The 28th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was called into service on 24 September 1861, and organized at Boston on 8 October of that year. Following its formal organization, the regiment recruited volunteers at Camp Cameron in Cambridge, and was mustered into Federal service on 13 December. Because most of the original officers and men were of Irish birth or descent, the regiment was named the Faugh-a-ballagh Regiment after an Irish war cry meaning “clear the way!” The regiment’s official designation was “Second Irish Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers.” (The First Irish Regiment formed in the state was the 9th Massachusetts.)
The 28th departed Camp Cameron on 11 January 1862, and spent a month at Fort Columbus, New York, conducting further training. The Irishmen then embarked for Hilton Head, South Carolina, and participated in operations on James Island in early June and in the assault on Fort Johnson, also known as the Battle of Secessionville, on 16 June. In July, 1862, the regiment was transferred to Virginia, assigned to the First Division, IX Corps, of the Army of the Potomac.
During the month of August, the 28th participated in Major General Pope’s disastrous campaign in central Virginia, which ended with the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). During that battle, the regiment provided battery support during attacks on Stonewall Jackson’s position along the unfinished railroad cut on 29 August, receiving heavy musket and artillery fire on 30 August. Two days later, the regiment fought in a blinding thunderstorm during the Battle of Chantilly, playing a key role in thwarting Jackson’s move to flank the Federal retreat and capture it before it could reach the safety of the Washington defenses. These two battles cost the regiment nearly 150 casualties.
During the campaign of September 1862 to stop Lee’s first invasion of the North, the 28th was assigned to the First Brigade (Christ’s) of the First Division (Wilcox’s) of Reno’s IX Corps. At South Mountain on 14 September, the regiment was engaged in attacking the Confederate position at Fox’s Gap, but suffered only six casualties. During the Battle of Antietam which followed on 17 September, the 28th crossed “Burnside’s Bridge” on the Union left and advanced along the north side of the road to Sharpsburg, driving into the town itself before being flanked and forced to retire.
The Army of the Potomac spent the autumn of 1862 refitting after heavy losses at Antietam. At the same time, the 28th received a new commander, Colonel Richard Byrnes, a Regular Army veteran known as a strict disciplinarian. Byrnes insisted that officers sent north to recruit new volunteers to fill the regiment’s depleted ranks accept all potential recruits, not just Irishmen. This policy allowed the regiment to regain its full fighting strength in preparation for the coming winter campaign. While a significant portion of the rank and file now consisted of men not of Irish heritage, the 28th retained its ethnic character, and these new volunteers marched proudly under the green regimental flag.
On 23 November, the regiment was transferred to Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher’s Irish Brigade (Second Brigade, First Division, II Corps) as the “Fourth Irish Regiment.” The other regiments — like the 28th, filled largely with Irishmen — were the 69th, 88th, and 63d New York. The 116th Pennsylvania, which was originally conceived as an Irish Regiment but was filled mostly with native-born Americans, rounded out the brigade.
The Battle of Fredericksburg
The 28th’s first major action with the Irish Brigade was the Battle of Fredericksburg on 13 December 1862. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, now commanding the Army of the Potomac, threw the right Grand Division of his army against Lee’s entrenched positions on Marye’s Heights, hoping to draw Confederate troops away from his main attack by the Union left. Burnside ordered his divisions to attach one brigade at a time, to draw out the assault and to pull ever greater numbers of Southern troops from his main objective. The men of the Irish Brigade were the fourth brigade ordered to attack the stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights. The brigade would attack this day without most of its green regimental flags, the New York regiments having sent their flags north for repair or replacement after heavy combat use; only the 28th Massachusetts would carry its Irish colors into battle on this terrible day. To replace the missing flags, each member of the brigade attacked a sprig of green boxwood to his hat, demonstrating his pride in Ireland and in the Brigade.
To reach the Southern position, the Irish Brigade had to cross a gently sloping, open plain, and came under constant fire during their approach. Pressing forward under murderous fire, the Brigade came within 40 yards of the wall before it was cut to pieces and halted in its tracks. After the battle, many of the bodies found closest to the wall bore the small sprigs of boxwood still tucked neatly into their forage caps.
The 28th Massachusetts spent the rest of that winter in camp near Falmouth, Virginia, rebuilding from the devastation of Fredericksburg. On 28 April, they departed on campaign once again, now wearing their new corps badges, the red trefoil of the First Division, II Corps. In early May they participated in the debâcle at Chancellorsville and, although their losses were slight in the battle, the Brigade distinguished itself by saving the guns of the 5th Maine Battery from capture.
The Gettysburg Campaign
In June, the 28th was again marching north, this time pursuing the Army of Northern Virginia as it again invaded the North. During this campaign, the 28th remained part of the Irish Brigade, now commanded by Colonel Patrick Kelly. In the ensuing battle of Gettysburg, the regiment was heavily engaged on 2 July, when it was ordered to bolster the position of the shattered III Corps at the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. Before advancing into battle, Father Corby — the chaplain of the 88th New York — pronounced general absolution to all the Irishmen kneeling around him, many of whom would not survive that day. (This scene was recreated for the film Gettysburg).
Advancing to reinforce the Federal left, the Irish Brigade drove into the Wheat Field and fought a furious action, advancing to a rock knoll before being halted. Their action was instrumental in preventing the collapse of the Union left. The valor of the 28th Massachusetts and of other regiments of the Irish Brigade are commemorated by monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield. Each year on Remembrance Day in November, the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the unit conducts a wreath-laying ceremony near the Wheat Field.
During the autumn of 1863, the 28th returned to Virginia and fought in the inconclusive Mine Run campaign, including a skirmish at Bristoe Station on 14 October, and at Robinson’s Tavern on 29 November. With the rest of the Army of the Potomac, the 28th went into winter quarters with the II Corps near Stevensburg, Virginia and remained there until early May, 1864.
The Wilderness to Cold Harbor
row led by an overall Union commander, Lieutenant General U. S. Grant, the Army of the Potomac began its campaign to attack the Army of Northern Virginia wherever it could be found. On May 5, 1864, the 28th Massachusetts was heavily engaged in the Battle of the Wilderness, continuing its fighting until finally running out of ammunition. They skirmished during the next two days, and on 10 May were lightly engaged along the Po River.
Unlike previous Union commanders in the eastern theater, Grant was not going to pull back and rest after a battle. Grant kept a relentless pressure on Lee’s army, achieving with attrition what earlier campaigns of maneuver could not — the North could replace casualties, the south could not, and so the southern armies could be worn down. But this strategy meant incessant action for many veteran units, including the Second Corps and the 28th Massachusetts.
On 12 May the Irishmen charged the Bloody Angle at Spottsylvania with fixed bayonets and uncapped muskets; on 18 May they charged again, taking the first line of Confederate works, which they held for six hours before being driven back. Two weeks later the 28th participated in the bloody charge at Cold Harbor, which claimed the life of Colonel Byrnes.
Grant’s next move was to swing around Lee again to capture the crucial railroad junction at Petersburg. The rebels won the race once more and the two armies settled down to a siege. The war became a series of small engagement in which the 28th had its share, but by this time the original Irish Brigade had been so reduced by continuous combat that it had ceased to exist as an organization. By mid June, the 28th mustered 100 enlisted men and two lieutenants, about one tenth of authorized strength, one fifth of its numbers at the start of the 1864 campaign. The regiment participated with the Irish Brigade in a general assault on the Petersburg line on 16 June, and was then transferred to General Nelson Miles’s brigade. The balance of the summer of 1864 was spent in a series of small engagements, with the 28th engaged at the Jerusalem Plank Road on 22 June, Deep Bottom on 16 July, and Reams Station on 25 August.
In December, the original three-year enlistments of the 28th ran out and those men, less the few who had reenlisted the previous summer, were allowed to go home. One officer and thirty enlisted men were all that was left of the regiment that had left Camp Cameron in January 1862. The regiment was reorganized as a battalion of five companies for the coming campaign. As the war wound down, the regiment, now in the reconstituted Irish Brigade, fought small actions in the spring of 1865, including Hatcher’s Run on 29 March and Sunderland Station on 2 April — their last battle. After Lee’s surrender, the regiment returned to Washington and was mustered out of Federal service on 30 June. The 28th reached Readville, Massachusetts on July 5, and a few days later the men were paid and discharged. The 28th Massachusetts was constantly in action during its existence, participating in every major campaign in the eastern theater after the Peninsula. The regiment was seventh in total killed or died of wounds (250) among all Union regiments (the 69th New York, another Irish Brigade regiment, ranked sixth). In fact, of 1,703 men who enlisted in the regiment during the war, 1,133 were killed, wounded, or missing.
Click here for the Dyer’s Compendium (1908) entry for the 28th Massachusetts Infantry
Click here for the roster of the original Company B.
Secessionville, SC (June 16) 70 killed, wounded, missing
Second Bull Run (Aug 29-30) 135 killed, wounded, missing
Chantilly (Sept. 1) 99 killed, wounded, missing
South Mountain (Sept. 14) 6 wounded
Antietam (Sept. 17) 48 killed, wounded, missing
Fredericksburg (Dec. 13) 157 killed, wounded, missing
Chancellorsville (May 3) 26 killed, wounded, missing
Gettysburg (July 1-3) 107 killed, wounded, missing
Mine Run Campaign (Fall) 18 killed, wounded, missing
Wilderness (May 5-7) 119 killed, wounded, missing
Po River (May 9-10) 18 killed, wounded, missing
Spottsylvania (May 12 & 18) 117 killed, wounded, missing
Cold Harbor (June 3) 47 killed, wounded, missing
Petersburg (June 16) 19 killed, wounded, missing
Small actions (Jerusalem Plank Road, Deep Bottom,Reams Station): 89 killed, wounded, missing
Hatcher’s Run (March 29)
Sutherland Station (April 2)