Sgt. Thomas Plunkett, Co. E, 21st Mass., at Fredericksburg: "When two color bearers were shot down,he picked up the Regimental Color and carried it up Marye's Heights further than any other Union flag. At that point, a Confederate cannonball took away both his arms. Somehow, he stayed erect on his knees, the flagstaff against his shoulder, until another man could take it." (Medal of Honor citation). He miraculously survived. Gov. Andrew offered to give Plunkett a Colonel's commission, so that he could qualify for a larger pension. But the hero demurred: he could think of no greater honor than to be remembered as Sergeant in the Massachusetts 21st. Instead, the State Legislature appointed him a State House Messenger, with a 'special' salary that made up for the smaller, sergeant's pension. His appointment required only token attendance, but Sgt. Plunkett never missed a day's work for many years. The first National Color of the 21st Regiment to this day, is still stained with Thomas Plunkett’s blood.
Sergeant Thomas Plunkett
Sergeant Thomas Plunkett
The indomitable Clara Barton had a special relationship with the 21st Massachusetts. It started at Antietam, when she came to the regiment and asked for help bringing in some wounded men, lying in the field, under fire. In later years, she would reminisce, “we campaigned, and marched, and bivouacked together from Antietam to Fredericksburg.” And, she remained in touch throughout the war, and in the long years after. She was voted “Daughter of the Regiment,” and became a fixture at regimental reunions, as often as she could find the time, right up to the year before her death.
When the 21st ascended Marye’s Heights, and was swept relentlessly by enemy fire; when Sergeant Thomas Plunkett made his terrible sacrifice, Clara was in the field hospital, just across the river. Later, she helped care for Plunkett, and got him on a train for Emory General Hospital in Washington.
Miss Clara Barton
Miss Clara Barton
Many years later, On August 24, 1888, the 21st Regiment Veterans Association, held their annual reunion in Worcester, Mass. Clara Barton had not attended these annual reunions for the past few years, being far too busy in her role as President of the American Red Cross … but she always sent a letter to be read, and sometimes a personal representative, to show her loyalty and affection for the old 21st. But, this year she came as the much-anticipated Guest of Honor
As she addressed the gathered veterans of the 21st, Clara Barton told them of an incident several weeks after the late Sergeant Plunkett's tragic, heroic deed at Fredericksburg.
The honored guest of the regiment, Miss Clara Barton, was then called upon. She stepped quickly upon the platform amidst loud applause, and, dropping the loose wrap from her shoulders, displayed her breast covered with decorations bestowed upon her by royal hands of countless nations, as well as by those of her own countrymen. The whole audience, rising, gave three rousing cheers for “The Heroine of the World,” and then, with a voice gentle and low, but very distinct, she spoke to them.
Comrades, I am glad to hear this welcome from you, glad to know that you think kindly of me, because all of that and much more you are to me. There was never a better regiment. In any land or clime, I never knew of one.
I had planned to come here before you invited me. I was invited to come, but I was never told you wanted me to say anything. I was asked to come and hear, and I have been a delighted listener. When I arrived here this morning I found that a part of this program was assigned to me. Well, I happened to remember an incident, something that came to mind two years ago, at the time when poor Tommy Plunkett left us. Some kind friend had sent me the city papers telling about his death. It was nightfall when I received them and I was alone in my room and I read them all. The picture came before me of the campaign, of the camp, the bivouac, the battle, crossing that bridge at Fredericksburg with shot all about me, the thunder of guns on the heights above, and I thought of an incident of a few weeks later, of poor Plunkett. Something impelled me to write it down, and I put it in my portfolio, and I happened to have it here today. You will remember that it was written with no view to this night, and I read it now without the change of a word:
Plunkett’s kind and half broken-hearted brother had come on to take him home. But he was still a wounded soldier, and tied to his hospital by military red tape, which must in some way be broken. I recollect the morning the two brothers came to me from the Relief Rooms of Col. Gardiner Tufts -- the soldier’s refuge, and the people’s solace through all those years of anguish. The sergeant seemed in ordinary flesh, with young, bright, honest face, a trifle pale, with the remnant of one shattered arm in a sling. The other, Ah, I remember only too well where it was, but an empty sleeve of the old, light blue overcoat hung under the cape, and lost itself somewhere in a pocket, scarcely observable.
The brother needed to go home, and the sergeant wanted to go. They told me their difficulties. The War Department was overrun, and could not listen to personal cases, could not even be reached. I invited them to go with me to the Capitol. We entered the waiting room of the Senate Chamber, and I sent my card to Henry Wilson, Chairman of the Military Committee of the Senate.
Senator Henry Wilson
He came at once, brisk, ruddy and busy. On approaching, I said: “Mr Wilson, permit me to introduce you to sergeant Plunkett of the Massachusetts twenty-first.”
“How do you do, sergeant,” he extended a cordial hand.
The sergeant stood motionless as a ghost before him, and interposing to relieve embarrassment, I said: “Mr. Wilson, you will forgive the sergeant for not offering you a hand. He has none.”
A hasty, half-frightened glance of astonishment from the Senator shot up and down the apparition before him. At length, with a kind of catching breath, he managed to say: “No hands! No hands!! My God! Where are they?”
“Shot off in Fredericksburg, Mr. Wilson, holding the flag.”
The ruddy face had blanched; the lips, like ashes, tried to move, trembled, but made no sound. At length the tears rolled down the pallid cheeks,and he had hands to brush them away, while mine performed like service for the tender-hearted sergeant, who wept, not so much for his own woes as for the pain he saw he gave others.
“What does the sergeant want?” asked the Senator, when he could speak.
“He wants to go home, Mr. Wilson; his brother is here waiting to take him. They cannot reach the War Department.”
“I can,” he replied.
I said, ”He must have a furlough, not a discharge; he will need his pay till he has his pension. Here is his application,” handing him the paper.
Reaching out to take it from me, he said, “I will see to that. You will go home, sergeant; and bidding good morning, he hastened from our presence.
At ten in the evening [Senator Wilson] stepped in at my door with the abrupt sentence, “The sergeant can go home tomorrow.” He did not take the seat I offered him, but continued to pace restlessly back and forth across the floor for some ten minutes. At length he sat down by my writing table, leaning his head thoughtfully upon his hands. I never interrupted him in these moods of reflection,but left him undisturbed to think it out. Finally,he broke silence with the same ejaculation he had uttered in the morning, “My God! What a price!”
Read of the origins of Clara Barton's close ties with the 21st Mass. Volunteers:
Clara Barton's words are as they were recorded in the Worcester Post of August 25, 1888.