Soldier's Journals Tell a Vivid Story About the Irish Brigade and Civil War

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The entrance to Fredericksburg National Cemetery in Virginia from Marye's Heights
The entrance to Fredericksburg National Cemetery in Virginia from Marye's Heights (National Park Service photo)

Pvt. William McCarter of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry was part of the Army of the Potomac's legendary Irish Brigade. His journals offer a remarkable perspective on a combat infantryman's daily life in the Civil War.

McCarter combined a keen eye with keener memory to produce a lively, fresh memoir of camp life, combat and Civil War characters. In "My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry," edited by Kevin E. O'Brien, modern readers and military enthusiasts can experience the immediacy of McCarter's words for themselves.

His account of the assault at Marye's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, is particularly vivid. Along with the rest of Gen. Thomas F. Meagher's Irish Brigade, McCarter crouched beneath the base of Marye's Heights as the air hissed with minie balls and other ordnance on Dec. 13, 1862. "Fearful havoc had been made among the troops of the first assaulting division," McCarter wrote. "The dead and large numbers of the wounded lay thick in front of the heights." As the men waited fearfully, orders came to fix bayonets. McCarter described "the clink, clink, clink of the cold steel sounding along the line …"

A "bold, distinct Gaelic voice" yelled out, "Irish Brigade, advance!" The soldiers and their distinctive bright green flags rushed up the hill with war cries, straight into a downpour of artillery. When the men finally got within rifle range of the Confederates, their fighting spirit had been roused. They attacked with such ferocity that the Confederates, "overcome by the bravery of their Irish foe," according to O'Brien, began to cheer and applaud. "Our shattered and bleeding ranks held their ground, determined to fight to the last," McCarter wrote. "Irish blood was up."

When shortly thereafter the remaining Irish Brigade officers ordered a retreat, McCarter was nearly unconscious from a wound in the shoulder. His superior, Lt. Christian Foltz, promised to "have a shot" at the Confederate who "did this to you," but Foltz had to retreat, as well. McCarter, trying to play dead, endured artillery fire so intense, it was "the breath of hell's door," he later recalled. Somehow he found the strength to crawl and walk back to the base of the hill, where comrades found and rescued him.

McCarter lived to do more than finish his journals. The old soldier died in Washington, D.C., in 1911, at the age of 71.

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Military History Army Civil War