By Periklis Deligiannis
The Irish Brigade at Gettysburg. A classic artwork by Don Troiani.
The Irish Infantry Brigade of the Federal Army (USA) in the Civil War consisted mainly of Irish immigrants and Americans of Irish descent, Catholics almost entirely. After the Civil War, the 69th Infantry Regiment of New York is considered to be the descendant unit of the Brigade (because its power was decreased because of the losses and the demobilization after the end of the war). Moreover, the 69th Regiment which goes on serving the U.S. Army was the original core of the Brigade. The Irish Brigade became famous for the high aggressiveness of its men and their characteristic Celtic battle cry ‘Fag an bealach!’ (‘Open the way!’, in Gaelic Celtic), typical of its risky missions.
The Celts have always been renowned (already from Antiquity) for their bravery on the battlefield, being elite combatants (warriors and then soldiers) and renown mercenaries. On the other hand, the Celtic soldiers (expect possibly the Highlander Scots) were often considered to be expendable by the Anglo-Saxon political-military leaderships of the U.S. and Britain until the end of World War I. However, the heavy losses suffered generally by the Fed Irish soldiers during the Civil War were not always necessarily due to this mutual antipathy between Anglo-Saxons (‘natives’ as they called themselves) and Celts (usually newcomer immigrants), which in this period often ended in street clashes with several people dead in major American cities of the North like New York, Boston, Philadelphia etc. Their losses in the war were due to a significant extent, to the aforementioned martial reputation of the Celts: they used to undertake a major part of the fighting, thereby they had such heavy losses.
The flag of the 69th Regiment of the Irish Brigade (Union).
In fact, the Irish of the I. Brigade were a small part of the approximately 500,000 Irish immigrants (newcomers and pre-war immigrants who were born in Ireland) who were enrolled in the Union Army during the four years of the war, and played a decisive role in its outcome. This assessment is not excessive, if observed that all the Irish soldiers of the Federation are estimated at approximately 700-800,000 (immigrants and Irish-descent ‘Old Americans’), although this figure is often disputed as inflated. The Irish soldiers of the Union belonged to three groups: Old Americans (who had come to America during the 18th and the first third of the 19th century), ‘oldcomer’ immigrants (who arrived in the years 1834-1861) and newcomer immigrants (who arrived in 1861-1865). It is characteristic that the Irish soldiers of the Union were on their own, only slightly fewer than all the men whom the Confederation managed to enlist throughout the war (800,000). It is well known that the Northerners were trying to crush the practically unbeatable Confederate Army with the unbearable pressure of the numerical weight of their armies.
The ‘ancestor’ of the Irish Brigade was the aforementioned 69th NY Infantry militia Regiment, under the Irish Colonel Corcoran who was facing court martial when the Civil War started. But the charges against him were withdrawn because of the pressing need for sufficient Union military forces. The 69th Regiment joined the Army of the Potomac and fought in the First Battle of Bull Ran (Manassas). After the battle, the Federal military authorities promoted the officer Thomas Francis Meagher to brigadier general and commissioned him on the formation of an Irish Brigade using as a core unit the 69th Infantry Regiment. Meagher was an ardent Irish patriot who had taken part in the Irish rebellion of 1848 against the British, was captured, and been tried and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to exile in Australia but Meagher managed to escape and fled to the U.S., where he enlisted in the army.
… and the other side: Irish Confederate soldiers with their distinctive green flag. Below: a flag of an Irish Confederate unit (Sons of Erin).
The Union aimed at three objectives by the founding of the Irish Brigade in late 1861. The first was to gain the support of the numerous Irish of the North and the South. The Irish used to demonstrate their preference to the Confederacy, because they as well were conducting a political-military struggle for independence of their homeland against the British. Additionally, the heralded by the Union, Liberation of the African slaves resented the Irish, because it would cause mass migration of the liberated Afro-Americans to the industrial cities of the North: this migration would deprive the Irish immigrants of their jobs by offering cheaper labor. The second objective of the Federation was to send a message to the British leaders, who favored as much as they could the Confederation seeking her victory and thereby the final disintegration and weakening of the U.S. Britain could not forgive the ‘mutiny’ of the Americans in 1776-1783 and their ‘secession’ from her Empire. The warning sent to her by the Union with the establishment of the Irish Brigade, was that British support in the Confederation would bring the effective support of the Federation in the Irish national liberation movement. Moreover, many of the soldiers of the Irish Brigade were ‘famous’ anti-British revolutionaries. Finally, the Union aimed to the military support of all the Catholic Americans (including besides the Irish, the Southern Germans, Poles, Frenchmen, French-Canadians and others): the Catholics had been until then under several inequities because of their religious doctrine.
However, the political need for presence of some Protestant soldiers in the Brigade, led the Federal military leadership to integrate into it (in March 1862), the 29th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment whose men were descendants of Puritan Protestants.
The Irish Brigade participated in the battles of the Army of the Potomac, winning military credits particularly in the battles of the Seven Days and Antietam where its attack gave the necessary time to the Union envelopment forces in order to flank the Confederate units. The cost for the Brigade in Antietam was the loss of 60 % of its men. Its soldiers suffered heavy losses in Fredericksburg as well. In this battle, the Irish Brigade which was a part of Hancock’s Division, was the Federal one that gained the greatest credit, not because of its heavy losses as is often and incorrectly presumed, but because its men managed to approach more than any other Northerners the Confederate wall of defense. The Irish Brigade lost in Fredericksburg 540 of its 1,300 men.
General Meagher leads the 69th NY of the Irish Brigade at the Battle of Gaines Mill.
A characteristic incident occurred in Fredericksburg, which embarrassed the Irish of the two belligerent sides. One of the Southern regiments in the Confederate stone wall was composed of mostly Irish. This Irish regiment of Thomas Cobb’s Brigade, faced the onslaught of the Federal Irish Brigade. Many of the rival Celtic soldiers were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a prewar organization founded by Irish from all the U.S., in order to obtain military experience for its members. When they founded it, they did not know that this military experience would be obtained in a civil war. After their military education and training, they would return to Ireland where they would staff the revolutionary army that they intended to create, expelling the British from the island. General Lee was alarmed by the possibility that Cobb’s Irish would not fight their brothers of the Irish Brigade and he immediately sent Protestant reinforcements to their positions in case they refused to fight. But the Confederate Irish did not want to lose Bobby Lee’s trust, and thus were obliged to shoot their brothers, contributing to the decimation of the Irish Brigade.
Thereafter, the Irish Brigade fought in Chancellorsville, in Gettysburg and in the other battles that the Army of the Potomac gave, always gaining military credits and awards and offering a heavy toll in human lives. Its successor and equally famed 69th Infantry Regiment fought in almost all the U.S. wars since 1865 (until the war in Iraq in 2004 onwards) gaining new credits.
(1) Sauers, Richard A.: ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR: A POLITICAL, SOCIAL AND MILITARY HISTORY, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
(2) Wert, Jeffry D.: THE SWORD OF LINCOLN: THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, Simon & Schuster, 2005.
(3) Charles, Roland: AN AMERICAN ILIAD: THE STORY OF THE CIVIL WAR, Lexington, 2002.
(4) Foote, Shelby: THE CIVIL WAR: A NARRATIVE, Random House, New York, 1958.
Mort Kuntsler’s artwork ‘Raise The Colors’ about the Irish Brigade at Antietam.