On June 6, 1944, Allied soldiers waded ashore under enemy fire, battling to establish five beach-heads on the Normandy coast of Nazi-occupied Europe. Omaha Beach – one of the code-named stretches of shoreline assigned to U.S. troops for capture – offered difficulties in navigating the landing crafts and unexpectedly strong defenses which resulted in high casualties.
Soldiers from the 116th Infantry Regiment were among the first to land on this beach, a point of honor that would cost their unit and their communities back home a heavy price. By the end of June 6, the unit suffered over 800 casualties, and the fighting in Normandy was far from over. This unit was the only national guard unit chosen to make the first wave of landings, and they represented a long and storied past from previous conflicts, including the Civil War.
The guard unit designated the 116th Infantry Regiment in the modern era has roots back to the year 1742 and has served as a militia unit, then national guard, and sometimes organized into other designated units. From the French and Indian War to modern conflicts in the Middle East, members of the 116th have defined and written a uniquely American story of a fight for honor and ideals.
During the Civil War, the historic unit formed part of Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson’s 5th Virginia Regiment, Stonewall Brigade. Those soldiers of the 1860’s saw action from First Bull Run to the end of war when just a handful of the brigade made the final march to Appomattox. They made smashing flank attacks, marched hundreds of miles at record infantry speeds, and added battle victory after battle victory to their story.
Direct descendants of these Civil War veterans waited in the landing craft on June 6, 1944, then plunged into the choppy water, heading for Normandy. Did they remember their ancestors who had fought with “Stonewall”? Did they think about the legacy words that had been directed to the 5th Virginia and other regiments of the brigade in 1861?
“…my admiration of your conduct from that day to this, whether on the march, in the bivouac, the tented field, or on the bloody plains…where you gained the well-deserved reputation of having decided the fate of the battle.
You have already gained a brilliant and deservedly high reputation, throughout the army…and I trust in the future by your own deeds on the field, and by the assistance of the same Kind Providence who has heretofore favored our cause that you will gain more victories, and add additional lustre to the reputation you now enjoy. You have already gained a proud position in the history… I shall look with great anxiety to your future movements, and I trust whenever I shall hear of the First Brigade on the field of battle it will be of still nobler deeds achieved and higher reputation won.”
If Jackson could have known what the descendants of the Stonewall Brigade would accomplish on D-Day 1944, he would have been assured that the unit’s legacy continued nobly beyond the Civil War. They would even help decide the fate of the battle, the fate of Europe in World War II.
June 6th marked a day this new generation of fighter had been preparing for. In 1941, they had answered their country’s call and had spent long months training for amphibious landings. As the officers chose and assigned units around the planning charts, General George C. Marshall insisted that the 116th take part in the first infantry assault waves. Marshall – a Virginia Military Institute graduate – was keenly aware of history and, as the accounts suggest, wanted to make sure that the Institute and The Valley would be heard from on the historic day.
They landed in that first attack, their companies spread out over the beach, aiming for different points. Some companies found themselves pinned down on the beach; later, others found ways around obstacles or forward from the sands.
On June 7, the Second Ranger Battalion who had scaled the cliffs at Point du Hoc struggled to hold their position under a vicious German counterattack. Fortunately, the descendants of Stonewall’s men had broken out of Omaha Beach and rushed to aid their fellow Americans. Old North and South tensions forgotten, the boys of the 116th attacked the Germans, aiding their U.S. comrades to hold a key position that had already been won at great cost.
The following day – June 8 – Sergeant Peregory wiped out a trench of enemy soldiers, clearing the way for his unit to advance inland again. Peregory lived only less than a week after this incident, but posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor. The citation gives the details of his heroism:
On 8 June 1944, the 3d Battalion of the 116th Infantry was advancing on the strongly held German defenses at Grandcampe, France, when the leading elements were suddenly halted by decimating machine-gun fire from a firmly entrenched enemy force on the high ground overlooking the town. After numerous attempts to neutralize the enemy position by supporting artillery and tank fire had proved ineffective, T/Sgt. Peregory, on his own initiative, advanced up the hill under withering fire and worked his way to the crest, where he discovered an entrenchment leading to the main fortifications 200 yards away. Without hesitating, he leaped into the trench and moved toward the emplacement. Encountering a squad of enemy riflemen, he fearlessly attacked them with hand grenades and bayonet, killed eight, and forced three to surrender. Continuing along the trench, he singlehandedly forced the surrender of 32 more riflemen, captured the machine gunners, and opened the way for the leading elements of the battalion to advance and secure its objective. The extraordinary gallantry and aggressiveness displayed by T/Sgt. Peregory are exemplary of the highest traditions of the Armed Forces.
On those fateful days on the shores of Normandy in 1944, descendants of Stonewall’s men held to the motto “ever forward” – scrambling off the landing craft, crawling off the beaches, racing to save their comrades, and punching through an entrenched line. The legacy of the Stonewall Brigade lived and fought on at Normandy, but that time under the U.S. banner and in a fight that would liberate millions.
With tenacity, courage, and bayonets, the young men of the 116th Infantry pushed the story of their famed unit into a new chapter of history. The Civil War veterans were gone, but in their place rose up The Greatest Generation.
Holsworth, Jerry W. Civil War Winchester. The History Press, Charleston, SC: 2011.
The Essential Civil War Cirriculum: The Stonewall Brigade https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/the-stonewall-brigade.html
The 116th Foundation https://116thfoundation.org/museum/history/
The Medal of Honor Website https://themedalofhonor.com/medal-of-honor-recipients/recipients/peregory-frank-world-war-two