Civil War Top 100

Soldiers' Letters (continued)

Peter Welsh of Co. K was a 31-year old carpenter from New York who was looking for work in Boston when he decided to enlist in the 28th Massachusetts on September 3, 1862. In the following letter, he describes the regiment's horrific experiences in the charge up Marye's Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. Promoted to Sergeant, Welsh carried the green regimental colors at the head of the 28th Massachusetts through all the battles that followed until being mortally wounded at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864.

Falmouth, Virginia December 25, 1862

My Dear Wife... On Thursday morning the 11th, we had reveille at 4 o'clock. We got up and had our breakfast, got our luggage packed up, left our knapsacks in camp and left some sick men to take care of them. We started about sunrise and marched about two hours. The cannonading was going on all day from daylight in the morning. We lay behind the hills opposite the city until evening, and then we moved into a small woods and camped until morning.

(We) started again about sunrise and crossed the pontoon bridges into Fredericksburg. We lay there all day expecting to be going into the fight at any moment. When it became dark, we moved our position a little and stacked arms for the night with mud ankle deep (upon which) to lay down and sleep on. We hunted up pieces of boards and lay them down on the mud and then lay down and covered ourselves in our blankets. I slept as sound I think as ever I slept in my life, although our blankets were covered thick with frost in the morning. We were woken up at four o'clock and cooked our breakfast. We were ready to start before daylight. Every man cooks his own grub in our company when we are out(since)the cook was left in the camp.

About eight o'clock we were ordered to fall in and we were drawn up in line of battle in one of the streets, ready to start into it at a moment's notice. While we were in that position, the enemy commenced to shell us and they did it with good effect. They threw their shell into our line with great precision, wounding a good many. Once, there were two men wounded in the file next to me. The first brigade of our division went in first, and in a few minutes, we got the word forward (with) ball and shell flying in all directions. The rebels' position is on a range of hills about a mile outside of the city. We had to cross that distance, which is low and level with their batteries playing on us both in front and from right and left. The storm of shell and grape and cannister was terrible, mowing whole gaps out of our ranks (and) we (were) having to march over their dead and wounded bodies.

We advanced boldly despite it all, and drove the enemy into their entrenchments. But the storm of shot was then most galling, and our ranks were soon thinnned. Our troops had to lay down to escape the raking fire of the batteries, and we had but a poor chance at the enemy, who was sheltered in his rifle pits and entrenchments. I saw some hot work at South Mountain and Antietam in Maryland, but they were not to be compared to this. Old troops say that they never were under such a heavy fire before in any battle. Every man that was near me in the right of the company was either killed or wounded except one. We lost twelve in killed and wounded out of 37 men in our company (1). Our Captain (2) was wounded in the foot and our Second Lieutenant (3) was killed.

Welsh continued his Fredericksburg narrative in the next letter he wrote to his wife, dated December 30, 1862:

Our brigade did not have to go to the front after the day of the battle, so we escaped the unpleasant task of laying ten or twelve hours on the wet ground with the certainty of having a ball whirred at our head if we raised it up. That part was performed chiefly by such troops that were not engaged in the battle, and we had our full share of that. In my last (letter), I gave you an account of our part in the battle up to where we laid down in front. Other troops came, and we soon got orders to cease firing. The officers after a while undertook to take out what they could of the brigade, but they could not form in line in the position we were in. Some went out, but a great many remained in front, as in going out they would be again exposed to the raking fire of the enemy's batteries. By remaining in front, we had only the fire of infantry and sharp-shooters to bear. Our position was beside a fence, a house, and yard which was in our line. A great number of our wounded were carried into that house, and some of them had to remain there until Sunday night, as our anbulance wagons could not be brought up there. Those who had no friends to come carry them out at night had to remain until men were sent from the different regiments to bring them out.

I remained in front until dark, and then brought out some wounded belonging to our company. I went over the battlefield again before daylight to see if I could find any more of our men, and the sights that were to be seen there were hard enough. I slept about an hour that night in the house which was being used as a hospital in which I left the wounded that I brought out. I cooked myself some coffee there, and then came across the river, as our brigade had come across that night. I got to the place where they had camped just as they were falling in to go back to Fredericksburg. I reported to the Captain (and) he rejoiced to see me out safe. He thought I was either killed or wounded. We had only just got engaged (when) he got wounded. He got a list from me of all the killed and wounded I knew of, and then we started and crossed over the pontoon bridge and stacked arms in the first street of the city fronting the river. I then went to the house where I left the wounded men. I came back and told the Colonel (4) of their being there (so) he told me to get men to help me and bring them over to this side to our brigade hospital.

We remained there in that street that night and the next day until after dark. We were (then) ordered to fall in and moved along that street on the line of the river to the upper pontoon, and came across. The troops were brought across in good order. We had to march to this old camp that night. The next morning, the whole regiment had to go on picket... I am very sorry for the death of our Second Lieutenant. He was killed in the battle. In him, I lost a warm friend. We (now) have no commissioned officer belonging to the company with us now."

1. The Adjutant General's records indicate a total of 18 casualties in Company K suffered on December 13, 1862. This includes 6 killed or mortally wounded, and 12 wounded. Altogether, this would be the single-most costly day in the long and bloody history of the 28th Massachusetts, with a total of 160 men in the regiment counted as casualties (including 1 captured and 11 missing).
2. Captain Charles H. Sanborn would return to the regiment after recovering from his wound, but would resign in June, 1863 (see note on previous letter above).
3. 2nd Lieutenant John Sullivan was a Milford bootmaker when he enlisted as a Sergeant in Company K at the formation of the regiment in 1861. He had been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in September.
4. Col. Richard Byrnes assumed command of the regiment in November, 1862, and would lead it through the next year and a half before finally suffering a mortal wound at Cold Harbor, June 3, 1864.

Anonymous Letter to the Boston Herald written by one or more officers of the 28th Massachusetts angry at having been passed over for promotion by men who had not previously served in the regiment and received their commissions by virtue of being political allies of Gov. John Andrew.

28th Mass. Vol., Camp "Israel," Pleasant Valley, Md., Oct. 8, 1862

Editor Herald:

One year ago to-day the officers of the 28th Mass. Vol. were commissioned. Their number then thirty-three field and line officers, has been reduced, by losses in battle, by death, wounds and sickness, to nine now doing duty. After the late severe campaign in Virginia and Maryland they have arrived in camp to find from Boston newspapers the announcement that a second lieutenant of the regular army was to be sent to command them. Yes, the officers, who have commanded faithfully and well, who have been with the regiment always, in camp and in the field, are now thrown aside, their claims for promotion ignored. The circular of Major General Halleck to Governor of States to fill up vacancies in the regiments from deserving offices is disregarded. The officers, who on hard fought battle-fields have fairly won the right to promotion, now find that bravery on the field and constant duty with their regiment are not appreciated by the Governor. That the claims of a recruiting officer, a stranger to all in the regiment, and an officer of junior rank, takes preference over them, who, unfortunately for their own claims, were where their duty called, with their regiment.

The officers of the 28th are going home. They will then be where Governor Andrew can see them, and where they will not be liable to the same insult and disgrace which has been cast upon them by the person, of all others, who should seek to honor instead of insulting them. Some of them will seek service in other States, for their patriotism will not allow them to leave the service. Others will leave it all together. The deep feeling of indignation against Gov. Andrew, for his treatment of the officers, is not confined to our regiment. It is shared by officers of neighboring regiments. Those who have been us, who have fought side by side with us, are surprise at, and can in no way account for, the course pursued by the Governor towards us.

Others, officers of new regiments, to whom we are unknown, look on us with distrust- look upon us as officers who have not done their duty, or who are incompetent to do it. And can we as officers remain in a regiment where we cannot meet officers of other regiments without a feeling of shame? Does the Governor expect this of us? Does he expect that sons of Massachusetts can tamely submit to this gross injury? Does he suppose that, because the 28th is known as an Irish regiment, the officers are not gentlemen, and soldiers- that they have not the same feelings as officers of other regiments? War has not, and never will, render us insensible to disgrace; our feelings are as sensitive to an insult now as before the war. Bitter indeed are our feelings that now, after a year's campaigning, acquainted thoroughly with our men, knowing the good from the bad, knowing whom to trust and whom not to, we find we have yet to earn a name as officers by seeking services in regiments from other States.

For Governor Andrew has, by one stroke of his pen, dishonored us. It were better, by far, that he had given us notice of his intention, that we could have resigned, and thus escaped the disgrace; but he chose to act differently, and we are the sufferers by his caprice. We, as well as our men, are to be the school for a young officer to practice, and whatever merit we may have earned will be credited to him. At Hilton Head, S. C., by order, letter writing to newspapers was prohibited; this order, although not in force now, has prevented any notoriety being given our regiment in Boston newspapers. Our record is to be found in our losses in battle, and to the official reports of our Brigade and Division Commanders. Our losses during the month of September alone, were over 200. We have now in hospital, sick and wounded, over 400 men. We are proud of our regiment, and are only sorry that we cannot, with honor, follow its future dangers and triumphs.


[Boston Herald, October 23, 1862, Page 1, Column 7]

Copyright © 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Support the 28th | Contact Us