A couple of weekends ago, I made a drive to Antietam National Battlefield, and in an effort to support the battlefield and local economy, I felt it was fitting and proper to add to my library. Since March is always one of my favorite times to explore new chapters of Irish-American history, this book came home with me.
My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry (Edited by Kevin E. O’Brien)
So guess what I’ve been reading on my lunch breaks? I haven’t finished the volume yet, but I already know it will join the shelves as one of my favorite Union memoirs.
Army enlistment papers reveal a little information about William McCarter. In 1840 or 1841, he was born in Derry, Ireland, but by the time he volunteered to save the Union, he resided in Philadelphia and worked as a tanner. He was also married and had several children when he enlisted on August 23, 1862. Five feet ten inches tall with blue eyes and brown hair, McCarter became a favorite in his regiment for his ability to write; his comrades frequently asked him to pen their letters home, and his skill with words also earned him a place as General Meagher’s adjutant.
General Thomas F. Meagher commanded the Army of the Potomac’s famed Irish Brigade and the 116th Pennsylvania joined the unit at Harpers Ferry on October 6, 1862. The rest of the brigade welcomed the new regiment which provided much-needed reinforcement after the brigade’s terrible losses at Antietam. Skirmishing and small scale fights at Charlestown and Snicker’s Gap gave the new regiment a taste of battle before their baptism by fire at Fredericksburg.
That battled ended McCarter’s service with the brigade. He was badly wounded at Fredericksburg during the attack on Marye’s Heights and was discharged from service on May 12, 1863. Returning to his family, McCarter lived until February 1911, though he suffered the effects of his injury for the rest of his life.
Between 1875 and 1879, at the encouragement of his wife, he wrote his memories of service with the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry. McCarter had a good memory and a talent for writing. His memoirs give the reader a feeling of “being there” as he describes the scenery, incidents in camp, battle, and aftermath with vivid, graphic detail. McCarter’s gift of writing shows war from the perspective of a private, but with a clarity unique among “common soldier” reminiscences.
For example, McCarter remembered his feelings going into battle in this descriptive language:
…I must note that there was a special, uncomfortable time experienced by every soldier on the eve of going into action. Then his heart was, as it were, in his mouth. Brave, good, loyal and true men were not even excepted. That time was the interval between the formation of the line of battle and the spoken command, “Charge, forward, march.” These moments, few or many, were full of dread, fear and suspense. They were well calculated to test a soldier’s mettle. Invariable, the coward showed the white feather. A regiment or brigade stood in line of battle, ready at the word “go” to plunge into a fight. But the men dared not until so ordered. Shells flew thick over and past them, yet they could not advance or fall back. Oh, what misery! What a terrible situation, compelled to stand and take whatever punishment the foe may inflict without being permitted to protect yourself or even to retaliate or avenge.
…But when the command, “Forward, march,” was then given, how different our feelings. For although marching to meet the enemy face to face in deadly conflict, we all felt a freedom, a courage. In my own case, it was a time of go-ahead, reckless courage. I was perfectly destitute of fear and utterly regardless for the time being of any or every consequence, life or death, heaven or hell. (Pages 28-29)
Later in life, McCarter explained why he enlisted: “…because of my love for my whole adopted country, not the North, nor the South, but the Union, one and inseparable, its form of government, its institutions, its Stars and Stripes, its noble, generous, brave and intelligent people every ready to welcome, and to extend the hand of friendship to the downtrodden and oppressed of every clime and people.” And perhaps with those words, he simply and eloquently gave voice to thousands of Irish-Americans who fought during the Civil War.