When the Civil War broke out, thousands of Irish-born men in both the North and the South volunteered for military service. Some 140,000 served in the Union Army, and they dominated at least 20 regiments. The most famous belonged to Thomas F. Meagher’s Irish Brigade. Meagher (pronounced “Mar”) was an Irish native whom the British had banished to Tasmania after he became involved in Ireland’s 1848 uprising. After escaping from the island, he made his way to America, where he became a popular lecturer on Irish independence.
Meagher believed it was important for the Irish-born to fight for the Union. The anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party was still politically potent, and Meagher promoted military service as one way Irishmen could demonstrate their loyalty. An Irish veteran could “take his stand proudly by the side of the native-born, and will not fear to look him straight and sternly in the face, and tell him that he has been equal to him in his allegiance to the Constitution,” he said. Largely because of Meagher’s influence, an Irish Brigade was authorized, with Meagher its commanding general.
Three regiments — the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York — formed the core of the Irish Brigade, along with the 116th Pennsylvania and the Irish-dominated 28th Massachusetts (a few other regiments also rotated through the brigade). Before leaving for battle, the three New York regiments were presented beautiful silk flags in a ceremony held in front of Archbishop John Joseph Hughes’ home. The flags, with a gold harp, white clouds and sunburst on a green background, would become conspicuous on many future battlefields. Across the bottom of each, written in Gaelic, was the brigade’s motto: “Who never retreated from the clash of spears.” The 28th Massachusetts was presented a similar flag.
The brigade first saw combat during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, where it participated in Gen. George B. McClellan’s advance on Richmond. But it was during the Seven Days Campaign that the brigade began to earn its reputation for steadiness in battle. At the Battle of Malvern Hill, it engaged in a bloody hand-to-hand fight with the Louisiana Tigers, many of whom were also Irish-born.
Afterward, one colonel requested new muskets to replace the ones damaged in the melee, but the corps commander, Gen. Edwin V. Sumner, refused because he thought the men had simply lost them. The general changed his mind when he was shown a pile of muskets with splintered stocks, bent barrels and twisted bayonets. One soldier told him, “The boys got in a scrimmage with the Tigers, and when the bloody villains took to their knives, the boys mostly forgot their bayonets, but went to work in the style they were used to, and licked them well, sir.”
The Seven Days made the Irish Brigade’s reputation. It was said that whenever General Sumner prepared for battle he would ask, “Where are my green flags?” and that he once quipped that if the Irishmen ever ran from the field he would have to run as well. When Abraham Lincoln visited McClellan’s army at Harrison’s Landing, Va., where it was preparing to ship back to Union territory, an officer claimed the president picked up a corner of one of the Irish colors, kissed it and said, “God bless the Irish flag.”
At the Battle of Antietam, the Irish Brigade led its division in attacking the infamous Bloody Lane. In preparation for the deadly work ahead, Father William Corby, one of the brigade’s chaplains and future president of Notre Dame, rode down the firing line and administered a general rite of absolution to the men.
Meagher advanced to the crest of a hill overlooking a brigade of North Carolinians hunkered down in the sunken road bed and let loose with two volleys. The Confederates responded with a heavy fire of their own that killed or wounded eight of the brigade’s color bearers. When Capt. James McGee of the 69th New York picked up his regiment’s flag from the ground, a bullet cut the staff in two. He reached down for the colors again and a bullet tore through his cap. Despite the heavy fire, Captain McGee finally retrieved the flag and defiantly waved it at the enemy.
Meagher drew his sword and shouted, “Boys! Raise the colors and follow me!” He wrote in his after-action report that he believed “the impetuosity and recklessness of Irish soldiers in a charge” would dislodge the rebels. Meagher’s men leveled their bayonets and got within 30 yards of the enemy position before the Confederates stopped them with fierce musket volleys.
The brigade suffered a 60 percent casualty rate by the time it withdrew from Bloody Lane. The division commander, the beloved Gen. Israel Richardson, was among those lost, later dying of infection after being wounded by shell fragments.
The Irish Brigade’s most famous battle was at Fredericksburg, Va., on Dec. 13, 1862. Gen. Ambrose Burnside ordered repeated frontal assaults against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s veterans posted behind a stone wall on a rise above the center of the city called Marye’s Heights. Several attacks had already failed when the Irish Brigade was sent in to try again. The brigade’s distinctive Irish flags had become so ragged from battle damage that all had been retired except the one carried by the 28th Massachusetts.
General Meagher, however, wanted his men to be recognized as being Irish and ordered each soldier to put sprigs of evergreen on his cap. Meagher, dressed in a tailor-made green suit with a yellow silk scarf around his chest, was said to be “a picture of unusual grace and majesty.” Meagher, however, failed to accompany his men in the charge. He was suffering from an ulcerated knee and had gone back to town for his horse when the advance was made. Meagher’s absence at Fredericksburg and accusations of being drunk on several other battlefields caused many officers to hold him in low esteem.
Raising the old Irish cheer “Faugh-a-Bellagh” (“Clear the Way”), the Irish Brigade advanced up Marye’s Heights over its dead and wounded comrades. Waiting behind the stone wall was Col. Robert McMillan’s Georgia brigade. McMillan was Irish himself, but he had no qualms about shooting his fellow immigrants. A newspaper later reported that when McMillan saw the 28th Massachusetts’ green flag, he yelled excitedly to his men, “That’s Meagher’s Brigade” and drew his sword.
“His countenance lighted up,” the account said, “and dashing along the line among men, amid him a shower of balls, and waving his sword around his head, shouted –‘Give it to them now, boys! Now’s the time! Give it to them!’ And never did men better respond to a call.”
The Georgians cut the Irishmen to pieces. Of the approximately 1,400 men who started up the hill, 545 became casualties. The 69th New York lost all 16 of its officers. After the battle one Confederate wrote, “The last charge was made … o’er the bloody field by Meagher’s celebrated Irish Brigade which was almost destroyed. The gallant fellows deserved a better fate.” In his description of the battle, the brigade historian, Henry Clay Heisler, declared, “It was not a battle — it was a wholesale slaughter of human beings.”
The Irish Brigade’s bravery at Fredericksburg received a great deal of attention. The London Times correspondent William H. Russell (himself Irish-born) wrote, “Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, or at Waterloo was more undaunted courage displayed by the sons of Erin than during those six frantic dashes which they directed against the almost impregnable positions of their foe.” A legend also arose that Lee was told that the New Yorkers had made a brave attack against the stone wall, Lee recognized the regiment from the Seven Days Campaign and was said to have replied, “Ah yes. That fighting 69th.” In any case, the “Fighting 69th” nickname stuck.
After the battle, the 69th’s men were horrified to discover that their color bearer was missing. They prided themselves in never having lost a flag in battle and the next day went looking for him. The dead color sergeant was found sitting against a tree with his hands clasped over his chest. The flag staff, stripped of its national colors, lay near him. Upon preparing the body for burial, the soldiers discovered the sergeant had wrapped the flag around his body to prevent its capture. There was a bullet hole through it and his heart.
Fredericksburg shattered the Irish Brigade. By February 1863 there were only 340 men present for duty. Meagher repeatedly asked his superiors to allow the men to go home to rest and recruit, but they denied his requests. When Joseph Hooker, who had replaced Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac, refused another entreaty after the Battle of Chancellorsville, Meagher resigned in a huff.
Over the next two years, four officers led the brigade. Three were killed. All were Irish-born. Col. Richard Byrne (often spelled Byrnes) was mortally wounded at the Battle of Spotsylvania, and Col. Patrick Kelly was shot in the head and killed at the Battle of Petersburg. Col. Thomas Smyth led the brigade for a while and then was transferred to another unit. He was mortally wounded at Farmville, Va., on April 7, 1865. Smyth died two days later — the same day Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. He was the last Union general to be killed in battle.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, the brigade numbered just over 500 men, but it was ordered into the thick of the fight at the Wheatfield and Devil’s Den. Once again, Father Corby stood on a large boulder and gave general absolution to the brigade before it advanced. By the time the Irishmen withdrew, they had lost 202 men. When a Gettysburg monument was dedicated to the brigade’s New York regiments in 1888, Father Corby held a mass for the veterans. Blessing the monument, he noted its Celtic cross and declared, “It is an emblem of Ireland, typical of faith and devotion, and the most appropriate that could be raised to hand down to posterity the bravery of our race in the great cause of American liberty.”
Despite its repeated losses, the Irish Brigade again saw heavy action in the 1864 Overland Campaign. It participated in the fighting at the Wilderness, charged the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania, and joined in the near suicidal attack at Cold Harbor. In June, the brigade accompanied the army south to Petersburg.
Col. Robert Nugent of the 69th New York replaced Kelly and was the brigade’s last commander. Nugent had been shot in the stomach at Fredericksburg and afterward was sent to New York City to help supervise the draft. When the Draft Riot erupted there in July 1863, he tried to calm the mobs even though rioters looted and burned his own house.
Because of the heavy losses suffered in the Overland Campaign, the Irish Brigade was combined with another small brigade to form the Consolidated Brigade. But the unit kept its separate identity, and Nugent led it in the Grand Review in Washington when the war ended. He then took the 400 New York survivors, where they paraded for the people of New York City and were addressed by Thomas Meagher.
Afterward, Meagher was appointed the territorial secretary for Montana. On July 1, 1867, he drowned under mysterious circumstances when he fell off a steamboat on the Missouri River. Explanations for Meagher’s death ran from an illness to drunkenness to murder. His body was never recovered.
The Irish Brigade suffered the third-highest number of battlefield casualties of any Union brigade. Of the 7,715 men who served in its ranks, 961 were killed or mortally wounded, and approximately 3,000 were wounded. The number of casualties was more men than ever served in its ranks at any one time. As a testament to the Irishmen’s bravery, 11 of the unit’s members were awarded the Medal of Honor.