Richard (36) Riker Emmet, the ninth of ten children born to Anna and Tom (6) Emmet, wanted to be a part of the Civil War after his brother Temple died from typhoid fever contracted on the battlefield in August of 1862.
Barely a month later, Richard, like Temple, joined the Irish Brigade, then the 88th Regiment and he too served on the staff of General Thomas Francis Meagher, the leader of the Brigade. Six months later he too came down with typhoid and died, also at home, in February of 1863 after surviving the battle of Fredericksburg.
Having fought valiantly at the battle of Antietam, Maryland, in September of 1862, the Irish Brigade was able to rest comfortably for some weeks by Harper’s Ferry before moving down to Falmouth, Virginia, across the river from Fredericksburg, then held by General Lee and the Confederates. This is probably about the time that the new Lieutenant, Richard Emmet reached Meagher's camp and started work as one of his aides - in essence replacing his brother.
At first General McClellan's replacement, Gen. Ambrose Burnside declined to move the Union troops forward, thus giving the Confederates three weeks to dig in and bring up artillery. But Burnside knew it was McClellan’s over-cautiousness that had doomed his career. In order to avoid the same fate, he took his men over the Rappahannock River in mid-December on newly laid pontoon bridges. This decision was made despite the opposition of his own West Point-trained officers, who knew what affect rows of guns and entrenched infantry would have on troops in mass formation attacking over open ground.
The night of Dec. 12th was cold and bitter; the soldiers were too close to the Confederates to build fires, so, wrote one soldier “We hunted up boards and lay them down on the mud and then lay down and covered ourselves in our blankets. ” Meagher inspected his troops on Dec. 13th, a soft damp morning, reminding them that “because they were Irish, every eye would be upon them to see how they upheld a proud fighting tradition; and because they were Americans now, it was their duty and privilege to uphold the Union at any cost.”
Two open fields lay in front of them, and then a stone wall; behind it, the Southern troops were dug in on a sunken road, with their artillery above them on two hills known as Marye’s Heights. A survivor of the first Union charge by a different division later wrote in his diary: “The Irish Brigade comes out of the city [of Fredericksburg, VA] in glorious style... Every man has a sprig of green in his cap, and a half-laughing, half-murderous look in his eye...They reach a point within a stone’s throw of the stone wall. No farther. They try to go beyond but are slaughtered. The blue lines staggered and slowed as men fell like leaves in the autumn wind. Passing under the range of the artillery on the hills, they were suddenly met by a sheet of flame as the Confederates behind the stone wall fired. Nothing could advance further and live. They lie down doggedly, determined to hold the ground they have already taken. There we see them... lying in line close to that terrible stone wall.”
Paying with their lives for Burnsides’ blunder, the Brigade was forced to retreat, having lost over 40% of their men, killed, wounded or missing. Meagher had addressed his men in Fredericksburg before the assault, then he turned back for his horse and stayed behind the lines. He later claimed that he had a "furunculous abscess on his left knee." Yet that night, Meagher went ahead with a banquet for visitors from New York, who had brought new regimental flags for the Brigade. A witness to the action wrote: "After one year's observation in the field, there is not in the United States ... another more consummate humbug, charlatan, imposter pretending to be a soldier than Thomas Francis Meagher! Nor do I believe him to be a brave man since in every battlefield he has been drunk and not with his Brigade." Another noted "He never received punishment on account of his popularity among the Irish."
Richard Emmet, having survived the battle perhaps because he had stayed with his General, went back to New York in January and died soon after of typhoid, one of the diseases that led to the death of more Civil War soldiers than those who were killed or mortally wounded in battle.