The Irish Brigade Attacks!
” ‘Irish Brigade advance,’ is heard in bold, distinct accents above the clamor of battle — “Forward, double quick, guide centre;’….they are greeted by a murderous fire of grape and canister and minie balls. Gaps are opened in the ranks, but they close and move still onward. The enemy now falls from his first behind his second line of breastworks. They gain the second fence, within sixty yards of the enemy’s batteries and are met by a most disastrous enfilade and direct fire from the rebel artillery and infantry…The rebel position was unassailable, it was a perfect slaughter pen, and column after column was broken against it….The advance of the brigade was actually impeded by the bodies piled one upon another….It was not a battle — it was a wholesale slaughter of human beings — sacrificed to the blind ambition and incapacity of some parties.”
– Captain D.P. Conyngham.
Such was the madness of the Union attack on the rebel positions on today’s date, December 13 in 1862. Captain David Power Conyngham was a staff officer with the Irish Brigade which took a key role in the Union effort to dislodge the Confederate troops from their defensive positions behind the stone walls on Mareye’s Heights. The rebel positions were indeed , as Captain Conyngham put it unassailable, and row after row of union troops were cut down in futile frontal assaults against the strongly entrenched rebels.
The Union Army at Fredricksburg
The Union’s Army of the Potomac strongly outnumbered the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, yet under the command of George Mac Clellan, it had made precious little headway in coming to grips with the rebel forces. In spite of a victory at the Battle of Antietam the previous summer, Mac Clellan still moved at a snail’s pace, and had allowed the
southerners to escape. President Abraham Lincoln, exasperated with the inaction of his commander relieved him and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was determined to show the fighting spirit that his predecessor had lacked by going straight after him and his capitol city of Richmond.But Burnside lacked the intelligence to make the right move at the right time. He intended to move on Fredricksburg by moving his army across the Rappohannock River on pontoon bridges, feigning an attack on the rebel right, while moving the bulk of his army against their left, into the town of Fredricksburg. And when he arrived at the scene of his attack, the rebels were not there yet. Unfortunately, neither was his pontoon bridging equipment. Instead of crossing the river as best he could and dislodging the @ 500 men there, he waited for almost two weeks for the equipment to arrive. By the time it did, the rebels were there in force.
General Lee’s Tactics at Fredricksburg
And General Lee was not at all fooled by Burnside’s feint to his right. He had the bulk of his own forces firmly and strongly entrenched behind the stone walls on the hills overlooking the town of Fredricksburg (as pictured below). So when Burnside launched his main attack on December 13, the result was a complete slaughter.
“The troops then advanced, each brigade in succession, under a most murderous fire of artillery and musketry, the artillery fire reaching the troops in a most destructive manner in the town even before they had commenced the movement.” as recorded by General Hancock in his battle report.
“Casualties were staggering….”
“In truth the casualties were staggering: especially by contrast. The Federals had lost 12,5633 men, the Confederates, well under half as many: 5389. The latter figure was subsequently adjusted to 4201, just under one third of the former, when it was found that mote than a thousand of those reported missing or wounded had taken advantage of the chance at a Christmas holiday after the battle.” in the words of Shelby Foote.
So the Army of the Potomac retired back across the Rappohannock to lick it’s wounds, and Lincoln relieved Burnside and continued his search for the right man to lead his armies.
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“War of the Rebellion; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies” by Robert N. Scott. Series I, Volume 21.
“The Irish Brigade and It’s Camapigns.” – by Capt. D.P. Conyngham Fordham University Press, New York, 1994.
“The Civil War, a Narrative. Vol..Two, Fredericksburg to Meridian.” by Shelby Foote, Random House, New York, 1963