Abraham Lincoln once kissed the Irish flag according to an officer present when the president visited George McClellan’s army at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia during the Civil War.
The Irish brigade had fought so bravely that an officer reported the president picked up a corner of one of the Irish colors, kissed it and said, “God Bless the Irish Flag.”
The incident is reported in The New York Times in the Opinionator column on the American Civil War by historian Terry L. Jones, author of six books on the civil war.
Writing in The Times, Jones says that 140,000 Irish served on the side of the union, spread across 20 regiments. They fought so bravely, especially theIrish Brigade, that when General Edwin Sumner prepared for battle he would ask, “Where are my green flags?” and that he once swore that “if the Irishmen ever ran from the field he would have to run as well.”
Jones recounts how before every major battle Father William Corby, later President of Notre Dame, would ride down the ranks of the brigade and give every man absolution. The motto on the flags of the Irish Brigade stated in Gaelic: “Who never retreated from the clash of spears” and the battle cry was “Fag an Bhealach,” “Clear the Way”
Jones says the Irish Brigade’s bravery at Fredericksburg was unsurpassed.
He quotes The London Times correspondent William H. Russell (himself Irish-born) who wrote, “Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, or at Waterloo was more undaunted courage displayed by the sons of Erin than during those six frantic dashes which they directed against the almost impregnable positions of their foe.”
Lee was said to have said, “Ah yes. That fighting 69th,” when he heard who was fighting so bravely on the other side. As a result, the “Fighting 69th” nickname stuck.
As a testament to their courage, 11 Irish were awarded the Medal of Honor for outstanding bravery in the U.S. Civil War.