Lieutenant John G. B. Adams of the 19th Massachusetts is Awarded Medal of Honor for His Action at the Battle of Fredericksburg
The 19th Massachusetts Infantry saw extensive fighting at the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. This regiment of seasoned veterans had entered Federal service in August 1861 and had fought at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, in the Peninsula Campaign, and at Antietam before Major General Ambrose Burnside had marched the Army of the Potomac to Falmouth, Virginia, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, in the late Fall of 1862. The 19th was part of Colonel Norman J. Hall’s brigade of the 2nd Division of the Union 2nd Corps at Fredericksburg.
On December 11th, Union engineers tried to build pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock, while under fire from Brigadier General William Barksdale’s Brigade of Mississippi infantrymen. Barksdale’s defense effectively halted the installation of the bridges, and when Burnside called for volunteers to cross the river in boats and secure the other side, Hall volunteered his brigade for this dangerous mission. Hall’s 7th Michigan Infantry was the first to cross, followed by the 19th Massachusetts. These two regiments successfully secured the area around the shoreline, and the bridges were completed, allowing additional union troops to cross.
But Barksdale hadn’t withdrawn from the town, and the Federals had to engage the Confederates in street to street fighting, something that was rare in the Civil War. “The men of the Nineteenth were by no means novices in hard fighting on the open field or in the woods and dense underbrush, but attacking an entire brigade with only a thin line of skirmishers for a distance of half a mile, concealed as they were in the attics, chambers, and cellars of the homes, was not only novel but a great strain upon the moral and physical courage” the regimental historian wrote. Second Lieutenant John G. B. Adams recalled that after entering the back door of a house and going through it to the front door, a soldier was shot and killed by a Confederate across the street immediately after knocking the front door open with his musket.
Barksdale withdrew his brigade that night, and the Federals secured control of much of the town. The 19th remained in town on the 12th of December as more and more Union troops crossed the river. On the 13th, Burnside planned an assault against the Confederate positions on the western edge of the town. The Rebel defenses were formidable, with infantry behind a stone wall and artillery on the high ground of Marye’s Heights directly behind the stone wall. Wave after wave of Federal assaults were repulsed with huge losses. In mid afternoon, Hall’s brigade prepared to go into action.
The brigade marched west down Hanover Street and deployed in line of battle on the right flank of the Union line. When the order to advance was given, Hall’s regiments were blasted by artillery and advanced into the teeth of musket fire from Brigadier General Robert Ransom’s Brigade of North Carolinians. Lieutenant Adams described the scene:
The terrible havoc which took place after we had advanced over the embankment will surely stay in the mind of every participant to his last day. As fast as the colors came in sight, the color-bearer fell, and, in less than no time, eight were killed or wounded. The color-sergeant fell and Lieutenant Edgar W. Newcomb grasped the national flag. A moment later he, too, shared the same fate of the sergeant. As he went down, I snatched the colors. It seemed as if I grasped for death, expecting every moment to be my last.
Almost at the same instant the bearer of the state colors at my side was shot and, directed by a sudden instinct, I also took possession of our state emblem. Realizing that it would be sure death, and probably the loss of both colors, if we remained where I was, I rushed across the field to a fence at the left, my men following. Here the regiment was reformed, we changed front, and, by lying close to the ground, had a good opportunity to respond effectively to the fire of the rebel sharpshooters.
With flags in hand, Adams had led his men to a somewhat safer position behind the buildings of a tannery. “By obliquing to the left, followed by the regiment, we got out of the line of fire for a time, and lay down. I do not mention this fact to show that I was braver than other men, for every man of the old regiment on the field would have done the same had opportunity offered, but my services were recognized by promotion to first lieutenant, and I was afterwards given a Medal of Honor by Congress for the act.” Adams emerged unscathed, but eight of the ten other men who had carried the flags were killed and the other two were wounded. Hall’s brigade held its position until relieved after midnight, and withdrew into Fredericksburg. The Battle of Fredericksburg was a costly Union defeat, with approximately 12,600 total casualties to the Confederate’s 5300.
Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, Volume I, compiled by Walter F. Beyer and Oscar F. Keydel
The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock by Francis Augustin O’Reilly
History of the Nineteenth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861-1865, edited by Ernest L. Waite
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I Volume XXI
Reminiscences of the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment by John G. B. Adams