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Regimental History: 1863

en. Burnside, pressured to resume the offensive against his foes across the Rappahannock, roused the Army of the Potomac out of its camps at Falmouth on January 23 and set in motion in what turned out to be known as the infamous "Mud March."

As the army moved out, storm clouds unleashed relentless rain that quickly reduced the poor country roads into quagmires. The 28th Massachusetts, like much of the 2nd Corps, was fortunate to be spared the worst of the march owing to its fortuitous position at the end of the line. For the balance of the winter, the Irishmen remained in camp, refitting for a new campaign in the spring.

In spite of the grievous losses suffered by the Irish Brigade over the preceding months, the men fully lived up to their traditions with a boisterous, rollicking celebration of St. Patrick's Day. The feature event was Grand Irish Steeple Chase in which horses ridden by brigade and regimental officers competed for a $500 purse. The race attracted the attention of the entire army as well as the many newspaper correspondents traveling with it.

Col. St. Clair Mulholland of the 116th Pennsylvania recalled later: "St. Patrick's Day in camp was celebrated with the usual gayety and rejoicing by the men composing the Irish Brigade. This time-honored national anniversary was observed with all the exhaustless spirit and enthusiasm of Irish nature."

Around this time, the men of the 28th Massachusetts were ordered to wear a new corps badge - a red trefoil - along with the rest of the First Division. At around the same time, the newly promoted Lt. Col. George Cartwright rejoined the unit after recovering from the wounds he suffered at 2nd Bull Run.

On April 6, four 2nd lieutenants arrived in camp to accept commissions in the regiment for positions left open by past battle casualties. The new officers all came from other Massachusetts volunteer regiments rather than from the 28th. Col. Byrnes, having previously found only three of his own non-commissioned officers worthy of commissions, had relied on the adjutant general of Massachusetts to help locate other deserving candidates.

Yet again, there was uproar in the ranks, and some of the other officers even presented their commander a petition of protest in front of the entire regiment. This was too much for Byrnes, whose response was swift and predictable. He immediately had the three captains he suspected of being the ringleaders - Charles Sanborn of Co. K, John H. McDonnel of Co. H, and Jeremiah Coveney of Co. F - brought up on charges of "mutinous and seditious conduct" and sought to have them court martialed.

The regiment marched from camp at Falmouth with the rest of the Irish Brigade on April 27 to begin the spring campaign, leaving Byrnes no choice to order his subordinates released so they could take charge of their companies. According to Sgt. Peter Welsh of Co. K: "When they came to take command we gave them three rousing cheers and that made him (Byrnes) so mad that he ordered them… under arrest again."

In the end, the captains were sentenced to public reprimands for lesser charges, but the damage had been done. By then, three captains, five 1st lieutenants, and two 2nd lieutenants had resigned from the regiment, many apparently out of displeasure with Byrnes. These internal problems aside, the regiment was in fact shaping up into a model unit. In a report, Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock, commanding the 2nd Corps, complimented Byrnes for his "fine, disciplined regiment."

Under the new overall commander of the Union army, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker of Massachusetts, the 28th saw action in the late April campaign that ended in the debacle at Chancellorsville. Along with the Irish Brigade, the regiment marched across the Rapidan River in support of the federal advance, but ended up playing a largely defensive role in the battle.

Between April 27 and 29, the Irish regiments guarded the roads that led crossings of the Rappahannock River. They remained at their posts until they were called up to join the main body of the army on April 30, but remained at the rear, helping stem the tide of retreating 11th Corps soldiers on May 2.

Early the next morning, Confederate troops resumed their attacks on the fortified Union lines, which had begun to withdraw. Amidst the confusion, the Irish Brigade was posted at the edge of woods near the Chancellor house clearing. Just as the federals were getting re-organized to the rear, there was a strong rebel advance on the exposed 5th Maine Battery, which was located nearby, most of its crews and horses killed or wounded.

With the guns facing imminent capture, a detail of men from the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania was called upon to rush in and help withdraw them. Unfortunately, the guns were stuck in mud. Only with great effort and after losing a number of men were the Irish able to save the Maine artillery pieces.

For the remainder of the day, the 28th Massachusetts occupied a position along the breastworks in the center of the Union line, fending off Confederate sniper fire and awaiting another attack that never came. The regiment suffered 26 casualties before withdrawing on the night of May 5 and re-crossing the Rapidan River the next morning.

Returning to camp at Falmouth, the 28th settled in to await further orders. During this time, Byrnes took pains to make sure that every man in his regiment was well outfitted, with good shoes and necessary clothing. He also insisted on plenty of drill and began requiring his men to take regular target practice, at least in part because the 28th Massachusetts was the only unit in the Irish Brigade equipped with rifled muskets.

The only significant break in the monotony came on May 7, when President Lincoln came for a morale-lifting visit with his troops. The men of the Irish Brigade caught glimpses of their president as they marched by in review with the rest of the army.

On May 14, Brig. Gen. Meagher informed the soldiers of the Irish Brigade that he was resigning as their commander. Since February, he had been seeking to take his three undermanned New York regiments home, where they could recruit back up to strength and enjoy a much-deserved furlough. Rebuffed repeatedly, he finally chose to resign rather than remain in command of a brigade that was only a skeleton of its former self.

Col. James Kelly of the 88th New York, as the senior regimental officer, succeeded Meagher as commander of the Irish Brigade. The departing Meagher described Kelly, a veteran of all the brigade's battles since Seven Pines, as "a true, conscientious, unwearied, uncomplaining, indomitable, absolutely fearless soldier."

At last, on June 13, the 28th Massachusetts was ordered out of camp. The regiment marched to the banks of the Rappahannock and on the next day continued to Stafford Courthouse. This would be the first of a long and arduous series of forced marches that were a part of Hooker's strategy to ward off Lee's second invasion of the North. Anticipating many more days like this one, Byrnes ordered that officers be positioned at the head and tail of each company at all times to prevent straggling.

In summer heat and suffocating dust from dry roads, the 28th marched northward over the next two weeks through Fairfax Station, Centerville and Thoroughfare Gap before crossing the Potomac River at Edward's Ferry and heading through Frederick, Maryland. On June 29 - the day after command of the federal army was transferred from Hooker to Gen. George Meade - the Irish Brigade marched a grueling 32 miles to Uniontown, although many of its men fell off to the side of the road, prostrate from the heat. Sgt. Peter Welsh of the 28th wrote that only 40 of his regiment's 225 men in were present with the colors at the end of this exhausting march.

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