On December 13, 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac began a series of futile and bloody frontal assaults against the Confederate positions at the base of Marye’s Heights. Some of the Irishmen who took part in the attacks wore blue and some wore grey and therein lies on of the saddest stories of the Civil War.
The avenue of approach was difficult, mostly open fields, but interrupted by scattered houses, fences, and gardens that would restrict the movement of battle lines. A canal stood about 200 yards west of the town, crossed by three narrow bridges, which would require the Union troops to funnel themselves into columns before proceeding.
About 600 yards to the west of Fredericksburg was the low ridge known as Marye’s Heights, rising 40–50 feet above the plain. Although popularly known as Marye’s Heights, the ridge was composed of several hills separated by ravines, from north to south: Taylor’s Hill, Stansbury Hill, Marye’s Hill, and Willis Hill.
Near the crest of the portion of the ridge comprising Marye’s Hill and Willis Hill, a narrow lane in a slight cut—the Telegraph Road, known after the battle as the Sunken Road—was protected by a 4-foot stone wall, enhanced in places with log breastworks and abatis, making it a perfect infantry defensive position.
Initially, Confederate General Lafayette McLaws had about 2,000 men on the front line. Beyond the crest of the hill there was an additional 7,000 soldiers in reserve. Massed artillery had a clear field of fire of the open ground below the hill. General James Longstreet’s 27-year old artillery commander, Lt. Col. Edward Porter Alexander, told his commander: “A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
The initial assaults were made by Brig. Gen. William H. French‘s division of the II Corps. Each of this three brigades advanced and were repulsed with severe casualty rates. Brig. Gen. Nathan Kimball‘s brigade began to move around noon. Some of his men got to within 40 yards of the stone wall before they were turned back with Kimball’s severe wounding and 25% casualties for the brigade. French’s brigades under Col. John W. Andrews and Col. Oliver H. Palmer followed, with casualty rates of almost 50%.
Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s division was then given the order to assault this near-impregnable position. His first brigade commanded by Col. Samuel K. Zook was repulsed with a similar casualty rate. Next up was the Irish Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher.
The Irish Brigade was composed of the 63rd New York Infantry, the 69th New York Infantry, the 88th New York Infantry and the 28th Massachusetts Infantry regiment. All of these regiments were made up of most Irish immigrants. The Irish Brigade was known in part for its famous war cry, the “faugh a ballagh”, which is an anglicization of the Irish phrase, fág an bealach, meaning “clear the way”.
Parts of the brigade (the 69th New York) had been at First Bull Run under the command of Col. William T. Sherman. They were one of the few regiments to retain their cohesion even after the capture of their commander, Col. Michael Corcoran. The 69th served as the Army of the Potomac’s rear guard during the disorganized retreat to the defenses of Washington.
After the disaster at Bull Run (or Manassas) Meagher asked for the formation of a brigade with the 69th at its core. His request was granted and Meagher was commissioned as a brigadier general to lead the new brigade.
Before the war, he was a leading agitator for Irish independence from Britain. A visible participant in the failed Rebellion of 1848, he was afterward tried and sentenced to death (commuted to life imprisonment in Australia, but he escaped to San Francisco CA).
The formation of an all-Irish brigade was a warning to Great Britain that any interference in the American Civil War would have consequences to Britain’s rule in Ireland. It also solidified the Union cause among the growing Irish Catholic population of the North. They were allowed to bring their own paid chaplains along with them. The most famous chaplain was was Fr. William Corby a Holy Cross priest and future president of the University of Notre Dame. (His statue, both at Notre Dame and Gettysburg, with him giving absolution will be forever known as ‘Fair Catch’ Corby.)
The brigade had served in the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign at the Battle of Fair Oaks, at Gaines Mill, Savages Station and Malvern Hill during the Seven Days Battles and at the Battle of Antietam they assaulted the Sunken Road.
To say that the Irish Brigade had seen a considerable amount of fighting would be an understatement. But this day would be their bloodiest day of the war to date. Opposing the advance of the 1,600-man strong Irish Brigade was a predominantly Irish Regiment commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb.
By coincidence, they attacked the area defended by fellow Irishmen of Col. Robert McMillan’s 24th Georgia Infantry. One Confederate who spotted the green regimental flags approaching cried out, “Oh God, what a pity! Here comes Meagher’s fellows.” But McMillan exhorted his troops: “Give it to them now, boys! Now’s the time! Give it to them!”
Knowing that Cobb’s Irishmen manned the wall, Lee ordered reserves sent to the position. He need not have worried. Cobb’s men helped devastate the Irish Brigade before the reinforcements could settle in place. It was at Fredericksburg that Lee allegedly referred to Meagher’s regiment as the “Fighting 69th”.
The brigade suffered horrendous casualties. The once 1,600 men were whittled down to a mere 256, although several hundred wounded returned to duty by the Battle of Gettysburg in June. Denied the ability to recruit replacements after Chancellorsville, Meagher resigned in protest. The brigade never recovered its strength and was eventually disbanded.
Today the “Fighting 69th” will march up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade as it has done for decades. A unit of the New York National Guard, they still wear the green shamrock on their helmets. The unit has served with distinction in World War I, World War II, Iraq and Afghanistan. Among its many distinguished members have been William Joseph (“Wild Bill”) Donovan who was later to form the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA and the poet Joyce Kilmer.