Composed mostly of Irishmen from New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, including eleven Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, the Irish Brigade suffered the third-highest number of battlefield casualties of any Union brigade during the Civil War.
When the U.S. Civil War erupted in April 1861, many state militia units offered their service to the federal government to quell the Southern insurrection. Among those was the 69th New York Infantry, an all-Irish regiment mustered into the state’s militia on October 12, 1851. Union officials quickly ordered the 69th, commanded by Colonel Michael Corcoran, to Washington, DC to prepare for an assault on the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. Attached to the 3rd Brigade of the First Division of the Army of Northeastern Virginia, the 69th acquitted itself well at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), serving as the rear-guard for Union forces that stampeded back to Washington near the conclusion of the decisive Confederate victory. During the battle, Rebel troops captured Corcoran. In Corcoran’s absence, the unit’s members elected Captain Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced “mar”) as the regiment’s new colonel.
Thirteen years earlier, British courts found Meagher guilty of treason against the crown and banished him to Tasmania for his role in the failed Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. Meager escaped his island prison and found his way to New York in 1852. There, Meagher became a lawyer and a prominent orator, promoting Ireland’s independence from Great Britain while championing the thousands of Irish who had emigrated to America following the Great Famine (1845-50). When the Civil War began, Meagher encouraged Irish Americans to volunteer for service in the Union army to show their loyalty to their adopted country.
Soon after the Confederate victory at Bull Run, Meagher began lobbying the U.S. War Department to allow him to raise an all-Irish brigade of volunteers. Eager to enlist the support of America’s largest ethnic group, President Abraham Lincoln endorsed the proposal.
On August 30, 1861, 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 informed Meagher that “You are further authorized with the colonels of four other regiments to be raised to form a brigade . . . .” On September 10, New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan informed the War Department that he was on board with Meagher’s proposal.
Meagher immediately went to work raising three regiments of New York Irishmen that would form the nucleus of the Irish Brigade. The 63rd New York Infantry, organized on Staten Island, and the 69th and 88th New York Infantries, organized in the Bronx, mustered into service during November 1861. They headed to Camp California, near Alexandria, Virginia, for training in December.
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. Five days later, 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.
The Irishmen quickly earned a reputation as tenacious warriors during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign (March 17–August 14, 1862). A fierce bayonet charge at the Battle of Fair Oaks (May 31–June 1, 1862) earned McClellan’s praise. A week later, 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.
After gaining the confidence of the army’s high command, the Irish Brigade fought in nearly every campaign of the Army of the Potomac during the rebellion. Three major engagements, however, illustrate the bravery and sacrifice of the Sons of Erin for their adopted country.
Antietam (September 17, 1862)
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. Of the roughly 1,000 officers and men who went into battle that day, 512 were killed or injured. General Meagher’s soldiers had to carry him from the field, unconscious after Rebels shot his horse from beneath him. Although the Irishmen got within thirty yards of their target, they did not drive the Confederates from the Bloody Lane. Still, their spirited (and costly) assault weakened the enemy’s lines, paving the way to the success of the next wave of Bluecoats.
Losing so many soldiers at Antietam caused shake-ups in the brigade’s composition. On October 10, 1862, the mostly Irish Pennsylvania 116th Regiment from the Philadelphia area joined the Irish Brigade. Six weeks later, on November 23, the War Department replaced the non-Irish Massachusetts 29th with the all-Irish Massachusetts 28th—a move that pleased both units.
Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862)
On November 5, 1862, President Lincoln sacked General McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac and named Major General Ambrose E. Burnside to replace him. The change did not sit well with many of McClellan’s soldiers, who mostly adored their commander. Lincoln’s decision would soon prove to be as tragic as it was unpopular for the Irish Brigade.
Eager to prove his merit, Burnside soon hatched an ill-advised plan to attack Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia near Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the banks of the Rappahannock River. Lee had positioned his artillery on a ridge known as Marye’s Heights overlooking the town. A stone wall near the base of the ridge protected his infantry. Lee’s flawless troop placement in front of the open area separating Marye’s Heights from Fredericksburg prompted Confederate artillerist Edward Porter Alexander to exclaim that “a chicken could not live on that field.”
Burnside was unconvinced. On December 13, 1862, the army’s new commander ordered sixteen Federal charges across the exposed field in the face of murderous artillery shelling from above and withering infantry fire from behind the stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights. The result was a bloodbath that prompted Lee to state “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”
The Irish Brigade suffered horribly during the futile assaults. Among the Confederate units stationed behind the stone wall was Colonel Robert McMillan’s Georgia Brigade of Irishmen. As Meagher’s men marched in good order toward their doom, chanting the old Irish cheer “Faugh-a-Ballagh” (Clear the Way), their fellow countrymen cut them down with a blistering sheet of hot lead. Of the roughly 1,315 Irish Federals who started up the hill, 545 were killed or wounded. The 69th New York lost all 16 of its officers. Despite their staggering losses, Meagher’s men advanced farther than any other Union unit that day. Brigade historian Henry Clay Heisler later declared that Burnside’s reckless blunder “was not a battle—it was a wholesale slaughter of human beings.”
Disillusioned by the pointless carnage, Meagher hung on as the brigade’s commander until Major General Joseph Hooker (Burnside’s successor as commander of the Army of the Potomac) sacrificed another 17,000 Union soldiers at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863). On May 5, Meagher resigned as commander of “what was once known as the Irish Brigade.” Army officials named Colonel Patrick Kelly to lead the unit, now reduced to between 300–400 soldiers.
Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863)
Following the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia desperately needed food, horses, and equipment. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee took the war to the North. He hatched a plan to disengage from Union forces near Fredericksburg and move his army into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Lee began gathering his army near Culpeper, Virginia, and troop movements began on June 3, 1863.
As the Army of the Potomac (now commanded by Major General George Meade) shadowed Lee’s movements, Brigadier General John Buford’s Union cavalry division engaged General A. P. Hill’s Confederate corps near the village of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 1, 1863.
As reinforcements arrived on both sides, the fighting unexpectedly evolved into a major battle the next day. The Irish Brigade entered the fray at about 5 p.m. when Union Major General Winfield S. Hancock ordered Brigadier General John C. Caldwell’s division, which included the Irish Brigade, to advance across a wheat field to stem Confederate General James Longstreet’s massive assault on the Union left flank. Once again, Union leaders called upon the Irishmen to advance in the face of deadly fire. Once more, the Sons of Erin responded with true grit. Although the Confederate onslaught eventually forced a retreat across the “Bloody Wheatfield,” Caldwell’s division delayed Longstreet’s progress long enough for reinforcements to arrive and save the Union line. The gambit succeeded, but at a terrible cost. Of the 530 Irishmen who marched into battle on July 2, roughly 37% (198) were killed, wounded, or reported missing.
Dissolution and Rebirth
Reduced to about 330 soldiers, the Irish Brigade existed only nominally after Gettysburg. As the three-year enlistments of the original members expired in 1864, Union recruiters struggled to find Irish replacements. The more patriotic of the Irish immigrants in the North had already volunteered. The federal government had drafted others into service with non-Irish units. Many of the rest were Democrats who did not support the war. Still others switched sides after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, fearing the possibility of competing with freed slaves for the menial jobs their ethnic status forced upon them. Finally, with the long history of English oppression (and more recently, the Crown’s indifference during the Great Famine) fresh in their minds, some Irish-Americans empathized with the South’s struggle to gain its independence.
Faced with a shortage of Irish volunteers, in June 1864, army officials reorganized the 2nd Army Corps and dissolved the Irish Brigade. They attached the 28th Massachusetts Regiment to the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, and they sent 116th Pennsylvania Regiment to the 4th Brigade, 2nd Division. The New York 69th, 63rd, and 88th regiments joined six other non-Irish units to form the “Consolidated Brigade” of the 1st Division.
Perhaps because the restructuring was unpopular with Irish recruits, on November 1, 1864, army officials once again reshuffled the regiments of the 2nd Army Corps. The New York 69th, 63rd, and 88th comprised a renewed 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 the 4th New York Heavy Artillery replaced 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 unit maintained its separate identity as it marched along Pennsylvania Avenue during the Grand Review in the nation’s capital.
Aside from brief assignments because of illness or absences, four men commanded the Irish Brigade during its four-year existence.
- Meagher led the unit from its inception on February 8, 1861, until he resigned on March 5, 1863.
- Colonel Patrick Kelly commanded the brigade twice, from May 8, 1863, to January 12, 1864, and again from June 3, 1864, until he perished during the Battle of Petersburg on June 16, 1864.
- Between Kelly’s two stints, Colonel Richard Byrnes led the brigade from January 12 to June 3, 1864, when Rebel troops mortally wounded him during the Battle of Cold Harbor (Byrnes died nine days later on June 12, 1864).
- After army officials resurrected the Irish Brigade in 1864, Colonel Robert Nugent commanded it from November 5, 1864, until it mustered out of service on June 25, 1865.
Others who temporarily led the unit 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.
Besides Byrne and Kelly died in action, enemy soldiers mortally wounded Smyth 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.
General officers were not the only members of the Irish Brigade who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Civil War. The Irish Brigade suffered the third-highest number of battlefield casualties of any Union brigade during the conflict. Of the 7,715 men who served in the brigade, 961 were killed or mortally wounded. Roughly another 3,000 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 showed during the rebellion, Congress awarded eleven of the unit’s members the Medal of Honor.