More than 150,000 Irishmen, most of whom were recent immigrants and many of whom were not yet U.S. Some joined out of loyalty to their new home. Others hoped that such a conspicuous display of patriotism might put a stop to anti-Irish discrimination. As the war dragged on and Irish casualties mounted, however, their sympathy for the Union cause began to flag, and by the end of the war many had abandoned the Northern cause altogether. But between 1861 and 1863, the soldiers who fought in the all-Irish units that made up the “Irish Brigade” were known for their courage, ferocity and toughness in battle.
The Irish Brigade
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, thousands of Irish and Irish-American New Yorkers enlisted in the Union Army. Some joined ordinary—that is, non-Irish—regiments, but others formed three all-Irish voluntary infantries: the 63rd New York Infantry Regiment, organized on Staten Island, and the 69th and 88th New York Infantry Regiments, organized in the Bronx. These units would form the core of what would come to be called the Irish Brigade.
Ethnic units were a way for the Union Army to help win Irish support for its cause. This support was not guaranteed: Though most Irish immigrants lived in the North, they were sympathetic to (as they saw it) the Confederacy’s struggle for independence from an overbearing government—it reminded them of their fight to be free of the British. Also, many Irish and Irish Americans were not against slavery. On the contrary, they favored a system that kept blacks out of the paid labor market and away from their jobs. As a result, Union officials had to promise many things in addition to ethnic regiments—enlistment bonuses, extra rations, state subsidies for soldiers’ families, Catholic chaplains—in order to assure that the North’s largest immigrant group would be fighting with them and not against them.
In February 1862, an Army captain named Thomas Francis Meagher became the Brigadier General of the nascent Irish Brigade. Meagher was born in Ireland, where he had been active in the “Young Ireland” nationalist movement and exiled as a result to the British Penal Colony in Tasmania, Australia. He escaped from Australia in 1853 and came to the United States, where he became a well-known orator and activist on behalf of the Irish nationalist cause. He joined the Army early in 1861. Meagher was ambitious, and he knew that if he could raise an all-Irish infantry brigade, Union Army officials would have to make him its commander. He also hoped that an Irish Brigade in the U.S. would draw attention to the nationalist cause at home.
In the spring of 1862, Union Army officials added a non-Irish regiment, the 29th Massachusetts, to the Irish Brigade in order to beef up its numbers before the Peninsula Campaign for the capture of Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. In October, another Irish regiment, the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment from Philadelphia, joined the brigade in time for the battle at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The next month, officials swapped the non-Irish 29th Massachusetts Regiment for the Irish 28th Massachusetts.
READ MORE: When Irish-Americans Attacked Canada—With the White House's Blessing
'Fearless Sons of Erin'
Thanks to their toughness and bravery, the five-regiment Irish Brigade led the Union charge in many of the Army of the Potomac’s major battles. This meant that they suffered disproportionate numbers of casualties. At the Battle of Antietam, in September 1862, about 60 percent of the soldiers in the 63rd and 69th New York regiments, almost 600 men in all, were killed in battle. A few months later, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, 545 of the brigade’s 1,200 men were killed or wounded. “Irish blood and Irish bones cover that terrible field today,” wrote one soldier. “We are slaughtered like sheep.”
In July 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg, about 320 of the Irish Brigade’s remaining 530 soldiers were killed. (There is a monument to the Irish Brigade on the battlefield there: a green malachite Celtic cross with a trefoil, an Irish harp and the numbers of the three New York Irish regiments rendered in bronze on its front. At the cross’s feet lies a statue of an Irish wolfhound, a symbol of steadfastness and honor.)
The New York City Draft Riot of 1863
Many historians say that the Battle of Gettysburg was the Civil War’s turning point toward Union victory. It was also the turning point for the Irish Brigade. By the summer of 1863, the tragically high numbers of casualties in the Brigade led many Irish soldiers and their families to believe that the Union Army was taking advantage of their willingness to fight by using them as cannon fodder. They were further infuriated by the National Conscription Act, passed in March of that year, which made every unmarried man in the Union between the ages of 21 and 45 subject to a draft lottery unless he could hire a replacement or pay a $300 fee. As many working-class Irish people saw it, this was discrimination: They were poor men being forced to fight in a “rich man’s war.” At the same time, many Irish people had come to believe that the government’s reasons for fighting the war had changed: It was not about preserving the Union any longer but about ending slavery—a cause that most Irish people in the U.S. emphatically did not support.
These tensions boiled over in New York City on July 13, about a week after the Battle of Gettysburg, when thousands of Irish immigrants took to the streets for five days in violent protest against the draft law—and, more generally, against the black people they blamed for the war. Mobs assaulted any black person they saw on the street, ransacked and burned homes in African-American neighborhoods, and looted stores owned by blacks and “sympathetic” whites. Federal troops arrived in the city on July 16 to quell the disorder. At least 120 people, most of them African-American, died in the violence.
This outburst of racist violence marked the end of organized Irish participation in the Civil War, though individual Irishmen continued to serve as soldiers in the Union Army. The Irish Brigade diminished greatly in size and disbanded for good in 1864.
Irish Brigade (World War I)
The "Irish Brigade" was an attempt by Sir Roger Casement to form an Irish nationalist military unit during World War I among Irishmen who had served in the British Army and had become prisoners of war (POWs) in Germany. Casement sought to send a well-equipped and well-organized Irish unit to Ireland, to fight against Britain, in the aim of achieving independence for Ireland. Such an action was to be concurrent with the ongoing war between Britain and Germany, thereby providing indirect aid to the German cause, without the ex-POWs fighting in the Imperial Germany Army itself.
The Irish Brigade In the Civil War
No brigade in the Civil War was more distinguished by its ethnic character than the colorful, hard-fighting Irish Brigade.
Repeatedly hurled into the hottest part of the fighting, these units, consisting mainly of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, played key roles during some of the most decisive battles of the war.
Originally the Irish Brigade consisted of three regiments from New York City, the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York. Later, the 116th Pennsylvania from Philadelphia and the 28th Massachusetts from Boston joined.
They were united under the command of Thomas Francis Meagher, who had been sentenced to death for his part in the failed Young Irelanders Rising of 1848. His sentence reduced to exile, Meagher was transported to Tasmania where he was able to arrange for his escape to America in 1852.
At the start of the Civil War Meagher raised a company of infantrymen and joined the 69th New York State Militia at Bull Run Creek in Northern Virginia.
This first major battle of the Civil War, in the summer of 1861, was an abysmal defeat for the Union troops. The 69th acquitted themselves well but sustained very heavy losses, and when their leader, Colonel Corcoran, was captured, the unit was mustered out of service. However, many of its members later joined the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry and helped form the foundation of the Irish Brigade.
Like Meagher, many of the officers and soldiers of the Brigade were followers of the Fenian, Movement, whose goal was to liberate Ireland from the shackles of the British colonists.
Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher, Commander of the Irish Brigade.
Sadly, many of the battles in the Civil War pitted them against their fellow Irishmen who had immigrated to the South and were soldiers in the Confederate Army.
One of the stories in the book The History of the Irish Brigade goes as follows:
At Malvern Hill, Virginia, the Brigade covered the army’s withdrawal after the slaughter. However, the company commander of the Confederates directed the firing of his men with such daring that the Brigade was pinned down.
Sergeant Driscoll, one of the best shots in the Brigade, raised his rifle and took aim. The rebel officer fell and the Confederates broke away.
“Driscoll, see if that officer is dead – he was a brave fellow,” said the Irish captain.
Sergeant Driscoll complied, but as he turned the officer over he saw that it was his own son who had moved to the South before the war.
Ordered to charge a few minutes later, Driscoll rushed on in frantic grief, calling on his men to follow. He was shot down a few minutes later. His men buried father and son in one grave, set up a rough cross and went on with the fighting.
The Irish Brigade’s reputation for hard-fighting became legend during 1862 as they took part in the blood-bath of the Seven Days, and at Fair Oaks, Gaines’ Mill, Savage Station, and the above mentioned Malvern Hill, where a Confederate general was heard to remark “Here comes that damned green flag again.”
The Brigade suffered heavy losses at each encounter and there was more to come. The Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, was the bloodiest single day in American history. During twelve hours on September 17, 1862 some 26,050 Americans fell on the fields of battle. In the very center of this storm stood the men of the Irish Brigade.
Antietam creek runs north to south and into the Potomac River just north of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. On that afternoon it marked the point at which Confederate General Robert E. Lee planned to invade the Union. As he pulled his scattered army together, the Union Army of the Potomac attacked at dawn at the northern end of the battlefield.
By late morning the combatants on that end of the field lay exhausted or dead and the fighting shifted to the center. Finally, towards the end of the day the battle shifted to the south. It was against the center of Lee’s lines that Colonel Meagher led the original three regiments of the Irish Brigade at a little after 10:30 in the morning.
The Irish Brigade marched steadily forward behind their three fluttering green silk banners, distinguished by gold Irish harps and the fighting mottos of “Faugh A Ballagh” translated as Clear the Way, and “Who Never Retreat from the Clash of Spears.”
Equipped solely with smoothbore muskets at a time when most of the rest of both armies had rifles (which allow for longer-range fire) Meagher’s plan was to close in and then blast away at a range at which even the smoothbores could not miss.
Their approach carded them up a long slow rise towards a crest in the middle of a farmer’s field. As the Irish crested the ridge they were met with a fierce blast of musketry. The shattering fire came from a line of Confederate infantry partially protected in a slightly sunken road just beyond the crest of the rise. Rather than fall back or retreat, the Irish stood their ground and traded shot after shot at point-blank range with the Alabamans to their front.
Accounts from survivors talk of the battle rage that came upon some men to the degree that when they ran out of bullets they began throwing rocks at the enemy that were dealing the Brigade such punishment. At the end of the fighting on this part of the line, almost two hours later, the Irish Brigade marched away leaving some 550 men dead upon the field.
The sunken farm path where their opponents lay stacked in heaps has been known ever since as “Bloody Lane.”
Antietam so damaged the Brigade that two more regiments, the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania, also mostly Irish, joined the Brigade before the next engagement, just three months later.
On December 13, 1862, the Union Army once again attacked the Confederates. This time Lee was not scrambling to reassemble his far-flung divisions, he was dug-in and waiting for the Union assault.
The Army of the Potomac, under the dubious command of General Ambrose Burnside, obliged Lee with a series of frontal assaults against the southern fortifications on a ridge just south of Fredericksburg known as Marye’s Heights.
The Confederates had placed artillery all along the heights. At the base of the hill, in yet another semi-sunken road, stood resolute Confederate infantry.
Officers of the 69th New York Militia.
To approach this formidable position the Union infantry had to cross some 600 yards of open fields.
In defiance of common military sense and some might say a sense of decency, General Burnside hurled no less than six major and eleven minor attacks against the impregnable Confederate emplacements, all of them dismal failures.
After standing under arms all morning, the Irish Brigade was addressed by Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher. In eloquent words, he reminded his soldiers that they were Irish, and that every eye in the Union would be on them to see how they upheld their fighting Irish tradition.
The flags of the three New York regiments had been so fiddled in previous battles that they had been sent to New York City for repair. To be sure that the enemy knew that it was the Irish Brigade, Meagher ordered sprigs of evergreen to be placed in the caps of both officers and men, himself setting the example.
The Irish marched forward under a single green banner, that of the 28th Massachusetts, which had recently been presented to it.
They moved out into Hanover Street and under intense fire reached a canal that was supposed to have been bridged the men plunged into the ice-cold water to cross. The rising slope of Marye’s Heights lay ahead. The Irishmen rushed up the hill with wild cheers. General Meagher had led the Brigade to the field but did not join the charge because of an injured leg. The five infantry regiments advanced with the green flag of the 28th Massachusetts in the center flying and flapping in the breeze.
They had not gone far when they were struck by heavy artillery. Shells burst in front, in the rear, above and in the ranks. Holes opened in their fine, but the Irishmen pressed forward. The Union wounded littering the ground cheered them on.
The stone wall was defended in part, by Confederate General Thomas R.R. Cobb’s Georgia Brigade, many of whom were Irish immigrants. As the Irish Brigade closed on its position, these Confederates recognized the green flag of the 18th Massachusetts and the symbolic sprigs of green in the caps of their opponents.
“Oh, God, what a pity! Here come Meagher’s fellows” was the cry in the Confederate ranks. Nevertheless, the Rebels kept up the relentless fire. Captain John Donovan, in the 69th New York, called the combined cannon and rifle fire “murderous” as gaps opened in his unit’s ranks. Still the Brigade pressed on, men dropping in twos, threes, and in larger groups.
Private William McCleland, of the 88th New York Infantry, later wrote, “Our men were mowed down like grass before the scythe of the reaper…The men lay piled up in all directions. And still they forged ahead.”
A strange sound was heard above the screams of the wounded and the exploding artillery shells. The Rebels were cheering the bravery of the Brigade. General George Pickett, best known for his charge at Gettysburg, wrote after the battle to his fiancee, “Your soldier’s heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their death. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. Why, my darling, we forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”
President John F. Kennedy presenting the 69th New York’s restored second color to the Irish people in June, 1963.
Finally, some thirty yards from the Confederate line, the command to lie down and fire passed through the surviving men. They had advanced further than any other Union unit that day, and further than any would. Thus none could relieve them and only the cover of darkness saved those that lived.
As the sun dropped below the horizon it cast eerie shadows across a carpet of blue – the bodies of some 9,000 Union soldiers. And lying the closest to the entrenched Confederate positions were long lines of Irishmen with green sprigs of boxwood in their hats.
The 28th Massachusetts lost 158 of the 416 men who followed their colors up the bloody slope that winter day. The death toll fell with equal weight among all five regiments of the Brigade. Overall they suffered a total of 535 casualties, or two-thirds the strength that they carried into the fight.
General Edwin Sumner, commander of the II Corps, riding along the lines the next morning as the units were reforming, rebuked a man of the 28th Massachusetts for not being in company formation with his comrades. The Irish private looked up at the general and replied, “This is all my company, sir.”
Nearly one year of unremitting fighting had decimated the ranks. The three original regiments had numbered close to 2,500 men when they left New York City in 1861. On the eve of the Gettysburg campaign the combined strength of the three regiments was 240 men. The 28th Massachusetts, that had transferred to the Irish Brigade in November, 1862, counted only 224 men. Disease and casualties had reduced the 116th Pennsylvania, a mixture of Irish immigrants and native-born Germans, to 66 men. In all, the Irish Brigade mustered 530 men present for action on July 2, 1863.
The Irish brigade had lost its commanding officer and founder just two months earlier.
Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher had repeatedly petitioned headquarters for permission to recruit replacements for the Irish Brigade. He resigned his commission in protest on May 8, 1863, after the Brigade lost one hundred more men at the Battle of Charncellorsville, May 1-5.
Irish Brigade officers in camp at Fredericksburg.
Colonel Patrick Kelly took command of the dispirited Irish Brigade after General Meagher’s resignation. Kelly had been a farmer in County Galway, before he emigrated to America in 1849.
The march to Gettysburg was one of the longest and most severe ordeals that the soldiers of the Irish Brigade had faced. On some days the men marched 15 miles and on others 18 on June 29, a distance of 34 miles was covered. Along the way they passed grim reminders of the battles they had fought. Private William A. Smith, 116th Pennsylvania, wrote his parents: “I came over the battle fields of Bull Run and Antietam and seen the brains of the dead on the field that was not half-buffed.”
On the morning of July 2, Kelly’s men filed off towards Gettysburg and, shortly, reached the Union defensive line at Cemetery Ridge near Plum Run.
The first day of the battle had gone poorly for the Union side, with three of their corps badly torn up and thrown back against the town. The second day opened with the Union soldiers hanging on to the high ground to the south and east of the town. Regiment after regiment was fed into the fight piece-meal as they arrived in the area, yet still the Confederates threatened to break through and turn the battle, and potentially the war, in their favor.
Into this chaotic swirling mass of men, material and munitions strode the remnants of the proud Irish Brigade. They were to counterattack across an open wheat field. No other units were available, all being already committed or thrown back in retreat. Only the Irish stood between the Confederates and victory.
Knowing that they would be going in alone, the Brigade knew the odds were against them. Their chaplain, Father William Corby, had them kneel and issued a mass absolution, just a few hundred yards from the enemy. Then the Irish attacked.
Kelly’s men swept rapidly through the waist-high wheat in two ranks, with their green regimental flags flying and their weapons at “right shoulder shift.” Lieutenant Colonel Elbert Bland of the 7th South Carolina remarked, “Is that not a magnificent sight?” to his commanding officer as he watched the Irish Brigade closing on his position.
The attack succeeded. It bought the Union army a few desperate minutes to bring in yet more units, but the cost was the heart and the soul of the Irish Brigade. After suffering, once again, close to 50 percent casualties, the “Irish Brigade” would never be the same. Although replacements and supplemental regiments would refill the ranks, the uniquely Irish nature of the Brigade died there on the wheat field at Gettysburg.
By the end of the war more than 4,000 men of the Irish Brigade had been killed or wounded on the battlefield more men than ever belonged to the Brigade at any one time. With their blood and courage they carved a reputation for valor so deeply into the heart of their adopted nation that there would never again be a question as to whether the Irish had the right to call themselves “Americans.” ♦
The Irish Brigade: Heroes of The Civil War
Irish American actor Martin Sheen commented in an interview published in Irish America that he loves his Irish heritage in part because the Irish have never planted their flag on the soil of another nation. He loves the Irish because Ireland has always exported poets and artists and clergy, but not armies. He is proud that Ireland has never invaded anyone.
Yes….well. Though his beliefs may be correct in a technical sense, just about nothing could be further from the historical reality. While it may be true that in the past 1,000 years the various political entities that made up Ireland never invaded another nation, during that same period Ireland’s number one export has been soldiers. So many soldiers, in fact, that not one but several nations can reckon in their own military heritage entire units made up exclusively of Irishmen. The students at the University of Notre Dame are not known as the “Fighting Irish” due to a well-known Irish predilection for passivity. It should come as no surprise then to learn that one of the most celebrated, decorated, and famous units in all of American military history was a brigade known during the American Civil War as simply “The Irish Brigade.”
The Civil War was a uniquely American tragedy. It is not just hyperbole when historians and pundits alike make reference to the war that pitted “brother against brother.” America tore herself apart and was only stitched back together again with a heavy thread soaked in the blood of an entire generation. It is no wonder then that the war continues to fascinate Americans even to this day. It was, and for some still is, a war of great passions. Regardless of one’s sentiments about the causes and conduct of the war, certain names still ring down through the halls of time, carrying with them the echoes of heroism almost beyond comprehension. Names like Lee and Grant are instantly familiar to Americans, and for those with even a passing knowledge of history, units such as the famous “Iron Brigade” of the Union Army and the “Stonewall Brigade” of the Confederate still strike a chord. Yet even among this pantheon of heroes and heroic units. the name, legend and history of one group of men stands out: the “Irish Brigade” of the Union Army.
To understand the Irish Brigade one must look back before the war. As most people know, Irish immigration to the United States took off in the 1840’s, in response to the potato blight and famine in Ireland. Between 1846 and 1854, more than one million Irish emigrated to the United States. Most Irish Americans are also aware that upon arrival here the majority of Irish immigrants met with something considerably less than an enthusiastic welcoming committee. Anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Irish sentiment ran high in some areas of the United States, particularly among a splinter political group called the “Know-Nothings.” (The name came from their standard response when questioned about the membership or activities of their secretive political party.) One by-product of this blatant hostility was, ironically, the solidification of the unique identity of the Irish-American community. Pushed together in the slums of mid-19th century cities like New York and Boston, the Irish responded by welding together a new political identity and working towards acceptance through the development of political power. At the same time, the majority of the “average” Irish-Americans stuck in the cities tried to blend in with American society in other ways.
One obvious route to cultural assimilation is imitation. In the mid-1850s, one of the most curious trends to sweep America was the “Rage Militaire.” This was a civilian fascination with all things military. The Rage manifested itself in ladies’ fashions and social titles, but most especially in the veritable horde of social-club-turned-militia-unit organizations that sprang up across the country. In New York and Philadelphia, from Cleveland to Boston, men joined these “militia” units not with the expectation of true military service, but for the camaraderie and pageantry. They equipped themselves in the finest uniforms (of their own design) with the best rifles, muskets and bayonets, and practiced week in and week out on the fancy “evolutions” (formations and movements) of the tactics of that day.
The best of these units, some having as many as a thousand men, actually went on multi-city tours displaying their ability to march and parade in intricate formations. Drill and ceremony competitions between these units took place in giant jamborees that brought together thousands of men to march and compete for bragging rights. When visiting dignitaries arrived on American soil and a parade was required, the various state militias stepped up to fill the gap left by the fact that there really wasn’t much of a “regular” army in the nation.
One of these militia units was the 69th New York State Militia (NYSM). Self-equipped and dressed in the sharpest uniforms of the day, the 69th was an entirely Irish regiment. In addition to providing a pleasant diversion, it was also hoped that participation in units like the 69th would go a long way to improving the standing of Irish-Americans in the larger community of New York. Then, in the summer of 1859, the future King of England arrived on a tour. Naturally, the State of New York planned a parade in which all the varied units of the New York State Militia were ordered to participate.
History has not recorded the name of the genius that had the bright idea to parade between 500 to 800 armed Irish expatriates in front of the Prince of Wales. It was, all things considered, probably a good thing for Anglo-Saxon relations over the next hundred years that the commander of the 69th NYSM, Colonel Michael Corcoran, so hated the English that he refused the order and chose to be arrested rather than allow the 69th to march that afternoon. One can only imagine what the fallout, both in the United States and in Ireland, might have been should one of the 69th’s muskets “accidentally” gone off and hit His Royal Highness. Still, the men of the 69th were none too pleased with the subsequent arrest of their colonel. This might have led to larger problems were it not for the start of the largest “problem” of all, the American Civil War.
THE CIVIL WAR was America’s bloodiest conflict. Some 620,000 men died while in service during the four-year war. By comparison only around 25,000 died in the eight years of the American Revolutionary War. Regional factionalism and the issue of slavery tore the nation apart so thoroughly that it could only be brought together again through the force of arms. It was, by any measure, a national tragedy. Yet it carried within it the seeds of legend.
By late 1861 it was widely recognized among the nascent political leaders of the Irish-American community that one sure route to social acceptance in their adopted nation was through military service. Some saw the presence of Irish immigrants upon the fields of battle in the developing war as a method to display the ancient concept of “Civic Virtue.” Accordingly, and despite their initial political opposition to the Republican administration of Lincoln, Irish America threw its full weight into the war. The most visible result of this was The Irish Brigade, which became the most famous unit in the Union Army of the Potomac, and arguably one of the most celebrated units in all American history.
The history of the Irish Brigade is tied inextricably to the story of their first and most celebrated commander, Colonel, later Brigadier General, Thomas Francis Meagher. Depending upon the sources one relies upon, Meagher was variously an inspired leader, a hopeless drunk, a patriotic American, an ardent Irish nationalist, a closet Fenian, or an inveterate politician. The complex reality was that he was, at various times and under different circumstances, all of these things.
Born in Waterford, Ireland in 1823, Thomas Francis Meagher was certainly an ardent supporter of the idea of Irish nationalism. As the son of a wealthy merchant, he got a solid 19th-century education. While studying law in Dublin, he became a member of the “Young Ireland” movement. This splinter group of the Irish Brotherhood movement advocated the use of whatever means necessary, including violent opposition, to achieve independence from Britain. Meagher, as well as several other leaders of the movement, participated in the rebellion conspiracy of 1848. Caught and initially sentenced to death, Meagher was lucky enough to have his sentence reduced to exile. His deportation to Tasmania was a relatively congenial confinement, so much so that he was able to arrange for his “escape” in quite an open manner. He landed in the United States in 1852 and immediately began to maneuver his way into positions of influence in the developing political machinery of the Irish-American community.
When the Civil War broke out, Meagher immediately raised a company of infantrymen (of which he was naturally elected Captain). This separate company of men, known as Meagher’s Zouaves, are the second strand in the founding of the Irish Brigade. (A Zouave was a special type of French military unit known for a uniform consisting of short blue jackets, a fez, and red pantaloons. This style of uniform was considered the very height of military chic in 1861 and only self-styled “elite” units wore this type of clothing.) Meagher’s Zouaves joined the 69th NYSM as “Company K” in the very first major battle of the Civil War, at Bull Run Creek in Northern Virginia in the summer of 1861. Although the battle was an abysmal defeat for the Union troops, the Irish of the 69th did fairly well that afternoon, and Meagher got the idea that if one regiment of Irishmen could do well, a brigade of them (made up of three to five regiments) could do much better. Thus was born the idea of the “Irish Brigade.”
From the outset, observers recognized that this brigade would be special. This was an era when whole groups volunteered en masse, and served together with their friends and neighbors. This practice led to the identification of some units not just by region or state, but by occupation as well. At least two units, the 11th New York State Volunteers, and the 72nd Pennsylvania State Volunteers were known unofficially as the “Fire Zouaves.” This nickname came from the fact that both regiments, some 1,000 men each, enlisted from the ranks of the Fire Departments of New York and Philadelphia. Most units, however, retained their special regional distinction. The Irish Brigade, on the other hand, would recruit from up and down the Eastern Seaboard, seeking Irishmen to join the ranks, regardless of the American city in which they resided.
Originally the Irish Brigade consisted of three regiments from New York City, the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York. These units, although they drew heavily on the membership of the earlier 69th New York State Militia, were a separate category of troops known as “State Volunteers.” (The vast majority of all soldiers that fought in the Civil War were in units of this type.) This meant that they served at the discretion of the federal government, not that of the states. On the other hand, they were still allowed to retain some of their individual character, and one way that they did this was through their battle flags.
During the Civil War, leaders used flags to guide the men in the smoke and confusion of battle. Every regiment in the Union Army had two flags, one American flag and one representing the regiment itself. Infantry regimental flags were blue. When they mustered up to strength in New York, all three of the original regiments of the Irish Brigade received fine new regimental standards to guide the units in battle. But there was one thing different about their flags. Rather than the regulation blue of the infantry, all three were brilliant green. Set against these green silk backgrounds were the symbols of an embroidered harp and a clenched fist from which a cloud is shooting lightning. Also inscribed is the motto “Faugh au Ballaghs,” which they translated as “Clear the Way!” As the only units, North or South, that fought under green banners, the Irishmen of the Irish Brigade stood out for miles around. Later on, other regiments, such as the 116th Pennsylvania from Philadelphia and the 28th Massachusetts from Boston, would join the Brigade as their numbers fell lower and lower due to casualties and disease. They too would fight under green banners given to them by their home cities, but as the battles passed, the regiment’s flavor as a distinctly Irish unit slowly faded. Casualties and tragedies took their toll. At its peak the Brigade mustered some 3,500 men in the ranks. By the end of their service the whole Brigade could barely send forward a tenth of that number. In the process of going from the higher number to the lower they would create a legend in American military history which echoes even today.
OF ALL THE BATTLES fought by the Irish Brigade, three stand out as requiring the greatest willingness to make supreme sacrifice in the cause of liberty: Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.
At Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland in mid-September 1862 the Irish Brigade made their first down payment on immortality.
The Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, was the bloodiest single day in American history. To put this fight into perspective you can compare it to the losses on D-Day in World War Two. During the entire invasion and over the course of the next two weeks, some 24,162 Americans became casualties. In comparison, during the twelve hours of the Battle of Antietam some 26,050 Americans fell on the fields of battle. In the very center of this storm of steel stood the men of the Irish Brigade. On September 17, 1862, the sheer cussedness of these Irishmen catapulted them to international fame, but at a tremendous cost.
Antietam Creek runs north to south and into the Potomac River just north of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. On that afternoon it marked the point at which Confederate General Robert E. Lee planned to invade the Union by way of the Shenandoah, the point at which Cumberland River Valley stopped. As Lee pulled his scattered army together, the Union Army of the Potomac attacked. The attacks started at dawn, at the northern end of the battlefield. By late morning the combatants on that end of the field lay exhausted or dead and the fighting shifted to the center. Finally, towards the end of the day the battle shifted once more to the south. It was against the center of Lee’s lines that Colonel Meagher led the original three regiments of the Irish Brigade at a little after ten thirty in the morning.
The Irish Brigade marched steadily forward behind their three fluttering green silk banners. Equipped solely with smoothbore muskets at a time when most of the rest of both armies had rifles (which allowed for longer-range fire) Meagher’s plan was to close within a literal stone’s throw of the enemy. Knowing that this would entail casualties but trusting to the courage of his men, he hoped to close in and then blast away at a range at which even the smoothbores could not miss. Their approach carried them up a long, slow rise towards a crest in the middle of a farmer’s field.
As the Irish crested the slight ridge in the field, they were met with a fierce blast of musketry. The shattering fire came from a line of Confederate infantry partially protected in a slightly sunken road just beyond the crest of the rise. Rather than fall back or retreat a step in the face of the withering fire, the Irish stood their ground and traded shot after shot at point-blank range with the Alabamans to their front. Second by second, minute by minute, the casualties piled up. Accounts from survivors talk of the battle rage that came upon some men to the degree that when they ran out of bullets they began throwing rocks at the enemy. Anything to inflict pain on the men that were dealing the Brigade such punishment. At the end of the fighting on this part of the line, almost two hours later, the Irish Brigade marched away, leaving some 550 sons of Erin prone upon the fields. The sunken farm path where their opponents lay stacked in heaps has been known ever since as simply “Bloody Lane.”
The Battle of Antietam so damaged the Brigade that two more regiments, the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania, also mostly Irish, joined the Brigade before the next engagement that December.
At Fredericksburg, Virginia the situation was, if at all possible, even worse.
Just three months later, on the 13th of December, 1862, the Union Army once again attacked the Confederates under the command of Robert E. Lee. This time Lee was not scattered and scrambling to reassemble his far-flung divisions, he was dug-in and waiting for the Union assault. The Army of the Potomac, under the dubious command of General Ambrose Burnside (the man we have to thank for the word “sideburns”) obliged Lee with a series of frontal assaults against the southern fortifications on a ridge just south of Fredericksburg known as Marye’s Heights.
The Confederates had placed artillery, almost wheel-hub to wheel-hub, all along the heights. At the base of the hill, in yet another semi-sunken road, stood resolute Confederate infantry. Tragically, some of these men were also Irish immigrants whose path to the New World had brought them to the South. To approach this formidable position the Union infantry had to cross some 600 yards of open fields, a heartbreaking task. Even at the time the soldiers hoped that a frontal attack would not be needed, that by some measure of generalship Lee might be outmaneuvered elsewhere and forced to abandon this strong position. Such was not to be.
In preparation for the fight, Meagher, now a Brigadier General, ordered the men of the Irish Brigade to place sprigs of boxwood in their caps as a symbol of the Brigade. The Brigade would march forward under a single green banner, that of the 28th Massachusetts, since those of the three New York regiments had been so torn by bullets at Antietam that Meagher had ordered them sent to New York to be repaired. No one doubted that if an attack were to come it would be a tough one indeed.
In defiance of common military sense and, some might say, a sense of decency, General Burnside hurled no less than six major and eleven minor attacks against the impregnable Confederate emplacements. All of them lethal, all of them dismal failures. Once again the Irish walked forward into a veritable sleet of lead and fire. Motivated by pride and ego, they marched into a sleet of shrapnel and bullets that had already turned back unit after unit that day. They marched in their straight lines, standing tall behind the banner of Erin, until they reached a point about twenty yards from the Confederate infantry positions, and there they stayed and slugged it out. The unit was shredded. They had advanced further than any other Union unit had that day, and further than any would.
Although tens of thousands would try, no other Union unit made it that far, and thus none could relieve the pressure on the Irishmen. They became the double victims of their own bravery. Only the setting sun would save those that lived.
As the sun dropped below the horizon that afternoon, it cast eerie shadows across what looked like a blue carpet. A total of some 9,000 Union soldiers lay as casualties on the battlefield at Fredericksburg. In the center of the field, lying the absolute closest of all to the entrenched Confederate positions, were long lines of Union dead with green sprigs of boxwood in their hats.
The 28th Massachusetts, for example, lost 158 men. This represents about 38% of the 416 who followed their colors up the bloody slope that winter day. The butcher’s bill fell with equal weight among all five regiments of the Irish Brigade. Overall these “Wild Geese” suffered a total of 535 casualties, or two-thirds the strength that they carried into the fight, in the fruitless assault. At dusk, the survivors of the regiment still on the field joined the rest of their comrades in the Irish Brigade in falling back down to the safety of the town of Fredericksburg.
One Union officer, General Edwin Sumner, commander of the II Corps, was riding along the lines the next morning as the units were reforming. Sumner was known as a stern disciplinarian of the Regular Army. At one point he rode up and rebuked a man of the 28th Massachusetts for standing around and not being in company formation with his comrades. Sumner could say nothing when the Irish private looked up at the general on horseback and replied in a thick brogue, “This is all my company sir.”
THE IRISH BRIGADE fairly ceased to exist after their next battle, the largest of the entire War: Gettysburg. Gettysburg is seen by some as the turning point in the war. Gettysburg was Robert E. Lee’s second attempt to carry the fight into the North and increase the pressure on the Union to allow the South to secede. This three-day battle, fought from the First to the Third of July, 1863, is known by many as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy. Whether or not it was a “turning point” can be debated. Certainly never again would the South be able to invade the North, and rarely if ever would the armies of the Confederacy approach the strength they had that summer. One thing, however, was established beyond a doubt: The Union Army could win.
In terms of raw numbers both armies were fairly evenly matched. The Union victory, therefore, was not a sure thing. This was especially true on the second day of the battle. The first day had gone poorly for the Union, with three of their corps badly torn up and thrown back through the town of Gettysburg. Although the first day of the battle was definitely a Confederate win in conventional terms, the second day opened with the Union hanging on to the high ground to the south and east of the town. If they could just hold on through the day, as the Confederates attacked but Union reinforcements continued to arrive, then the momentum might swing in the Union’s favor.
Thus, although the Irish did not arrive until the second day of the battle, their contribution there was critical. This was the situation as the Confederate First Corps under the command of General James Longstreet attacked the Union right.
Union regiment after regiment was fed into the fight piecemeal as they arrived in the area, yet still the Confederates threatened to break through the Union battle lines. If they could, they would turn the battle, and potentially the war, in their favor. Into this chaotic swirling mass of men, material and munitions strode the remnants of the proud Irish Brigade. Decimated by the effects of battle, disease and fatigue they were but a shadow of the force that had stepped off into the attack at Antietam, yet still they stood tall beneath their renewed green banners. During a moment of crisis on the Union right a messenger galloped up and delivered their orders: they were to counterattack across an open wheat field they could see in the distance to their left front.
There were no other units available, all of the others were either already committed or had been thrown back in retreat. At that instant in American history, only the Irish stood between the Confederates and victory.
Knowing that they would be going in alone, without supporting regiments or brigades to their left or right, the men of the Irish Brigade knew full well that the odds were against the majority of them coming out of the battle as whole men, if at all. The Brigade chaplain, none other than Father William Corby (of University of Notre Dame fame), had them kneel and issued a mass absolution right there, just a few hundred yards from the enemy. Then the Irish attacked.
The attack succeeded. It bought the Union army a few desperate minutes to bring in yet more units, but the cost was the heart and the soul of the Irish Brigade. After suffering, once again, close to 50 percent casualties, the “Irish Brigade” would never be the same.
Although replacements and supplemental regiments would refill the ranks, the uniquely Irish nature of the Brigade died there on the Wheatfield at Gettysburg.
By the end of the war, more than 950 men of the Brigade had died on the battlefield. Overall, the Irish Brigade saw over 4,000 men killed and wounded more men than ever belonged to the Brigade at any one time. Yet at the same time they etched a name for themselves in history. With their blood and courage they made a name that was carved so deeply into the American heart that there would never again be a question as to whether the Irish had the right to call themselves…“Americans.”
James A. Mulligan and the Western Irish Brigade
I was pleased to learn that Camp #66 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War was raising funds to erect a monument this year, 2008, to honor Col. James A Mulligan and the Union soldiers who defended the U.S. position in the Battle of Lexington, Mo., the Confederate participants having been so honored in 2000. Mulligan, one of the lesser known Irish-American heroes of the Civil War, was finally being recognized. I was familiar with the outline of the battle, having visited the site and also having participated in the last large-scale reenactment of the battle.
I knew Col. Mulligan was famous for organizing a regiment of Irish and Irish-Americans known variously as “The Chicago Irish Brigade”, “The Western Irish Brigade” and “Mulligan’s Irish Brigade”, which was designated the 23rd Illinois Infantry. I also knew that he was forced to surrender at Lexington when no relief arrived, and his men ran out of ammunition, and they and their horses ran out of water.
At Lexington, the Union forces included the Lafayette County (MO) Home Guard, 23rd Illinois (Irish Brigade) Infantry, 1st Illinois Cavalry, 13th Missouri Infantry, 14th Missouri Home Guard Infantry, 27th Missouri Mounted Infantry, and Van Horn’s Battalion, and Berry’s Cavalry Battalion, totaling approximately 2,780 men. As ranking officer, Col. Mulligan was in command, the Irish Brigade having been sent to reinforce the units at Lexington. They were ordered to hold the high ground known as College Hill. Opposing them were the Confederate Missouri State Guard under Gen. Sterling Price of up to 28,000 men and thirteen pieces of artillery. For the first few days, Mulligan and his soldiers held their own against overwhelming odds, even pushing the secessionists back. The arithmetic and their increasingly isolated position soon reduced the fighting to a siege.
Price’s men introduced an innovative tactic which gave the Battle of Lexington its “nom de guerre”, “The Battle of the Hemp Bales”. Hemp, used for making rope, was grown on the plantations along the Missouri River. These plantations were operated on slave labor, and the owners were, to a man, supporters of the South. In a moment that was reminiscent of Andrew Jackson’s requisition of cotton bales to build his ramparts at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, the Confederate troops seized bales of hemp from the fields and warehouses in Lexington. The hemp growers objected, just as the cotton growers did at New Orleans. These bales were round cylinders and man-high. They soaked the bales in the Missouri and used them as movable breastworks, moving closer and closer to Mulligan’s lines. On September 20th, with all hope of relief gone and his soldiers lacking ammunition and water and unable to carry on the fight, Mulligan surrendered. He and his men were paroled only to reenter the War when exchanged.
The Civil War was among the last major conflicts to use parole and exchange. This was an elaborate system where units were paroled, in effect released to be held within their own lines on the promise that the unit would not fight the enemy until arrangements were made for an equivalent enemy unit to be “exchanged”, in other words released from parole. There was a Commission with representatives from the United States and the Confederacy that made the arrangements for exchange.
In one of that anecdotal brother against brother moments the Civil War is known for, the soldiers of Western Irish Brigade defended the Union position while being assaulted by “Kelly’s Irish Brigade” of Price’s Army. Kelly’s unit was the portion of the Washington Blues that went with Price into Confederate service. The Blues were a St. Louis-based “Irish” militia unit whose colors proclaimed “What Washington did for America – We will do for Ireland”. The Union supporters in the Blues formed the nucleus of the 7th Missouri Infantry, known as the “Irish Seventh”.
It was an inauspicious baptism of fire for Mulligan, a man who, up to then, had always found success. Born James Adelbert Mulligan in Utica, NY, in year 1830, he moved to Chicago as a boy. His family prospered, and he became the first graduate of Chicago’s first university, St. Mary’s of the Lake. Admitted to the Bar in 1851, he became involved in Democratic politics and was a close friend and confidant of Stephen Douglas. Being young and adventurous, he joined Stevenson’s expedition to Panama, in the hope of securing the Isthmus for the United States in 1857. An able writer, he was the first editor of the first Catholic paper in Chicago, The Western Tablet. Irish independence was an all-consuming passion, marking him as one of Ireland’s leading advocates in the West.
Like many Irish patriots of the day he joined an “Irish” voluntary militia company “Chicago ‘Shields’ Guard” and was soon elected Captain. The “Shields” was James Shields, Irish-born veteran of the Black Hawk War, a hero of the Mexican War who was brevetted a Major General of Volunteers for his service in that war. Shields was a prominent Democratic politician in Illinois and once challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel. He was the holder of numerous prestigious political posts including U.S. Senator from Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri. During the Civil War, he held the rank of Brigadier General and fought in the East.
When the War of the Rebellion (the official title of the Civil War) broke out, Mulligan placed an ad in the Chicago Tribune on April 20, 1861, calling for a rally that evening. Hundreds attended. Thirty-two men enlisted, and three days later the Chicago Irish Brigade was 1,000 strong, the number of enlisted men needed to be organized as a regiment.
After the surrender of Mulligan and his men, General John Fremont, the Republican candidate for President in 1856, as commander of the Missouri Department, tried to strip Mulligan of his command and his Irish Brigade of their colors. General George McClellan, with the support and encouragement of President Lincoln, restored the regiment.
While waiting to be exchanged, Mulligan was placed in command of the infamous Camp Douglas, where he and his men worked to improve conditions for the Southern prisoners. He also toured the country and was hailed as a hero by Irish and native citizens alike. Exchanged in June 1862, Mulligan and his men moved to Harper’s Ferry and were involved in numerous battles in the Shenandoah Valley. The Western Irish Brigade then went on to the Siege of Richmond and Petersburg, and finally they were at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered the Army of the Potomac. The unit mustered out at Richmond, Va., on July 24, 1865, and was discharged at Chicago, IL, on July 30. Total losses to combat and disease were 149 officers and men.
Sadly, James Mulligan was not with his beloved Irish Brigade to taste final victory or to realize the sweetest of every soldier’s dreams, coming home.
On September 19, 1864, Jubal Early, commanding Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley, misread the actions of General Phil Sheridan. Sheridan had been ordered by Grant to stay on the defensive until reinforcements sent to Early by Lee had returned to Richmond. Early saw only a reluctance of his opponent to fight. Perhaps “believing his own press releases”, he was known to be an aggressive and hard-hitting General, and he attacked, bringing on the Third Battle on Winchester. Col. James A. Mulligan’s command, a Brigade that included his beloved Irishmen, took the brunt of the attack. The other Regiments in the brigade began to collapse under the pressure of Early’s attack Mulligan’s Irish Brigade held. Mulligan was wounded and his Irishmen rushed to his side and began moving him to the rear. Mulligan saw that the colors of the 23rd Illinois were about to be captured, and he gave his men an order, “Lay me down, and save the flag”. The colors were saved Mulligan was captured and soon died of his wounds in Confederate captivity. He rests under a monument crowned by a Celtic cross at the main gate of Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Chicago. He was promoted to Brigadier General of U.S. Volunteers posthumously.
Robert F. McNamara offers a tribute to James Mulligan in Rockwell’s Civil War “Henry”, strangely a book on the development of the Henry Repeating Rifle he states of Mulligan, “A teetotaler from age eleven, a man of wit and social grace and chivalrous towards women, Col. Mulligan was an exacting charismatic leader of men.”
AOH Father Tim Dempsey Div #1
N. B. In addition to recognizing the U.S. units that fought for the Union at Lexington and George Henry Palmer, a Musician with the 1st Illinois Cavalry who won The Medal of Honor for his actions during the fight, the text of the monument at Lexington will read:
This monument honors the memory of Colonel James Adelbert Mulligan and the members of his command who fought and died during the Siege of Lexington, Missouri, September 12-20, 1861. During this engagement, Union volunteers from Illinois and Missouri fortified College Hill and stubbornly defended the area against the Missouri State Guard Army of General Sterling Price. With their supplies of ammunition, water, and rations depleted and reinforcements unable to reach them, Mulligan’s men were compelled to surrender. May the people of the United States never forget the Union defenders of Lexington, who suffered and died that this nation might live forever free. “They determined to do their duty at all hazards.” — Colonel James A. Mulligan This article was published in the March-April 2008 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Capt. Randy Baehr, Editor.
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One of those immigrant Catholics was Sgt. John Riley with Company K of the 5th U.S. Infantry, a native Irishman, possibly British Army veteran who’d resettled in the United States and later joined the Army, serving as a drill sergeant at West Point before deploying to the border.
On a Sunday morning, under the pretense of going to Mass, Riley skirted across the border and joined the ranks of the Mexican Army.
As the weeks and months progressed, a trickle of deserters also left the U.S. side. Accounts range from 175 to 265 or more soldiers who deserted and joined the other side, more than half of which were Irish immigrants, a third German and the rest primarily Catholics immigrants from other nations.
Throughout the course of the war, more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers would desert from a force of more than 40,000, though most simply disappeared into Mexico, according to sister publication Historynet.com.
The Irish defectors called themselves the St. Patrick’s Battalion, or Batallón de San Patricio in Spanish. Their Mexican comrades called them ‘San Patricios’ or sometimes “The Red Company” as many of them had red hair or a “ruddy” complexion.
The battalion’s flag was a green background with a winged angle harp, three-leaf clovers and the term “Erin Go Bragh,” or “Irish till the end of time,” in Gaelic. One of the flags was captured and on display for a time in the chapel at West Point until it was either lost or stolen, according to the 2011 book “Irish Soldiers of Mexico,” by Michael Hogan.
A Mexican commander was officially in charge of the battalion, but Riley, who’d been promoted to lieutenant, actually ran the unit. The battalion fought alongside the Mexican Army in a kind of rolling rearguard, defending key areas as the U.S. Army penetrated deeper into Mexico during the nearly two-year campaign that eventually led to the occupation of Mexico City.
They served primarily as either artillery or a mix of infantry with reinforced artillery.
Some accounts, Wallace wrote, note that in battle the San Patricios focused on killing Army officers rather than their former enlisted comrades.
With mounting losses, Mexican military leaders continued to try and pull in U.S. Army deserters, even late in the war at Puebla, in central Mexico, offering an added 200 acres to the original proclamation and cash rewards from bringing more recruits to their side.
But then, momentum was on the U.S. side and few continued to leave the ranks. Those who had deserted faced little option but to fight on.
And, apparently, they did, Wallace wrote:
“It was at Churubusco that the San Patricios made their mark in history. They, and two battalions of Mexicans, defended the strongly fortified convent of San Pablo and put up the most desperate and stubborn resistance that the Americans encountered during the entire war. Even when their ammunition was exhausted, the San Patricios three times pulled down a white flag which General Rincon, the Mexican commander, had hoisted to stop a useless massacre.”
An estimated 65 deserters were captured following that final battle for the battalion. The rest either died in earlier fighting, in that battle or escaped. The punishment for desertion during wartime was death by firing squad.
Fifty prisoners were executed just days apart, 16 on Sept. 10, 1847, four on Sept. 11, 1847 and soldiers hanged 30 men on Sept. 13, 1847, according to the 1994 book “Army of Manifest Destiny,” by James M. McCaffrey.
Though Mexican comrades pleaded for mercy for their San Patricios, only a handful who’d either been forced into service or deserted before war officially began, such as Lt. John Riley, were pardoned.
But before being freed, the men had to endure 50 lashes on their backs while tied to trees in the plaza at Churubusco and have their faces branded with a ‘D’ for deserter. A few months later, a death record in the major port city of Vera Cruz, Mexico notes that Riley passed due to drink.
But despite their travails and the war’s loss, the San Patricios are still honored every year in September in festivals in Mexico and in Ireland. The town of Clifden, Ireland, birthplace of John Riley, flies the Mexican flag every September 12 in his honor.
Bronze plaques adorn battle sites in Mexico with the names of the executed San Patricios near cannonball pockmarked building walls.
The Charge of the Irish Brigade
In December 1862, Union and Confederate troops met at Fredericksburg, Virginia. At the end of four days of fighting, there was no ambiguity about which side had won: Fredericksburg is remembered as one of the most lopsided Confederate victories of the entire conflict. One Union charge in particular – the assault on a Confederate-protected hill behind a stone wall- would amount to more or less a suicide mission for the unite selected to lead it – a unit made up largely of Irish immigrants, called the Irish Brigade, known by the appropriately emerald green flag its
A group of the Irish Brigade, Harrison’s Landing , Virginia, July 1862. Credit: Library of Congress.
soldiers carried into battle.
That winter’s day in Fredericksburg, the brigade’s battle-worn flag was making its way back to New York for some much-needed repair, so the troops instead put sprigs of green boxwood in their caps to identify their Irish heritage. Nearly half the brigade were casualties at Fredericksburg (545 of 1,200 men were killed, wounded, or missing), but in the years after the war, it was commonly said that no one showed more bravery in the face of certain death than the troops who had marched on the hill with the greenery in their hats.
For Irish-Americans at the time, though, the battle wasn’t just a tale of Irish heroism, but also an example of Irish mistreatment – of Irish immigrants being used as cannon fodder by native-born generals. We talked with Craig Warren, a professor at Penn State Erie about the implications of the battle and how it was remembered afterwards.
On Irish discontent and how it led to riots in New York City
“Many Irish-Americans decided that what had happened was that the Irish Brigade had been wantonly sacrificed during the battle by generals who saw them simply as cannon fodder. The war effort wasn’t bringing people around to see the Irish as true Americans, and so they turned their backs on that war effort and decided that it was not worth investing further time, energy, lives, and money into. It’s not too much to say that you can draw a straight line between the Battle of Fredericksburg and the New York City draft riots of 1863.
[During those riots] there was a mob of white protesters who did a number of destructive things, smashing buildings, finding African American freedmen in the streets and lynching a number of them. It took actually a detachment of soldiers from the Army of the Potomac to come into the city and restore order. And at the end of this encounter, the vast majority of the rioters who were killed or were imprisoned were of Irish descent. This really was a black eye for the Irish-American population during the war and convinced a number of other Americans that in fact, they were not loyal to the war effort.”
On how the stories told about the Irish Brigade after the battle romanticized the soldiers’ experiences
‘The fight in the cornfield The Irish Brigade driving the rebels out.’ Pencil drawing of the 1862 Battle of Antietam. Credit: Library of Congress.
“After the war, Irish Brigade veterans forged a remarkable body of literature that took the low point of the Irish Brigade’s history, the Battle of Fredericksburg, after which they effectively ceased to operate as a brigade, and transformed it into the Brigade’s most glorious moment. They did this by publishing a series of memoirs that championed the Irish soldier, that portrayed him in the best light possible, and which showed his suffering and sacrifices at such places as Antietam and especially at Fredericksburg as his ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his American nation. All of them want, in memory of Irish participation in the war, to remember the Irish Brigade soldiers on the field, not rioting Irishman back home in the city. And so they did everything they could to elevate and even mythologize the Irish soldier during the Civil War.
One of the emphases that we find in the memoirs of Irish Brigade veterans is the story of the Irish Brigade encountering a full brigade of Confederate Irish, who supposedly recognized their countrymen by those sprigs of boxwood in their caps and who, though reluctant, fired into those ranks, standing by their Southern convictions. And that was enhanced and embellished in the post-war memoirs to be seen as this tragic, poignant, ironic conflict between Irishmen North and South.”
On the significance of this new Irish mythology
“Enlist to-day in the 69th infantry! ” WWI recruitment poster drawing on the fame of Irish fighters in the Civil War. Credit: Library of Congress.
“The message [of these stories was] contrary to prewar beliefs that the Irish were not true Americans, that they were interested only in the state of Ireland across the Atlantic. Instead, these men were willing to fight and die for their adopted country and for their homes, be it North or South, and that that was a stronger connection ultimately than the shared heritage.
I think that their strategy [for winning American acceptance of Irish immigrants] worked. There was a wide-scale celebration of the Civil War veteran during the late 19th century and early 20th, and there was a receptive audience for stories about soldiers in uniform and their adventures and achievements and sacrifices. This story folds the Irish-American story into the larger story that we so often hear about the Civil War, and that is that it was a brothers’ war. Irish memoirs stressed this as a way to show that they were as true Americans as any other citizens of the United States.”
You can listen to this segment, or our entire show about the color green through American history here. Craig Warren’s article on the Irish Brigade is available at this link.
Trials, Executions, and Aftermath
Eighty-five San Patricios were taken prisoner in all. Seventy-two of them were tried for desertion (presumably, the others had never joined the US army and therefore could not desert). These were divided into two groups and all of them were court-martialed: some at Tacubaya on August 23 and the rest at San Angel on August 26. When offered a chance to present a defense, many chose drunkenness: this was likely a ploy, as it was often a successful defense for deserters. It didn't work this time, however: all of the men were convicted. Several of the men were pardoned by General Scott for a variety of reasons, including age (one was 15) and for refusing to fight for the Mexicans. Fifty were hanged and one was shot (he had convinced the officers that he had not actually fought for the Mexican army).
Some of the men, including Riley, had defected before the official declaration of war between the two nations: this was, by definition, a much less serious offense and they could not be executed for it. These men received lashes and were branded with a D (for deserter) on their faces or hips. Riley was branded twice on the face after the first brand was "accidentally" applied upside-down.
Sixteen were hanged at San Angel on September 10, 1847. Four more were hanged the following day at Mixcoac. Thirty were hanged on September 13 in Mixcoac, within sight of the fortress of Chapultepec, where the Americans and Mexicans were battling for control of the castle. Around 9:30 a.m., as the American flag was raised over the fortress, the prisoners were hanged: it was meant to be the last thing they ever saw. One of the men hanged that day, Francis O'Connor, had both his legs amputated the day before due to his battle wounds. When the surgeon told Colonel William Harney, the officer in charge, Harney said "Bring the damned son of a bitch out! My order was to hang 30 and by God, I'll do it!"
Those San Patricios who had not been hanged were thrown in dark dungeons for the duration of the war, after which they were freed. They re-formed and existed as a unit of the Mexican army for about a year. Many of them remained in Mexico and started families: a handful of Mexicans today can trace their lineage to one of the San Patricios. Those who remained were rewarded by the Mexican government with pensions and the land that had been offered to entice them to defect. Some returned to Ireland. Most, including Riley, vanished into Mexican obscurity.
Today, the San Patricios are still a bit of a hot topic between the two nations. To Americans, they were traitors, deserters, and turncoats who defected out of laziness and then fought out of fear. They were certainly loathed in their day: in his excellent book on the subject, Michael Hogan points out that out of thousands of deserters during the war, only the San Patricios were ever punished for it (of course, they were also the only ones to take up arms against their former comrades) and that their punishment was quite harsh and cruel.
Mexicans, however, see them in a vastly different light. To Mexicans, the San Patricios were great heroes who defected because they could not stand to see the Americans bullying a smaller, weaker Catholic nation. They fought not out of fear but out of a sense of righteousness and justice. Every year, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated in Mexico, particularly in the places where the soldiers were hanged. They have received many honors from the Mexican government, including streets named after them, plaques, postage stamps issued in their honor, etc.
What's the truth? Somewhere in between, certainly. Thousands of Irish Catholics fought for America during the war: they fought well and were loyal to their adopted nation. Many of those men deserted (men of all walks of life did during that harsh conflict) but only a fraction of those deserters joined the enemy army. This lends credence to the notion that the San Patricios did so out of a sense of justice or outrage as Catholics. Some may simply have done so for recognition: they proved that they were very skilled soldiers -arguably Mexico's best unit during the war - but promotions for Irish Catholics were few and far between in America. Riley, for example, made Colonel in the Mexican army.
In 1999, a major Hollywood movie called "One Man's Hero" was made about the St. Patrick's Battalion.
The Fight For Sinogogga
On the 16th, the battle began at 9:00 am with a tremendous artillery barrage by several hundred big guns. The London Irish surged along the road to Sinogogga—a fortified village that was part of the Gustav Line. A few were held up by Germans firing from the cellars of houses, but other riflemen poured into the enemy dugouts using bayonets to finish off the Germans before the barrage had barely passed over them.
When the London Irish were halted, supporting tanks from the 16/5 Lancers blasted the enemy positions with high-explosive shells from their 75mm guns. Many of the Germans were caught away from their antitank guns by the artillery barrage and those that managed to get to their guns were shot down by infantry fire. “The show never really looked like stopping,” noted the battalion report.
The London Irish were most vulnerable on their open left flank across the Piopetto River when Germans fired heavy machine guns and mortars at them. The Lancers helped by scoring several direct hits on German armored vehicles and blowing up two ammunition dumps. H Company of the London Irish eventually broke into the village of Sinogogga where they had to engage in fierce hand-to-hand fighting for over an hour as the Germans tenaciously defended the shattered buildings with grenades, MG 34 machine guns, and “Schmeisser” MP 40 submachine guns.
A self-propelled 75mm gun proved the most deadly of the German weapons, and Corporal Jimmy Barnes from County Monaghan went forward by himself, covered only by a Bren gunner, to deal with the vehicle. He killed one of the German crew with a grenade before being killed himself. Shortly after this, the Germans in the village surrendered. Barnes was unsuccessfully recommended for the Victoria Cross.
It took another hour of hard fighting for the rest of the London Irish to take their objectives. In total, their casualties numbered five officers and 60 other ranks. The Germans lost 100 killed and 120 captured, including Hermann Göring paratroopers—their old rivals from Tunisia. Two more days of hard fighting followed until the Germans realized their position was lost and they withdrew—the monastery at Monte Cassino falling on the 18th.
Another casualty of the fighting on the Gustav Line was Lt. Col. Humphrey “Bala” Bredin, battalion leader of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Shot through both legs, he remained in command throughout the battle, propped up in the front of a jeep.
Commissioned into the Royal Ulster Rifles in 1936, Bredin had been placed second in command of the Royal Irish Fusiliers during the earlier fighting at Cassino. He was then transferred to command the Inniskillings. Following his recovery from his wound, he took over command of the London Irish Rifles. Thus, he held senior command of all three battalions in the Irish Brigade.
Already the recipient of the Military Cross in Palestine before the war, Bredin won a Distinguished Service Order for his leadership in Italy. “Throughout this operation he commanded his battalion with the utmost skill and inspired his men by his examples of personal gallantry under fire,” ran the citation. Famously, he never wore a steel helmet, preferring to wear the Irish caubeen and carry a cane into battle.
The Irish Brigades
The Irish Born Commanders David Power Conyngham (photo left) born Crohane, Killenaule Thurles, Co. Tipperary 1825-1883 was a cousin of Charles Kickham: Involved in the Young Ireland Rising of 1848, and US Civil War He took up Journalism, after US Civil War Army Major, He wrote many works on Irish and American subjects. novels published in Boston and NY incl. Sarsfield (1871), and The O’Mahoney, Chief of the Comeraghs (1879) was following Sherman’s advance towards Atlanta as a correspondent for the New York Herald and for a time as a member of Brigadier-General Henry M. Judah’s staff. He had previously spent time as a volunteer aide with the Irish Brigade, and after the conflict would pen the most famous account of that unit, The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns. He also recorded his experiences with Sherman, in his 1865 book Sherman’s March through the South. Conyngham credits Sherman himself with directing the fire on the Confederate officers which led to Polk’s death. The Tipperary man later saw the spot whereMajor Polk fell, and describes the activity that he and others engaged in at the site:
He writes ‘When we took that hill [Pine Mountain], two artillerists, who had concealed themselves until we had come up, and then came within our lines, showed us where his [Polk’s] body lay after being hit. There was one pool of clotted gore there, as if an animal had been bled. The shell had passed through his body from the left side, tearing the limbs and body to pieces. Doctor M—- and myself searched that mass of blood, and discovering pieces of the ribs and arm bones, which we kept as souvenirs. The men dipped their handkerchiefs in it too, whether as a sacred relic, or to remind them of a traitor, I do not know.’
Conyngham’s is a fascinating account of the supposed actions of Union soldiers at the site where Major Leonidas Polk (April 10, 1806 – June 14, 1864 (Photo on the right) commanding the confederate Brigade died. The idea of keeping fragmented parts of the body as souvenirs and dipping handkerchiefs in the blood of their fallen enemy is one I have not come across before- have any reader’s encountered any similar accounts from the Civil War?
Irish Brigade and its Campaigns (1866). … with some account of [Col. Michael] Corcoran’s legion, and sketches of the Principal officers, Cpt. D. P Conyngham, author of Frank O’Donnell Sherman’s March, etc (Glasgow). ‘Took pride tracing their progenitors to some old Celtic stock. It is only those who ‘have left their country for their country’s good’ that are low and snobbish enough to deny their native country. No true man denies his country.’. The author served with Sherman in Georgia. Meagher’s Zouaves at Bull Run his horse killed under him Irish Brigade evolved from New York State Militia 69th draws link with ‘flower of Jacobite Army’ in continental service at Fontenoy Louis publically thanked the brigade and created Count Lally a general on the field of battle King George said, ‘Cursed be the laws that deprived me of such subjects.’ Generals in Union service, John Logan, Geary and Burney Sweeney, Lalor, Doherty, Gorman, Magennis, Sullivan, Reilly, Mulligan, Stevenson, Meagher, Minty, Shields, Corcoran, PH Jones, Kiernan. ‘The Irish soldier did not ask whether the coloured race were better off as bondsmen or freedmen he was not going to fight for an abstract idea. He felt that the safety and welfare of his adopted country and its glorious constitution were imperilled … the Irish soldier was therefore a patriot not a mercenary.’ [Copy held in Belfast Central Library.]
Nationalism by definition is: loving ones country and wanting to be governed by ones own people. During the second part of the nineteenth century, there was an increased progression of nationalistic feeling in Ireland. Due to this feeling there was a rise in physical force revolutionary groups, the largest organized group being the Fenians. Even though the Fenians started out in Ireland, they also established roots in America, by recruiting large numbers of the new Irish immigrant population. This was easily done due to the fact that the new Irish blamed the English for having to leave their homes in the old country. (1) The Fenian movment was at the height of popularity when the American Civil War broke out. So their ranks decided that fighting in this war would boost the movement as well as being great practice for the eventual uprising in Ireland. Even those who had no intention of going back to Ireland felt a connection to the Fenian movement and were swayed by it. Not to mention, many of the commanders of the Irish ethnic regiments were respected Fenians. These commanders were great motivators for the Irish fighting in the war, since many would follow them simply because of their allegiance to Ireland. This unique Irish quality was yet another reason these brave soldiers from Erin were such fierce fighters.
One such commander was John O’Mahony, one of the Fenian movement founders, O’Mahony was born in Ireland in 1816. In 1848 he took part in the failed Ballingarry rebellion and escaped to France. From there he made his way to the United States in 1854. Upon arrival he joined many groups to advance the cause of Irish freedom, one of which was the 69th New York, where he rose to the rank of colonel. During the American Civil War O’Mahony’s rank was mostly political, as he traveled around the nation speaking about the Fenian cause. However, he had a change of heart and felt fighting would help the Fenians cause even more. Therefore, he founded the Phoenix Brigade. At the time the Brigade was founded it was not endorsed as a State of New York military force. However, it was eventually merged into a formal State of New York militia force, designated as the 99th New York State Militia. This made it an Irish Republican military unit subsidized by an independent state. This unit would soon be activated to fight against the Confederate States.
John O’Mahoney (photo right) also planned to use them after the war to invade Canada and strike a blow to the English on foreign soil.
One of the most respected Fenians who inspired the Irish with his ferocious Irish nationalism was Thomas F. Meagher. Meagher succeeded in getting himself into difficulties on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in County Waterford, Ireland and opposed to British rule, he joined the Young Irelanders movement, which was a branch of the Fenians. Meagher quickly rose to a position of power do to his great oratory skills. His most famous speech was the “Sword Speech” given in Dublin on July 28, 1846,
This solidified his power and he was given the moniker “Meagher of the Sword.” Meagher’s prestige in the movement made him an ideal candidate for a diplomatic mission to France, which resulted in him bringing back a flag that would eventually become the Irish Tri-Color, the National flag of Ireland today.
Thomas Francis Meagher (Photo left) like O’Mahony was involved in the failed uprising of the Young Irelanders at Ballingarry, County Tipperary. He was captured, tried, convicted and sentenced to be exiled to Tasmania.
Meagher made a daring escape from his penal colony and landed in America as a hero to the Irish population. He picked up where he left off as an orator for the Irish cause. It was of no surprise that when the American Civil War came about Meagher used his status to raise an Irish Zouave company in 1861 and joined the Union army himself.
He served as the commanding officer of that company and eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the Irish Brigade. Due to his popularity, gained by his actions back in Ireland, his men would fight hard for him. One example of this was at the Battle of Bull Run. The Brigade moved to the right and initially pushed back the enemy. The Confederate forces, with the timely aid of reinforcements, stopped the advancement of the Irish Brigade and began to move the Union forces back. The Irish of the 69th New York would not go down that easily. They rallied and charged multiple times under heavy artillery fire, only to be stopped. During this portion of the battle, General Meagher had his horse shot out from under him. He immediately jumped up, waved his sword, and exclaimed, “Boys! Look at that flag, remember Ireland and Fontenoy”.(a battle during the War of the Austrian Succession in which the Irish Brigade of France achieved victory against an English adversary)
With his nationalist battle cry ringing in their ears, the Brigade made one final push and sustained substantial casualties. One of these casualties was Lieutenant Colonel James Haggerty, a native of Co. Donegal Ireland, who was styled by Tipperary born Captain David Power Conyngham “as fine a specimen of a Celt as Ireland could produce.”
James Haggerty was just one of many men who perished valiantly that day. After the battle the Commander of the Union Army, General Irving McDowell, who watched the charge, rode up to the 69th and personally thanked them. Meagher lead the Irish Brigade in every battle up till and including the Battle of Fredericksburg. The 69th succeeded in joining with the main attack, and many more of the regiment would die as they unsuccessfully charged the Confederate positions on Henry Hill. The day ended in defeat for the Union, and the war would continue for four bloody years. We can only speculate as to why James Haggerty so exposed himself in an effort to capture the fleeing Rebels. Perhaps he felt confident they were routing, or suffered a rush of blood to the head in what was his first battle. Maybe as he had shown in the past he was eager to set an example for his men.
James Haggerty was the first man of the 69th New York State Militia to die in the Battle of Bull Run. His experience of combat lasted a matter of minutes before he was killed, leaving behind a widow and infant daughter. Later in the year Thomas Francis Meagher, Captain of Company K (Meagher’s Zouaves) of the 69th and future commander of the Irish Brigade, said that of all the regiment’s dead at Bull Run, Haggerty was ‘Prominent amongst them, strikingly noticeable by reason of his large, iron frame, and the boldly chiseled features, on which the impress of great strength of will and intellect was softened by a constant play of humor and the goodness and grand simplicity of his heart- wrapped in his rough old overcoat, with his sword crossed upon his breast, his brow boldly uplifted as though he were still in command, and the consciousness of having done his duty sternly to the last still animating the Roman face -there lies James Haggerty- a braver soldier than whom the land of Sarsfield and Shields has not produced, and whose name, worked in gold upon the colors of the Sixty-ninth, should be henceforth guarded with all the jealousy and pride which inspires a regiment, wherever its honor is at stake and its standards are in peril.
Although Meagher’s military service with the Irish Brigade did not last the duration of the war, his leadership and inspiration magnificently guided the Brigade through many of its hardest battles.
Another Irish Nationalist who had a positive effect on the fighting spirit of the Irish in the American Civil War was Michael Corcoran. Corcoran was born in Carrowkeel, county Sligo Ireland and was a member of the Irish Nationalist Guerrilla force known as the Ribbonman. His ties to this group were eventually discovered in 1849 so he immigrated to New York City in order to avoid capture.
To gain a position in society he joined the 69th New York State Militia as a private. This would not last as “his military passion and his previous knowledge of military tactics were a great advantage to him.”
Michael Corcoran (Photo Left) moved up in rank and became a Colonel. It was in this capacity that Corcoran became a hero to the Irish Nationalist, as well as the overall Irish immigrant population of New York. He chose not to parade his men in front of the Prince of Wales upon his visit, saying that “as an Irishman he could not consistently parade Irish-born citizens in honor of the son of a sovereign, under whose rule Ireland was left a desert and her best sons exiled or banished.”
His action resulted in a court-martial. However, it was overturned due to the need of good officers to fight in the Civil War. Corcoran resumed his rank in the 69th New York and was present at that Battle of First Manassas, where he was captured. Corcoran spoke of this later by saying, “I did not surrender until I found myself after having successfully taken my regiment off the field, left with only seven men and surrounded by the enemy.”
Corcoran was eventually exchanged over a year later, and was received back with acclaim. He was given the rank of Brigadier General and put in command of his own troops, known as Corcoran’s “Irish Legion.” The first battle of the Legion took place during the Battle of Deserted House Virginia. Although not one of the biggest battles of the war, Corcoran demonstrated calmness under fire and his men showed how they admired Corcoran by following his every commanded under intense battle conditions.
Sadly this would be Corcoran’s last major battle as he was killed later that year when he fell from his horse. Even though Corcoran’s life was cut short his legend and the Prince of Wales incident continued to inspire men, especially those of his Legion who were fighting for Uncle Sam as well as Irish pride.
Thomas Alfred Smyth (December 25, 1832 – April 9, 1865 Photo Right) was a brigadier general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He was the last Union general killed in the war. In March 1867, he was nominated and confirmed a brevet major general of volunteers posthumously to rank from April 7, 1865.
Smyth was born in Ballyhooly in Cork County, Ireland, and worked on his father’s farm as a youth. He emigrated to the United States in 1854, settling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He participated in William Walker’s expedition to Nicaragua. Smyth was employed as a wood carver and coach & carriage maker. In 1858, he moved to Wilmington, Delaware.
Between July 31, 1864 and August 22, 1864 and between December 23, 1864 and February 25, 1865, Smyth commanded the 2nd division of the corps. In April 1865 near Farmville, Virginia, Smyth was shot through the mouth by a sniper, with the bullet shattering his cervical vertebra and paralyzing him. Smyth died two days later at Burke’s Tavern, concurrent with the surrender of Robert E. Lee and his army at Appomattox Court House.
On March 18, 1867, President of the United States Andrew Johnson nominated Smyth for posthumous appointment to the grade of brevet major general of volunteers to rank from April 7, 1865, the date he was mortally wounded, and the United States Senate confirmed the appointment on March 26, 1867. Smyth was the last Union general killed or mortally wounded during the war, and is buried in Brandywine Cemetery in Wilmington, Delaware.
The Union was not the only beneficiary of Irish Nationalist leadership due to the fact that many of the Irish in the south felt the situation in America mirrored the situation in Ireland with Great Britain. They felt an aggressive big government had taken on the smaller independent state, and that was something they could support fighting against, one such leader was Patrick Ronayne Cleburne. Cleburne was born in the late 1820s to a middle class Irish Protestant family in County Cork, Ireland. He had an ambition to be an apothecary but he failed the entrance exam for the medical school. So for economic reasons he joined the British army even though he believed it to be “a symbol for tyranny.”
Patrick Cleburne’s (Photo Left) time in the army was served in a unit that preformed civil duties in famine stricken Ireland. By 1849 the famine finally caught up to him and his family, so he and his sister immigrated to America.
Cleburne eventually settled in Arkansas where he joined many social clubs, including a Militia Company called the Yell Rifles, and was soon elected captain.
When the American Civil War broke out Cleburne was in charge of the Yell’s and marched them off to war. Soon his military prowess was noticed by Confederate commander William J. Hardee and he was promoted to Brigade Commander.
Cleburne served with distinction, most notably his stand at Ringgold Gap where his 4,000 men held off the superior numbers of General Hooker’s Union troops.
During the battle, Cleburne personally took command of his battery units and waited for the Federal forces to get within a short distance. He kept his men calm till the enemy was in the precise position for their guns to inflict the most damage. Cleburne then shouted, “NOW!! Lieutenant, give it to em!”
The canister shot devastated the Union line and drove them back. For this act Commander Cleburne received a Congressional Citation from the Confederate Congress, and earned the nickname “Stonewall of the west.”
In November of 1864 Cleburne met his fate during the battle of Franklin, Tennessee. During the battle Cleburne had two horses shot out from under him then continued on foot drew his sword and charged head strong toward the Federal lines. As he urged his men forward and got within paces of the Union breastworks he was shot through the heart.
Cleburne died a hero’s death for his adopted land. However, after reading his words one can easily make the assumption that in his mind he gave his last full measure for Ireland as well. This can be seen in Cleburne’s Proposal to Arm Slaves. In this letter to Confederate commanders he writes, “As between the loss of independence and the loss of slavery, we assume that every patriot will freely give up the latter — give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself. If we are correct in this assumption it only remains to show how this great national sacrifice is, in all human probabilities, to change the current of success and sweep the invader from our country.”
From this quote one can easily infer that Cleburne saw the parallels between the South’s struggle in the American Civil War and Irelands fight against English oppression. He was like other southern Irishmen inspiring to join the war effort with a fervent passion to vanquish their northern aggressors.
The Irishmen who felt the similarities between the south and Irish Nationalist fought with great vigor against the Federals, and stated their desire to subjugate their oppressive foe, when they chose the names for their regiments. A unit in the 1st Missouri Brigade evoked the name of the bold Robert Emmet, and Irish rebel and patriot, when they chose to be called Emmet Guards.
The Emmet Guards distinguished themselves at the Battle of Champion Hill, Mississippi. The action of the battle was described as such, “With flags flying and the rebel yell erupting from their mouths. The Missouri Confederates advanced, driving the bluecoats back, recapturing lost batteries, and gaining much ground. Bitter hand to hand fighting swirled over the rough terrain, among the magnolias, deep gullies, and dense woodlands of Champion Hill.”
The Irish from Missouri almost split the Union line in two before Federal reinforcements arrived and drove the rebels back. The Irishmen of the Emmet Guards did their namesake proud but suffered heavily for their effort.
Battle of Champion Hill By Kurz & Allison published in 1887
Another southern battalion born out of Irish Nationalism was part of the 1st Virginia and named the Montgomery Guards, after the Irish born American Revolutionary war hero General Richard Montgomery.
Additionally, this unit has another strong tie to Irish patriotism and national pride. William Henry Mitchel, the son of John Mitchel Senior, an exiled Irish revolutionary and leader of the Young Irelander movement, served in its ranks. John C. Mitchel instilled the ideas of Irish nationalism into his son and explained how Irelands struggle was almost identical to that of the south.
Young William took those ideas into battle with him at Gettysburg. William was elected to be the color barer of the 1st Virginia and led them into what would be forever remembered as Pickett’s Charge. He was severely wounded and about to be escorted to the rear but refused in order to advance the standard of his regiment with a sense of Irish pride. ‘We are sorry to learn that Wm. Mitchel, youngest son of John Mitchell, Esq., editor of the Enquirer, who was reported missing after the battle of Gettysburg, is now believed to have been killed in that hard-fought struggle. Young Mitchel was only eighteen years old, and is represented to have been a young gentleman of fine attainments, and an excellent soldier, and behaved with especial gallantry at Gattysburg. He has two brothers in the Confederate Service.’
The New York Irish-American, despite being a pro-Union northern newspaper, joined in the mourning for the Irish nationalist’s son, despite the fact that he had been a Confederate. On the 12th September they wrote the following eulogy:
JOHN MITCHEL’S YOUNGEST SON
‘We have received with sincere sorrow the intelligence that William Mitchel, the youngest of John Mitchel’s sons, fell mortally wounded on the battle-field of Gettysburgh, shot through the lower part of the abdomen. He was in the color-guard of the 1st Virginia regiment, and fell near the breastworks held by the 3d corps, in the last desperate charge which Longstreet’s troops made upon the position. He was a young lad of the highest promise, and never failed to endear himself to those with whom he was brought in contact, by the sterling goodness of his disposition and the many excellent traits of character he displayed. Few who remember the bright, open-hearted boy, who, three short years ago, was the life of a yet unbroken family circle in the vicinity of this city, but will join in the regret with which we now record his untimely fall upon a field where brother strove with brother in deadly conflict that could bring naught of good to either. Mr. Mitchel’s family have been sorely afflicted within a few short months. It is but the other day we had to chronicle the death of his eldest daughter in Paris and now another of his children has gone to his last rest, far from home, and from the friends whose ministrations, at least, might have made lighter the steps that lead to the grave.’
The Irishmen of the 1st Virginia fought that day “not only with pride in the centuries long Irish revolutionary heritage and the legacy of their Irish rebel forefathers but also in the rich traditions of their regiment as well.”
The use of Irish Nationalism proved to be successful motivation for Celtic men on both sides of the American Civil War. It was a source of enthusiasm that other regiments in the conflict did not have. Therefore, one can say this was a uniquely Irish trait, and one that would have made them more powerful on the battlefield.
Left: Colonel Patrick Robert Guiney Right: The Colors Of The 9th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
Left: Father Thomas Scully Right: Father Scully prepares to say mass to Bostons Irish 9th at Camp Cass, Arlington Heights, Virginia.
Irish Brigade Monument At Antietam