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The Irish Brigade marched steadily forward behind their three fluttering green silk banners. Equipped solely with smoothbore muskets at a time when most of the rest of both armies had rifles (which allowed for longer-range fire) Meagher’s plan was to close within a literal stone’s throw of the enemy. Knowing that this would entail casualties but trusting to the courage of his men, he hoped to close in and then blast away at a range at which even the smoothbores could not miss. Their approach carried them up a long, slow rise towards a crest in the middle of a farmer’s field.
As the Irish crested the slight ridge in the field, they were met with a fierce blast of musketry. The shattering fire came from a line of Confederate infantry partially protected in a slightly sunken road just beyond the crest of the rise. Rather than fall back or retreat a step in the face of the withering fire, the Irish stood their ground and traded shot after shot at point-blank range with the Alabamans to their front. Second by second, minute by minute, the casualties piled up. Accounts from survivors talk of the battle rage that came upon some men to the degree that when they ran out of bullets they began throwing rocks at the enemy. Anything to inflict pain on the men that were dealing the Brigade such punishment. At the end of the fighting on this part of the line, almost two hours later, the Irish Brigade marched away, leaving some 550 sons of Erin prone upon the fields. The sunken farm path where their opponents lay stacked in heaps has been known ever since as simply “Bloody Lane.”
The Battle of Antietam so damaged the Brigade that two more regiments, the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania, also mostly Irish, joined the Brigade before the next engagement that December.
At Fredericksburg, Virginia the situation was, if at all possible, even worse.
Just three months later, on the 13th of December, 1862, the Union Army once again attacked the Confederates under the command of Robert E. Lee. This time Lee was not scattered and scrambling to reassemble his far-flung divisions, he was dug-in and waiting for the Union assault. The Army of the Potomac, under the dubious command of General Ambrose Burnside (the man we have to thank for the word “sideburns”) obliged Lee with a series of frontal assaults against the southern fortifications on a ridge just south of Fredericksburg known as Marye’s Heights.
The Confederates had placed artillery, almost wheel-hub to wheel-hub, all along the heights. At the base of the hill, in yet another semi-sunken road, stood resolute Confederate infantry. Tragically, some of these men were also Irish immigrants whose path to the New World had brought them to the South. To approach this formidable position the Union infantry had to cross some 600 yards of open fields, a heartbreaking task. Even at the time the soldiers hoped that a frontal attack would not be needed, that by some measure of generalship Lee might be outmaneuvered elsewhere and forced to abandon this strong position. Such was not to be.
In preparation for the fight, Meagher, now a Brigadier General, ordered the men of the Irish Brigade to place sprigs of boxwood in their caps as a symbol of the Brigade. The Brigade would march forward under a single green banner, that of the 28th Massachusetts, since those of the three New York regiments had been so torn by bullets at Antietam that Meagher had ordered them sent to New York to be repaired. No one doubted that if an attack were to come it would be a tough one indeed.
In defiance of common military sense and, some might say, a sense of decency, General Burnside hurled no less than six major and eleven minor attacks against the impregnable Confederate emplacements. All of them lethal, all of them dismal failures. Once again the Irish walked forward into a veritable sleet of lead and fire. Motivated by pride and ego, they marched into a sleet of shrapnel and bullets that had already turned back unit after unit that day. They marched in their straight lines, standing tall behind the banner of Erin, until they reached a point about twenty yards from the Confederate infantry positions, and there they stayed and slugged it out. The unit was shredded. They had advanced further than any other Union unit had that day, and further than any would. Although tens of thousands would try, no other Union unit made it that far, and thus none could relieve the pressure on the Irishmen. They became the double victims of their own bravery. Only the setting sun would save those that lived.
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.