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The Greatest Brigade: How the Irish Brigade Cleared the Way to Victory in the American Civil War

Thomas J. Craughwell; Fair Winds Press

Thomas Craughwell has already written several books on the lives of the saints. With The Greatest Brigade, it seems he has published another one—a paean to the Irish immigrants who fought for their adopted homeland.

The title gives it all away. This spirited hagiography marches through the battles fought by the Army of the Potomac’s justly renowned Irish Brigade at quickstep pace. Each chapter reads like an episode of a History Channel documentary (not surprisingly, Craughwell has written scripts for some of those, too). In addition to crafting a competent narrative of the brigade’s campaigns, he interjects numerous pithy anecdotes. Some are relevant, others seemingly thrown in to illustrate his breadth of knowledge.

Craughwell tends to be long on description but short on analysis. For example, he deals with the dramatic change in Irish-American support for the war after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in just two short sentences. Then it’s back to heroism, sacrifice and faith, where all the officers were noble and all the soldiers above average. Craughwell acknowledges that the brigade consisted of regiments other than the storied 69th New York Infantry, but you have to read carefully to find out anything about the exploits of the 63rd and 88th New York, 29th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania. For readers who still lift an occasional jar to the memory of “the plow and the stars,” this is a must-read. For anyone seeking a comprehensive understanding of how the war utterly changed the lives of all Irish Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, a more balanced, nuanced account would be helpful.


Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.