The Irish Brigade
Perhaps, the most famous all-ethnic unit in both armies was the Irish Brigade. Formed in September 1861 after the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run to the Union) it initially included the 69th New York, the 63rd New York, the 88th New York and the 29th Massachusetts. The first three regiments were all-Irish regiments while the 29th had been assigned to the brigade in lieu of the 28th Massachusetts, an all-Irish regiment that had not been completely trained as yet.
The 69th New York was originally the 69th New York State Militia. It was commanded by Colonel Michael Corcoran who had led the unit from 1859. In December 1860 Corcoran refused to parade his regiment in a parade that honored the Prince of Wales because of Britain’s conduct during the Potato Famine. Corcoran was removed from command and a court-martial was ordered.
Once the war began any thought of a court-martial was forgotten and Corcoran was reinstated. He took his unit to Virginia where they were in a brigade commanded by Col. William T. Sherman. At the First Battle of Manassas the 69th New York was one of the rear-guard units that saved the Union Army from complete destruction. Corcoran and some of his men were captured. He was held in a Confederate prison for over a year until exchanged in August 1862.
Meanwhile, Captain Thomas Francis Meagher of Company K proposed the formation of an all Irish unit to the War Department. Federal authorities were reluctant to form an all-ethnic unit because it went against the idea of the Union. However they saw some benefits to an all-Irish brigade. The first benefit was that it was warning to Britain that recognizing the Confederacy could have consequences in the form of trained Irish soldiers. Secondly, the authorities saw it as an opportunity to show Irish-Catholic immigrants that they were valuable to the Union.
His proposal was accepted in September 1861 and Meagher proceeded to create such a unit. Initially, the brigade included the three New York regiments named above. Each regiment was allowed to include Catholic chaplains, the first such instance of paid Catholic chaplains in U.S. Army history. It signaled the government’s acceptance of Catholics into American society. The chief chaplain was Fr. William Corby, CSC who later was the president of University of Notre Dame. At Gettysburg he was to become famous for giving the troops general absolution.
Meagher was promoted to brigadier general on February 3, 1862. The brigade was designated as the 2nd Brigade of Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner’s Division. They were part of the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac commanded by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. In May 1862, the 4,000 man brigade marched up the Virginia Peninsula, taking part in the battles of Savage’s Station, Glendale and Malvern Hill.
When a part of the army was transferred to northern Virginia to join John Pope’s Army of Virginia, the brigade remained at Harrison’s Landing. After Pope’s disastrous defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas, Lee took his Army of Northern Virginia north into Maryland. McClellan was ordered to pursue the Confederates and his army met them at Sharpsburg on the banks of Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862.
The Irish Brigade was to begin to earn its legendary status at the Sunken Road in the center of the Confederate line. It was here that the Irish Brigade led by Meagher , their green flags snapping in the breeze advanced against the Confederates who were in the Sunken Road. Fr. Corby rode back and forth giving conditional absolution to the men. The frontal assault cost the brigade 540 casualties but it allowed the 350 men of the 61st New York and the 64th New York led by Col. Francis Barlow to flank the Confederate line and enfilade it. The Confederates were routed and only McClellan’s lack of aggression saved the day for the Southern army. The Sunken Road is known today as Bloody Lane.
After Antietam the brigade moved back to Virginia where McClellan was relieved for not following the Confederates more aggressively. He was replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. The brigade saw the exchange of the 29th Massachusetts with the all-Irish 28th Massachusetts. The 116th Pennsylvania, another all-Irish regiment was added to the roster.
The Washington authorities pushed Burnside to advance on the Confederate capital of Richmond. His first objective was the town of Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. In order to take Fredericksburg the Union Army would need to build pontoon bridges to cross the river. This slowed the Union advance and allowed the Confederates to prepare their defenses.
The Confederates had a large force on Marye’s Heights to the west of the town where they could observe all of the movements of the enemy. They had entrenched units behind a four-foot high stone wall at the base of the hill. The wall was protected in places by log breastworks and abatis. The Union forces had a very narrow axis of advance.
Part of the problem was a canal that ran perpendicular to the axis of advance that the Union troops had to cross on narrow bridges. Once they were on the other side they could form up behind a shallow bluff but they became exposed to enemy musket volleys at about 125 yards. Some soldiers were able to get as close as 40 yards. All the while they were under constant artillery bombardment. Lt. Col. Edward Porter Alexander told his commander Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, “General, we cover that ground now so well that we will comb it as with a fine-tooth comb. A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
The Irish Brigade which had started the battle with 1,600 men made a series of futile charges against a position that held by Thomas Cobb’s Georgia Brigade. One of the regiments that they faced was that of fellow Irishmen of Col. Robert McMillan’s 24th Georgia Infantry who recognized the green flags of their fellow Irishmen. When the battle was through the brigade had about 256 men left.
After Fredericksburg Meagher made a request to recruit more men but for some reason his request was denied. They sustained further casualties at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 and when Meagher was request to recruit more men was denied he resigned.They had started the Peninsula Campaign with 4,000 men but now they had barely enough for a regiment.
Meagher was replaced by Colonel Patrick Kelly of the 88th New York. Kelly was to lead the brigade through the Battle of Gettysburg where they were engaged at the Wheatfield On July 2, 1863. The brigade lost 198 of 532 troops engaged, around 37%.
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 killed. The US Army disbanded it 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).
The “Fighting 69th” continued to serve in the U.S Army through World War I, World War II and in Iraq. It is one of a handful of Civil War regiments that still exist today.