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"I have not a word, other than that of unqualified commendation, to bestow upon this well-regulated and admirably disciplined regiment."

-Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher

Regimental History: 1861

hen Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew first issued a call for volunteers in May 1861, the state quickly raised a number of regiments, including one composed almost entirely of men who were Irish by birth or heritage: the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

As additional calls were made for more troops after the Union defeat at Bull Run in July, Gov. Andrew hoped to raise two more all-Irish regiments from the large ethnic population of the state.

Officially authorized by the governor on September 24, the 28th and 29th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiments began recruiting in Boston and Framingham, respectively, on October 8.

Irish-American leaders – including Patrick Donahoe, publisher of The Pilot, one of the most influential Irish Catholic newspapers in the country at the time – offered encouragement and assistance. New recruits were promised pay and rations upon enlistment, state subsidies for their families, Catholic chaplains to accompany their regiments in the field, and bounties of $100 when the campaign was over.

These efforts were undoubtedly bolstered by the well-timed Boston appearance of Thomas Francis Meagher on September 23. One of the best-known immigrant Irish nationalists in America, Meagher attracted a capacity crowd to the Boston Music Hall, with a large overflow of people milling about in the street. He made good use of his well-known oratorical skills, conjuring Irish and American symbolism to whip those gathered into a patriotic frenzy.

While his dedication to the cause was genuine, the ambitious Meagher was also, in a sense, hedging his bets. His primary aim was to raise an entire brigade of ethnic Irish regiments which he ultimately hoped to command in the field. But he apparently secured a promise from Gov. Andrew of a commission in one of the Massachusetts Irish regiments if his efforts to build an ethnic brigade fell short.

In spite of these efforts, recruiting of additional Irish-Americans during fall 1861 failed to meet the anticipated numbers, at least in part because many Irishmen had already joined other regiments, such as the 15th and 19th Massachusetts. Both units were recruited over the previous summer and contained large numbers of Irish, although they were never designated specifically as Irish regiments.

Faced with two half-strength ethnic units, state officials moved the Irish recruits who enlisted in Framingham to Cambridge and assigned them to the 28th, and filled up the ranks of the 29th with mostly Yankee volunteers from around the state. The 28th was recruited up to strength by late fall and officially mustered into federal service on December 13, 1861.

Although a small number of the new soldiers were skilled artisans and clerks, the vast majority were common day laborers, sailors, or farmers. Most of them came from Boston and surrounding communities, but there were also significant numbers from interior mill towns such as Lawrence, Lynn, Milford, and Worcester.

Gov. Andrew handed command of the 28th Massachusetts, which its men proudly called the "Faugh a Ballagh” (Irish for "Clear the Way") regiment, to William Monteith, a close friend of Donahoe who had many powerful political connections, especially in the large New York Irish community. Like many officers appointed in the early days of the war, however, Monteith was of uncertain military ability.

According to his original plan, Gov. Andrew had promised to send one of the Bay State’s two new Irish regiments to Meagher for his planned Irish Brigade. The other was to be sent to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, who flexed a lot of political muscle in the state.

A prominent criminal lawyer and pro-war Democrat popular among the state’s Irish, Butler used his position as brigadier general of state militia to lead the first Massachusetts regiments to the relief of defenseless Washington at the outbreak of hostilities. A grateful President Lincoln commissioned Butler as the first Major General of volunteers in the war and in August 1861 gave Butler overall command of land forces operating along the coast of the Carolinas.

Butler was anxious to quickly assemble as many New England units as possible. Because the Irish 28th Massachusetts was mustered up to strength sooner, Gov. Andrew dispatched the regiment to serve under Butler in the Carolinas, and later sent the non-Irish 29th to join Meagher’s Irish Brigade in camp around Washington, D.C. Neither unit was pleased by this turn of events.

The men of the 28th were particularly dismayed, having previously been told that they would be the "4th Regiment" of the Irish Brigade. Apparently, there was even talk in the camps around Boston that Meagher’s troops would form the basis for a future army that would fight for the independence of Ireland after the American Civil War was over.

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