IRISH BRIGADE

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IRISH BRIGADE : CIVIL WAR

Introduction
 
Many Irish arrived in the United States following the devastating Great Famine (1845-1852), commonly referred to as the Potato Famine, and the majority settled in New York. Eventually, as a result of the cold Northern climate, many Irish relocated to the South because of its milder climate. During the Civil War, two large Irish units, one from the North and the other from the South, would smash into each other during the Battle of Fredericksburg and fight like demons.
 
The most famous New York brigade, and one of the most famous Union brigades of the Civil War, was the Irish Brigade under Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher, which, by coincidence, attacked the area at Fredericksburg defended by fellow Irishmen of Col. Robert McMillan's 24th Georgia Infantry, which was attached to Confederate Brig. Gen. Thomas R. R. Cobb's Legion. One Confederate who spotted the green regimental flags approaching cried out, "Oh God, what a pity! Here comes Meagher's fellows." But McMillan exhorted his troops: "Give it to them now, boys! Now's the time! Give it to them!"
 
While many a good Irish would fall as a result of that bloody battle, including Brig. Gen. Cobb, the Irish Brigade would suffer its greatest loss of the Civil War in that fight -- a staggering 1,300 plus casualties. More than 42,000 Irishmen from the State of New York alone, nevertheless, would serve in the ranks of the Union Army during the four year Civil War. (See also New York Civil War History.)

Irish Brigade
Irish Brigade.gif
2nd Irish Color, 69th NYSV

History
 
The Irish Brigade was an infantry brigade that served in the American Civil War, consisting predominantly of Irish immigrants. The designation of the first regiment in the brigade, the 69th New York Infantry, or the "Fighting 69th", continued in later wars. They were known in part for their famous war cry, the "faugh a ballagh", which is an old Gaelic phrase, fág an bealach, meaning "clear the way".
 
Having displayed an unusual reputation for dash and gallantry, the Irish Brigade was perhaps the best known of any brigade organization. The remarkable precision of its evolutions under fire; its desperate attack on the impregnable wall at Marye's Heights; its never failing promptness on every field; and its long continuous service, made for it a name inseparable from the history of the war. It belonged to the First Division of the Second Corps, and was numbered as the Second Brigade.
 
The brigade suffered its most casualties in December at the Battle of Fredericksburg where its fighting force was reduced from over 1600 to 256.
 
Below are the regiments of the Irish Brigade, collectively, with their respective losses. Irish Brigade casualties in killed and died of wounds (mortally wounded):

63rd New York Infantry 156
69th New York Infantry 259
88th New York Infantry 151
28th Massachusetts Infantry 250
116th Pennsylvania Infantry 145
Civil War Total Losses in Killed and Mortally Wounded 961
 
During the Civil War, the Irish Brigade suffered more than 4,000 men in killed and wounded (mainly from disease); more men than the brigade had ever fielded during any given battle. With the exception of the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts, the regiments were under-strengthened or undersized. Initially they were not recruited to the standard of 1,000 soldiers, but left New York with approximately 800 men per regiment. Attrition further caused the three New York regiments to become so reduced in numbers that, at Gettysburg, they were consolidated into two companies each, while the One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania had been consolidated into four companies.

Irish Brigade History
OFFICIAL Irish Brigade History.jpg
Irish Brigade Facts

The brigade, which was organized in 1861, consisted originally of three New York regiments, which selected numbers corresponding to those of certain famous Irish regiments in the British Army. The One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania and Twenty-eighth Massachusetts were added in the fall of 1862. In addition to the national colors, each of the five regiments carried green flags. While on the Peninsular and Antietam campaigns, the Twenty-ninth Massachusetts was attached to the brigade, but after Antietam it was detached and replaced by the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts. In September 1864, the remnant of the Seventh New York Heavy Artillery was added; but it was detached in February 1865, and the Fourth New York Heavy Artillery assumed its position. In July 1864, the One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania was transferred to the Fourth Brigade. The Irish Brigade was composed, substantially, as stated, and, each of the regiments having reenlisted, its service was continuous and unbroken. It was commanded, in turn, by General Thomas Francis Meagher, Colonel Patrick Kelly (killed), General Thos. A. Smyth (killed), Colonel Richard Byrnes (killed), and General Robert Nugent.
 
The brigade suffered its most severe casualties in December at the Battle of Fredericksburg where its fighting force was reduced from over 1600 to 256. The brigade was involved in the northern battleground at Fredericksburg where they assaulted the sunken road in front of Marye's Heights. Coincidentally, one of the regiments manning the sunken road defenses was a predominantly Irish Regiment commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb. Knowing that Cobb's men manned the wall, and that both Cobb's and Meagher's units contained members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to gaining military experience in the United States, then freeing Ireland from Britain after the Civil War, Lee ordered reserves sent to the position. He need not have worried. Cobb's men helped devastate the Irish Brigade before the reinforcements could settle in place. It was at Fredericksburg that Lee allegedly referred to Meagher's regiment as the "Fighting 69th". Later, the unit was known as the "Fighting Irish."
 

After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Gen. Meagher again requested to recruit the brigade back to strength. This time the request was denied. In May 1863, the brigade sustained further casualties at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Meagher reiterated his request to recruit replacements, but again was denied. Meagher resigned his commission in protest and was replaced by Col. Patrick Kelly.

 

Prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, the brigade recovered several hundred of its injured at Fredericksburg and was able to field nearly 600 men. At Gettysburg, the brigade distinguished itself in the Wheatfield under the command of Col. Kelly as the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division (Brigadier General John C. Caldwell) of the II Corps (Major General Winfield S. Hancock). The brigade was later honored with a monument on the Loop on the Gettysburg Battlefield.

 

While continuing to serve with distinction, casualties continued to increase and by June 1864 the Irish Brigade had been reduced to regimental size, and its commander, Richard Byrne, had been killed. The US Army disbanded the Irish Brigade and incorporated the remaining elements of the brigade into the 3rd and 4th Brigades of the 1st Division, II Corps.

 

A Second Irish Brigade was reformed from the old Irish Brigade of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York, 116th Pennsylvania, and 28th Massachusetts Regiments as well as the addition of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery (later replaced by the 4th New York Heavy Artillery in early 1865). See also Irish Brigade: A History.

New York Excelsior Brigade
New York Excelsior Brigade.jpg
The famous Excelsior Brigade

The Excelsior Brigade was another famous Civil War brigade from New York that was led by controversial Gen. Daniel Sickles, a former U.S. Congressman from New York City. Sickles was controversial for his actions at Gettysburg as well as, prior to the war, his successful insanity plea in the 1859 murder of Philip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key. Regarding the murder, Sickles was acquitted with the first use of temporary insanity as a legal defense in U.S. history. See also New York Civil War History and Iron Brigade.
 
 

(Sources and related reading listed below.)

Recommended Reading: My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry. Description: William McCarter was a twenty-one year old Irish immigrant when he enlisted in the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry in August 1862. The unit soon became part of the Second Brigade, First Division, Second Corps, Army of the Potomac— better known as the fabled Irish Brigade. And Carter's memoirs, “My Life in the Irish Brigade,” has the distinction of being the first full-length memoir published by an enlisted man in the famed Irish Brigade. Continued below…

McCarter's account covers the brigade from the Seven Days Battles in which it made its battlefield reputation, to its assault against the Bloody Lane at Antietam, to the charge up Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg where McCarter was gravely wounded and forced to leave the army. Because he was detailed as the personal scribe to General Thomas F. Meagher, commander of the Irish Brigade, McCarter was able to meet and judge the famous generals of the Union Army such as Ambrose Burnside and Winfield Scott Hancock. Kevin E. O'Brien, who has written widely on the Irish Brigade, edits the volume, and, in addition to his Endnotes, he has included several interesting items in the Appendixes, such as the poem "The Irish Dead on Fredericksburg Heights," which was printed in the "Irish-American" in 1863. McCarter's recollections are quite engaging, and his description of the Brigade's actions at the fateful battle of Fredericksburg, where the vast majority of its 1,200 men were killed or wounded, is the best part of the book. If you have more than a passing familiarity with the history of the Irish Brigade, this is an excellent book to give you a unique and fascinating perspective on their glory days during the Civil War. It is also one of the better written memoirs, by enlisted man or general, that you will find.

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Related Reading:
 

Recommended Reading: The Irish Volunteer: Songs Of The Irish Union Soldier 1861-1865. Review: This is an unusual endeavor. Kincaid has collected lyrics written by or about Irish soldiers in the Union army of the American Civil War, and either recreated the music from notes or written new music in the tradition of the times. The words of the songs express love lost and missed, pride in the military prowess of the Irish soldiers, and the despair of war. Kincaid has made a simple musical accompaniment for these songs, using familiar Irish instruments such as uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes), bodhran (Irish goatskin drum), mandolin, and whistle. Continued below...
He sets the songs to ballads and jigs--some traditional, others original tunes that hint at tradition, but all timely and appropriate for the lyrics. He also pens one original tune of his own about a fictional Irish American captain who dies in battle--stirring, but not as direct as the old songs. This is an ambitious project, well-conceived and capable of making a lesser-known part of American history more immediate.
 
Recommended Reading: The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher (Hardcover). Description: Irish patriot, Civil War general, frontier governor--Thomas Francis Meagher played key roles in three major historical arenas. Today he is hailed as a hero by some, condemned as a drunkard by others. Paul R. Wylie now offers a definitive biography of this nineteenth-century figure who has long remained an enigma. The Irish General brings this multi-talented but seriously flawed individual to life, offering a balanced picture of the man and a captivating reading experience.
 

Recommended Reading: The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns (Irish in the Civil War) (Hardcover) (616 pages). Description: Few brigades of the Civil War can boast of a record as distinguished as that of New York’s 69th, yet it has never fully received the attention warranted by its record of military excellence, distinctive reputation, and the unusual perspective its members brought to the Civil War. Continued below…

In fact, the 69th was engaged in nearly every major action of the eastern theater; its military reputation was well deserved and its combat casualties, which are some of the highest of the war, are testimony to the soldiers’ collective bravery and patriotism. In his post as war correspondent for the New York Herald, Capt. David Power Conygham was required to be an eyewitness to the many battles on which he reported – some of the experiences he would later describe when writing the history of the Irish Brigade. Conygham’s account of the Irish Brigade is one of the best – filled with vivid accounts of battle, wit and humor, and an appendix of scrupulously gathered biographical data on the men who served the unit.

 

Recommended Reading: Irish Brigade In The Civil War: The 69th New York And Other Irish Regiments Of The Army Of The Potomac. Description: The unveiling of the Irish Brigade Memorial at Antietam this year focuses attention on one of the most colorful units of the American Civil War. Despite its distinguished record and key role in the war, no detailed history of the brigade has been written in 130 years. Made up largely of New York Irishmen, the Brigade made a decisive contribution to the Union victory at Antietam, suffered fearfully in a gallant charge at Fredericksburg, and made a famous stand in the Wheatfield on the second day at Gettysburg, as depicted in the recent film. Continued below…

The full cooperation of the present-day 69th New York National Guard helped make possible the compilation of this detailed account, which includes 13 period maps and 270 illustrations, many of them rare photos from private collections. The original hardcover limited edition of Bilby's book quickly sold out to re-enactors, veteran and active members of the 69th Regiment, and hard-core Civil War collectors; the Combined Publishing trade paperback is the first edition made available directly to the general public. Joseph G. Bilby is a popular columnist for the Civil War News and a veteran of the current 69th Regiment. He is also the author of Civil War Firearms.

 

Recommended Reading: God Help the Irish!: The History of the Irish Brigade. Description: Contemporary Civil War scholarship has brought to light the important roles certain ethnic groups played during that tumultuous time in our nation’s history. Two new books, focusing on the participation of Irish immigrants in both the Union and Confederate armies, add to this growing area of knowledge. Continued below…

While the famed fighting prowess of the Irish Brigade at Antietam and Gettysburg is well known, in God Help the Irish! historian Phillip T. Tucker emphasizes the lives and experiences of the individual Irish soldiers fighting in the ranks of the Brigade, supplying a better understanding of the Irish Brigade and why it became one of the elite combat units of the Civil War. The axiom that the winners of wars write the histories is especially valid in regard to the story of the Irish who fought for the Confederacy from 1861-1865. Throughout the course of the Civil War, Irish Confederates made invaluable contributions to all aspects of the war effort. Yet, the Irish have largely been the forgotten soldiers of the South. In Irish Confederates: The Civil War’s Forgotten Soldiers, Tucker illuminates these overlooked participants. Together, the two books provide a full picture of the roles Irish soldiers played in the Civil War. About the Author: Phillip Thomas Tucker, winner of the Douglas Southall Freeman Award in 1993, has written fifteen books on Civil War, Irish, and African American history. He is an historian for the United States Air Force in Washington, D.C., and lives in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

 

Recommended Reading: Irish-American Units in the Civil War (Men-at-Arms). Description: Some 150,000 Irish-American immigrants served in the Union Army, most of them from Boston, New York and Chicago, and about 40,000 fought in the Confederate Army. The best known unit was the Irish Brigade of the Union Army of the Potomac, which distinguished itself at Antietam and, particularly, at Fredericksburg, where its sacrificial bravery astonished friend and foe alike. Continued below…

Famous regiments were New York's 'Fighting 69th', the 9th Massachusetts, 116th Pennsylvania, 23rd Illinois and 35th Indiana. Two Louisiana Confederate brigades from New Orleans were almost entirely Irish and several other Irish companies made a name for themselves at Shiloh, Chickamauga and other key battles. This book will give a brief overview of the history of the units on each side of the conflict and will be illustrated with uniform details, flags and archival photographs. About the Author: Thomas G. Rodgers is an Alabama University history graduate and librarian, and prolific contributor to the Company of Military Historians publications on American Civil War units. The author lives in Eufaula, Alabama.

 

Recommended Reading: Irish Americans in the Confederate Army, by Sean Michael O'Brien [ILLUSTRATED] (Hardcover). Description: In 1861, Americans on both sides flooded to enlist for what all thought would be a short and glorious war. Anxious to prove their loyalty to their new homeland, thousands of America's Irish immigrant population were among those who hurried to join the fight on both sides. While the efforts of the Union's legendary Irish Brigade are well documented, little has been said regarding the role Irish American soldiers played for the Confederacy. Continued below…

This comprehensive history explores the Irish contribution to the Confederate military effort throughout the four major combat theatres of the Civil War. Beginning with an overview of Irish Americans in the South, the book looks at the Irish immigrant experience and the character of the typical Irish Confederate soldier, detailing the ways in which Irish communities supported the Southern war effort. The main focus is the military actions in which Irish American soldiers were present in significant or influential numbers. With a combat death rate disproportionate to their numbers, the 40,000 Irish who served in the Confederate army played significant roles in the Army of Northern Virginia, the Army of Tennessee, the hotly disputed coastal areas and the Mississippi and Trans-Mississippi campaigns. Most major battles of the war are discussed including Manassas, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Murfreesboro and Appomattox. Appendices contain a list of various Irish commands and field commanders in the Confederate Army.

Sources: The Union Army, vol. 2; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Fox, William F. Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (1889); Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (1908); Samito, Christian G., Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil war Era, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8014-4846-1.

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