In the days before the Battle of Gettysburg one soldier reportedly asked another the name of the regiment marching past. He was told “that’s not a regiment, that’s the Irish Brigade.” 1
By July 2, 1863, the five regiments of the Irish Brigade combined could muster fewer men than many single regiments. Fifteen months of heavy fighting had taken a toll, but so had government policies that starved the old brigade of recruits.2
The Irish Brigade had suffered grievous losses, among the worst in the army, in battles from the Peninsula Campaign, to Antietam and Fredericksburg. The army, instead of sending new recruits to replace the losses, created new regiments. As the Irish Brigade bled down, it faced the risk of being disbanded. The reward for a unit that had fought with conspicuous bravery was to see its regiments go out of existence and its soldiers parceled out to other brigades. 3
The man who created the Irish Brigade, General Thomas Francis Meagher, asked to be allowed to return to the Irish archipelago of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia to use his prestige to sign-up new soldiers. His repeated requests were turned down. After Chancellorsville, a disillusioned Meagher, believing perhaps that ethnic discrimination was a factor in the Brigade’s decline, resigned as its commander. In a remarkable address to his men Meagher acknowledged that the “Irish Brigade” had ceased to exist as anything other than a name. The discrimination seemed to be confirmed when the new brigade commander, Colonel Patrick Kelly, served bravely until his battle death the following year without ever being promoted to brigadier general as would be proper for a brigade commander.4
Problems were not only coming from Washington. The men of the Brigade were hearing worrying sounds from their home communities in New York City as well. The announcement that a draft was soon to take place and that, contrary to an earlier promise by the Lincoln administration that non-citizens would be exempt, immigrants would be compelled to join the army, increased opposition to the war in Irish New York. Men in the ranks were hearing from family members that support for the war effort was in decline because of the defeats of the last year, the change of war aims to focus on emancipation, and the suppression of civil liberties as well. 5
The soldiers had to put aside these discordant thoughts as they forced-marched through Maryland and Pennsylvania in pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s invading army. On July 2, 1862, when they took the field south of Gettysburg the veterans of the Brigade, and they were almost all veterans by now, had to prepare themselves emotionally to fight and kill, and perhaps to die.6
As the Irish Brigade paused near Cemetery Hill before they went into battle, the soldiers saw the flags of immigrant regiments that had once had nearly a thousand men each that could now muster fewer than two hundred. The absence of so many comrades, now lying in graveyards in Virginia and Maryland or suffering in hospitals, foretold what lay ahead for more than a third of the Irishmen that day. 7
On the edge of combat, chaplain Father William Corby stood on a rock and called the Brigade to prayer. Col. Mulholland of the Brigade’s 116th Pennsylvania Regiment recalled later that “The handful of men, before going into that fierce battle, knelt down; the excellent chaplain…piously raised his hands, and gave his benediction. They then jumped to their feet, closed up their lines, and charged.” 8
Statue of William Corby granting general absolution at Gettysburg
Col. Mulholland wrote that after Corby’s absolution the men prayed. “I do not think there was a man who did not offer up a heartfelt prayer. For some, it was their last; they knelt in their grave clothes.” Corby noticed that even General Winfield Scott Hancock, the profane commander of the II Corps, took off his hat to receive the priest’s blessing.9
The chaplain’s devotion to his men helped in another battle as well. He recalled that after Gettysburg, a Protestant minister who had seen the chaplain’s performance on the battlefield approached him to learn more about Catholicism. Corby wrote that this and other interactions between nativist Protestants and immigrant Catholics began a dialogue that helped in “the removing of a great amount of prejudice.”10
Painting of Corby granting absolution, housed at Notre Dame
The five hundred men of the Irish Brigade soon moved onto a piece of land that would forever after be known as the Wheatfield. They would be part of an attack to blunt the Confederate juggernaut that was rolling up the left wing of the Union army. The Irishmen initially threw the Confederates back and reached a stony ridge. They fought hand to hand, in which close range firing, and the stabbing of bayonets and clubbing with musket butts led one of the Brigade’s Confederate opponents to call it “the hottest and sternest struggle of the war.” Ultimately the Irish Brigade would be pushed back after heavy losses, but their sacrifice had slowed the Confederates enough to help preserve the shaky Union line while reinforcements continued to deploy. 12
The Monument to the New York regiments of the Irish Brigade combines a St. Patrick’s or “Celtic” cross with the image of a mourning Irish wolfhound.
This photo shows the Irish wolfhound at the base of the monument. The Brigade’s history tells this story about one of their dogs, named Fan, at Chancellorsville: “She was very much attached to a man of the company, who during the firing fell mortally wounded. When Fan came up to him, she threw herself on him and cried, she wept and licked him, while the poor fellow would throw out his hand to pat her as he feebly exclaimed, ‘Poor Fan!’” [Conyngham p. 405]
Video: The blessing of the Irish Brigade from the movie “Gettysburg”
Here is a collection of videos by Gettysburg LBG John Fitzpatrick explaining the actions of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg.
[NOTE: Sources will be inserted on August 15, 2013]
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites