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From the outset, observers recognized that this brigade would be special. This was an era when whole groups volunteered en masse, and served together with their friends and neighbors. This practice led to the identification of some units not just by region or state, but by occupation as well. At least two units, the 11th New York State Volunteers, and the 72nd Pennsylvania State Volunteers were known unofficially as the “Fire Zouaves.” This nickname came from the fact that both regiments, some 1,000 men each, enlisted from the ranks of the Fire Departments of New York and Philadelphia. Most units, however, retained their special regional distinction. The Irish Brigade, on the other hand, would recruit from up and down the Eastern Seaboard, seeking Irishmen to join the ranks, regardless of the American city in which they resided.
Originally the Irish Brigade consisted of three regiments from New York City, the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York. These units, although they drew heavily on the membership of the earlier 69th New York State Militia, were a separate category of troops known as “State Volunteers.” (The vast majority of all soldiers that fought in the Civil War were in units of this type.) This meant that they served at the discretion of the federal government, not that of the states. On the other hand, they were still allowed to retain some of their individual character, and one way that they did this was through their battle flags.
During the Civil War, leaders used flags to guide the men in the smoke and confusion of battle. Every regiment in the Union Army had two flags, one American flag and one representing the regiment itself. Infantry regimental flags were blue. When they mustered up to strength in New York, all three of the original regiments of the Irish Brigade received fine new regimental standards to guide the units in battle. But there was one thing different about their flags. Rather than the regulation blue of the infantry, all three were brilliant green. Set against these green silk backgrounds were the symbols of an embroidered harp and a clenched fist from which a cloud is shooting lightning. Also inscribed is the motto “Faugh au Ballaghs,” which they translated as “Clear the Way!” As the only units, North or South, that fought under green banners, the Irishmen of the Irish Brigade stood out for miles around.
Later on, other regiments, such as the 116th Pennsylvania from Philadelphia and the 28th Massachusetts from Boston, would join the Brigade as their numbers fell lower and lower due to casualties and disease. They too would fight under green banners given to them by their home cities, but as the battles passed, the regiment’s flavor as a distinctly Irish unit slowly faded. Casualties and tragedies took their toll. At its peak the Brigade mustered some 3,500 men in the ranks. By the end of their service the whole Brigade could barely send forward a tenth of that number. In the process of going from the higher number to the lower they would create a legend in American military history which echoes even today.
OF ALL THE BATTLES fought by the Irish Brigade, three stand out as requiring the greatest willingness to make supreme sacrifice in the cause of liberty: Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.
At Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland in mid-September 1862 the Irish Brigade made their first down payment on immortality.
The Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, was the bloodiest single day in American history. To put this fight into perspective you can compare it to the losses on D-Day in World War Two. During the entire invasion and over the course of the next two weeks, some 24,162 Americans became casualties. In comparison, during the twelve hours of the Battle of Antietam some 26,050 Americans fell on the fields of battle. In the very center of this storm of steel stood the men of the Irish Brigade. On September 17, 1862, the sheer cussedness of these Irishmen catapulted them to international fame, but at a tremendous cost.
Antietam Creek runs north to south and into the Potomac River just north of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. On that afternoon it marked the point at which Confederate General Robert E. Lee planned to invade the Union by way of the Shenandoah, the point at which Cumberland River Valley stopped. As Lee pulled his scattered army together, the Union Army of the Potomac attacked. The attacks started at dawn, at the northern end of the battlefield. By late morning the combatants on that end of the field lay exhausted or dead and the fighting shifted to the center. Finally, towards the end of the day the battle shifted once more to the south. It was against the center of Lee’s lines that Colonel Meagher led the original three regiments of the Irish Brigade at a little after ten thirty in the morning.