The Irish Brigade: Heroes of The Civil War
As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of The Civil War, Matthew Brennan remembers the shining role of The Irish Brigade.
As the sun dropped below the horizon that afternoon, it cast eerie shadows across what looked like a blue carpet. A total of some 9,000 Union soldiers lay as casualties on the battlefield at Fredericksburg. In the center of the field, lying the absolute closest of all to the entrenched Confederate positions, were long lines of Union dead with green sprigs of boxwood in their hats.
The 28th Massachusetts, for example, lost 158 men. This represents about 38% of the 416 who followed their colors up the bloody slope that winter day. The butcher’s bill fell with equal weight among all five regiments of the Irish Brigade. Overall these “Wild Geese” suffered a total of 535 casualties, or two-thirds the strength that they carried into the fight, in the fruitless assault. At dusk, the survivors of the regiment still on the field joined the rest of their comrades in the Irish Brigade in falling back down to the safety of the town of Fredericksburg.
One Union officer, General Edwin Sumner, commander of the II Corps, was riding along the lines the next morning as the units were reforming. Sumner was known as a stern disciplinarian of the Regular Army. At one point he rode up and rebuked a man of the 28th Massachusetts for standing around and not being in company formation with his comrades. Sumner could say nothing when the Irish private looked up at the general on horseback and replied in a thick brogue, “This is all my company sir.”
THE IRISH BRIGADE fairly ceased to exist after their next battle, the largest of the entire War: Gettysburg. Gettysburg is seen by some as the turning point in the war. Gettysburg was Robert E. Lee’s second attempt to carry the fight into the North and increase the pressure on the Union to allow the South to secede. This three-day battle, fought from the First to the Third of July, 1863, is known by many as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy. Whether or not it was a “turning point” can be debated. Certainly never again would the South be able to invade the North, and rarely if ever would the armies of the Confederacy approach the strength they had that summer. One thing, however, was established beyond a doubt: The Union Army could win.
In terms of raw numbers both armies were fairly evenly matched. The Union victory, therefore, was not a sure thing. This was especially true on the second day of the battle. The first day had gone poorly for the Union, with three of their corps badly torn up and thrown back through the town of Gettysburg. Although the first day of the battle was definitely a Confederate win in conventional terms, the second day opened with the Union hanging on to the high ground to the south and east of the town. If they could just hold on through the day, as the Confederates attacked but Union reinforcements continued to arrive, then the momentum might swing in the Union’s favor.
Thus, although the Irish did not arrive until the second day of the battle, their contribution there was critical. This was the situation as the Confederate First Corps under the command of General James Longstreet attacked the Union right.
Union regiment after regiment was fed into the fight piecemeal as they arrived in the area, yet still the Confederates threatened to break through the Union battle lines. If they could, they would turn the battle, and potentially the war, in their favor. Into this chaotic swirling mass of men, material and munitions strode the remnants of the proud Irish Brigade. Decimated by the effects of battle, disease and fatigue they were but a shadow of the force that had stepped off into the attack at Antietam, yet still they stood tall beneath their renewed green banners. During a moment of crisis on the Union right a messenger galloped up and delivered their orders: they were to counterattack across an open wheat field they could see in the distance to their left front.
There were no other units available, all of the others were either already committed or had been thrown back in retreat. At that instant in American history, only the Irish stood between the Confederates and victory.
Knowing that they would be going in alone, without supporting regiments or brigades to their left or right, the men of the Irish Brigade knew full well that the odds were against the majority of them coming out of the battle as whole men, if at all. The Brigade chaplain, none other than Father William Corby (of University of Notre Dame fame), had them kneel and issued a mass absolution right there, just a few hundred yards from the enemy. Then the Irish attacked.
The attack succeeded. It bought the Union army a few desperate minutes to bring in yet more units, but the cost was the heart and the soul of the Irish Brigade. After suffering, once again, close to 50 percent casualties, the “Irish Brigade” would never be the same. Although replacements and supplemental regiments would refill the ranks, the uniquely Irish nature of the Brigade died there on the Wheatfield at Gettysburg.
By the end of the war, more than 950 men of the Brigade had died on the battlefield. Overall, the Irish Brigade saw over 4,000 men killed and wounded; more men than ever belonged to the Brigade at any one time. Yet at the same time they etched a name for themselves in history. With their blood and courage they made a name that was carved so deeply into the American heart that there would never again be a question as to whether the Irish had the right to call themselves…“Americans.”
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