At Fredericksburg the Irish proved they could be Americans

If asked most Irish-Americans would probably point to the day John Kennedy was elected President as the day that that they knew the Irish had 'arrived'. But what about the day that Irish-Americans first glimpsed the possibility of acceptance and respectability in America?

I'm sure some of you might argue otherwise, but for me that day was December 13, 1862. On that day the Irish Brigade marched up hill into a storm of bullets and shells in what was an effort to break the Confederate troops dug in behind a stone wall on Mayre's Heights on the hills outside Fredericksburg, VA.

The Irish weren't the only Union troops to die valiantly, but futilely, that day, but the ability of those Irishmen to do their duty, to march into what they knew could likely be death, to persevere and endure what they did for their new country did not go unnoticed. After the battle the northern press was full of stories about the exploits of the Irish, of their gallant charge.

The Irish had performed well in many earlier engagements, especially at Antietam, but Fredericksburg was different because they surely guessed that defeat and death were all that was on offer that day. As they began their ascent up the hill they could see the dead and wounded of two other brigades that had already been smashed against the Confederate defenses. And again it wasn't that the Irish Brigade necessarily did better than any other Union units, but they certainly didn't do any worse or achieve any less. This despite the fact that the brigade had not recovered after the slaughter at Antietam and was the most understrength brigade sent into action that day.

That day - December 13, 1862 - the Irish proved themselves to be as committed to the cause of the United States as any other troops in the Union Army. They were Americans.

Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee said, "Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry on that desperate occasion." Lee's subordinate, General Pickett was also impressed: "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."

Even the Times of London was inspired by the Irish at Fredericksburg: "Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, or at Waterloo, was more undaunted courage displayed by the sons of Erin."

All of that explains why while I was in Washington a few weeks ago I went on a detour 50 miles south to see the Battlefield myself (I also went to Spotsylvania & to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine nearby.) Most surprising was how little of the battlefield is actually preserved. It's not at all like Gettysburg, which looks untouched since the 1860s. The city of Fredericksburg has eaten into most of Mayre's Heights, although the stone wall and "sunken road" are still there. {A very knowledgeable, friendly young female park ranger explained why so little was left: Fredericksburg was a massive Union defeat and there was little interest in preserving anything about the site of the defeat in the years after the war. It was 70s years later before any move was made by the Federal Government to save some of the battlefield.)

Despite that I'm glad I went. Although the field the Unions soldiers, including the Irish Brigade, marched over is now a suburban neighborhood, you can still get a sense of how daunting the uphill attack would have been. The incline is still steep and the stone wall has been rebuilt, providing a glimpse into how impossible the task of dislodging the entrenched rebels must have seemed.

The adjoining cemetery is full of the simplest little - often unnamed - headstones you'll ever see. A name and a state is the most you get on nearly all of them. The visitor's center houses a small collection of artifacts, including Irish Brigade commander General Thomas Francis Meagher's sword, which I believe is only temporarily on loan to the site.

Well worth the visit if you're in the area and a place of pilgrimage if you're a devotee of Irish-American history.

(You can find lots about the Irish at Fredericksburg at TheWildGeese.com.)

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