"The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle"
by Michael H. Macnamara
The Siege of Fredericksburg. -- The gallant Irish Brigade. -- First Day. -- The Second Day. -- In Position. -- General Humphrey. -- Expectation. -- We sleep on the Field.
WE remained in camp at Falmouth a few days, while General Burnside was perfecting his plans for the siege of Fredericksburg, which commenced on the 11th of December, 1862. The siege guns of the army of the Potomac, in position on elevated points on the right and left of the houses of Phillips and De Lacey, opening fire upon the city, and continuing, for nearly three days, to hurl into the devoted city their tremendous missiles of destruction. Our engineers were desperately striving, under the cover of our guns, to lay a pontoon bridge, over which our army was to pass; and time after time they were repelled by the galling fire of musketry from the rebels in the rifle-pits on the banks of the river. But our men still continued their work, and, driving their boats upon the opposite bank, they sprang at the pits, and a fierce contest ensued, which resulted in the flight of the enemy, who rapidly retreated to the city, where they again made a stand.
The work of laying the bridges was soon effected, and a Massachusetts and a Michigan regiment passed over directly in front of the city, for the purpose of attacking it. After a brisk engagement, these regiments drove the rebels from the city to the hills beyond. A fierce fire from the artillery of the enemy, which was in position on these eminences, was then opened, and shell and shot flew thick and fast, but did not succeed in dislodging these gallant fellows. A strong force was then sent to support these two regiments, crossing the Potomac by pontoon bridges on the right and left of the city. The famous Irish Brigade formed a part of this force, and they no sooner reached the opposite side than they received orders to charge.
Posted in front of St. Mary's Heights, a position of great natural strength, and under a heavy fire, this famous brigade moved, under the leadership of the brave and accomplished Meagher, forward on their errand of death: up the steep hills, like lions they dashed upon the almost impregnable works of the foe; they fell fast, dead and dying, under the red blaze of the cannon. Again and again did they manfully try to force the Heights; time after time did they rally and again dash forward; but their devotion was in vain. The continuous artillery as well as musketry fire made fearful havoc in their ranks; and, exhausted by their herculean efforts to subjugate this stronghold, they were compelled to fall back and re-form at the foot of the hill. The fighting was continued in all parts of the field, and when night came on, and hostilities had ceased for the day, we had gained little or no material advantage.
The next day our regiment crossed, under cover of our batteries. The wounded of the Irish Brigade were down at the river side, waiting to be taken across, and were greeted with cheers by our lads as we passed, and many a stout fellow with the green boxwood in his cap looked at our Green Flag and our long lines with pitiful eyes, fearing that few of us would ever return. But the laugh and joke went round among us with the same ease and freedom as they ever did in camp. We were all in the best spirits. It was not for the regiment which had been baptized in the battles of the peninsular to feel otherwise.
We marched from the beach up the hill leading to the town and soon found ourselves in a long, narrow street. Here Colonel Guiney gave orders to unsling knapsacks. This was done; the men fell into their places. The colonel gave the command, "Load !" The guns were loaded. "Right face !" "Double-quick ! March !" were the orders that next fell upon our ears; we passed through a couple of desolate streets, and in a few moments found ourselves in a large, unsheltered plain, and bullets and shells keeping high festival in the air.
We halted by order for a moment, then marched slowly and steadily by the right flank farther across the plain, crossing a small gully in which lay several bodies. Having marched a sufficient distance in the estimation of a Pennsylvania colonel who commanded our brigade, we again changed our flank, and moved in line of battle up the hill, the regiment behaving splendidly. By order of the brigade commander we again halted under a tempest of bullets and shells, and remained again inactive for several minutes.
Up to this time a number of our men had been wounded. While in this position, a regiment, or the remainder of one, came scattering in, which was the same regiment, we afterwards learned, that retreated at Boteler's Mills. They had scarcely passed, when the noble General Humphrey, hat in hand, rode up to the very top of the hill, and remained there for a few seconds in the face of a destructive fire, and under the eyes of the enemy's sharpshooters, and then rode slowly back unharmed. We remained on the hill for a time, the front regiment of the brigade, with the exception of the Fourth Michigan, being jumbled together in some confusion behind, when again we received orders to march by the left flank. All this waste of time chafed Colonel Guiney and his officers exceedingly. We moved by the flank, however, and were then ordered to march in line of battle up the hill, to take a position at the crest, and hold it. This was definite, and promised something exciting; so, on we went through the enemy's fire, cutting down and dashing through wire fences, until we gained the brow of the hill. Our flags were driven into the ground, and with our colors fluttering defiance in front of the enemy, we lay down, leaving the bullets to whistle harmlessly over our heads. We lay in this position, expecting every moment orders to charge the stone wall from behind which Ewell's division was doing such tremendous execution. But they did not come. Night gradually fell upon us; the roar of artillery ceased; the roll of musketry gradually died away; and at dark all was still. The shouts of the rebels, who were but a few hundred yards from us, could be heard, and the groans of their wounded; ours had been taken to the city, and across the river. Their camp fires could be seen; we had none burning; amid the carnage and destruction that reigned around, we lay in our blankets, and many of us slept.
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