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New book looks at immigrant Civil War soldiers who received the Medal of Honor


Corporal Peter McAdams, of Company A, 98th Pennsylvania, received the Medal of Honor  for his actions on May 3, 1863, at the battle of Salem Church in northern Virginia. His citation reads “Went 250 yards in front of his regiment toward the position of the enemy and, under fire, brought within the lines a wounded and unconscious comrade.”

Nationally known author Les Rolston explores the story of Irish-born Peter McAdams and more than two dozen other immigrants who joined the Union Army and then became recognized as heroes. His new book is entitled Home of the Brave: In Their Own Words, Immigrants Who Received the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.

Born in 1954, Rolston has studied American history for most of his adult life. His greatest interest is in the lives of ordinary people who in times of crisis did extraordinary things. His specific interest in writing about these soldiers stem from the early 1990s when he found an unmarked grave of a Confederate soldier in his home state of Rhode Island.  He wrote a book (Lost Soul: A Confederate Soldier in New England (Mariner Press, 2007, 2nd edition) about him and decided to keep writing. His work gained national attention in the Associated Press and various television programs. Les received citations from the Rhode Island House of Representatives and a letter of commendation from former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell. He was awarded the Jefferson Davis Medal, the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s highest award.

Now, Les Rolston explores the human interest stories behind the immigrants who received the Medal of Honor. For Home Of The Brave he started with about 300 subjects and narrowed it down to 26.  They are from England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Holland, Norway, Chile, Russia, Italy, Canada and Prussia.

Here is an excerpt on Peter McAdams, the hero of Salem Heights from the 98th Pennsylvania:

Peter McAdams was twenty-eight years old in May of 1863. He had emigrated to the United States with his sister when he was fourteen; at least that’s how old his sister said he was and Peter was never quite certain of his actual age. They settled in Manayunk, a suburb of Philadelphia. The war brought prosperity to Manayunk when the mills switched from cotton to wool textiles producing blankets for the war. Peter found employment as a shoemaker, but two weeks after the attack on Fort Sumter in April of 1861, the gray-eyed, brown-haired Irishman with the dark complexion from County Armagh joined the 21st Pennsylvania Infantry. His best friend Charlie Smith joined with him.

 Comprised mostly of Germans, the regiment was organized in Philadelphia and sent to Maryland in June, but the 90-day regiment was mustered out before the Irish corporal got a taste of fighting. McAdams liked soldiering and on August 29, 1861, he joined many of his former comrades from the 21st and enlisted into the newly organized 98th Pennsylvania—a three year regiment commanded by 48 year-old John Frederick Ballier, a German-born baker.

Once deployed the 98th was sent to the Washington area remaining there until March 10, 1862, when it was sent to the York/James Peninsula where it took part in the battle of Williamsburg and later experienced the horrors of Malvern Hill on July 1. Corporal Sergeant Peter McAdams and Private Charlie Smith and their regiment took part in Burnside’s infamous Mud March and suffered through the Valley Forge-like conditions at Falmouth, VA, during the winter months of 1863.  The result was Peter contracting typhoid and spending weeks in a sick tent.

On the 28th of April, a recovered Peter McAdams, Charlie Smith and the 98th PA  marched out of their camp near White Oak Church, VA, and began making their way to Fredericksburg. The 98th crossed the Rappahannock at about 8 PM on the evening of May 2 and entered the city about 1 AM of May 3 where it rested beside the 139th PA behind a stone wall facing the Confederate stronghold on the heights above.

At first light Confederate artillerists welcomed the Pennsylvanians with a shower of canister and grapeshot. Lt. CL. Wynkoop remembered, “Here we remained until the charge was made upon the wall and batteries, when we marched directly to the front, in line of battle, and continued so to do until reaching the wall, when by the right flank we ascended the height.”  The 98th’s loss was one man killed and one wounded.

The Confederate lines wavered until General Jubal Early ordered his men to dig in near a crossroads known as Salem Heights. At about 4:30 PM, while the Pennsylvanians were marching in line of battle to support the front line, a Confederate counterthrust smashed into it driving terrified Union men retreating through the oncoming Pennsylvanians.

Panic and confusion reigned and Colonel Ballier fell severely wounded.  Corporal Peter McAdams lost track of his friend Charlie.  Lt. CL. Wynkoop took command and with cool-headiness and a bit of luck held his men together, remembering, “Under these most trying circumstances I succeeded in holding the regiment in position, and with the assistance of the artillery immediately in rear, repelled the enemy’s advance some five or six times, until the enemy was forced to retire.”

Private Sam Thompson stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter McAdams during the relentless Confederate assaults.  He recalled, “The firing became hot and heavy.  In fact so severe that our regiment unable to hold its advanced position and was ordered back to its original position on the line of battle.  We retreated over a cleared field under heavy fire from the enemy, and when the original position was reached the regiment halted and again faced the enemy.”

The exhausted Pennsylvanians gazed out into the smoke filled ground they had just lost.  “It was at this time, that we could see Charlie Smith of our company laying about 250 yards from us, toward the enemy’s line,” remembered a soldier.

Still catching his breath, Peter stared out at the limp form of his dear friend while attaching his bayonet to his musket, a task he could do blindfolded after months of repetitive training.  While his hands were busy he surveyed his surroundings — the enemy was preparing for yet another charge.

“Just on impulse,” recalled Private Sam Thompson, Peter McAdams turned to his captain and announced, “I’m going to save Charlie Smith!”  McAdams stabbed his bayonet into the ground and started out to Charlie on a dead run under heavy enemy fire.  The enemy advanced toward him, but unfazed Peter continued on his run until he reached his friend.  “The enemy was advancing at the same time,” recalled Corporal Thomas Barnes, “but Comrade Peter McAdams was undaunted and ran up to the body… he was personally subjected to the fire of the enemy sharpshooters and likewise to the regular fire of battle… It was as brave and gallant an act as I have ever seen.”

Charlie Smith was shot through the head and unconscious. The five-foot, four-inch corporal struggled but managed to put his wounded friend on his back and began a staggered jog back to his regiment.  Adrenaline surge through his veins and minie balls swarmed around him like bees.  

Private Michael Ogden was also spellbound by what he was witnessing, “McAdams ran as fast as he could, and we all held our breath in the excitement for we expected to see him fall every minute, but instead he succeeded in reaching Charlie Smith and although McAdams is a small man, he lifted Smith and put him on his, there was no person who ever expected to see McAdams get back, when he came back, the entire regiment gave him a cheer.”  McAdams was promoted to sergeant on the spot.  But tragically, his friend Charlie was dead.  On May 5, the 98th recrossed the Rappahannock over a pontoon bridge and rested, each man alone with his own thoughts.

On June 3, 1864, at Cold Harbor, VA, a shell-shattered tree fell on now Second Lieutenant Peter McAdams.  He remained in the army until war’s end and was mustered out in Washington on June 29, 1865.  He married Catherine five months later back home in Manayunk.  Peter would outlive his wife and in his later years he suffered from pleurisy and senility – on one occasion misplacing his pension certificate.

Thirty-four years after the event Thomas Barnes was still awed by what he saw at Salem Heights.  He recalled, Many years have passed nevertheless it is stamped upon my memory just as it occurred.  I can yet see Peter McAdams carrying Charlie Smith off the field of battle, between the two lines of battle into our lines with the enemy shooting at him and our entire regiment cheering his brave and gallant act.”

Peter McAdams died on September 29, 1926, but on April 1, 1898, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.  His citation reads:  “Went 250 yards in front of his regiment toward the position of the enemy and under fire brought within the lines a wounded and unconscious comrade.”

Home of the Brave is available directly from the author at his Facebook page. Les has also written Lost Soul: A Confederate Soldier In New England and Long Time Gone: Neighbors Divided By Civil War, (amazon link) as well as several magazine and newspaper articles.