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Regimental History: 1864

ith the 28th Massachusetts in camp for the winter, Col. Byrnes and four of his officers returned home on February 14 to recruit the regiment back up to strength. Their trip took them to New Bedford, Lowell and Milford, but they met with their greatest success in Boston. Encouraged by community leaders, some 326 men enlisted.

The unit accepted 288 of these new recruits between February and May. This infusion of soldiers was enough to bring the regiment back to a respectable 504 men of all ranks for the start of the spring campaign. Recruiting was bolstered by the attraction of high enlistment bounties: huge sums of $600 or more that far exceeded a year's salary for an average worker.

These late-war recruits brought an entirely new character to the regiment. Most were non-Irish and many were from outside of Massachusetts. They came from many states and countries. Almost 90 of them were Canadians. While a number of these new recruits deserted at the first opportunity, taking the money and running, many were good men who would contribute much to uphold the honorable traditions established by those who served before them.

Despite the influx of these recruits, who now far outnumbered the old veterans, the 28th Massachusetts retained its distinctive Irish martial spirit, exemplified in a speech that Col. Byrnes gave upon the occasion of receiving a new green regimental flag from the citizens of Boston at the Parker House Hotel in May:

"I can promise you no more, than to assure you that (this flag) will be a fresh incentive to the brave men who are periling their lives in defense of that flag which typifies Union and liberty, and beneath which the shamrock has ever bloomed. In a few days, this flag will throw its emerald folds to the breeze, and the smoke of battle will encircle it; its freshness and beauty may be tarnished, but while there is an Irish arm to strike in its defense, its honor shall never, never be sullied or impaired. I can only point to the past history of my regiment to vouch for the future. Neither Massachusetts nor the historic fame of our race need blush for such a regiment."

During this time, Byrnes also used his influence in the Governor's office to secure appointments for four vacant lieutenancies. Once again, the positions were filled by men who had not previously served in the 28th Massachusetts, even though there were many deserving non-commissioned officers who had performed faithfully in the ranks through more than two years of hard service.

Understandably, this left many of the old veterans bitter, especially since two of the new appointees, Henry M. Binney and Patrick Black, were rumored to have initially signed up as enlisted men so they could collect bounty payments that commissioned officers were not legally entitled to receive. But even after an investigation by the Governor's office determined that neither man had ever been paid any bounty money, the hard feelings remained. Sgt. Peter Welsh of Co. K wrote in a letter home: "It is generally believed here that he (Byrnes) has been selling commissions in Boston, some of them are men who were dismissed from the service in other regiments."

With Byrnes still absent, Lt. Col. Cartwright once again assumed command of the 28th Massachusetts, which on May 3 broke winter camp and marched from Stevensburg, Virginia. Two days later, the regiment was heavily engaged in the Battle of the Wilderness.

Participating in the attack that the 2nd Corps launched through dense woods and undergrowth along the Brock Road, the 28th surged forward, was pushed back, and then tenaciously defended its entrenchments until ammunition ran out and the order came to withdraw. Capts. James McIntyre and Charles V. Smith were mortally wounded during the fight, and Lt. Col. Cartwright received a wound severe enough that it would eventually force his resignation from the regiment at the end of 1864.

Now under the command of Maj. Andrew Lawler, the 28th Massachusetts spent the morning of May 6 strengthening its breastworks with dry logs, brush, and fence rails. That afternoon, Lee launched a counterattack, and a swarm of Confederates emerged without warning from a dense thicket fifty yards in front of the Irish Brigade. The rebels advanced as far as the federal works, but between volley after volley of hot musket fire from the Irishmen and the eruption of a fire in the breastworks between the blue and gray troops, Lee's attack was repulsed and Confederate losses were severe.

The men of the 28th Massachusetts spent the next day on the Brock Road line, trading shots with Confederate pickets in the woods. They were ordered to abandon the position that night, marching under the cover of darkness to arrive at Todd's Tavern early on May 8. During the ferocious fighting that characterized the Battle of the Wilderness, the regiment lost 119 men killed and wounded. The following day, the 28th suffered another 12 casualties while entrenching under artillery bombardment after crossing the Po River.

Although these initial movements of what would become Gen. Grant’s Overland Campaign brought heavy losses and did little to dislodge Confederate forces from their defensive positions protecting Richmond to the south, the Union commander was determined to press on. He was not going to hesitate or pull back to rest and regroup as many of his predecessors had done. Instead, Grant kept relentless pressure on Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, knowing the North could sustain heavy losses while the South could not. For the veteran units of the hard-fighting 2nd Corps, this meant non-stop action, but they were cheered by the prospects of ultimate victory.

The armies clashed again at Spotsylvania Courthouse, where on May 11, Grant decided to assault the rebel works at a salient known as the "Mule Shoe," hoping to outflank the Confederate lines. The Irish Brigade marched through dense woods and pouring rain for most of the previous night to join along with two 2nd Corps divisions in the line of battle at daybreak. As the first streaks of sunlight appeared, the 28th Massachusetts joined in the gallant charge on the Confederate entrenchments.

With bayonets fixed and rifles uncapped, the Irishmen ran across an open field and tore into the enemy. After a brief hand-to-hand struggle, they shared in the honor of capturing some 4,000 rebels and numerous pieces of their artillery. Capt. James Fleming reported that one 28th Massachusetts soldier single-handedly captured a Confederate general in his tent. Unable to advance beyond the reserve line of works, the Irish stubbornly held on to the captured entrenchments for the rest of the day, turning back repeated rebel attempts to retake them.

Mid battle, a drenching rain began to fall and both armies sought to gain advantage from opposing sides of the trenches. Men fired into each other's faces across the deadly space, shot through crevices in a log wall, and furiously sought to bayonet one another over the top of the works. The dead and dying were piled on either side of the barrier as artillery shells rained down from above. Finally, at around midnight, Confederates forces withdrew, leaving the bloody ground in the hands of the victorious Union troops. The 28th Massachusetts had lost another 62 men.

On May 14, the regiment suffered two more casualties on picket duty. For the next two days, the 28th remained in its trenches under almost constant fire from Confederates who were also entrenched only a short distance away. Then, on the night of May 17, the Irish Brigade formed in column behind its works and prepared for another attack at dawn.

In the assault that followed on the morning of May 18, the 28th Massachusetts charged over the same ground it had won during the fight at the Mule Shoe, while Confederate batteries rained shells down on the advancing federal troops. With Maj. Lawler at the head of the column, the men of the 28th successfully swarmed over the first line of rebel earthworks, but the Union attack was repulsed at other points along the line, and the Irish Brigade was forced to dig in and face Confederate counterattacks from its front and left. In spite of enfilading grape and cannister fire from rebel artillery, the 28th and its brother Irish regiments held fast, only to be ordered back to their original lines.

Among the 42 men from the 28th Massachusetts who fell during this second assault at Spotsylvania was Maj. Lawler, who died before the day was over. He was enormously popular with the men of the regiment, who took his death hard. One soldier wrote that Lawler was "beloved by all, possessed of an ardent, hopeful temperament which no hardship, however severe, could dampen... he was the life of a bivouac, while his rollicking humor and endless jokes often shortened the weary march." Also mortally wounded were two other experienced officers: Capts. William F. Cochrane and James Magner.

The 28th Massachusetts then moved to the left along with the rest of the Army of the Potomac as Grant continued applying pressure at the flanks of Lee's army. On May 20, Col. Byrnes returned to the regiment and was almost immediately placed in command of the Irish Brigade, since he was senior to Smyth. Byrnes was undoubtedly dismayed to learn that the 28th had by then been reduced to 315 men.

After two days of much-needed rest near Anderson's Mill, the 28th Massachusetts moved at night on May 20 and 21 to Milford Station, making it to the North Anna River by May 23, and crossing the next day. Once on the other side, the Irishmen acted first as guards for the army's wagon train, then were held in reserve during the 2nd Corps attacks along the North Anna. They spent May 25 and 26 destroying track and a bridge along the Richmond-Fredericksburg railroad line.

The regiment re-crossed the North Anna on May 27 and reached Tolapotomy Creek the following day, losing 13 men on the picket line and dozens more to the effects of heat exhaustion. The weather had turned very dry, the marching kicked up clouds of dust, water was scarce, and food was also in short supply. Making matters worse was an all-night forced march that started late in the day and continued through noon on May 28.

After a much-needed day's rest, the Irishmen were ordered to make an uneventful reconnaissance along the Totopotomoy on May 29. Then, for the next two days, they remained in support positions behind the main Union lines, undoubtedly grateful to be held out of the worst of Grant's assaults on entrenched Confederate positions. The 28th Massachusetts was called to the skirmish line on May 31, pushing up close to the enemy breastworks and suffering a few casualties in scattered fighting.

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