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Remembering Ireland and Fighting for the Union

The Irish Brigade during the Civil War.

By From the July/August 2011 issue

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Civil war historians and enthusiasts will argue over the greatest Confederate general, or whether Mary Todd Lincoln was certifiable or just a bit quirky. But when it comes to naming the greatest Union fighting outfit, most will agree it was the Irish Brigade. Comprised of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York Infantry Regiments, and eventually the 116th Pennsylvania and the 28th Massachusetts, the Irish Brigade fought in every major battle of the eastern theater of the war, from Bull Run to Appomattox. And they lost more casualties than any other brigade—approximately 4,000. Their courage in battle, sometimes bordering on recklessness, won them the admiration of their Southern foes and made Abraham Lincoln express the wish that he had two or three more Irish Brigades.

Yet in the months leading up to the Civil War, it was an open question whether Irish immigrants in the North would fight for the Union. Everyone from parish priests to the publishers of Irish newspapers was urging the Irish to sit out the war. And they had their reasons. America had not been terribly welcoming to Irish Catholic immigrants. Beginning in the 1830s, when immigration from Ireland became pretty steady, a considerable portion of native-born Protestant Americans came to regard the Irish as a threat. The anti-Irish faction became even more alarmed when, between 1847 and 1851, approximately 848,000 Irish arrived in New York City—163,000 of them in 1851 alone. Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, joined with prominent New Yorkers to found the Native American Democratic Association, a political organization dedicated to restricting immigration from Ireland, requiring a 21-year waiting period before immigrants could become American citizens, and barring from political office anyone who “recognizes any allegiance or obligation of any description to any foreign prince, potentate or power”—in other words, no political office for anyone who recognized the spiritual authority of the pope.

By the 1850s, the Nativists, or Know-Nothings, as they were called (because members were instructed that when asked about the party’s secret activities they should reply, “I know nothing”), were a well-organized political movement. Their candidates were elected mayors of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. They dominated state politics in all the New England states, as well as in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and California. But they did not limit themselves to politics—in cities and towns from Bath, Maine, to Galveston, Texas, Nativist mobs destroyed Catholic churches and institutions and burned down the homes of American Catholics.

A few weeks before the first shot was fired on Fort Sumter, the editors of the New York Times, the leading Republican newspaper in the city at the time, published an editorial linking Catholicism—“popery,” they called it—with slavery as two institutions “incompatible with the spirit of the age, and liberty and civilization.” The editors went on to say that they looked forward to the “speedy destruction” of both.

Anti-Irish, anti-Catholic bigotry was not the only issue. Most of the Irish, especially the Famine Irish, had never done any kind of work but tenant farming. Yet when they arrived in America, the overwhelming majority settled in cities. With no marketable skills, the Irish supported themselves by doing the heavy, dangerous, menial jobs few native-born Americans wanted. The men and boys dug the canals, laid the railroad tracks, and loaded and unloaded cargo on the docks; the women and girls worked as servants or in factories and mills. At the time, the Irish were almost the lowest-paid workers in the United States; the only group that was paid less were free blacks. And that is what worried the Irish: if the Union won the war and Lincoln freed the slaves, they would be competing for jobs with 4 million newly freed men and women who would work for even lower wages than they did.

Two Rebels and an Archbishop

THREE IRISHMEN convinced their fellow immigrants to fight for the Union. John Hughes, archbishop of New York, had been a tenant farmer in the Old Country and a ditchdigger in Maryland until Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton helped him gain admission to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary. Hughes saw the war as an opportunity for the Irish to display their courage as well as their devotion to their new homeland.

More influential among the Irish than the archbishop was Colonel Michael Corcoran, commander of the all-Irish militia regiment, the 69th New York. In fall 1860 Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), came to New York—the first visit to America by a member of the British royal family. To honor the prince the city organized a grand military parade. Corcoran refused to lead out the men of the 69th. Corcoran wrote to his superior officer, “I could not in good conscience order out a regiment composed of Irish-born citizens to parade in honor of a sovereign under whose reign Ireland was made a desert and her sons forced into exile.” Corcoran’s refusal made him the darling of Irish immigrants all across the country, but it also earned him a court-martial. His case was still being heard when war broke out. After Corcoran called upon all healthy Irish men to enlist, the charges against him were quashed.

The birth of the Irish Brigade was the brainchild of Captain Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced “Mar”). In 1848 Meagher attempted to raise a rebel army to drive the English from Ireland. His revolution flopped; Meagher was found guilty of treason and sentenced to exile for life in Tasmania. He escaped to New York where the Irish welcomed him as a national hero. At the Battle of Bull Run in May 1861, Meagher had witnessed the courage of the Irish of the 69th New York, who had covered the retreat of the Union Army; they were among the last Union troops to leave the battlefield, and unlike so many of their comrades who were throwing away their equipment and sprinting up the road to Washington, D.C., the 69th retired in good order. It occurred to Meagher that more Irish would enlist if they knew they could serve with fellow Irishmen, under Corcoran and Meagher, with the guarantee of a Catholic chaplain. In September 1861 Meagher published a broadside calling for Irish recruits, “intelligent, active, steady young men—men of decent character, and with a proper sense of the duties and dangers of the service.” Thousands turned out, and from these Meagher selected 3,000. The Irish Brigade was born.

The brigade’s flag, or colors, was a banner of emerald green silk with a golden harp in the center, a golden sunburst above it, and a spray of golden shamrocks below. Running beneath the harp and shamrocks was a scroll bearing the motto in Gaelic, “Riambh nar druid o sbairn lann,” or “They shall not retreat from the clash of spears.” The brigade was also assigned a chaplain, a 28-year-old Holy Cross Father, William Corby, who came from a little Catholic college in South Bend, Indiana, called Notre Dame.

Some of the officers and enlisted men in the Irish Brigade had military experience, most either from service in the British army or with the Battalion of St. Patrick, which had fought in Italy for Pope Pius IX against Giuseppe Garibaldi. There were also Fenians in the ranks, Irish nationalists who looked upon America’s Civil War as excellent training for a future war to liberate Ireland from English rule. But most of the men of the Irish Brigade were laborers—strong, tough, combative, short on the social niceties, but courageous, and as it turned out, utterly dependable in battle.

First Blood

THE 69th NEW YORK, the regiment around which Meagher built his Irish Brigade, had fought at Bull Run. The full brigade got its first taste of battle in 1862, during General George B. McClellan’s abortive Peninsula Campaign. On July 1, as evening was falling over Malvern Hill, the Irish took their position at the summit. As Confederate forces surged up the slope, the Irish fired volley after volley into their ranks, reloading and firing again so quickly that their guns became too hot to the touch and had to be discarded; they took up fresh weapons from the dead and the wounded.

The Confederates fell back and regrouped for a final charge. In spite of the withering Union fire, some of the Confederates did reach the Union lines. Now the fighting was hand-to-hand, as the men used their muskets as clubs and their bayonets as daggers. Finally, when darkness fell, the Confederates gave up the fight. McClellan had a victory, but all around the summit of Malvern Hill lay dead and dying Irishmen. At Malvern Hill the brigade lost 188 men.

Among the heroes of Malvern Hill was 17-year-old Private Peter Rafferty of the 69th New York. He was struck in the thigh, but refused to leave the field and kept fighting. He was hit twice more—one bullet shattered his jaw, and another sliced through his tongue. Even so, Rafferty continued to fight. He was taken prisoner by the Confederates and confined in the Libby Prison in Richmond. The city was inundated with wounded—doctors had no time to spare for prisoners of war. After days of lying in the prison untreated, Rafferty was nursed at last by the Sisters of Charity, who had left their convent to tend the neglected men. After 65 days in prison, Rafferty was released as part of a prisoner exchange. For his bravery at Malvern Hill, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

“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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About the Author
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of "Our Sunday Visitor’s Patron Saints," and of the forthcoming "St. Peter’s Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found, and Then Lost and Found Again."