Irish American actor Martin Sheen commented in an interview published in Irish America that he loves his Irish heritage in part because the Irish have never planted their flag on the soil of another nation. He loves the Irish because Ireland has always exported poets and artists and clergy, but not armies. He is proud that Ireland has never invaded anyone.

Yes….well. Though his beliefs may be correct in a technical sense, just about nothing could be further from the historical reality. While it may be true that in the past 1,000 years the various political entities that made up Ireland never invaded another nation, during that same period Ireland’s number one export has been soldiers. So many soldiers, in fact, that not one but several nations can reckon in their own military heritage entire units made up exclusively of Irishmen. The students at the University of Notre Dame are not known as the “Fighting Irish” due to a well-known Irish predilection for passivity. It should come as no surprise then to learn that one of the most celebrated, decorated, and famous units in all of American military history was a brigade known during the American Civil War as simply “The Irish Brigade.”

The Civil War was a uniquely American tragedy. It is not just hyperbole when historians and pundits alike make reference to the war that pitted “brother against brother.” America tore herself apart and was only stitched back together again with a heavy thread soaked in the blood of an entire generation. It is no wonder then that the war continues to fascinate Americans even to this day. It was, and for some still is, a war of great passions. Regardless of one’s sentiments about the causes and conduct of the war, certain names still ring down through the halls of time, carrying with them the echoes of heroism almost beyond comprehension. Names like Lee and Grant are instantly familiar to Americans, and for those with even a passing knowledge of history, units such as the famous “Iron Brigade” of the Union Army and the “Stonewall Brigade” of the Confederate still strike a chord. Yet even among this pantheon of heroes and heroic units. the name, legend and history of one group of men stands out: the “Irish Brigade” of the Union Army.

To understand the Irish Brigade one must look back before the war. As most people know, Irish immigration to the United States took off in the 1840’s, in response to the potato blight and famine in Ireland. Between 1846 and 1854, more than one million Irish emigrated to the United States. Most Irish Americans are also aware that upon arrival here the majority of Irish immigrants met with something considerably less than an enthusiastic welcoming committee. Anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Irish sentiment ran high in some areas of the United States, particularly among a splinter political group called the “Know-Nothings.” (The name came from their standard response when questioned about the membership or activities of their secretive political party.) One by-product of this blatant hostility was, ironically, the solidification of the unique identity of the Irish-American community. Pushed together in the slums of mid-19th century cities like New York and Boston, the Irish responded by welding together a new political identity and working towards acceptance through the development of political power. At the same time, the majority of the “average” Irish-Americans stuck in the cities tried to blend in with American society in other ways.

One obvious route to cultural assimilation is imitation. In the mid-1850s, one of the most curious trends to sweep America was the “Rage Militaire.” This was a civilian fascination with all things military. The Rage manifested itself in ladies’ fashions and social titles, but most especially in the veritable horde of social-club-turned-militia-unit organizations that sprang up across the country. In New York and Philadelphia, from Cleveland to Boston, men joined these “militia” units not with the expectation of true military service, but for the camaraderie and pageantry. They equipped themselves in the finest uniforms (of their own design) with the best rifles, muskets and bayonets, and practiced week in and week out on the fancy “evolutions” (formations and movements) of the tactics of that day.

The best of these units, some having as many as a thousand men, actually went on multi-city tours displaying their ability to march and parade in intricate formations. Drill and ceremony competitions between these units took place in giant jamborees that brought together thousands of men to march and compete for bragging rights. When visiting dignitaries arrived on American soil and a parade was required, the various state militias stepped up to fill the gap left by the fact that there really wasn’t much of a “regular” army in the nation.

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.”

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.

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.

The 28th Massachusetts, for example, lost 158 men. This represents about 38% of the 416 who followed their colors up the bloody slope that winter day. The butcher’s bill fell with equal weight among all five regiments of the Irish Brigade.  Overall these “Wild Geese” suffered a total of 535 casualties, or two-thirds the strength that they carried into the fight, in the fruitless assault. At dusk, the survivors of the regiment still on the field joined the rest of their comrades in the Irish Brigade in falling back down to the safety of the town of Fredericksburg.

One Union officer, General Edwin Sumner, commander of the II Corps, was riding along the lines the next morning as the units were reforming. Sumner was known as a stern disciplinarian of the Regular Army. At one point he rode up and rebuked a man of the 28th Massachusetts for standing around and not being in company formation with his comrades. Sumner could say nothing when the Irish private looked up at the general on horseback and replied in a thick brogue, “This is all my company sir.”

THE IRISH BRIGADE fairly ceased to exist after their next battle, the largest of the entire War: Gettysburg. Gettysburg is seen by some as the turning point in the war. Gettysburg was Robert E. Lee’s second attempt to carry the fight into the North and increase the pressure on the Union to allow the South to secede. This three-day battle, fought from the First to the Third of July, 1863, is known by many as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy. Whether or not it was a “turning point” can be debated. Certainly never again would the South be able to invade the North, and rarely if ever would the armies of the Confederacy approach the strength they had that summer. One thing, however, was established beyond a doubt: The Union Army could win.

In terms of raw numbers both armies were fairly evenly matched. The Union victory, therefore, was not a sure thing. This was especially true on the second day of the battle. The first day had gone poorly for the Union, with three of their corps badly torn up and thrown back through the town of Gettysburg. Although the first day of the battle was definitely a Confederate win in conventional terms, the second day opened with the Union hanging on to the high ground to the south and east of the town. If they could just hold on through the day, as the Confederates attacked but Union reinforcements continued to arrive, then the momentum might swing in the Union’s favor.

Thus, although the Irish did not arrive until the second day of the battle, their contribution there was critical. This was the situation as the Confederate First Corps under the command of General James Longstreet attacked the Union right.

Union regiment after regiment was fed into the fight piecemeal as they arrived in the area, yet still the Confederates threatened to break through the Union battle lines. If they could, they would turn the battle, and potentially the war, in their favor. Into this chaotic swirling mass of men, material and munitions strode the remnants of the proud Irish Brigade. Decimated by the effects of battle, disease and fatigue they were but a shadow of the force that had stepped off into the attack at Antietam, yet still they stood tall beneath their renewed green banners. During a moment of crisis on the Union right a messenger galloped up and delivered their orders: they were to counterattack across an open wheat field they could see in the distance to their left front.

There were no other units available, all of the others were either already committed or had been thrown back in retreat. At that instant in American history, only the Irish stood between the Confederates and victory.

Knowing that they would be going in alone, without supporting regiments or brigades to their left or right, the men of the Irish Brigade knew full well that the odds were against the majority of them coming out of the battle as whole men, if at all. The Brigade chaplain, none other than Father William Corby (of University of Notre Dame fame), had them kneel and issued a mass absolution right there, just a few hundred yards from the enemy. Then the Irish attacked.

The attack succeeded. It bought the Union army a few desperate minutes to bring in yet more units, but the cost was the heart and the soul of the Irish Brigade. After suffering, once again, close to 50 percent casualties, the “Irish Brigade” would never be the same. Although replacements and supplemental regiments would refill the ranks, the uniquely Irish nature of the Brigade died there on the Wheatfield at Gettysburg.

By the end of the war, more than 950 men of the Brigade had died on the battlefield. Overall, the Irish Brigade saw over 4,000 men killed and wounded; more men than ever belonged to the Brigade at any one time. Yet at the same time they etched a name for themselves in history. With their blood and courage they made a name that was carved so deeply into the American heart that there would never again be a question as to whether the Irish had the right to call themselves…“Americans.”