THE FREE LANCE-STAR, FREDERICKSBURG, VA
Friday January 9, 2004
Irish Brigade did its part for the nation;
you should do yours, too
FOR MOST Americans, the history of the United States is nothing more
than a collection of names, locations, documents, and dates. Our
understanding of the American Civil War is no exception.
We are familiar with the names of Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, and
Fredericksburg. But the carnage associated with those names has been
reduced to colored arrows and blocks on maps.
We are familiar with the roles played by men such as Lincoln, Davis,
Lee, and Grant. But these men were not born to prominence. The
positions of Lincoln and Davis were defined by the prevailing attitude
of their constituents-the people. Their claims to fame of Lee and Grant
rested on the confidence of the common soldier in his leader's abilities
and in his cause.
In the end, it was the rank-and-file soldiers who put their fears aside,
faced the carnage, and determined victory on the battlefield.
The complete story of our history cannot be told by only recounting
famous names and dates, or by reciting speeches and documents. It
is important that we also recount the hardships, sacrifices, and
determination of ordinary men and women who fought to help make
the ideals set forth in those now-famous speeches and documents
reality . The Battle of Fredericksburg affords us an opportunity
to put a face and a name to the colored blocks and arrows on the
maps. To get a glimpse at how far we have come as a nation,
and what it has sometimes cost to achieve it. . Let us look at what
one man faced here 141 year ago:
Peter Welsh was 32 years old when he joined Company K, 28th
Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, in September 1862. The son of
Irish immigrants, he had been born in Canada, later emigrated to New
York City, married, and was employed as a carpenter before enlisting.
By the time Peter Welsh arrived with the 28th Massachusetts in
Falmouth on Nov. 17, he had been promoted to corporal and had
seen action at South Mountain and at Antietam.
On Dec. 12, the 28th Massachusetts, along with the other regiments
of the Irish Brigade, entered Fredericksburg and spent the night
at the City Dock.
In a letter to his wife, Welsh described the scene: "With mud ankle
deep to lay down and sleep on we hunted up pieces of boards and lay
them, down on the mud and then lay down and covered ourselves up
in our blankets. I slept as sound I think as ever I slept in my life
although our blankets were covered thick with frost in the morning."
Welsh and his comrades awoke at 4am an had breakfast. Of his
meals, Welsh commented the bread and meat allowed was not sufficient
to satisfy a man's appetite ... but a man could live on it." By late
morning, the Irish Brigade advanced through Fredericksburg's streets
and came under fire from Confederate artillery on Marye's Heights.
Welsh wrote, "They threw their shells into our line with great
precision .... One there wounded two men in the next file to me."
Darkness at Noon
About noon, the brigade deployed outside the town. They found open
fields swept by artillery and rifle fire and strewn with the remains
of French's Division, which had launched the first assault on the
They saw the advance of their division's first brigade cut to pieces.
Then it was their turn. Welsh described the scene:
"Ball and shell flying in all directions. The rebel position is on a
rangeof hills about a mile outside the city ... The storm of shell
and grape and canister was terrible mowing whole gaps in our ranks
and we having to march over their dead and wounded bodies. We
advanced boldly despite it all and drove the enemy into their
entrenchments but the storm of shot was then most galling and our
ranks were soon thinned. Our troops had to lay down to escape the
raking fire of the batteries ... every man that was near me in the
right of the company was either killed or wounded except one."
By about 1 o'clock, the attack of the brigade was over and Welsh
and the other survivors took what cover they could and awaited
"A great many remained in front as in going out they would again be
exposed to the raking fire of the enemy's batteries. And by remaining
in front we had only the fire of infantry and sharpshooters to bear ...
I remained in front until dark and then brought out some wounded
belonging to our company I went over the battlefield again before
daylight to see if I could find anymore of our men and the sights that
were to be seen there were hard enough."
When I read Peter Welsh's account, and similar accounts, I find
myself asking whether I could have faced these dangers. I then
wonder about what drives a man to endure such adversity and make
The battle of Fredericksburg can be described only as a horrendous
defeat. The Army of the Potomac sustained 12,653 Casualties and
was forced to withdraw with nothing to show for the sacrifices. Yet
the men like Peter Welsh continued to endure the hardships of the
battlefield for another 2-1/2 years.
The Big Question
Welsh wrote to his wife soon after the Battle of Fredericksburg:
"This is my country as much as the man born on the soil and so it is
with every man who comes to this country and-becomes a citizen .. . .
I have as much interest in the maintenance of the government and laws
and the integrity of the nation as any other man .... This is the
first test of a modern free government in the act of sustaining itself
against internal enemies and matured rebellion. If it fails then the
hopes of millions fall."
Today, when cynicism prevails and criticizing our institutions has
become a national pastime, Peter Welsh's sentiments could be
considered trite or somewhat amusing.
But taken in the context of the times, his statement is profound.
At this time in our nation's history to be Irish was, for the most
part to be at the bottom of the social scale. Signs such as
"No Irishmen or dogs allowed" were common.
Peter Welsh chose to fight for a nation that looked at him with
disdain. However, he refused to reciprocate that hatred. He
looked beyond the bigotry and realized that, though imperfect,
the United States provided more opportunities than anywhere
On March 17, 1863, St. Patrick's Day, Welsh was promoted to
color sergeant. He wrote home, "I shall feel proud to bear up that
flag of green, the emblem of Ireland and Irish men, and especially
having received it on that day dear to every Irish heart."
On May 12,1864, Welsh was hit in the left arm by a musket ball during
the Battle of Spotsylvania. The wound became infected, and he died in
Washington on May 28.
Unlike many who died here 141 years ago, Welsh's body was returned
home to be mourned, honored, and buried by his family. The majority
sacrificed not only their lives here but also their identities.
They lie on the heights that they did not reach in life. They were
fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers, their precious identities
now replaced by numbers.
Call of Duty
Peter Welsh was not a hero in the truest sense of the word. He did
not receive any medals nor were his deeds recounted or analyzed.
Like thousands, he left home and family to face privation, suffering,
and the carnage of war to do what he felt was his duty.
Through his sacrifice, and those of countless others, our nation
emerged from the Civil War having come a little closer to achieving
the goals of our democracy as envisioned by our Founding Fathers.
And through the struggles and efforts of succeeding generations, we
have come even closer to achieving those goals.
It is appropriate for us to honor those who sacrificed life, limb,
and their youth at Fredericksburg and on countless other
battlefields. However, we must also do our part to advance
the principles and institutions of democracy that they fought and
A quote from the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke comes to
mind: "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing
because he could only do a, little."
We may never be called upon to make the sacrifices made by
Peter Welsh. However, we all have a duty to defend, uphold, and
participate in our democratic process, to make it better. '
MATT KELLY represents Ward 3 on the Fredericksburg City Council.
This commentary is excerpted from remarks he made Dec. 14 at the
Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center as part of the annual
remembrance of the Battle of Fredericksburg