The Irish Brigade during the Civil War.
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“Blaze Away and Stand It, Boys!”
WHEN SPEAKING of the Irish Brigade two battles always come up—Fredericksburg and Gettysburg—although for different reasons. In December 1862, Fredericksburg, Virginia, was an attractive town of wood-frame and red-brick houses built on a gentle incline that sloped down to the Rappahannock River. During the last weeks of November and the first weeks of December General Robert E. Lee, with 75,000 men, had occupied the high ground, carefully putting his men and his artillery into place. The Army of the Potomac, 120,000 men strong, led by General Ambrose Burnside, was massed on the other side of the Rappahannock. A rumor went around the camp of the Irish Brigade that Burnside planned to have them assault the ridges above Fredericksburg. One anxious Irish private sought out Father Corby. “Father,” the young man said, “they are going to lead us in front of those guns which we have seen them placing, unhindered, for the past three weeks.” “Do not trouble yourself,” the priest replied, “your generals know better than that.”
Father Corby overestimated the generals. On December 13, 1862, Burnside put into effect a plan as simple as it was suicidal: he would send his divisions charging up the hills, charging into point-blank cannon and musket fire. One of the hills Burnside wanted captured was Marye’s Heights, named for the Marye family, whose handsome plantation house stood at the summit. General James Longstreet was in command of the Heights; in addition to artillery batteries at the top, he had sent regiments of Georgia and South Carolina infantry to defend the stone wall that ran along the base of the hill. To assault Marye’s Heights, the Union troops would have to fight their way over the stone wall first.
Within two or three hours on the afternoon of December 13, Longstreet’s men had driven back and nearly destroyed two Union brigades (of about 1,500 men each) and two Union divisions (of about 12,000 men each); then the Irish Brigade were ordered into the fight. The nearly all-Irish 24th Georgia Infantry was defending the stone wall. “What a pity!” one of the Georgian Irish cried. “Here comes Meagher’s fellows.” As the Union Irish Brigade advanced, a roar of Irish Confederate musket fire tore through their ranks. Major James Cavanaugh rallied the Irish, “Blaze away and stand it, boys!” he cried. Cavanaugh got within 50 yards of the stone wall before he went down with a bullet through his thigh. An exploding shell crippled Color Sergeant William H. Tyrrell. No longer able to stand, he went down on his one good knee, gripping the regimental colors until five musket balls struck him and he toppled over, dead.
The Irish made assault after assault into the withering fire. After the battle, Confederate general George Pickett wrote to his fiancée, “Your soldier’s heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their deaths. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. We forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”
In five hours the Union lost 7,000 men at Marye’s Heights; Longstreet lost 1,700 defending it. Of the 1,200 men of the Irish Brigade who assaulted Marye’s Heights, 545 were killed, wounded, or missing—in other words, the Irish lost almost 50 percent of their strength. Years later, Father Corby was still bitter about the waste of life at Marye’s Heights: “[T]he place into which Meagher’s brigade was sent was simply a slaughter pen with absolutely no protection for our ranks.… Needless to say, our brigade was cut to pieces.”
Absolution Under Fire
AT GETTYSBURG, the Irish Brigade was down to approximately 530 men. At noon on July 2, 1863, the order came to prepare for battle. As the men looked to their gear, Father William Corby climbed on top of a rock and called for the men’s attention. They were about to go into battle, there was no time for him to hear the confession of every man of the brigade individually, he explained, but in such an emergency the Catholic Church permitted a priest to grant general absolution. He instructed them to recall their sins, beg God’s pardon, and recite silently the Act of Contrition, just as they would if they were in a confessional. Then Father Corby drew from a pocket of his black frock coat a violet stole. As he draped it around his neck, the men of the Irish Brigade—Catholics and non-Catholics alike—removed their caps and knelt on the grass. Raising his right hand he made the sign of the cross over the brigade as he recited the words of absolution: “May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you, and I, by His authority, absolve you from every bond of excommunication and interdict, insofar as it lies within my power and you require; therefore, I absolve you from your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
A member of the Irish Brigade, Colonel St. Clair Mulholland of the 116th Pennsylvania, would write later that while granting general absolution to soldiers who were about to go into battle was common in the Catholic countries of Europe, this was the first time it had ever occurred in the United States. Among the kneeling men, Mulholland recalled, “there was a profound silence…yet over to the left, out by the Peach Orchard and Little Round Top…the roar of battle rose and swelled and re-echoed through the woods.”
This act of Father Corby became one of the most memorable moments of the war for the men of the Irish Brigade, and for their comrades who witnessed it—among them General George Meade. It has become an iconic moment, immortalized by Paul Wood’s painting Absolution Under Fire, part of the art collection of the University of Notre Dame; featured in the 1993 film Gettysburg; and commemorated in the life-size bronze sculpture of Father Corby that stands on the exact spot where he granted the Irish Brigade general absolution.
Why They Fought
THE IRISH BRIGADE did not survive the war. On July 4, 1865, the brigade marched through Manhattan in a tumultuous, triumphal parade where cheering crowds lined the streets. The next day, the Irish Brigade was dissolved.
It lived on to an extent in the 69th New York Regiment, the all-Irish regiment that had been the core of the brigade. In 1917, as the United States prepared to enter World War I, the 69th called for volunteers: according to the regiment’s Catholic chaplain, Father Francis Duffy, of the 2,002 men who enlisted in the 69th, 95 percent were Irish Catholics. Among the new recruits was the poet Joyce Kilmer. In 1941, when the 69th prepared to enter World War II, Irish Catholics still comprised 70 percent of the regiment—and among them was Christopher Kilmer, the poet’s son.
In 1861 the Irish knew that most of their Yankee neighbors despised them. So why did they fight? They fought because they recognized that there were opportunities in the United States that did not exist in Ireland. They could send their children to public or parochial schools. They could practice their Catholic faith freely. Once they became citizens they could vote. Families able to set aside a little money could send their sons to a Catholic college such as Georgetown outside Washington, D.C., or Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. That the son of a tenant farmer could acquire a college education and enter one of the professions such as medicine or the law had been inconceivable in the Old Country. In spite of the bigotry and violence of the Nativists, the Irish recognized that America promised freedom unknown in Europe and opportunities unimaginable in Ireland—and the men of the Irish Brigade were willing to fight to defend those opportunities and preserve that freedom.
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