One of these militia units was the 69th New York State Militia (NYSM). Self-equipped and dressed in the sharpest uniforms of the day, the 69th was an entirely Irish regiment. In addition to providing a pleasant diversion, it was also hoped that participation in units like the 69th would go a long way to improving the standing of Irish-Americans in the larger community of New York. Then, in the summer of 1859, the future King of England arrived on a tour. Naturally, the State of New York planned a parade in which all the varied units of the New York State Militia were ordered to participate.
History has not recorded the name of the genius that had the bright idea to parade between 500 to 800 armed Irish expatriates in front of the Prince of Wales. It was, all things considered, probably a good thing for Anglo-Saxon relations over the next hundred years that the commander of the 69th NYSM, Colonel Michael Corcoran, so hated the English that he refused the order and chose to be arrested rather than allow the 69th to march that afternoon. One can only imagine what the fallout, both in the United States and in Ireland, might have been should one of the 69th’s muskets “accidentally” gone off and hit His Royal Highness. Still, the men of the 69th were none too pleased with the subsequent arrest of their colonel. This might have led to larger problems were it not for the start of the largest “problem” of all, the American Civil War.
THE CIVIL WAR was America’s bloodiest conflict. Some 620,000 men died while in service during the four-year war. By comparison only around 25,000 died in the eight years of the American Revolutionary War. Regional factionalism and the issue of slavery tore the nation apart so thoroughly that it could only be brought together again through the force of arms. It was, by any measure, a national tragedy. Yet it carried within it the seeds of legend.
By late 1861 it was widely recognized among the nascent political leaders of the Irish-American community that one sure route to social acceptance in their adopted nation was through military service. Some saw the presence of Irish immigrants upon the fields of battle in the developing war as a method to display the ancient concept of “Civic Virtue.” Accordingly, and despite their initial political opposition to the Republican administration of Lincoln, Irish America threw its full weight into the war. The most visible result of this was The Irish Brigade, which became the most famous unit in the Union Army of the Potomac, and arguably one of the most celebrated units in all American history.
The history of the Irish Brigade is tied inextricably to the story of their first and most celebrated commander, Colonel, later Brigadier General, Thomas Francis Meagher. Depending upon the sources one relies upon, Meagher was variously an inspired leader, a hopeless drunk, a patriotic American, an ardent Irish nationalist, a closet Fenian, or an inveterate politician. The complex reality was that he was, at various times and under different circumstances, all of these things.
Born in Waterford, Ireland in 1823, Thomas Francis Meagher was certainly an ardent supporter of the idea of Irish nationalism. As the son of a wealthy merchant, he got a solid 19th-century education. While studying law in Dublin, he became a member of the “Young Ireland” movement. This splinter group of the Irish Brotherhood movement advocated the use of whatever means necessary, including violent opposition, to achieve independence from Britain. Meagher, as well as several other leaders of the movement, participated in the rebellion conspiracy of 1848. Caught and initially sentenced to death, Meagher was lucky enough to have his sentence reduced to exile. His deportation to Tasmania was a relatively congenial confinement, so much so that he was able to arrange for his “escape” in quite an open manner. He landed in the United States in 1852 and immediately began to maneuver his way into positions of influence in the developing political machinery of the Irish-American community.
When the Civil War broke out, Meagher immediately raised a company of infantrymen (of which he was naturally elected Captain). This separate company of men, known as Meagher’s Zouaves, are the second strand in the founding of the Irish Brigade. (A Zouave was a special type of French military unit known for a uniform consisting of short blue jackets, a fez, and red pantaloons. This style of uniform was considered the very height of military chic in 1861 and only self-styled “elite” units wore this type of clothing.) Meagher’s Zouaves joined the 69th NYSM as “Company K” in the very first major battle of the Civil War, at Bull Run Creek in Northern Virginia in the summer of 1861. Although the battle was an abysmal defeat for the Union troops, the Irish of the 69th did fairly well that afternoon, and Meagher got the idea that if one regiment of Irishmen could do well, a brigade of them (made up of three to five regiments) could do much better. Thus was born the idea of the “Irish Brigade.”