The Battle of Fredericksburg was a shattering defeat for the Union army. What is more, it created a political crisis of the first order for the president. Democrats said that the Republican administration was directly to blame for the disaster. Increasing numbers of Northerners were beginning to listen to the anti-war voices. On December 18, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln warned a Republican senator; “We are now on the brink of destruction.”1
The public reaction of Republican leaders, who tried to minimize the magnitude of the defeat, sounded callous. The Republican New York Tribune editorialized that the battle was of little strategic importance, aside from the men killed and wounded. Lincoln echoed the insensitivity, saying that apart from the deaths, the battle had not ended too badly. This seeming disregard of the suffering of soldiers’ families by the powerful chilled the hearts of New York’s Irish.2
Volunteers lighting luminaries on the Fredericksburg Battlefield commemorating soldiers killed there.
Irish America had learned to mistrust the distortions about the war in the Republican press, in which victory was always imminent and where defeat was explained away as the result of Democratic plots. They relied, instead, on the letters home from soldiers, writing from the field of battle, for war news. Their men told a different story of Fredericksburg from the official version.3
The letters from the Irish Brigade reverberated far beyond the mothers and wives to whom they were addressed. They were passed from hand to hand and some were published in the newspapers of the community. Private William McClelland’s letter describing the battle was published in the Irish American newspaper. He wrote that as the Irish Brigade set off for the front no one suspected “that in so short a time…so many of our poor fellows would have been sent to their final doom.” The Brigade charged the Confederate position on the heights but they were, he said, “mowed down like grass before the scythe.” Many of the men barely had a chance to fire their weapons before they were shot down. When his regiment returned to its old camp, its population cut in half by the battle, McClelland said that he felt “as if going through a graveyard alone; all is dark, and lonesome, and sorrow hangs as a shroud over us all.” There was little talk of glory, grim death dominated his descriptions in his letter. McClelland himself would be killed seven months later at Gettysburg.4
Captain William Nagle wrote to his father that Fredericksburg had been the “most terrible battle-day of the war.” He said that “Irish blood and Irish bones cover that terrible field to-day.” He despaired that his “once fine company of brave men,” which started with 100 soldiers and officers in it, could now muster only “two Sergeants and three men.” He characterized the Irish Brigade as being in a “shattered condition” and wondered what could be done with it. Most of all, Nagle regretted the uselessness of it all; “The destruction of life has been fearful, and nothing gained.” Nagle blamed the defeat at Fredericksburg on the removal of McClellan by Lincoln and his replacement with an incompetent the result of which was that “We are slaughtered like sheep and no result but defeat.” Republican politics had replaced good sense in running the war, Nagle believed.5
The depleted state of the Irish Brigade could be seen directly by its division commander. General Winfield Scott Hancock, perhaps coming upon Nagle’s own company, saw that only three men were in the line. “God Damn you, why don’t you close up with your company,” he demanded, thinking they were slackers. A soldier responded sadly “General, we [are] a company.”6
The time that followed the Fredericksburg disaster was a “sad one in many a home” in Irish America, according to an officer of the Brigade. The Irish and many other Northerners were “full of despondency for the Union cause,” he recalled. That despond would soon translate into Irish political alienation from the Lincoln administration.7
Video: Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye
This anti-war song was composed in Ireland more than half-a-century before the Civil War. It became popular during the war because its mournful sentiment resonated with immigrant families coping with the loss of sons and husbands. It was later turned into the pro-war song When Johnny Comes Marching Home.
1. Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable published by the University of North Carolina Press (2002) Kindle Location 6466; My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996); The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by David Power Conygham published by Fordham University Press (1994); Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1 Vol. 21; Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1 Vol. 19 pts. 1-2; The Antietam and Fredericksburg by Francis W. Palfrey (1882); The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock edited by Gary Gallegher published by the University of North Carolina Press (1995); The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battles of Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg by Jay Luvis and Harold W. Nelson (1988); The Battle of Frederickburg by James Longstreet in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. III; The Confederate Left at Fredericksburg by Lafayette McClaws in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. III; Sumner’s Right Grand Division by Darius Couch in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. III; The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock by Francis Augustin O’Reilly pub. by LSU Press (2006).
2. Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable published by the University of North Carolina Press (2002) Kindle Location 6917, 6365.
3. See generally The Harp and the Eagle by Susannah Ural.
4. The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 3142, 3152, 3168.
5. The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 3180.
6. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by David Power Conyngham pub. by Fordham University Press p. 362-363.
7. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by David Power Conyngham pub. by Fordham University Press p. 355.
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