• Codie Eash

Pennsylvanians who earned Medals of Honor at the Battle of Fredericksburg

Updated: Dec 18, 2019

On December 13, 1862, the Army of the Potomac was overcome by an outnumbered Confederate foe in what has gone down as one of the worst setbacks for a United States fighting force in American military history. The Battle of Fredericksburg began on December 11 and would effectively culminate on December 15, but it was the one-sided bloodshed of December 13, 1862, that sealed the fate of the engagement and inflicted a blemish upon President Abraham Lincoln’s plans that winter as commander-in-chief.


All along the Rappahannock River from the city of Fredericksburg to Marye’s Heights to Prospect Hill, the ill-fated engagement resulted in 18,000 combined casualties—67 percent of which belonged to the numerically superior Federal army, including 104 units from Pennsylvania. “Shall we say...it was a defeat?” pondered the Daily Evening Express of Lancaster. “Certainly, if to have started out to accomplish a certain object, and to have failed in doing so, be a defeat, you can apply no other term to the upshot of to-day’s battle.”[1]

Despite this rout and its harmful effects upon the Union high command’s reputation, Fredericksburg was not lost due to a lack of heroism. As a result of the battle, in the years and decades that followed, nearly two dozen U.S. soldiers were recognized by the national legislature and multiple American presidents as having gone above and beyond the call of duty—gallantry for which they each received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Of those, seven recipients served in Pennsylvania regiments at Fredericksburg as officers and enlisted men, warriors whose acts are described here in brief detail:


Jacob Cart and Evan M. Woodward

According to an early history of the famous Pennsylvania Reserve Corps published in 1865 soon after the end of the Civil War, Col. Henry C. Bolinger, commander of the 7th Reserves (36th Infantry), “led forward his regiment with great gallantry, and took his men to the crest of” Prospect Hill near the southern end of the Fredericksburg battlefield. There, west of the Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Potomac Railroad, as the Reserves confronted the Confederate corps of Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, “they captured the flag of the Nineteenth Georgia regiment, and about one hundred prisoners,” wrote author J.R. Sypher. Specifically, said Sypher based on the evidence he had accumulated, “the rebel flag was seized by Jacob Cart, a private in Company A, who slew the color-bearer and bore away his standard, and delivered it to General [George] Meade,” a Philadelphian who served as the Reserves’ division commander in the First Corps of another Pennsylvanian, Maj. Gen. John Reynolds.[2]

The flag was “the only trophy gained in that battle” for the Union army, recounted one postwar publication. Less than two years after Fredericksburg, on November 25, 1864, Cart received the Medal of Honor, accompanied by a citation which states he earned the award for, “Capture of flag of 19th Georgia Infantry (C.S.A.), wresting it from the hands of the color bearer.” Congress’s issuance of the award to Private Cart was controversial, however, on account of the fact that his story was apparently created after the fact; in reality, the man who truly captured the flag from his Rebel cohort was someone who served in a separate unit.[3]

As such, three decades after Jacob Cart received his Medal of Honor, that other soldier would be presented the same award for capturing the same flag. In the brigade which neighbored Cart and the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, the 2nd Reserves (31st Infantry) also assailed the Confederate-held heights. Within the ranks of the 2nd Reserves was First Lt. Evan M. Woodward, the adjutant of his regiment who professed that at Fredericksburg, “under these soiled and torn jackets, there were many brave hearts, fighting for what they believed a holy and just cause.”[4]

Woodward later recalled charging against “the rifle-pits...held by the enemy, and, knowing the danger of leaving an armed foe in our rear, I succeeded in halting some twenty men, and, with them attacked the pit from high ground in the rear, hoping to hold the occupants in position until assistance came.” Hence, wrote Woodward, the aforementioned 7th Reserves “advanced, halted..., and opened fire, their balls passing over the enemy into our men. Instantly realizing that we should be wiped out if something were not done, I sheathed my sword, and, with my hat in hand, advanced between the lines to the rifle-pits, stopped the fire of my own men and that of the enemy, and demanded and received the surrender of the Nineteenth Georgia regiment.”[5]

During the capitulation, “The rebel color-bearer attempted to escape up the heights with his flag, but I headed him off and captured it,” Woodward testified. “I gave it to Charles Uphorn, who was soon afterwards wounded, and it fell into the hands of the Seventh Reserves.” In another account, Woodward added that it was his understanding that a captain in the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves “unjustly and ungenerously took it from” Uphorn (who he mistakenly referred to as “Upjohn”), “and claimed the honor himself.”[6]

In The Fredericksburg Campaign, National Park Service historian Frank O’Reilly has written that “Woodward entrusted John Schalck, of the 2nd Reserves, to carry the colors to safety,” who “got as far as the railroad before he fell wounded.” It was there, according to O’Reilly, that “Jacob Cart of the 7th Reserves took the flag and headed for the rear. By the time he had reached the river, he had concocted a story about how he had pummeled the gargantuan color-bearer into submission.” [7]

Despite Cart’s apparent fabrication of his role in the story, Congress did its best to correct the historical record and ultimately issued a second Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Woodward 32 years and one day after the battle, on December 14, 1894, with the citation, “Advanced between the lines, demanded and received the surrender of the 19th Georgia Infantry and captured their battle flag.” As O’Reilly has mentioned, however, this was accomplished “without retracting Jacob Cart’s citation.”[8]


Charles H.T. Collis

In that same sector of the battlefield, the Irish-born Col. Charles H.T. Collis directed his 114th Pennsylvania Infantry across a plain toward the Rebel position. Adorned in their striking golden-tasseled crimson fezzes, white turbans, blue sashes, and red trousers, Collis’s Zouaves advanced into their first-ever taste of combat. “Having never been in such a position before, we did not comprehend, or even suspect, what it meant...,” journaled Frank Rauscher, the regiment’s musician. “Just then the Zouaves gave three hearty cheers, went bravely in, charged splendidly, received their baptism of fire and fought like old veterans, for which they were afterwards highly complimented.”[9]

At the head of the unit, “Colonel Collis, though a young man, only twenty-four years of age, quickly took in the situation, and seizing the colors of his regiment from the color-sergeant, galloped with them to the front, deploying his regiment into line of battle at the same time, and attacking the advancing foe with bayonet,” an official U.S. military publication titled Deeds of Valor later explained. “The charge of the Zouaves was not only brilliant, but picturesque, as...their advance was so impetuous as to be irresistible and the enemy fell back in great confusion.” Per his citation of March 10, 1893, Collis earned his Medal of Honor for having, “Gallantly led his regiment in battle at a critical moment.” [10]

Philip Petty

In front of Prospect Hill, John Gibbon’s division advanced alongside General Meade’s Reserves over train tracks toward Jackson’s Confederates. Included among Gibbon’s regiments was the 136th Pennsylvania, which, Pennsylvania State Historian Samuel Bates later attested, “soon came under a hot fire of musketry from a defiant foe.” According to Sgt. Philip Petty of Company A, “We retaliated, lay down, loaded, rose, and fired, and continued this operation until we reached the railroad slowly driving the rebels back.”[11]

“Comrades were falling all around me and, the color-sergeant being wounded, the colonel at once called for some one to carry the fallen colors,” wrote Petty, who was busy keeping watch of captured enemy troops. Moments later, seeing “as no one else responded, I stepped up and told him I would pick up the colors, and carried them in the advance until we were repulsed by a flank movement of the enemy and were ordered to retreat....I could not very well retreat with a gun and the colors in my hands, [so] I planted the flagstaff in the ground, and fired about thirty rounds into the rebels, then broke my gun by striking it on the rails, and carried the colors safely off the field.”[12]

“The colonel formed what was left of the regiment in a hollow square, and when he told the boys what I had done, they gave me three rousing cheers, after which the colonel promoted me to color-sergeant,” Petty concluded. In addition to this public praise and rank advancement, he received a Medal of Honor on August 21, 1893, because he, “Took up the colors and carried them forward in the charge.”[13]

John Shiel

Of the Medals of Honor awarded to Pennsylvanians as a result of Fredericksburg, six honored personal feats of courage in a general sense, the capture of Confederate battle flags, or the protection of U.S. flags. Another, however, was presented for a more unique act of selflessness in the face of peril: the rescue of a comrade trapped near enemy lines. That distinction belongs to a soldier in Col. William Leech’s 90th Pennsylvania (also part of John Gibbon’s division), which received an order “worse than madness” after 1:00 in the afternoon on December 13 to force his 189 enlisted men to “charge into the wood” in front of Stonewall Jackson’s Confederates.[14]

Being that attrition had removed half of his men from the ranks as casualties earlier that day, Leech requested reinforcements or a new mission from brigade commander Peter Lyle, who moments prior had instructed the 90th Pennsylvania and 26th New York “to gather ammunition from the cartridge-boxes lying upon the ground.” (According to Leech, “our ammunition was failing—in fact, it was entirely gone.”) Subsequently, the 127th Pennsylvania came to the rescue, and Leech “directed my men to lie down for them to charge past us to the front.” An aide representing Gibbon “rode up, and, in a most insulting manner, drew his pistol” upon the retreating units, essentially accusing the men of cowardice for their withdrawal.[15]

Colonel Leech paid no mind to the unfounded insult (after all, he remarked, “what [ammunition] we had left was unserviceable, not being of the kind fitted for our pieces”) and sometime later he was again “finally ordered to advance and charge bayonets upon the enemy in the wood.” In response, “Without hesitation we advanced without a round of available ammunition, and charged across the railroad into the wood,” he explained. Sometime during the melee that afternoon, Cpl. John Shiel of the 90th Pennsylvania’s Company D, “Carried a dangerously wounded comrade into the Union lines, thereby preventing his capture by the enemy,” according to his Medal of Honor citation, awarded on January 21, 1897.[16]

Jacob G. Frick

Near the more famous northern region of the fighting ground at Marye’s Heights, Col. Jacob G. Frick led the 129th Pennsylvania toward the infamous stone wall in front of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s Confederate corps. Several prominent generals, including Center Grand Division commander Joseph Hooker, Fifth Corps commander Daniel Butterfield, and Butterfield’s Third Division commander Andrew Humphreys informed Frick “that he had a most difficult job before him,” soon proven true by the colonel’s maneuver “to the very base of the stone wall, where the enemy poured forth a merciless fire of musketry upon him, aided by the fire from numerous batteries posted on Marye’s Heights,” Deeds of Valor eventually detailed. Among the regiment’s 143 casualties was Frick, who “was hit by pieces of shell in the thigh and right ear.”[17]

“A shell from the batteries concentrating their fire on the charging column, struck a horse at his side and literally covered him with the flesh and blood of the slaughtered animal,” Deeds of Valor continued. “At the critical point of this charge the color-bearer was shot down, but the colonel quickly seized the colors and took the lead. Shortly afterward the flagstaff was shot off in his hands, close to his head, and the flag fell drooping over his shoulders.”


Despite the hardships he faced, Colonel Frick “steadily advanced, leading his men through the terrible fire.” His Medal of Honor citation from June 7, 1892 states, “At Fredericksburg seized the colors and led the command through a terrible fire of cannon and musketry.” In May 1863, he yet again earned a Medal for his involvement, “In a hand-to-hand fight at Chancellorsville,” when he “recaptured the colors of his regiment” only a few miles from where he performed his initial meritorious act the previous December.[18]


Matthew S. Quay

As Brig. Gen. Alexander Humphreys led his division’s famed attack up Marye’s Heights late on December 13, Col. Matthew S. Quay directed the 134th Pennsylvania, part of Brig. Gen. Erastus Tyler’s brigade. Quay had recently contracted typhoid fever, and, according to Deeds of Valor, “was so broken down by his disease that his friends urged him to resign his commission to go home to recuperate.” Although he applied for a discharge from the army, upon learning that his comrades would soon be entering the fray at Fredericksburg, he reconsidered and defiantly informed his superiors, “‘I’ll be in this battle, if I have to take a musket and fight as a private, for I would rather be killed in battle and be called a fool, than go home and be called a coward.’”[19]

“Colonel Quay, though in a feeble state of health,—unwilling that the regiment should go into the battle without him,—volunteered as an aid[e] on the staff of General Tyler, and served throughout the battle,” according to the Commonwealth’s official Civil War chronicler Samuel Bates. Tyler initially “told him [Quay], that he would be foolish to remain, in his broken state of health,” and “that if he went into battle, he could surely not survive it.” In hindsight, however, Tyler lauded Quay just four days later by noting in his official report, “to him I am greatly indebted. Notwithstanding his enfeebled health, he was in the saddle early and late, ever prompt and efficient, and especially so during the engagement.”[20]

In turn, 26 years later, on July 9, 1888 (during his tenure as a Republican power broker who was controversial in some political circles, particularly among his fellow veterans), Quay received the Medal of Honor, accompanied by a citation which states, “Although out of service, he voluntarily resumed duty on the eve of battle and took a conspicuous part in the charge on the heights.”[21]


[1] “BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG,” Daily Evening Express, (Lancaster, PA), Dec. 18, 1862, 2.

[2] J.R. Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps: A Complete Record of the Organization; and of the Different Companies, Regiments and Brigades, Containing Descriptions of Expeditions, Marches, Skirmishes and Battles; Together with Biographical Sketches of Officers and Personal Records of Each Man During His Term of Service (Lancaster, PA: Elias Barr & Co., 1865), 513.

[3] The Union Army: A History of Military Affairs in the Loyal States 1861-65—Records of the Regiments of the Union Army—Cyclopedia of Battles—Memoirs of Commanders and Soldiers (Madison, WI: Federal Publishing Company, 1908), vol. 1, 371; Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Medal of Honor Recipients, 1863-1973: “In the Name of the Congress of the United States” (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973), 53; Francis Augustin O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (Baton Route: Louisiana State University Press, 2003; reprint, 2006), 181.

[4] E.M. Woodward, Our Campaigns; Or, the Marches, Bivouacs, Battles, Incidents of Camp Life and History of Our Regiment During Its Three Years Term of Service (Philadelphia: John E. Potter, 1865), 236.

[5] Woodward, “Captured Three Hundred Rebels,” in Deeds of Valor from Records in the Archives of the United States Government: How American Heroes Won the Medal of Honor (Detroit: The Perrien-Keydel Company, 1907), edited by W.F. Beyer and O.F. Keydel, 118-119.

[6] Woodward, “Captured Three Hundred Rebels,” in Deeds of Valor, 119; Woodward, Our Campaigns, 244.

[7] O’Reilly, Fredericksburg Campaign, 180, 181.

[8] Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Medal of Honor Recipients, 271; O’Reilly, Fredericksburg Campaign, 181.

[9] Frank Rauscher, Music on the March, 1862-’65, with the Army of the Potomac. 114th Regt. P.V., Collis’ Zouaves (Philadelphia: Press of Wm. F. Fell & Co., 1892), 33-34.

[10] Deeds of Valor, 113, 114; Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Medal of Honor Recipients, 61.

[11] Samuel P. Bates, “One Hundred and Thirty-Sixth Regiment,” in History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5 (Harrisburg, PA: B. Singerly, 1870), vol. 4, 319; “Traded His Instrument for a Gun,” in Deeds of Valor, vol. 1, 121-122.

[12] “Traded His Instrument,” Deeds of Valor, vol. 1, 122.

[13] “Traded His Instrument,” Deeds of Valor, vol. 1, 122; Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Medal of Honor Recipients, 193.

[14] Wm. A. Leech to D.P. Weaver, “Report of Lieut. Col. William A. Leech, Ninetieth Pennsylvania Infantry,” Dec. 18, 1862, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1888), series 1, vol. 28, 500, 501; referred to hereafter as OR.

[15] P. Lyle to J.W. Powell, Jr., “Report of Col. Peter Lyle, Nineteenth Pennsylvania Infantry, commanding Second Brigade,” in OR, series 1, vol. 28, 496; Leech, “Report,” OR, 501.

[16] Leech, “Report,” OR, 501; Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Medal of Honor Recipients, 223.

[17] “Seized the Colors and Took the Lead,” Deeds of Valor, vol. 117-118.

[18] Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Medal of Honor Recipients, 93.

[19] “‘I’d Rather Be Killed, Than Called a Coward,’” in Deeds of Valor, vol. 1, 116.

[20] Bates, “One Hundred and Thirty-Sixth Regiment,” in History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, vol. 4, 283; E.B. Tyler to Carswell McClellan, Dec. 16, 1862, in OR, series 1, vol. 21, 438.

[21] Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Medal of Honor Recipients, 201.

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