged over five mild days in mid-December. The Union troops initially took Fredericksburg with only token resistance from the Grays. The city had been evacuated prior to the commencement of serious bombardment. The rebels waited and fortified their positions in the Marye’s Heights behind the town.

It had been Burnside’s plan to cross the Rappahannock River a month earlier and race to Richmond, the Confederate Capitol, before Lee’s army had time to react. However, bureaucratic delays prevented Burnside from receiving the necessary pontoon bridges, which gave Lee time to ready his forces and offer resistance to the crossings. The Union troops sustained sniper fire as they attempted to install the bridges and engaged in some urban combat within the city limits.

Meanwhile Union troops under Major General William B. Frank crossed the Rappahannock south of the city and penetrated Lieutenant Stonewall Jackson’s defensive line, but they were finally repelled. With bridges ready, Burnside ordered multiple frontal assaults by the grand divisions of Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner and Joseph Hooker upon Marye’s Heights, which was fortified by troops commanded by one of Lee’s favorite officers, the defensive-minded Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Thousands of Union troops repeatedly traversed an open plain under murderous fire, only to be repelled by the rebels firing from above. .

1-general-burnside-war-is-hell-storeThe butcher’s bill for this futile effort was over 12,600 Union casualties. Burnside withdrew his troops from the field, and thus ended another failed campaign in the war’s Eastern Theatre. Weeks earlier, Lincoln had sacked General George B. McClellan for not aggressively pursuing Lee after the Union victory at Antietam. In some ways, the blood of Fredericksburg was on Lincoln’s hands as well as Burnside’s, because the impatient President had pushed Burnside and the Union war machine beyond their capabilities.

 A Brief Review of Fredericksburg, the Historical Novel

The historical novel Fredericksburg, by Kirk Mitchell was part of the research for this month’s article. Mitchell focuses on Irish soldiers who fought for both sides. These recent immigrants from their own war-torn country played key roles in the Battle of Fredericksburg. The author uses real life characters of every rank to tell the tale.

Thomas_F__MeagherUnion General Thomas Meagher led his fellow Irish across open ground to assault hidden Rebel fortifications within a sunken road and behind a stone wall. The Confederate Irishmen, the 24th Georgia Volunteers, led by Colonel Robert McMillan, anxiously awaited the oncoming attack by thousands of Yankees. We also have characters like Yankee color sergeant William Tyrrell, who does battle with his own fear and self-doubt; and we have rebel sergeant Michael Sullivan, who is steady as rock under pressure.

The Irish seemed born to tribal blood and martyrdom, based on resistance against the British back in Ireland. The author doesn’t ignore warts either, such as the bone-chilling hatred of some Irish towards blacks and the riots against the Irish in Philadelphia. The book seems true to time and place, context and character. It is a story of fear and valor, hardship and sacrifice, and culminates in the awful battle that was Fredericksburg.

A Profile of Brigadier General Thomas Meagher Leader of the Irish Brigade

In his native Ireland, Thomas Meagher was a leader in the Young Irelander Rebellion. This failed Irish Nationalist uprising took place on July 29, 1848, in the village of Ballingarry, South Tipperary. A force of Young Irelanders chased away an Irish Constabulary Unit, part of England’s puppet government, which subsequently raided a home and took hostages. A gunfight ensued, and lives were lost while the rebels escaped.

Meagher was soon arrested, convicted of sedition and sentenced to be “hanged, drawn and quartered.” Due to local and international pressure, his sentence was commuted, and he was exiled to the infamous Van Diemen’s Land in Tasmania, Australia. He eventually escaped to the United States in 1852. A gifted orator, Thomas Meagher continued his advocacy of the Irish cause on the lecture circuit of the day. He also studied law and journalism while earning his U.S. citizenship. After shots rang out at Fort Sumter, he recruited a company of infantrymen to be attached to the U.S. 69th Infantry Regiment New York State Volunteers in April of 1861.

Meagher and companions in camp,

Meagher and companions in camp,

After the defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, Meagher went back to New York and recruited the Irish Brigade and was commissioned to lead them during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. The Irish Brigade built a reputation as a fierce fighting unit. The Brigade incurred large losses at Antietam sustained under heavy volleys. Meagher was injured at this battle when he fell off his horse. Drunkenness was rumored; however, General McClellan’s report says that Meagher’s horse was shot out from under him.

It was at Fredericksburg where the Irish Brigade suffered its greatest loss. Twelve hundred of Meagher’s men went into battle and “two hundred and eighty men only appeared under arms to represent the Irish Brigade” the next morning. Meagher did not take the field on the day of the battle due to a knee injury.

On May 14, 1863, he resigned his commission when he was not allowed to raise reinforcements for his unit. Back in mid-May of 1862, the Irish Brigade fielded some 4,000 men; by May of the following year, it had been reduced to a few hundred. The Irish Brigade ranks only behind the Iron Brigade from the Midwest and our own Vermont Brigade for the highest percentage of casualties in battle.


This entry was posted in Historical events, Historical people, NSM articles, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.