I first learned
of Thomas Plunkett while reading Stephen B. Oates' biography of Clara Barton.
I later noticed his name in a list of Civil War recipients of the Medal
of Honor. The more I learn about him, the more I realize his is a
story worth the telling.
Born in Ireland
on 13 October 1839 to Francis and Catherine, Plunkett's family came to
the United States in 1845. He was a mechanic living in West Boylston,
Massachusetts when he enlisted as a corporal in Company E of the 21st
Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on 19 July 1861.
Massachusetts was made up of men from central and western Massachusetts
and was organized at Worcester. After mustering into Federal service
and leaving the State in August, it did garrison duty in Annapolis, Maryland,
before being being assigned to Ambrose Burnside's expedition to North Carolina
on 9 January 1862. It received its baptism of fire at the battle
of Roanoke Island on 8 February. It was also engaged at Newburn (14
March) and Camden (19 April). In August, Burnside's command was reorganized
as the IX Army Corps and was sent to Virginia to reinforce John Pope's
army. It was not heavily engaged at 2nd
Bull Run (30 August), but it was a different story at Chantilly 2 days
later (1 September). In a hot fight with Stonewall Jackson's
troops during a thunderstorm, 38 of its men were killed or mortally wounded;
an additional 76 were wounded and 26 taken prisioner. This was the
highest loss sustained by the regiment in a single battle during the war.
The night following
the battle, Plunkett, by now a sergeant, went searching for a wounded friend,
Louis Moutte of Company E. Figuring he'd probably have to carry his
friend off the battlefield, Plunkett left his own musket behind.
While he going through some dense woods in the dark, he and a Confederate
picket ran into each other. Although unarmed himself, Plunkett managed
to pull the man's weapon away from him and take him prisoner.
Two weeks later,
the 21st was again in action, this time
at South Mountain's Fox's Gap on 14 September. At the Battle of Antietam
on the 17th, it helped carry what is now
known as Burnside's Bridge.
December saw the
21st Mass. along with the rest of the Army
of the Potomac under Major General Burnside, at Falmouth, near the Rappahannock
River opposite Fredericksburg. Burnside's plan was to take Fredericksburg
before Lee's Army of Northern Virginia arrived, but a delay in the arrival
of pontoon bridges prevented the Army from crossing the river. This
delay also gave Lee and his Army plenty of time to fortify their
position on the high ground beyond the town and get the range on every
square foot of the plain before them. Sharpshooters were posted in
the town to dispute any river crossing by the Federals. Lee's left,
manned by Longstreet's Corps, was on a rise known as Marye's Heights.
At its base was a sunken road, embanked with a stone wall. Longstreet
posted enough artillery on the heights to make them bristle and posted
infantry in the well protected road.
On 11 December,
the Federal Army finally forced its way across the river and began moving
into the town. The 21st crossed the
bridge the morning of the 12th, bivouacking
near it until the next morning. At about 10 AM on the 13th,
the 21st was sent to support the 10th
New Hampshire, which was deployed as skirmishers, advancing in the open.
A short firefight with the Confederates behind the stone wall soon forced
the Federals to retire.
The Federal assault
on Marye's Heights began around noon, led by Couch's II Corps. Originally
intended to be only a diversion for the main attack being made by the Federal
left, things quickly got out of control. As soon as troops emerged
from the town, they came under artillery fire which tore huge gaps in the
lines. Once within range of the stone wall, the Confederate infantry
rose up and fired volley after volley, mowing the Federals down in droves
and stopping them cold. The best the survivors could do was find
some depressions in the ground and stay down. Several waves of attacks
during that afternoon all met the same fate - nothing could get past 25
yards of that stone wall and live.
The IX Corps' turn
at being slaughtered came at about 1 PM, as Ferrero's brigade (of which
the 21st was a part) began its advance. According to the commander
of the 21st, Col. William S. Clark, Color
Sergeant Collins (Company A) was hit about 60 rods out of town and fell
to the ground. Sgt. Plunkett immediately took up the colors and carried
them forward. At a point of about 40 rods from the stone wall, a
shell burst struck Plunkett, shattering both his arms and wounding him
in the chest - three other soldiers were killed outright by the blast.
Somehow managing to stay on his feet, Plunkett tried to support the now
blood-drenched flag with what was left of his right arm and the rest of
his body. "Don't let it fall, boys!" he cried. Only after Color
Corporal Olney (Company H) had taken the colors from him did Plunkett drop
to the ground.
were eventually able to get him back into Fredericksburg. Surgeons,
with Clara Barton in attendance, performed amputations on what was left
of his arms - one just above and the other just below the elbow.
They also dressed his chest wound (the Worcester newspaper reported that
a book he had carried in his breast pocket had prevented this from being
mortal). During the night of 15-16 December, the Army of the Potomac
evacuated its wounded, recrossed the Rappahannock and returned to its camps
around Falmouth. On Christmas Day, Plunkett was carried from the
hospital, along with the other wounded of the regiment, to Falmouth Station
and put aboard a flatcar bound for the Federal depot at Aquia Creek.
Escorting him as far as the Falmouth train station to see him off were
Col. Clark and the entire 21st, along with
Barton. After arriving at Aquia Creek, he was put on a transport
and taken to Washington, ending up at Armory Square Hospital.
Once he had recovered
somewhat, his brother came to Washington to try to get permission for him
to go home, only to run into a lot of red tape and bureaucratic indifference
at the War Department. Plunkett and his brother then went to see
Barton, who by this time was back in Washington as well. She immediately
took them to see Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, a close friend
of hers. Barton explained the situation to Wilson, and that Plunkett
needed to be furloughed rather than discharged; with the loss of both his
arms, finding employment would be almost impossible and he'd need his army
pay as income. Wilson did some string pulling and came through.
Plunkett could go home the next day and still remain in the Army.
On 3 April, Plunkett
paid Miss Barton another visit, this time in New York City, to report that
a collection of $4,000 had been donated to him.
Sgt Plunkett arrived
back in West Boylston on 18 April 1863. About a thousand well-wishers
were at the train depot to cheer his homecoming and to present him with
a purse of $200 which had been collected.
On 26 November
1863, he married Helen Lorimer. At the time, "Nellie" was 23 and
a Worcester resident; she had been born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the
daughter of Alexander and Evaline. Alexander was a native of Massachusetts,
while Evaline had been born in Scotland.
When the 21st
veteranized, the re-enlistees were granted a furlough home. A reception
was held for them in Worcester on 1 February 1864 - Thomas attended as
well. He was discharged on account of his wounds on 09 March 1864
by order of Major General Dix, and applied for an invalid pension on 11
October 1864 but his participation with the 21st
Massachusetts wasn't over by a long shot - on 22 December 1865, a parade
and ceremony was held in Boston to formalize the return of regiments' colors
to the State House. Sgt Plunkett marched with the veteran color bearers
of the 21st.
On 30 March 1866,
Plunkett received the Medal of Honor for his act of gallantry at Fredericksburg.
The State appointed him messenger at the State House in 1869.
was awarded a persion of $8 a month. This was increased to $25 within
a few months and gradually increased over the years to $31.25, then $50,
and finally $72 in June 1878.
According to what
I believe is his household's entry on the 1880 U.S. census for Worcester,
he was working in the Custom House; both he and wife Helen were 37 (however,
this should be 39). Helen was born in Massachusetts as was her
father, while her mother was born in Scotland. Two children are listed,
both boys: Thomas W. (age 13) and Harry C. (age 2 on the census, but his
birth record states he was born 15 June 1876 in Worcester). They
had a live-in servant (Bridget O'Brien). An attorney named Francis
Plunkett (age 39, born IRE, single) is also living there. This might
be Thomas' brother mentioned earlier but his relationship to Thomas is
given as "Other".
About 1884, an
intestinal disease forced Plunkett's retirement and he died on 10 March
1885, age 45. The flag which he had defended at Fredericksburg was
brought out from the Statehouse for his funeral and placed next to the
casket. Helen's application for a widow's pension of $30 per month
was approved by a special act of the US Congress and authorized on 4 June
1890. She died 29 September 1901. Her husband is still remembered
as one of Worcester County's bravest - a portrait of him is displayed in
Worcester's Mechanics Hall.