Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

By 1864 deadly trench warfare had replaced the open battlefields of the first two years of the Civil War.

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By the late May 1864 the Union and Confederate armies in Virginia had been fighting each other on an almost daily basis for three weeks. In spite of taking enormous losses, the Union Army of the Potomac had advanced towards the Confederate capital of Richmond after each bloody clash with Robert E. Lee’s tough Confederate army. The Confederates remained a dangerous foe. On May 24th, Grant nearly led his men into a trap set for him by Lee at the North Ana River, but Grant extricated his men before his separated forces were attacked.1

burning-of-north-ana-bridgeThe march of the Union army south resulted in great destruction of infrastructure as Confederate soldiers burned bridges and rail lines to keep slow the Federal army.

If this Overland Campaign against Richmond was all suffering for the soldiers the march south had an air of liberation for slaves the army encountered along the way. For the first time since the war began, large numbers of black soldiers marched in the Army of the Potomac’s ranks. Where the Union army marched, the slaves were freed and many joined the Northern army. 2

cold-usct-recruitingThe recruitment of black soldiers outraged many Confederates.

A brigade of black troops led by Brigadier General Edward Wild tried to achieve a rough justice for slave owners. When Wild captured Willian Clopton, a slave owner with a reputation for torturing slaves, he had him tied to a tree and whipped. Three black women liberated from Clopton’s plantation each gave him twenty lashes to “remind him that they were no longer his”, in the words of one black soldier.3

The Richmond Examiner, a leading Confederate newspaper, was outraged that “these black scoundrels have literally caught white men, tied them up to trees, and whipped them on their bare backs!” The fact that similar whippings by whites of blacks had been going on in Virginia for two centuries escaped comment by the paper.4

cold-harbor-black-soldierBlack soldiers included freeborn Northern blacks, blacks who had escaped from slavery before the war and gone to the North or to Canada, and slaves freed by the advancing Union army. Source: Harpers Weekly

On May 24, Fitzhugh Lee, the nephew of Robert E. Lee, led a section of Confederate cavalry numbering 2,500 men to try to destroy Wild’s black brigade of 1,100 black soldiers at a place called Fort Pocahontas. The Confederates attacked the fort expecting the blacks to flee in terror. Instead, wrote one Confederate, the “Negroes, with uncovered heads, rose above the entrenchments, and leveled their guns upon us…Then came a cloud of smoke, bullets whizzed through our ranks and the men in our lines tumbled over each other, some forward, some backward.”5

After five hours of fighting, the Confederates were forced to retreat. Some of the black Union troops they captured were killed and at least one was re-enslaved. This was the first time that the Robert E, Lee’s men had fought a battle against black troops, and the blacks, some former slaves, had won.6

cold-harbor-map-campaignThis map of the third phase of the Overland Campaign shows the Union army where it was exposed to attack at the North Ana River on May 24, 1864 (“A”); Grant’s move to the east to push around Lee (“B”); and the moves by both armies to Cold Harbor June 3, 1864 (“C”).

By the beginning of June, more than 100,000 Union and nearly 60,000 Confederate troops were converging on a small crossroads settlement called Cold Harbor. As Union soldiers marched in from the north and east, Confederates dug trenches and threw up walls of earth for protection. These newly erected fortifications ran for miles.7

After three days of skirmishes and small battles at Cold Harbor, the Union army launched a massive attack on the Confederate battle line on June 3. The Irish Brigade and the Irish Legion were arrayed near one another. The Legion was made up entirely of New York troops. All but one of its regiments had been recruited from the state’s Irish community. The Legion had only joined the Army of the Potomac at the start of the Overland Campaign and it had been badly mauled at Spotsylvania. Its men were new to the hard fighting in Virginia and gaining experience at a high cost in lives. 8

When the Legion began its assault on the heavily defended Confederate fortification, it had to march across an open field in which it would be under fire every step of its advance. Boatswain’s Creek, a quarter mile wide swamp, was in the path of half of the Irish Legionnaires.  Although the swamp was a prominent local feature, the generals ordering the men forward had not done adequate reconnaissance and appear to have been unaware of its existence.9

Captain James Magginnis, who led a battalion that day, wrote that the “rebels instantly opened on us a perfect storm of musketry, all along the lines…and the air was full of messengers of death. The lead and iron,” he wrote,” filled the air as snowflakes in an angry storm.” Another officer said that musket “balls commenced literally to mow us down.” 10

The Irish Legion was able to overrun the advanced line of Confederates, but mired in swampy ground and with heavy fire from two sides cutting them up, the attack began to falter. Colonel James McMahon of the 164th New York Buffalo Irish regiment grabbed the unit’s flag from a dying color bearer and ran up to the Confederate fortifications, but he was shot down and died in a ditch in front of his enemies. 11

cold-harbor-mcmahons-deathColonel James McMahon of the 164th New York was carrying the flag of his regiment when he was killed in front of the Confederate earthworks.

The brigade was decimated. An observer recalled that “it was simply butchery, lasting only ten minutes.” Another who witnessed the slaughter wrote that “it was the most sickening slaughter of this arena of horrors and the appearance of those bodies strewed over the ground for a quarter of a mile…can never fade from our recollections.” The Legion’s regiments suffered among the highest casualty rates of any engaged that day at Cold Harbor.12

The Irish Brigade attack covered ground south of where the Legion had suffered so terribly. The history of its Pennsylvania regiment, the 116th says that; “At half-past four in the morning, the battle of Cold Harbor began… The fight was short, sharp and decisive. [T]he Union troops were astonished.” According to the regiment’s account:

No sooner had the attacking party begun moving than the enemy opened fire, and a terrible and destructive fire it was, sweeping the ground in all directions. …The Confederates were found strongly posted in a sunken road in front of their works, from which they were driven after a severe fight and followed into their works…but the victory was soon turned into the most disastrous defeat. [T]hey were soon forced back by the heavily reinforced Confederates and fell back, exposed to severe musketry and artillery fire. Falling back, the defeated troops halted…in a ravine, [were] ordered to lie down and had to remain in that position for an hour, exposed to not only a direct but an enfilading fire of the batteries, which threw shell and canister. So long as the men could hug the ground the loss was not great…but when the attempt was made to withdraw from the position the men felt the full force of the fire. The order was given to go back at a run, but the [Irish Brigade] had to ascend a hill in the rear and, as the men were absolutely without shelter, they fell in great numbers.13

cold-harbor-battle-mapThe positions of the Union and Confederate armies at Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864. The Irish Legion is at location “A” and the Irish Brigade is at “B”.

Even after they retreated, the men were not safe. According to an officer of the Irish Brigade:

After the repulse of our army (and that repulse had been uniform along the whole six miles of the battle line) the troops clung tenaciously to the ground. Spade, bayonet, tin-plate and knife, anything that could throw up a little dirt, was used to throw up the earth and assist to get under cover. ..It was impossible to expose even a hand without being fired at. And to show a head meant instant death.  The suffering from thirst was great and it was impossible to get water without a serious risk. Corporal Lot Turney…volunteered to fill some canteens at a spring, but was instantly shot through the head. 14

The fighting took its toll on soldiers and officers alike. Colonel Richard Byrne who had only recently taken command of the Irish Brigade, was mortally wounded in the attack and died a few days later.15

Another immigrant regiment, the Irish 69th Pennsylvania from Philadelphia encountered the same deadly fire in its attack. Its men used their tin drinking cups to pile up dirt in front of them to try to keep from being killed as they lay pinned down on the ground. They held their position for nine days “during all which time we dare not stand up straight during the day, it being sure death,” in the words of one veteran of the regiment. 69th Pa. 16

Colonel St. Clair Mulholland of Irish Brigade wrote after the war of the Overland Campaign that the “continuous strain, constant marching, fighting, want of sleep, absence of food and water…-all this was beginning to tell on the strongest constitutions, and even affecting the minds.” P. 261 Mulholland reported that officers and men began to break down emotionally. The physical toll of battle was obvious, but the mental cost would often be concealed. 17

That mental cost increased over the next several days. Unable to agree to a truce to collect the wounded, Union commander Grant left his wounded on the field of battle just yards from the immigrant soldiers who had to watch their comrades slowly die. 18

cold-harbor-looking-for-a-friendLooking for a friend at Cold Harbor.

Video: Four-part documentary focuses on a Connecticut regiment at Cold Harbor

Sources: [To be posted by August 15, 2014]

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.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

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.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

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.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

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.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor


Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.