Leading Irish historians have called on the Irish government to commemorate the “Forgotten Irish” who fought in the American Civil War, an estimated 170,000 soldiers in all.
The vast majority, about 140,000 of them, enlisted in the Union army and played a significant role in the battle to stop disunion and end slavery. The Irish were awarded 11 medals of honor.
The historians have written to Irish Arts Minister Heather Humphreys stating that the role of US Irish soldiers has been overshadowed by events set up to commemorate the First World War Irish and the Easter 1916 rebels.
They are suggesting a 150-year commemoration, a major conference, an appropriate memorial and that historical sites in Ireland connected to the US Civil War be acknowledged.
Among the historical sites was suggested the home place of General Thomas Francis Meagher, founder of the Irish Brigade and a Waterford native, whose brigade fought valiantly in many of the key battles of the war.
The heroic role of the Irish has never been disputed. Abraham Lincoln once kissed an Irish battle 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 was 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 said that 140,000 Irish served on the side of the union, spread across 20 regiments.
“They fought so bravely, especially the Irish 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 along 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 US Civil War.
The historians are led by Prof David Gleeson, professor of American history at Northumbria University, an expert on the Irish role on the confederate side and Damian Shiels, the author of "The Irish in the American Civil War."
They write: “We feel that in the constitutional charge to ‘cherish the diaspora,’ you also have a great opportunity to do something, even though on a smaller scale, really significant around a seminal event in the history of the United States, the Irish diaspora and Ireland itself.”
“Irish from all over Ireland and from all religious traditions participated in the war and therefore, this commemoration will have cross-Border elements. It will also create closer bonds between the Irish in America and their ancestral homeland.”