Thomas Francis Meagher portrait

On February 8, 1862, Major General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, issued Special Orders, No. 38 (AOP) stating that “Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher, volunteer service, will report to Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner, U.S. Army, for assignment by him to the command of a brigade of his division.” Officially designated as the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac, Meagher’s unit soon became known as the Irish Brigade. [Wikimedia Commons]

Irish Brigade Facts

February 8, 1862 - June 25, 1865

Key facts about the American Civil War Irish Brigade.

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Formation Date:

  • February 8, 1862

Dissolution Date:

  • June 25, 1865

Commanders:

  • Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher, Colonel Patrick Kelly, Colonel Richard Byrnes, Colonel Robert Nugent, Colonel John Burke, Major A.J. Lawler, Brigadier General T.A. Smyth, and Colonel R.C. Duryea

Significance:

  • Soon after the Confederate victory at Bull Run, Thomas F. Meagher began lobbying the U.S. War Department to authorize him to raise an all-Irish brigade of volunteers.
  • On August 30, 1861, Thomas F. Meagher received a letter from the War Department informing him that the New York 69th Regiment had been “accepted for three years” service. The letter went on to inform Meagher that “You are further authorized with the colonels of four other regiments to be raised to form a brigade . . . .”
  • On September 10, 1861, New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan informed the War Department that he was on board with Thomas F. Meagher’s proposal to raise an all-Irish brigade.
  • The 63rd New York Infantry, organized on Staten Island, and the 69th and 88th New York Infantries, organized in the Bronx, were mustered into service during November 1861.
  • Despite Meagher’s lack of any military training or experience, the War Department commissioned him as a brigadier general in the U.S. Volunteer Army, effective February 3, 1862.
  • On February 8, 1862, Major General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, issued Special Orders, No. 38 (AOP) stating that “Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher, volunteer service, will report to Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner, U.S. Army, for assignment by him to the command of a brigade of his division.”
  • Officially designated as the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps, of the Army of the Potomac, Thomas F. Meagher’s unit soon became known as the Irish Brigade
  • The Irishmen earned a reputation as tenacious warriors during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign (March 17–August 14, 1862).
  • In June 1862, the War Department boosted the size of the brigade by adding a non-Irish regiment—the 29th Massachusetts.
  • At the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862), bloody hand-to-hand fighting with the Louisiana Tigers, many of whom were also Irish-born, prompted one of the brigade’s soldiers to recall “The boys got in a scrimmage with the Tigers, and when the bloody villains took to their knives, the boys mostly forgot their bayonets, but went to work in the style they were used to, and licked them well, sir.”
  • The Irish Brigade fought in nearly every campaign of the Army of the Potomac during the rebellion.
  • At the Battle of Antietam, the Irish Brigade’s charge against Confederates entrenched along a sunken road, later immortalized as the “Bloody Lane,” produced staggering casualty rates of over fifty percent.
  • On October 10, 1862, the mostly-Irish Pennsylvania 116th Regiment from the Philadelphia area joined the Irish Brigade.
  • On November 23, 1862, the War Department replaced the non-Irish Massachusetts 29th with the all-Irish Massachusetts 28th..
  • The Irish Brigade suffered horribly during the futile assaults on Marye’s Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg..
  • Irish Brigade historian Henry Clay Heisler later declared that Fredericksburg “was not a battle—it was a wholesale slaughter of human beings.”
  • On May 5, 1863, Thomas F. Meagher resigned as commander of “what was once known as the Irish Brigade.”
  • At the Battle of Gettysburg, of the 530 soldiers of the Irish Brigade who marched into battle on July 2, roughly 37% (198) were killed, wounded, or reported missing.
  • Reduced to about 330 soldiers, the Irish Brigade existed only nominally after the Battle of Gettysburg.
  • Faced with a shortage of Irish volunteers, in June 1864, army officials reorganized the 2nd Army Corps, dissolving the Irish Brigade in the process.
  • On November 1, 1864, army officials reshuffled the regiments of the 2nd Army Corps. The New York 69th, 63rd, and 88th were re-designated as the Irish Brigade, and the 28th Massachusetts joined them a week later. Commanded by Colonel Robert Nugent, the revamped brigade also included the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, which was replaced by the 4th New York Heavy Artillery in the early part of 1865.
  • The second iteration of the Irish Brigade served with the Army of the Potomac in the Overland, Petersburg, and Appomattox Campaigns that brought an end to the war in the east.
  • In 1865, the Irish Brigade maintained its separate identity as it marched along Pennsylvania Avenue during the Grand Review in the capital of the nation it helped to preserve.
  • Aside from brief assignments due to illness or absences, four men commanded the Irish Brigade during its four-year existence.
  • Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher led the Irish Brigade from its inception on February 8, 1861, until he resigned on March 5, 1863.
  • Colonel Patrick Kelly commanded the Irish Brigade twice, from May 8, 1863, to January 12, 1864, and again from June 3, 1864, until he was killed during the Battle of Petersburg on June 16, 1864.
  • Colonel Richard Byrnes commanded the Irish Brigade from January 12, 1864, to June 3, 1864, when he was mortally wounded during the Battle of Cold Harbor (Byrnes died nine days later on June 12, 1864).
  • After the Irish Brigade was resurrected following its brief hiatus in 1864, Colonel Robert Nugent commanded it from November 5, 1864, until it was mustered out of service on June 25, 1865.
  • Other officers who temporarily led the Irish Brigade for short intervals of a week or two included Colonel John Burke, Major A.J. Lawler, Brigadier General T.A. Smyth, and Colonel R.C. Duryea.
  • Brigadier General T.A. Smyth was mortally wounded near Farmville, Virginia, on April 7, 1865. He died from his wounds on April 9 (the same day that General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House) making him the last Union general to die during the Civil War.
  • The Irish Brigade suffered the third-highest number of battlefield casualties of any Union brigade during the Civil War.
  • Of the 7,715 men who served in the Irish Brigade, 961 were killed or mortally wounded. Another 3,000 or so suffered non-fatal injuries. The total number of casualties (killed, wounded, missing, or captured) exceeded the peak number of 3,500 soldiers who served in the unit at any one time.
  • Throughout the Civil War, the Irish Brigade consistently lived up to the motto emblazoned on the regimental flag of the 69th New York: “Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn Iann” (They shall never retreat from the charge of lances).
  • In recognition of the indisputable bravery the soldiers of the Irish Brigade demonstrated during the rebellion, Congress awarded eleven of the unit’s members the Medal of Honor.
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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Irish Brigade Facts
  • Coverage February 8, 1862 - June 25, 1865
  • Author
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date December 5, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 17, 2021
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