Their casualties were enormous but their courage and capacity for fun were legendary. General Lee, himself, gave highest praise to these Yankees of the Irish Brigade.
BY JOHN F. McCORMACK, JR.
Out Hanover Street in Fredericksburg they marched that December morning in 1862, sprigs of green in their caps, a bright green battle flag, with gold harp and the ancient Gaelic words “Riamh Nar dhruid O sbairn lan” (“Never retreat from the clash of spears”) defiantly emblazoned on it, held high as shot and shell exploded all around in a blaze of red and orange. Ahead was an open plain and then two hills known as Marye’s Heights, covered with Confederate artillery. At the base of the hills was a sunken road behind a stone wall.
Pausing to regroup behind a slight rise on the plain, they quickly dressed ranks and formed line of battle in brigade front. Then the commands rang out. “Right shoulder, shift arms, battalion forward, guide center, march!” They double-quicked across the plain toward the stone wall amid the seep of musketry and canister. The blue lines staggered and slowed as men fell like leaves in an autumn wind. Passing under the range of the artillery on the hills, they were suddenly met by a sheet of flame as the confederates behind the stone wall fired. A member of the 8th Ohio Infantry noted as they passed his unit that each man had “a half-laughing, half-murderous look in his eye. They pass to our left, poor glorious fellows, shaking goodbye to us with their hats! They reach a point within a stone’s throw of the stone wall. No farther. They try to go beyond but are slaughtered. Nothing could advance farther and live.”
That was the Irish Brigade in the Battle of Fredericksburg, paying with their lives for Burnside’s tragic blunder. And for the only time in its short proud history the brigade had to retreat from “the clash of spears,” terribly shattered, having suffered 41.4 percent casualties in killed, wounded, and missing. As General Lee remarked after the war, “Never were men so brave.”
Organized in 1861 shortly after First Bull Run, the brigade’s nucleus was the 63d, 69th, and 88th New York Infantry. In the fall of 1862 the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania were added, and the 29th Massachusetts served with it for a short time. It saw action in the Peninsular Campaign, at Antietam, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cedar Run, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, in the 1st Division of the II Corps. Reorganized in November 1864, with the 7th New York Heavy Artillery replacing the 116th Pennsylvania, it was by then no longer the old organization and certainly could not be truthfully designated the Irish Brigade. It had suffered over 4,000 casualties in killed and wounded, a total which exceeded the number of men enrolled in it at any given time.
Of the five men who commanded the Irish Brigade, three were killed and the other two wounded. Colonel Richard Byrne was mortally wounded at Cold Harbor; Colonel Patrick Kelly was killed at Petersburg; Major General Thomas A. Smyth died at Farmville; and Brigadier Generals Robert Nugent and Thomas Meagher were both wounded.
The most colorful and flamboyant of its leaders was the original commander and organizer, General Thomas Francis Meagher. Born in County Waterford, Ireland in 1823, he was described as “the counterpart of some rash, impolitic, poetic personage from Irish poetry or fiction.” Son of a wealthy merchant, he was an active disciple of Irish liberty and participated in the various independence movements. In 1845 the British exiled him to Tasmania. Three years later he escaped and eventually made his way to New York City. At various times a lawyer, lecturer, newspaper editor, and politician, his flaming oratory had made him a favorite of the “Young Ireland” group and he soon became the political leader of the Irish element in New York. At the outbreak of the Civil War he raised a Zouave company and commanded it at First Bull Run as part of the 69th New York State Militia. That winter he organized the Irish Brigade and President Lincoln appointed him brigadier general of Volunteers in February 1862.
The officers and men of the Irish Brigade were among the most unusual in the Union Army. A surprisingly large number had combat experience in the papal Brigade of St. Patrick and Austrian and British services. Several won the Congressional Medal of Honor during the war. A single company contained seven lawyers as privates. Reporters George Townsend found Meagher’s gold-bedecked staff to be “fox hunters…a class of Irish exquisites…good for a fight, card party or a hurdle jumping but entirely too Quixotic for the sober requirement of Yankee warfare.”
In early December 1861 the New York regiments took up pleasant winter quarters at Camp California, near Alexandria, Virginia, where they were assigned to General Sumner’s division of the Army of the Potomac. Christmas was fondly remembered by those who survived the war. Little John Flaherty entertained on the violin while his father livened the festivities with Irish tunes played on the warpipes. The canteen, which hardly ever seemed to contain water, was eagerly passed around. Said Private Bill Dooley: “It is as well to keep up our spirits by pouring spirits down, for sure, there’s no knowing where we’ll be this night twelve months.”
When major General Israel B. (“Greasy Dick”) Richardson took command of the 1st Division, Captain Jack Gosson, one of Meagher’s aides, decided that the old veteran’s first review of the Irish Brigade should be a memorable occasion. Accordingly, he preceded the general along the drawn-up lines of Irishmen, informing the waiting soldiers, “An what do you think of the brave old fellow, but he has sent to our camp three barrels of whisky, a barrel for each regiment, to treat the boys of the brigade; we ought to give him a thundering cheer when he comes along.” That they did, startling both Richardson and the army. Gosson’s fine Irish hand was recognized when no liquor was subsequently found in camp.
The chaplains of the brigade were also rather unusual. Chaplain Dillon succeeded in getting a large number of the 63d N.Y. to take the pledge against the use of alcohol.
A medal was distributed to all who did so. During the Peninsula Campaign this led to much scrambling for the whisky rations of those who were abstainers. Chaplain Ouellet was probably the most colorful. Born in Canada, he had a French accent that amused the soldiers. He was credited with coining two army phrases during the Seven Days battles. It seems that some of the men preferred coffee and breakfast to divine service after a fight or a hard march. At church services one day he shouted, “The good came here this morning to thank God for their deliverance from death, and the rest…were coffee-coolers and skedaddlers during our retreat.”
The brigade received its first blooding in the Peninsula Campaign. The Columbia and Ocean Queen ” about which there was plenty of ocean but not much queen,” deposited them at Ship Point, Virginia in the spring of 1862. There they occupied some abandoned Confederate huts filled with “graybacks” thoughtfully provided by their former host. The muddy condition of the Virginia roads added to their discomfort. Then a day at the races, “The Chickahominy Steeple-Chase,” was rudely interrupted by the Battle of Fair Oaks. A fierce bayonet charge and a sweeping fire earned the brigade the praise of army commander McClellan that day. At Gaines’s Mill they supported the hard-pressed Fitz John Porter. A vicious hand-to-hand struggle at Savage Station was repeated at Mavern Hill.
The attrition due to battle and sickness prompted Meagher to secure McClellan’s permission to gain new recruits in New York after the Seven Day Campaign. While there he found it necessary to dispel rumors that the Irish regiments were being sacrificed by “Black Republicans.” Then the brigade was particularly saddened by the death from malaria of a popular young staff officer, Lieutenant Temple Emmet, grandnephew of one of Ireland’s greatest martyrs, Robert Emmet.
Antietam was the next battle honor garnered by the brigade. It was committed in the Union center and had the dubious distinction of attacking the Confederates in the “Sunken Road.” With Meagher at their head, the cheering Irish moved against the waiting enemy. A rail fence was quickly torn away under enemy fire. The re-aligned brigade continued the attack when all of their flags were suddenly downed at once. A chagrined aide informed the watching McClellan, “The day is lost, general–the Irish fly.” “No, no their flags are up, they are charging.” Was the happy rejoinder. Sure enough a captain of the 69th New York gathered a fallen green flag with the gold harp and followed Meagher. As division commander Brigadier General Winfield Hancock then reported it:
A severe and well-sustained musketry contest then ensued, continuing until the ammunition was nearly expended, after which this brigade, having suffered severely, losing many valuable officers and men, was relieved by the brigade of General Caldwell which…advanced to…the rear of Meaghr’s brigade. The latter then broke by companies to the rear, and the former by companies to the front….
The Irish Brigade had indeed “suffered severely” at Antietam. Meagher was carried from the field unconscious, thrown by his wounded horse. They lost over 500 officers and men killed or wounded. Two of the regiments sustained staggering casualty percentages: the 69th suffered 61.8 percent and 63d, 59.2 percent.
The brigade recuperated somewhat from its ordeal while encamped on Bolivar Heights at Harper’s Ferry after the battle. Here the 116th Pennsylvania joined them. Before they were again committed, the electrifying news reached them that McClellan had been relieved of command of the army. Many of the angered officers of the Irish Brigade, nearly all of them Democrats, resigned on the spot. Only Meagher’s persuasiveness kept them with the army. As it was, at McClellan’s final review of the Army of the Potomac, the brigade broke ranks to swarm around their departing hero.
An unusual incident is reported to have occurred as the Irish Brigade was enroute to Fredericksburg. As the men passed the house of the slain Confederate General Turner Ashby’s mother, a disheveled-looking woman rushed into the midst of the marching soldiers, shrillingly invoking the curse of God upon those who had taken her son’s life. To some of the more superstitious Irish her cries must surely have seemed akin to the dreaded wail of the feared banshee (signifying in Celtic lore a death to come).
Prior to crossing a pontoon bridge into Fredericksburg that bleak December day, the command shook out its colors. The nearby 14th Brooklyn (84th N.Y.) cheered the marching Irishmen, as the band of Hawkins’ Zouaves (9th N.Y.) struck up the brigade’s marching tune, Garry Owen. Less cheering was the presence of professional embalmers who passed out cards advertising their “patriotic services.” One brigade member refused with a scathing “be damned to yez.”
Once in town some of the “byes” joined in the plundering. One Irishman staggered under the weight of a huge feather bed, while two others sported women’s bonnets and a more practical fellow carted off a ten-gallon coffeepot. The men of the 116th amused themselves by fishing up the contents of some sunken tobacco barges.
Despite the tragic outcome of the battle of Fredericksburg, a previously planned banquet to receive new colors for the New York regiments was held in a Fredericksburg theater. The Irish colors (the regiments carried no state flags) had been donated by an appreciative citizens’ committee of native Americans. About 300 officers, including twenty-two generals, attended the “Irish wake.” The bereaved Meagher made an unfortunate reference to political generals” (after all, he was one himself) in a speech which was held against this Democrat in his later efforts to gain permission to recruit his brigade.
It was, incidentally, at Fredericksburg that the 69th thought they had lost their national standard. The next day the color-sergeant was found dead, sitting up against a tree with this hands clasped upon his chest. Further examination revealed the Stars and Stripes wrapped around his body. The regiment and the Irish Brigade could still maintain their claim to Appomattox that they had never lost a flag.
After Fredericksburg the contending forces settled down in winter quarters. As usual, the Irish Brigade believed it incumbent upon them to enliven things a bit. The day chosen was, naturally, St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. As was customary, the day began with church services. Shortly afterwards about 30,000 gathered to watch the “Grand Irish Brigade Steeple-Chase.” General Hooker, the new army commander, was given wine with which he proposed “The Irish Brigade–God bless them!” which was followed by three resounding cheers. After two races Meagher invited his guests to partake of sandwiches, wine, and spiced whiskey punch. The main feast of thirty-five hams, a side of roasted ox, roasted pig stuffed with boiled turkey, chickens, ducks, and small game, washed down by eight baskets of champagne, ten gallons of rum, and twenty-two gallons of whisky would come later, just before the evening’s theatricals and excitations. Nor were the enlisted men forgotten. Their events included a half-mile run, half-mile hurdles, weight throw, greased-pig contest (winner got the victim), sack race, blindfolded wheelbarrow race, and Irish dance contests. At one point Meagher chased onlookers from beneath the grandstand with the exhortation that they stood in danger of being crushed “by four tones of major generals.”
There was also a good deal of plotting being carried on within the Irish units of the army. Logically it centered in the Irish Brigade. Many of the men were members of the Fenian Brotherhood and thus were dedicated to the overthrow of the British in Ireland. Doctor Reynolds, the surgeon of the 63d New York, was Head Center of the Army of the Potomac Fenian Circle. Meetings were held regularly on the first Sunday of every month in the brigade’s hospital tent. Contributions were sent to the Head Center of the Brotherhood in New York.
Despite the heavy losses, the men of the brigade always tried to maintain friendly relations with the enemy pickets. Sugar, coffee, whisky, and tobacco were freely bartered. In one instance some brigade pickets gave their Confederate counterparts a gift of several “captured sheep.”
Then in the Chancellorsville Campaign the brigade helped round up the XI Corps fugitives after Stonewall Jackson’s famous flank attack, and on May 3 it marched from Scott’s Mills to near the Chancellor House to support the 5th Marine Battery, dragging it off when its gunners were rendered hors de combat.
Meagher by now however, had made himself unpopular with the other high-ranking officers in the army by his constant political speeches and activities. It was also generally believed that he regarded the brigade more as an independent symbol of Irish glory than an effective unit of the army. Consequently, his request to recruit replacements was refused, and instead it was proposed to abolish the brigade by distributing its units among other commands. Highly indignant at this proposal, Meagher resigned his commission May 14, 1863 and went home in disgust. His resignation was accepted. However, he was re-commissioned, commanded the District of Etowah, but again resigned in early 1865.
The reduced brigade was then led into battle at Gettysburg by Colonel Kelly. By this time the three New York regiments had been formed in battalions of two companies each, while the 116th Pennsylvania was one battalion of four companies. During the famous Confederate charge of July 3, one thought kept recurring to the commanding officer of the 116th. “It was Fredericksburg reversed.” A more profound thought, perhaps, occurred to a private when he was informed his regiment would be held in reserve. “In resarve, yis,” he muttered, “resarved for the heavy fightin’.”
There was more “heavy fightin'” and “heavy marchin’,”ahead for the brigade. In the withdrawal from Cedar Run it fought two major engagements and marched seventy-six miles in fifty-six hours, capturing two stands of colors, five guns, and 450 prisoners.
Then on May 3, 1864 the Irish Brigade moved out of its winter encampment with ten field officers. Within six weeks six of these would be dead and the other four seriously wounded. Its losses were so great that it finally disappeared into the so-called Consolidated Brigade (2d and 3d Brigades joined together). But as II Corps historian Walker later wrote, “The Irish Brigade…was to the close of the war one of the most picturesque features of the Second Corps, whether in fight, on the march or in camp.”
John F. McCormack, Jr., is assistant professor of history and government at the Community College of Delaware County, Pa. He is a member of several historical societies and has written radio programs dealing with U.S. history. As a reading list he suggests the following: Michael Cavanaugh, Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher; David Powers Conyngham, The Irish Brigade and is Campaigns; Thomas F. Galwey, The Valiant Hours; and Francis A. Walker, History of the Second Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac.