Vanquished without disgrace: The 8th Ohio and the Charge Against Marye's Heights
At the age of 16, Thomas F. Galwey was the youngest lieutenant in the 8th Ohio Infantry. Born to Irish parents in London on April 15, 1846, he migrated to the U.S. in 1851, the family settling in Cleveland, Ohio. At the outbreak of the war, Galwey lied about his age (he had just turned 15!) and joined the Hibernian Guards which became Co. B of the 8th Ohio. He followed the fortunes of the regiment throughout Virginia and earned a battlefield commission following Antietam for the heroism he demonstrated on that field. Now in December 1862, his 8th Ohio was poised to assault the Confederate line atop Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg. It was, Galwey wrote, "a hopeless struggle."
"The hills reverberated the thunder of cannon and Marye’s Heights were almost hid in smoke, which was pierced by the glare of Confederate cannon and of bursting Federal shells, and by the long flashes of infantry fire that marked the direction of the Confederate lines. The afternoon was well on when other columns issued from the city streets and deployed in line of battle, two stands of colors to each regiment, the one the beautiful stars and stripes, the other the banner of everlasting green. It was the Irish Brigade and every officer and man bore a sprig of green box in his cap. Were they successful? Only in leaving their dead closest to the Confederate lines," he wrote.
The following account is drawn from an article Galwey wrote that was published in the December 1889 issue of Catholic World Magazine, a publication of which Galwey was the editor.
At daylight of Saturday the 13th, the streets re-echoed the bugle calls for reveille, a hasty breakfast was cooked on the sidewalks and gulped down, and by 6 o’clock the ranks were formed and the horses were hitched in the batteries. The weather was extremely mild; it was towards the end of that balmy season called the Indian Summer. The gray frost that had lain upon everything disappeared, and a thick fog filled the air. The lofty Marye’s Heights, fortified by Confederate field works and surrounding the city on the south at a distance of about three-quarters of a mile, was entirely invisible through the fog. Standing in front of the Presbyterian church, one could barely discern the base of its tall spire, which had been a chosen mark for some of the Union batteries during the bombardment two days before.
What was the feeling of the Army of the Potomac while preparing for the memorable assault? The Army of the Potomac was a representative army, well disciplined, but fond of understanding what it was all about. It was a body of highly intelligent men; many of them always carried a pocket-map of Virginia and nearly all were accustomed to study their own movements and the reported movements of the other armies with an almost scientific interest. Among the privates of every company there was always at least one amateur strategist, who, on account of his searching analyses and criticisms of the military operations, was nicknamed “the General” or “The Engineer” or the like. For several weeks this army had been in winter quarters across the river not more than two or three miles from Fredericksburg, and twice or thrice a week during that time thousands of these men had taken their turns at picket along the riverbank where they had a close and unobstructed view of Fredericksburg and the surrounding country.
From day to day they had observed Marye’s Heights and had carefully scanned its line of earthworks with the naked eye and with the field glass. By means of generally recognized military principles and of an experience gained in former campaigns they had been enabled to form a just opinion of the possibilities involved in the situation. Their universal opinion thus maturely and leisurely formed was that Marye’s Heights could not be carried by direct assault. Looking at the Confederate position, they reasoned thus: ‘Give us such a position and the whole Southern Confederacy could not take it from us by a direct assault. But the Confederates are excellent soldiers, as we know from a long acquaintance with them. Therefore, they cannot be driven from the position.’
Someone may think that they prevalence of such an opinion would of itself have rendered success impossible. With new or inferior troops that is likely. But Fredericksburg, was precisely one of those battles which proved the magnificent character of the Army of the Potomac; for although knowing the futility of the assault, never did soldiers march into the face of defeat and death with greater steadiness and with firmer determination to go as far as men could go than was shown by the Army of the Potomac hour after hour that day, until night closed in and stopped the slaughter.
|Lieutenant Thomas F. Galwey|
Co. B, 8th Ohio Infantry
Late in the forenoon the sunlight broke through the fog then the fog lifted and I there again lay open to the view the plain dotted with old-fashioned homesteads, off to the right front a white block of marble marking Martha Washington’s tomb, and, beyond, the heights where the Confederate army was quietly and grimly waiting for events. The battle opened two miles below, where Franklin with the left wing was advancing to carry out a part of the plan, and now we who formed the right wing under Sumner are to move. Kimball’s Brigade of French’s Division of the Second Corps was to open the attack of the right. It had been a chief brigade of Shields’ Division in the Shenandoah Valley, and in all its many campaigns had been particularly remarked for its dash, endurance, and intelligence on the skirmish line. Hence the choice of it for this serious work.
The four regiments, each in a column by itself, moved out along four parallel streets, under orders to deploy in one continuous skirmish line as soon as they should have got beyond the houses of the city. But before the deployment had begun, just as the heads of the parallel columns had reached the edge of the city, little puffs of smoke rose from the ground at the foot of the decline down which we were descending to the plain. It was Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade, which had held the town when the pontoon bridge was laid, and which on being driven from the streets had halted and remained just outside in a skirmish line. As their bullets sang through columns our bugles sounded the ‘forward’ and onward we went headlong down the hill at the double-quick, the brigade so promptly and skillfully obeying the next bugle call ‘deploy as skirmishers!’ that by that time we had passed all the city houses and their garden fences we extended in a single rank, with intervals between the men, across the two roads that led south from the city and far out on either hand, the colors of the four regiments pointed towards Marye’s Heights and waving in gallant style.
Barksdale’s line gave way slowly, and now we scrambled on over fences and through ditches and as, with considerable difficulty and some tactical movements unnecessary to detail, we made our way across a canal and ascended a slight rise of ground, we could see through the embrasures of the Confederate earthworks on Marye’s Heights the cannoneers standing to their guns. The next second those works from one end to the other sent forth puffs of smoke and a line of shells was bursting above our heads. Again our bugles rang out ’Charge bayonets! Forward! Double-quick!’ Click, click, the bayonets were fixed and the skirmishers of French’s Division sent up a cheer that, as it was afterwards said, was heard a mile beyond Marye’s Heights.
|Confederate infantry holding the Stone Wall at Fredericksburg|
Barkdale’s skirmishers fell back and we saw no more of them as far as we knew. Our dead and wounded were already considerable in number but our advance continued until we reached the point where the Telegraph Road forked, the right prong going to Orange Courthouse, the left to Richmond. Here was a cluster of houses; the triangular space between the two roads was occupied by a little brick grocery store; on the left of the forks was a stone blacksmith’s shop with open ground in that direction; one the right almost of village of frame dwelling houses. Across this fork our skirmish line halted and further than this no Union line passed that day but one and that one was the Irish Brigade. We looked back towards the city across the plain over which we advanced; there were no troops of ours in sight but from a knoll here and there at the edge of the city batteries were firing over our heads at the Confederate works on the heights in front of us. Our brigade seemed for the moment to be without support. The grocery store was a triangular building with the sharp angle at our side cut off, and in that narrow face was a heavy door that was shut. A few blows from musket butts opened it, however, and our wounded were carried in and laid wherever there was room, on the floor between the boxes and barrels, and on the long counter. The groans of pain, the lamentations and the prayers to Heaven of the wounded and dying that came to the ears of us outside were pitiful. ‘Lord Jesus, have mercy! Oh mother, mother!’ the writer heard repeated over and over in plaintive wails, and amid all, more subdued murmurings of prayer and, sad truth, oaths and curses from the men whose anguish of pain was greater than their patience to bear.
The atmosphere is now clear and the sky bright. We are firing from every angle and window and fence corner at the cannoneers up on the hill in front of us. Near the foot of the hill and scarcely a stone’s throw, as it seems to us, is a common stone wall and occasional puffs of smoke show that a Confederate line is behind it. All of a sudden, every gun of the Confederate battery opens once more, and the air above our heads is cut by the hissing flight of their shot and shell. From every street of Fredericksburg, a column of blue is descending to the plain and there is a beautiful line forming, the stars and stripes fluttering gayly at intervals above it. The 60 Confederate cannon salute it with accurate effect, but the blue line cheers and forward it comes with steady tread. From our advanced and isolated position we can, from time to time when the smoke clears away for a few moments, see the faces of both the Union line and the Confederate cannoneers from the moment the line emerges from the city until, essaying a charge, it moves gallantly on under the galling and deadly fire and reaches our ground, or ground an extension of ours, and then halts, incapable of doing more.
|An early war stand of national colors belonging to the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry|
Many striking incidents we witnessed. One will illustrate the splendid spirit and discipline of the Army of the Potomac in battle. A New York regiment through some mistake or stupidity was brought up the Telegraph road in a column of fours and was halted in that formation between the grocery store and the frame dwelling houses. For this reason the Confederate bullets were raking it from front to rear through its whole length, yet every man of it who was not shot stood erect; nor did the head stoop unless hit when the Confederate battery just in front of us, seeing the advantage, send solid shot into the column. It seemed fully five minutes before someone having authority changed the formation and thus saved the regiment from being annihilated. A hen and her brood waddled and strutted across the Richmond road and as the bullets whizzed past the mother fowl snapped actively about the air, probably supposing that the flying missiles were insects worth catching for the little ones. A horse with an empty but blood-stained saddle, galloped down from the Confederate lines, and as he reached us, tumbled in the dust dead, alongside a dead Union soldier from whose waist belt hung a gaudy dress pattern of plaid silk, plundered in the town.
Line after line moved out from Fredericksburg in fine array, and the plain was already thickly strewn with the Union wounded and dead in blue overcoats/ Hours had passed and still the right wing of the army was coming forward in successive lines to lay its useless offering upon that holocaust. Nearly one-half of the Second Corps who had so far become engaged were wounded or dead, and that continued to be about the average proportion to the end. A corporal of the writer’s company was the sole survivor of eleven who had crawled out past the grocery store to a fence corner beyond to sharp shoot the Confederate cannoneers. When we looked back we could see the smoke clouds of the artillery at the edge of the city, and still further back, that of the heavy guns which were ranged along Stafford Heights north of the river, all of whose projectiles were coursing through the air over our heads, while far above the Stafford heights was Professor Lowe’s captive balloon, Confederate shells bursting dangerously near it.
The hills reverberated the thunder of cannon and Marye’s Heights were almost hid in smoke, which was pierced by the glare of Confederate cannon and of bursting Federal shells, and by the long flashes of infantry fire that marked the direction of the Confederate lines. The afternoon was well on when other columns issued from the city streets and deployed in line of battle, two stands of colors to each regiment, the one the beautiful stars and stripes, the other the banner of everlasting green. It was the Irish Brigade and every officer and man bore a sprig of green box in his cap.
Were they successful? Only in leaving their dead closest to the Confederate lines. They passed the high-water mark which Kimball’s skirmishers had set at noon, and which no other brigade other than the Irish Brigade has passed or was to pass that day. Onward they swept, the four regiments in a single line of battle. By the time they had reached the level tract of ground just to the left of the clump of houses at the forks of the road from which we were observing them, they seemed to have attracted most of the fire of the Confederate batteries. But though the shells were bursting above their heads in almost as good an alignment as their own, and the canister was rattling into their ranks, no sign of wavering could be perceived in their splendid advance. Could it be possible, we though, that they would succeed? For a moment it seemed as if they could not be resisted. Certainly, of any men that bloody day gave hope that Burnside’s movement was not after all a very badly advised one, these men, with the flag of the Union supported by the symbolic green of ever-hopeful Erin, were foremost among them.
We had plenty, however, to occupy us in our own front. With every advance and by whatever command, we at the clump of houses had made efforts at support and cooperation; consequently, we came in at these times for a heavy fire of the Confederate infantry, intended to check any possible advance on our own part. Shortly afterwards, the writer looked off to the left and front, and there, within not more as it appeared, than 30 or 40 yards lay a line of men in blue overcoats. Was it the Irish Brigade? No, it was the Irish dead. Their brigade had been withdrawn by whatever officer was then in command of it. Dusk came on, and the right wing retired from the field into the city. The hopeless struggle was then continued by the center under Hooker until night put an end to the Battle of Fredericksburg, leaving the Confederate army victorious without serious loss and the Army of the Potomac vanquished without disgrace.
Account of Second Lieutenant Thomas F. Galwey, Co. B, 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Catholic World Magazine, December 1889, pgs. 367-373
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