Forgive me for – again – referencing a movie in this blog series, but Gods and Generals drew my attention to one aspect of the battle – and the whole war for that matter. The Irish. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, there was some general animosity felt toward the Irish, as well as the Germans. Something we’re all experiencing now in the 21st century is the opposition to immigration of certain nationalities. The country hasn’t changed much. Americans didn’t appreciate the flood of Irish and German immigrants into the country. Many felt they would take jobs that rightfully belonged to Americans and taint their culture. Shops and factories would hang signs upon their establishments saying, “No Irish Need Apply”. Backing much of this anti-immigrant sentiment was the political party known as the “Know Nothing” party.
However, just as we see today, many immigrants came to America in the early 19th century to seek better lives for themselves. Irish, specifically, were fleeing from the devastating potato famines in their own country which starved their population. The Irish only wanted a safe place to call home and raise their families. The going wasn’t easy, but there are countless people today who can trace their lineage back to these brave immigrants who defied the odds that were stacked against them.
This was all before the Civil War. When the call came for volunteers, the Irish and the Germans were quick to form companies and regiments to fight for the country they believed in. Irish brigades popped up across the Union and the Confederacy, though the northern regiments receive the most attention from historians these days.
One infamous band of Irishmen from the north was within Couch’s II Corps, First Division at the battle of Fredericksburg. This division included three brigades, one of which was led by Brigadier General Thomas Meagher. Many are aware of the 69th New York Infantry as being Irish, but they fought alongside the 63rd and 88th New York as well. One new regiment to their brigade was the 116th Pennsylvania, which was made up of troops who suspiciously had very “Dutch” sounding surnames, but were nonetheless as Irish as the rest of them. The second, the 28th Massachusetts, had been traded after the battle at Antietam when the 29th Massachusetts decided they no longer wanted to be associated with the “Sons of Erin” and requested to be assigned with the IX Corps instead. Much to Meagher’s satisfaction, the 116th green troops, though they didn’t have a green flag like the other Irish regiments, carried with them smoothbore muskets that they weren’t shy to use in target practice. Same with the 28th Massachusetts, who sported Enfield rifle muskets, the first for the brigade.
The south wasn’t lacking in Irish volunteers. While the north enlisted over 150,000 Irish citizens, the south received around 30,000 Sons of Erin into their regiments from eight of the eleven rebel states. Just to name a few from Georgia are the Irish Volunteer Militia, Irish Volunteer Guards of the 8th Georgia Infantry, Irish Jasper Greens of Savannah, Montgomery Guards, Montgomery Sharpshooters of the 61st Georgia Infantry, Montgomery Volunteers, Telfair Irish Greys in the 25th Georgia Infantry, and finally the 24th Georgia Infantry which was predominately Irish. Of this last regiment were troops from Hall, White, Gwinnett, Towns, Banks, and Elbert counties. They came from across the state, from big towns, little farms, and the rural backcountry of Georgia. They formed in the summer of 1861 and took for its commander, Colonel Robert Emmett McMillan, so named after the famous Irish rebel and patriot. He also had been elected to the Georgia state legislature, though he was a native of County Antrim in Ireland. His two sons would follow him into the regiment. His eldest was Major Robert Emmett McMillan Jr., and a younger son, Garnett McMillan, became captain of a company. Together, the three McMillan commanders were hardened veterans within the Army of the Potomac, surviving through the worst days of fighting thus far at Seven Days and Sharpsburg. Now, they found themselves under the leadership of Brigadier General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb at Fredericksburg, waiting for the arrival of Burnside’s army.
The Union Irish Brigade set out from Harper’s Ferry on November 2nd, but soon encountered problems within their ranks within a couple of days. The news of McClellan’s extraction from the army sent so many officers into an uproar that a surge of resignation requests flooded back to Meagher. The brigadier general refused every single one, of course, and reminded his officers that they were serving their country and government, not their most beloved general. The II Corps and IX Corps were the first to arrive in Falmouth. The delay of the pontoon bridges caused many to think that there would be no more fighting for the rest of the year. Those of the Irish Brigade set up winter quarters, constructing log cabins and fires inside to keep warm. Likewise, in preparation for another year of hard fighting, all the New York regiments turned in their tattered flags on December 2nd to be repaired and replaced by new banners. Ironically, these new flags would be a gift from the native born New Yorkers of the “Know Nothing” party who were so outspoken against the Irish. That was before they heard of the Irish’s bravery in combat, especially at Bloody Lane that past September.
Cobb’s 24th Georgia Infantry weren’t the only Irishmen on the Confederate side. Within the Washington Artillery that guarded the summit of Maryes Heights were several Irish cannoneers from New Orleans. This isn’t all too surprising, considering that New Orleans was a melting pot of nationalities long before the Civil War. New Orleans was an ideal place for immigration because of its heavy Catholic influences, thanks to the French. Those seeking a refuge from religious persecution came to the Crescent City and later dispersed throughout the state. Many regiments coming out of Louisiana boasted Irish immigrants, including the 6th Louisiana, which boasted over half of its muster roll as Irish. Some of the enlisted within the Washington Artillery were P. Leahy, J.L. Matthews, and J. McCormack.
Meagher’s Irish Brigade were eager for the coming fight, but wouldn’t step foot into Fredericksburg until the morning of December 12th, a full day after their intended crossing. Barksdale’s men slowed the New York engineers who were working to construct the pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock. Regardless, the general reported that his Irishmen “never was in finer spirits and condition”. Though heatedly denied later, reports of those from the Irish Brigade looting the town were voiced by the other officers within the Union Army. Whether it’s true or not, looting did occur within Fredericksburg before the major battle would take place.
The Irish Brigade, though lacking their green flags that marked them in every battle they participated in, refused to go unnoticed. Meagher and his staff distributed sprigs of green boxwood to every man to identify them as the “Fighting Irish” who had become so infamous. Some would stick these sprigs in their hats or on their uniform somewhere. They knew their time would come to make Ireland proud again as they were given orders. Maryes Heights had become an impenetrable fortress crawling with Confederates and artillery guns trained upon the open field the Irish Brigade would charge. This was nothing new to them. They did something similar to the Sunken Road at Antietam where a great number of their men were cut down in the charge. They believed this time would be no different.
All morning, McMillan’s Irish troops fired from their smoothbore rifles upon the charging Union army, taking few casualties and believing their positions nigh impregnable. One casualty they did sustain was that of their Brigadier General Thomas Cobb. An exploding shell from Stafford Heights struck him in the thigh, severing his femoral artery. He would die of his wound later in the day. But with Phillip’s Legion to their left, the 18th Georgia to their right and the backing of North Carolinian regiments behind them, the Confederate Irish never wavered, not even when they spied the next flood of Union troops coming up the hill.
The Right Grand Division under General Sumner was given the task of taking the heights. The II Corps under General Couch had been selected for the first round. Following the assaults made by French of the Third Division, and First Division’s Third Brigade under Brigadier General Zook, Meagher was given the green light to go. The Irish BG was still nursing a knee injury and stayed back from the main charge, but organized his regiments into their attack formation. From left to right: 116th PA, 63rd NY, 28th MA, 88th NY, 69th NY. In the middle, the newly transferred Massachusetts regiment was the only one to carry a green Irish Brigade flag with the golden harp sewn into its silk.
Like the other charges that came before, and the ones that would follow after, the Irish Brigade were nearly slaughtered. The order was given for the troops to advance at the double-quick. The quicker you get in, the quicker you can take the enemy. Shells exploded over their column even before crossing the drainage creek that dissected the field. Artillery cannister fire blew gaps in their ranks. The troops ran into a “fence of upright plank, spaced along timber bars and supported by equidistant posts” about fifty yards from the stone wall that bordered the Telegraph Road along Maryes Heights. This slowed them down considerably, but the Irish Brigade pressed on through the storm of bullets fired by the Confederate Irishmen.
Behind the stone wall, the Irishmen watched the Brigade, almost 1,300 strong, coming up with mixed emotions. They knew their duty. They understood that the ground needed to be held. But to fire into their fellow “countrymen” was unthinkable to some. They didn’t want to, but they had to. Confederates around them would joke and groan, “Here comes that damned green flag again!” and the Georgians would become indignant to the remark. They honored that green flag and what it represented as much as Meagher’s men did. Colonel McMillian, wanting to take advantage of the smoothbore muskets, ordered his men not to fire until the absolute last minute. This made many of his men a little jumpy, as the Brigade came nearer and nearer to their position. Finally, when he judged it was right, McMillan gave the order “Men, if you do shoot, shoot low.”
Out of Meagher’s regiments, there were many casualties. Colonel Nugent leading the 69th NY was badly wounded. Captain John Donovan was knocked unconscious, but staggered and limped his way back behind the lines after the charge failed. First Lieutenant Patrick Callaghan of the 69th fell with four gunshot wounds. Bernard O’Neill of the same rank and regiment was also badly wounded. First Sergeant John Farly of the 116th PA was shot in the head and spread his blood upon First Lieutenant Francis Quinlan, who later made a daring run for his regiments colors that had been dropped near the stone wall. The color bearer who had dropped the flag in the first place had fallen, his leg shattered by a minie ball and then shot five more times before giving up his banner. Lieutenant Thomas O’Brien of the 88th NY was shot through the throat, but miraculously survived. Major James Cavanaugh of the 69th cheered on his boys to “blaze away and stand to it” before he was also badly wounded in the charge. Most of the casualties tapered off as the order was given by the 63rd NY for the men to lay down and fire. The Irish Brigade took refuge in the hollow across the field that shielded them from the Confederate musket fire further up the hill. Some of the soldiers from the 28th MA took shelter in a brick house to the brigade’s right for better cover and took shots at the rebels from there.
One of the cannoneers from the Washington Artillery who had been firing the exploding shells over the Irish Brigade described the scene: “Bearing aloft the green flag with the golden harp of Ireland those brave fellows came within five-and-twenty paces of the stone-wall and encountered such a fire of shot, shell, canister, and musketry as no command was ever known to live through.” A British correspondent who bore witness to the battle said, “Southern Irishmen make excellent ‘Rebs’ and have no sort of scruple in killing as many of their northern brethren as they possibly can.” McMillan’s leadership might have played a part in this unflinching execution of duty. Private E.H. Sutton of the 24th Georgia recalls, “Colonel Robert McMillan was passing up and down the line all the time exposing himself, but making the boys keep down behind the wall and at last a spent ball struck him about the neck. His son, Garnett, saw it and called out, ‘Pa, are you hurt?’ ‘Hit, but not hurt’ came the answer, and stooping down he picked up the ball and placed it in his vest pocket.” I would assume the bullet grazed him or ricocheted off the stone wall for it to have struck him and be retrievable. Either way, his men looked up to him as the embodiment of the very rebel he was named after.
The total losses of the Union Irish Brigade were staggering. Of the 88th NY Company G, 24 of the 32 were shot down. The 69th NY lost 112 of its 173 that were deployed in the assault. The 28th MA, so new and once proud to finally be part of an Irish Brigade, had lost 158 of the men it brought into battle. When all was said and done, only about 40% were safely accounted for out of the five regiments that attempted to take Maryes Heights. One soldier numbered amongst the casualties found himself on the other side of the stone wall. Some rebels had dragged over the man who was riddled with bullets. The Union soldier had almost made it to the wall during the charge and when he was asked which regiment he belonged to, he managed to wheeze out, “69th New York, Meagher’s Brigade.”
The significant losses and boldness of the Irish Brigade were not ignored by the Confederates. Many soldiers, especially those of the 24th Georgia, had taken off their caps and shouted out cheers for the Irishmen and “that damned green flag”. Robert Lee regarded them as “brave men”. One private even leapt up onto the stone wall and waved his cap at the defeated, but honored Irish Brigade. He had to be pulled back down to safety before he was shot at himself. While those who took cover or lay wounded on the field might have interpreted these cheers as gloating over the successful repulse, other soldiers would write home and say how much they admired the courage of the Irish Yankees.
The Irish Brigade would suffer a major morale blow after the battle of Fredericksburg. So many of their friends and comrades had fallen in the charge that they were so sure they could carry out. They felt their sacrifice was for nothing, since no ground had been taken and Burnside ordered his army back across the river days later. Christmas would be a sad occasion for them all. One officer said his brigade was “the most dejected set of Irishmen you ever saw or heard of.” In light of the tragedy of losing so many, Meagher held off on receiving the new flags from their supporters in New York, saying that he didn’t have enough men left to protect them. Despite all of this, Christmas was still celebrated in the Irish camp. In their winter quarters, men from the now veteran band of Pennsylvanians erected a Christmas tree festooned with tin cups, hardtack, and salted pork. Green boughs were woven in the shape of the cláirseach, or Irish harp. Their patriotism and spirit would carry them through these hard times and into a new year of the war.
Nestled on a patch of green at the City Dock Park at the end of Sophia Street is a humble dedication to the Irish Brigade. It was dedicated on December 15th, 1998 by three Civil War reenacting groups who raised the funds to have it made. Five stone posts, each top engraved with the regiment numbers that made up the Irish Brigade, encompass a ground marker that gives the casualty numbers from the fated charge. The grand total came to 553 killed, wounded or missing, from the Irish Brigade. Another inscription pays tribute, reading “To the sons of Erin who put God, country, and duty before self, we must never forget the sacrifices they made for our freedom. Erin go braugh.” This last phrase – roughly translated – means “Ireland Forever”.
Bilby, Joseph G. The Irish Brigade in the Civil War: the 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments of the Army of the Potomac. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Pub., 1998.
Tucker, Phillip Thomas. Irish Confederates: the Civil Wars Forgotten Soldiers. Abilene, TX: McWhiney Foundation Press, McMurry University, 2006.