Clear the Way – The Irish Brigade in the American Civil War

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The Irish Brigade firing next to their battle flag

When people study the American Civil War many only learn about the struggles of North v. South and the political debates surrounding states rights and the issue of slavery. These may have been the main themes of the war, and they changed drastically as a result. However, there are stories of bravery, strife, and struggle that get overlooked. This post will look at a particular brigade in the Union Army of the Potomac which was fighting for much more than the preservation of the United States. These men were fighting for acceptance, they were fighting for a better future, these men were fighting to have a place to call home.

Discrimination and Racism towards immigrants 

In the early to mid 1800s, around the time when many Irish immigrants were arriving in the United States, there was the formation of a new political party known as the Know-Nothing Party. This party was founded on the principle that immigrants of any kind were bad, and detrimental to American society. They viewed Irish immigrants in particular as lazy, uneducated, uncivilized drunkards who would do nothing but bring down American wealth and culture. The party did not just focus on Irish immigrants but German, Dutch, and Italian immigrants as well.

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Coming to America

A main cause for Irish immigrants to come to the United States was the Irish Potato Famine which occurred in the early 1830s. Many families were left devastated as starvation gripped the island nation. The death toll in Ireland did not cease to increase due to lack of aid from the United Kingdom, this may have been due to religious and political differences which caused the English to look down on the Irish. To the Irish the only solution to save their families was to go to a land where there was the prospect of a new start; a land full of opportunity. This began the influx of Irish immigrants to the United States.

Irish Brigades Roots

The roots of the Irish Brigade begins with its commander. Thomas Meagher was an Irish immigrant who reached America from Tasmania after being banished there for his participation in the Irish Uprising of 1848 against the Untied Kingdom. Once in the United States he became a lecturer for Irish Independence and Irish rights. He believed the only way the Irish could prove their worth to the United States was to serve in the military and defend the land they now called home. His influence was key in the formation of an Irish Brigade during the beginning of the Civil War.

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General. Thomas Meagher

The Formation of the Brigade 

Before I get into specifics about the brigade in particular, it is key to note that many Irish fought in the American Civil War and did not serve in the Irish Brigade itself. In total around 140,000 Irishmen fought for the United States alone, and in 20 various brigades in the Union Army. Along with many who served in other parts of the military, such as the navy. The Irish Brigade originally belonged to a part of General Edwin Vose Sumners division, the regiments which made up the brigade were the 28th Massachusetts, the 116th Pennsylvania, and the 88th, 63rd, and 69th New York. The brigade carried into battle an emerald green battle flag with golden trim, a golden harp and sunlight beaming down upon it in the middle. Underneath the harp was a field of clover with the brigades motto in Gaelic underneath. Their motto was “Who never retreated from the clash of spears.” In total the brigade contained around 2,500 Irishmen in total.

It is important to also focus on the Irish that served in the Confederate military. Around 20,000 Irishmen fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Many of whom joined because they saw the government of the United States similar to that of England’s Parliament. They thought that an American victory would make the United States turn to a system similar to that of England’s and that their struggle to find a home would not cease.

Early portion of the War

The only regiment involved in combat before 1862 was the 69th New York, which was known as the New York volunteers before becoming an all Irish member of the Irish Brigade. It was involved in light fighting during the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. however, the brigade did not fully get involved in the combat until the war truly took off in 1862.

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Malvern Hill Battlefield

The Peninsula Campaign 

In 1862, then Major General of the Army of the Potomac George McClellan came up with his Peninsula strategy to end the war quickly, or so he hoped. This campaign would revolve around the Union Forces coming up from lower South Eastern VA and rapidly moving towards Richmond. Not only did General McClellan not move rapidly but he stalled in fighting and was too hesitant to commit his entire army, which greatly outnumbered that of the Confederates. The first major battle the Irish Brigade was involved in was the Battle of Malvern Hill. The Irish Brigade was entangled in fierce hand to hand combat with the famous Confederate Brigade The Louisiana Tigers (They were famous for their use of hunting knives when they got into hand to hand combat, these hunting knives became the inspiration for modern day combat knives.) The Irish Brigade fought the tough Tigers hand to hand wielding their rifles as bats at first, but then used their bayonets to combat the knives of the Tigers, when seeing this other Union commanders and troops were in awe at the tenacity, and steadiness the Irish showed on the Battlefield. They had fought back the roughest troops in the Confederate Army and beaten them back thoroughly, from this moment on the Irish Brigade would be known to both sides as some of the toughest troops in the war.

Antietam (Sharpsburg)

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The 69th New York advancing towards the Bloody Lane at Antietam

After the failure in the Peninsula Campaign General McClellan was forced on the defensive by Robert E. Lee when he decided to cross into Maryland with the Army of Northern Virginia. In an attempt to rally Maryland to the Southern cause. Till this point in the war the fighting had been rough but not horrific, that all changed after Antietam, and the war took a turn for the worst. The battle of Antietam saw the bloodiest hour in the whole war. In exactly one hour 10,000 troops were killed, this is more than any battle the world had known to that day. The harshest part at the Battle would become known as the Bloody Lane. This wagon trail became a key point in the Confederate line which the Union kept throwing troops at until the Confederate line was broken late in the day after repeated assaults. One of the first assaults of the day included the Irish Brigade which attacked a North Carolinian brigade along the road. Before the attack a chaplain named William Corby addressed the men, this would become the first of many moments when he would address the brigade.

Antietam, Md. Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown road. Photograph from the main eastern theater of the war, Battle of Antietam, September-October 1862.

Confederate Dead Along the Bloody Lane at Atntietam

The Irish Brigade hurled themselves at the Confederate positions multiple times during their attacks, their last charge came within 30 yards of the Confederate positions, before they were beaten back by heavy volleys coming from the Confederate fortifications. The Irish Brigade suffered 113 dead, 422 wounded, and 5 missing during the battle. They also lost Brigadier General Israel Richardson to shrapnel shot during the days fighting. The Irish Brigade suffered some of the most casualties of any brigade on either side during the days fighting.

After the Battle General Thomas Meagher would request a rest for the brigade, his request was denied.

Fredericksburg

It seemed as if the war could not ever get as bad as what had happened at Antietam. The death toll was the highest in the war to that point and the toll the battle had on both sides was immense. For the Union it was seen as a strategic victory, for the Confederates it was seen as moral victory, both sides had something to gain, but much to lose. The war only got worse for the Union on December 13th, 1862, when they commenced their attack on Maryes Heights by the small Railroad hub town of Fredericksburg.

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Irish Brigade advancing towards Maryes Heights at Fredericksburg

The Union Army of the Potomac executed the first part of the attack on Fredericksburg well, they took the city in early morning and fought the Confederates out onto Maryes Heights surrounding the city. This was the first occurrence of street fighting in the war. The second part of new Army of the Potomac commander General Ambrose E. Burnside’s plan was to charge the heights till the Confederate lines wavered. The Irish Brigade was to make one of these assaults on the Heights. Before the Irish made their attack General Thomas Meagher suggested the men to put a sprig of Evergreen in their caps to let everyone know that they were the Irish, and that they would not be stopped. The men made their charge against Confederate General McMillans Georgian Brigade, which consisted of many Confederate Irishmen, notably an almost all Irish regiment which was known as McMillans Guards. The Irish Brigade attacked the heights with 1,400 men, they ran over a mile of open ground under heavy artillery fire from the heights above, by the time they got in range of Confederate positions they were hit with harsh volleys of gunfire which ripped through their ranks and devasted the Irish Brigades numbers. The confederate troops sat behind a large stone wall which protected them from the Union gunfire. A color bearer of the 69th New York was lost, and once the battle had concluded on the 14th of December he was found up against a tree with the brigades flag wrapped around his chest. He lay there with a bullet through the flag which pierced him right in his heart, he wrote before he died that he tied the flag around him so that no one would ever take their colors away. Brigade historian Henry Clay Heiser described the attack on Maryes Heights, “It was not a battle — it was a wholesale slaughter of human beings.” In total 10,000 Union troops lost their lives attempting to take Maryes Heights, and the dead that lay the closest to the Confederate lines were those that wore Evergreen in their caps, the Irish Brigade. Of the 1,200  in the Irish Brigade that attacked the Heights 545 were killed, wounded, or missing. In total they suffered 45% casualties.

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Monument to the “Angel of Fredericksburg”

It was at Fredericksburg where Robert E. Lee said “It is well war is so terrible-otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”, he said this looking over the thousands who lay dead on Maryes Heights. This marked the lowest point for the Union Army in the war. Again General Thomas Meagher would request a rest for the Irish Brigade, the brigade having suffered its worst casualty count it would see during the Civil War, his request again was denied.

(The Picture to the left is a monument to a Confederate Soldier who risked his life to give dying Union troops a sip of water from his canteen. He became known as the Angel of Fredericksburg.)

Chancellorsville and the Wilderness

After the Battles of Chancellorsville and the Wilderness which saw the Irish Brigade again involved in heavy combat situations, General Thomas meagher again requested a rest for the men. His requests were denied, and this time infuriated by the outcome he resigned his position as Brigade commander.

Gettysburg

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Father Corby addresses the Irish Brigade before they go to battle.

By 1863 the Confederacy had the upper hand in the war. All General Robert E. Lee needed was a major victory in the North to secure a sure Confederate victory and end the war. Lee made a daring attack into the Union, where he met new Army of the Potomac commander General George Meade at Gettysburg Pennsylvania. The battle would become the bloodiest of the entire war, and the bloodiest ever fought on American soil.

At the time of Gettysburg the Irish Brigade consisted of 530 troops. Irish volunteers had been recruited to bolster the Brigades numbers. The Battle of Gettysburg lasted 3 days, and the Irish Brigade was ordered into combat on the second day of fighting. Their orders were to stall Confederate General Longstreet’s attack at Devils Den and eventually the wheat field. This is where Father Corby stood on a stone and addressed the 500 troops in the brigade before they went off into combat. The Brigade of 530 men were ordered to hold off multiple Confederate divisions totaling around 2,000 men. This fighting soon became hand to hand combat, yet the Confederates did not gain ground. The final assault by the Confederates looked to have broken the Irish but, at the last moment a large contingent of Union troops arrived to reinforce the wheat field. The Irish Brigade held what would become known as “No-Mans Land” during the battle. By the end of the day, 202 Irishmen lay dead, or wounded in the wheat.

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Irish Brigade Monument at Gettysburg.

(The Irish Brigade monument at Gettysburg depicts a dog lying  in front of the monument. This dog belonged to one of the officers in the brigade who lost his life while fighting there, the dogs name was Fan. The last time the men of the brigade saw Fan was when he was licking the wounds of his fallen friend during the fighting.)

Rest of the War

The Brigade was ordered again to lead an attack on confederate entrenchments at the Battle of Cold Harbor where once again they suffered heavy casualties. In 1864 the brigade was replenished up to 1,600 men. About 80% being new recruits leaving the other 20% to be of the original Irish Brigade. By 1865 the Irish Brigade had lost around 930 men. Fighting at Spotsylvania Court House, The Wilderness, and Appomattox.

Legacy

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Tattered flags of the Irish Brigade flying in a parade in New York. Flown by the 69th New York Infantry, which still exists today.

In total the Irish Brigade suffered the third most casualties of any Brigade during the War. The only brigades that had higher casualties were the Iron Brigade and the Old Vermont Brigade. Eleven members of the Irish Brigade received Medals of Honor for their service to the United States. The Irish Brigade to this day is remembered among historians as one of the most legendary military units of all time. Their sacrifice for a country who did not even want them changed the future for Irish immigrants for years to follow. The Irish began to face less discrimination and less racism than there was before the war. The Know-Nothing party ceased to exist. The foundations of what makes America great shined through the legacy of the Irish Brigade, their sacrifice made it possible for many immigrants, Irish and non-Irish alike to come to a new land and create a life for their families. The Irish Brigade stood for more than preservation, they stood for the Idea of what America is and what it could be. The men of the Irish Brigade left to go to war nothing more than Immigrants and factory workers, but by the end they were larger than life itself, they became heroes to all.

Follow Up:

http://irishvolunteers.tripod.com/irish_brigade_history.htm

This link is for a site with battle records from every engagement the Irish Brigade was involved in, it also contains reports from various officers serving in the brigade itself. The records and words of the actual men who served hit home as to exemplify how horrific the Civil War was. It is worth a glance.

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The Irish Brigade Fighting hand to hand with Confederate troops

Authors Note: 

This post was a very personal post for me. As someone who identifies as having Irish heritage it really touches me to learn about the sacrifices these men made on and off the battlefield to give me the opportunity to write about them now. I study history at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg VA, where thousands of Irishmen laid dead on the fields in front of Maryes Heights, where the University I call home now stands. As I walk across campus I sometimes get a glimpse through the trees of where those men made their charge up Maryes Heights and I stop and think about that moment, I picture the boys in blue marching up to their doom, carrying the emerald green flag and wearing evergreen in their caps, screaming “Faugh a Ballagh (Clear The Way.)”

 

The Clip is from the movie Gods and Generals, which is about the first 3 years of the American Civil War. This is part of a scene that recreates the Irish Brigades attack on Maryes Heights at Fredericksburg. The Irish officer commanding the attack shown is Lieutenant Colonel Saint Clair Mulholland who was given the Medal of Honor for his service at Fredericksburg. The shout the Confederate troops are giving at the is an Irish chant, the men of Cobbs division shown in the clip are from Ireland as well, and their respect for their fallen country men go deeper than the battle at hand.

Sources:

1.http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/the-fighting-irish-brigade/
2.http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/the-irish-brigade
3.http://www.brotherswar.com/Gettysburg-2g.htm
4.http://www.irishcentral.com/opinion/patrickroberts/the-irish-in-the-american-civil-war-150000-in-union-army-25000-in-confederate-119724549-238079561.html

 

4 Comments

  1. Brian Helms

    Well written and put together…very impressive however, I fear the Know Nothing Party may be rising once again.

    Reply
  2. Jaivir Baweja

    Interesting read!

    Reply
  3. Lynda

    Very well written. The article was interesting and informative. This article lends itself to the thought that history may repeat itself. Seems that the opinion of the know nothing party may be rearing its ugly head.

    Reply
  4. Samantha Meyers

    So happy to finally read this! I remember our UC talks about this topic and how I never thought I would remember any of it but I do! As I was reading I actually heard your voice/passion in it which was amazing. All of this is really cool and I’m always happy when I hear this stuff from you! 🙂

    Reply

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