On May 18, 1864 the men of the Irish Brigade were in nearly the same position they had occupied a week earlier at Spotsylvania. Days of fighting had left thousands dead but the strategic balance had not shifted. At 4:45 AM that morning the cannons of the Union artillery began to pound the Confederate entrenchments as tens of thousands of soldiers awaited orders to begin the assault. One soldier remembered that the “first glimmer of morning was ushered in by the booming of big guns, and the men said another butchery has begun.”1
When the Confederates, safe behind their fortifications, saw the Union troops in close-packed masses marching towards them they were, in the words of one Southerner, “astonished at this and [they] could not believe a serious attempt would be made to assail such a line as [the Confederates] had in open day, over such a distance.” The Confederates knew that the United States troops were entering a killing ground from which many would not emerge alive.2
One immigrant officer wrote that “The ground over which the Regiment charged was very rough and broken…” He said that “No sooner had the charge begun than the movement was discovered by the Confederates who opened with a musketry fire, in which their batteries quickly joined…”3
The Irish Brigade was in the heart of the day’s attack and it had been joined by another brigade of immigrants, Corcoran’s Irish Legion from New York. The two Irish brigades would cross the deadly ground together, and the men lost there would be mourned in the same Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods. They would be under fire for several hundred yards, through territory covered with the bloated corpses of the dead of earlier fighting. 4
This recruiting poster tells us a lot about the attitudes of New York’s Irish community in the second year of the war. The poster urges them to “Remember Fontenoy!”, a 1745 battle in which a French Irish Brigade helped defeat an English army. It also tells recruits; “Irishmen you are now training to meet your English enemies!” This restated the goal of Irish nationalists to use the Civil War as a training ground for Irish nationalists who would later fight against England to liberate Ireland.
An officer of the Irish Brigade recalled the route of the charge years later; “The dead of the 12th [of May] were there, unburied, and the scene was one of horror beyond the power of language to describe. The sight was hideous and the stench overpowering and sickening.” p. 223 Another Union officer wrote that “The stench which rose from [the corpses] was so sickening and terrible that many of the men and officers became deathly sick from it,” breaking out of line to vomit. “The appearance of the dead,” he wrote, “who had been exposed to the sun so long, was horrible in the extreme as we marched past and over them.”5
The Irish Legion, followed by the Irish Brigade, moved up on the attack and passed other stalled Union regiments. The Irish quickly became the target of a Confederate artillery battery which, a soldier wrote, “played on our men incessantly as they advanced on the double quickstep…”6
At the beginning of their charge, Corcoran’s Legion and the Irish Brigade were at the position marked with “A”.
The Legion’s regiments became separated as the attack progressed and their commander was badly wounded trying to reunite them. The Legion’s New York immigrants, losing men every minute, hit the ground and tried to find shelter in the small undulations in the terrain. Confederate snipers in the trees began to pick the Irish off from above.7
The Irish Brigade continued to push forward. The Confederates had added to the defense of their lines a layer of tree branches designed to entangle the attackers like a primitive form of barbed wire. The commander of the Brigade’s 116th Pennsylvania regiment wrote that the Irish Brigade encountered a “deep and heavy abatis…so dense that all efforts to penetrate were impossible.” The abatis was a death trap for the brave. The commander wrote that “[m]any of the men…were shot after they became entangled in the brush.”8
The futility of the attack was illustrated when a member of the 116th Pennsylvania, waving the regiment’s flag, rushed forward leading his comrades shouting “Come on boys and I will show you how to fight.” He was soon shot down and the charge evaporated. Even when the Irish soldiers did penetrate the Confederate position, the rough terrain and the lack of support meant that any gains were only momentary.9
The Irish Brigade, filled with veterans of this new trench warfare, began to dig in. The futility of further advance was apparent and the men were now piling up anything they could in front of them that would stop a bullet. Reflecting on the fighting of May 18, the commander of the 116th Pennsylvania wrote:
The charge was a very noble effort, but absolutely hopeless. The impracticality of reaching the enemy’s line…was soon apparent…To hold the men in front of the abatis to be shot down would be a useless waste of life.”10
The fighting of May 18th is largely forgotten today. It was one of dozens of battles and skirmishes in the bloody Overland Campaign, almost two months of fighting in which more than 85,000 men would be killed, wounded, or captured. But, for the newly united Irish Legion and Irish Brigade, it was an action that left deep wounds. The Irish Legion had, in the words of one soldier, been “blown to atoms” in the futile charge. The men of both brigades had reinforced for them a lesson their generals took longer to learn, that when heroism came up against well-defended fortifications, even the bravest would fail. 11
Video: Army War College Lecture on Irish in the Union Army
1. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903); The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern by Gordon Rhea published by LSU Press (1997); To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 by Gordon Rhea, published by LSU Press: Baton Rouge, 2000) Kindle Location 3056; No Turning Back: A Guide to the 1864 Overland Campaign, from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May 4 – June 13, 1864 by Robert M. Dunkerly, Donald C. Pfanz (Author) and, David R. Ruth (Author) Savas Beatie (2014)
2. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 by Gordon Rhea, published by LSU Press: Baton Rouge, 2000) Kindle Location 3069.
3. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 221-222.
4. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 by Gordon Rhea, published by LSU Press: Baton Rouge, 2000); The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903).
5. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 by Gordon Rhea, published by LSU Press (2000) Kindle Location 3070; The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 223.
6. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 by Gordon Rhea, published by LSU Press (2000) Kindle Location 3110.
7. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 by Gordon Rhea, published by LSU Press (2000) Kindle Location 3110.
8. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 222.
9. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 by Gordon Rhea, published by LSU Press (2000) Kindle Location 3114.
10. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion by St. Clair A. Mulholland (1903) p. 222.
11. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 by Gordon Rhea, published by LSU Press (2000) Kindle Location 3328.
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
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites