Scroll to the bottom for a full list of articles in The Immigrants’ Civil War series.
Irish rebel Thomas Francis Meagher left for the battlefields of Virginia’s Peninsula in 1862 a newly anointed Union brigadier general. His entire military experience had been gained over the previous 12 months and he had been in only one battle in which he commanded fewer than 100 men. While most of the officers and men of the Irish Brigade appeared to have confidence in his ability to lead soldiers into battle, officers outside the unit had their doubts about this “political general.” William T. Sherman, who would become the second most important general in the Union army, briefly commanded Meagher during the 1861 First Bull Run Campaign, when he was a captain in the Fighting 69th. Sherman was not kind in his critique, saying that Meagher “is a blathering adventurer without knowledge, attached to the 69th for mischief.” During June of 1862, Meagher would lead his three Irish Brigade regiments into heavy fighting in a Union offensive that could have ended the Civil War. Sherman’s early assessment would be tested.1
The great Union army of the Civil War, the Army of the Potomac, had been organized in the fall of 1861 by Major General George B. McClellan. “Little Mac,” as he was called, was only 34-years-old when he took command. He devised a military campaign that was designed to surprise and outflank the rebel armies defending the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Instead of following a route from Washington due south to Richmond along today’s I-95, he proposed putting nearly his entire army of roughly 120,000 men on ships and sailing to a point east of the Confederate capital. His ships would bring soldiers to Fortress Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. They would then march across the Peninsula to Richmond.2
The army embarked on its ships on March 17, 1862, St. Patrick’s Day.
The trip by steamer from camp near Washington to the Virginia Peninsula convinced some men of the Irish Brigade that hard fighting was soon to take their lives. When one soldier observed an older man caught in a depression he reportedly told him “you look as glum as if you were your own wake…” The middle-aged soldier answered that he was worried over the fate of the wife and children he had left behind. The younger soldier then himself became caught up in thoughts of what his mother would do if he was killed or seriously wounded.3
This map shows the amphibious move by the Union Army of the Potomac (black arrows) by ship from Washington to Fort Monroe at the east end of the Virginia Peninsula. The army then moved overland towards Richmond.
While the Irish Brigade was involved in some small fights as the army moved towards Richmond, the first real battle did not take place until the end of May. As Union troops were almost to the suburbs of Richmond, the Confederate army under General Joe Johnston launched a surprise attack. The Irish Brigade was separated from the main fighting at Seven Pines and Fair Oaks, but the New Yorkers moved quickly to support their beleaguered comrades the next day on June 1, 1862. Fast Union reinforcement and the failure of Confederate generals to coordinate their movements doomed the rebel plans.4
Irish Brigade losses were light, but as the immigrants came upon the field of battle the new recruits finally saw the gory cost of war.
One of the men most affected was a Catholic priest serving as a chaplain of the brigade.
Map of the Peninsula Campaign (Source: Wikipedia)
On June 1, 1862, the evening after the battle, Fr. William Corby wrote that “night spread its dark mantle over the bloody scene, but could not hush the groans of wounded men. Neither could it bring the desired refreshment and comfort to those nearly dead from fatigue, hunger, thirst, loss of blood, and excruciating pain.” Miserable organization of the medical services meant that the wounded were left to lie for hours or days unattended on the fields where they fell.5
Corby was deeply troubled by the suffering brought on by the inefficiency of the medical care: “Great distress fills one’s mind when obliged to behold such misery, with no possible means to apply an immediate remedy.” Corby would spend the rest of his time with the Irish Brigade working to alleviate the desperate condition of the wounded and ministering to the dying.6
While the Confederate attacks had been thrown back at Seven Pines and Fair Oaks, the severe wounding of the Confederate leader Joe Johnston propelled Gen. Robert E. Lee into command.
Lee would prove to be one of the ablest military minds of the war.
This 1862 lithograph of the Battle of Seven Pines shows a balloon used by the Union army to observe the battle in the upper left-hand corner. (Source: Library of Congress)
“General Meagher at the Battle of Fair Oaks” was an 1862 lithograph by Currier and Ives. This print, which could be purchased cheaply by the public, featured the soon to be iconic green flag of the Irish Brigade.
The song “Was My Brother in the Battle” describes a youngster asking a returning Union soldier if a beloved brother has been killed or wounded. Written by the famous songwriter Stephen Foster at the time of the Peninsula Campaign, it includes an homage to the Irish Brigade. The song acknowledges that in 1862 “the flag of Erin [Ireland] came to the rescue of our banner and protection of our fame.” There is also a reference to the “noble Highland host” being “wrongfully outnumbered on the Carolina Coast.” This refers to the Scottish 79th New York Highlanders who suffered badly in fighting in coastal Carolina in 1862. Mainstream music was beginning to recognize that immigrants were increasingly the backbone of the Union Army.
Was My Brother in the Battle
By Stephen Foster
Tell me, tell me, weary soldier from the rude and stirring wars,
Was my brother in the battle where you gained those noble scars?
He was ever brave and valiant, and I know he never fled.
Was his name among the wounded or numbered with the dead?
Was my brother in the battle when the tide of war ran high?
You would know him in a thousand by his dark and flashing eye.
Tell me. tell me, weary soldier, will he never come gain,
Did he suffer ‘mid the wounded or die among the slain?
Was my brother in the battle when the noble Highland host
Were so wrongfully outnumbered on the Carolina coast?
Did he struggle for the Union ‘mid the thunder and the rain,
Till he fall among the brave on a bleak Virginia plain?
Oh, I’m sure that he was dauntless and his courage ne’er would lag
While contending for the honor of our dear and cherished flag.
Was my brother in the battle when the flag of Erin came
To the rescue of our banner and protection of our fame,
While the fleet from off the waters poured out terror and dismay
Till the bold and erring foe fell like leaves on Autumn day?
When the bugle called to battle and the cannon deeply roared,
Oh! I wish I could have seen him draw his sharp and glittering sword.
1. “Sept. 15, 1861 to Thomas Ewing” in Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman 1860-1865 ed. by Brooks Simpson and Jean Berlin, University of North Carolina Press (1999) p. 137. For a full discussion of the commissioning of “political generals,” see Lincoln’s Political Generals by David Work, University of Illinois Press (2009) pp. 1-76. Sherman appears to have had frictions with at least two of his regiments, the 69th and 79th New York, during the days before and immediately after Bull Run. The 79th reportedly “mutinied.” He was not remembered fondly by the men of either regiment.
2. The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War by Donald Stoker, Oxford University Press (2010), pp. 139-161; George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen Sears, Ticknor pp. 95-192 (1988); “McClellan Organizing the Grand Army” by Phillipe Comte de Paris in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “The Peninsula Campaign” by Gen. George B. McClellan in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “Yorktown and Williamsburg” by Warren Lee Goss in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “Manassas to Seven Pines” by Joseph E. Johnston in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “Two Days of Battle at Seven Pines” by Gustavus W. Smith in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II (1887); “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James McPherson, Oxford University Press; To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Ticknor and Fields (1992).
3. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by D.P. Conyngham, McSorley and Company (1867) p. 116.
4. The Irish Brigade in the Civil War by Joseph Bilby, Combined Publishing, (1995). Chapter 3.
5. Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years in the Irish Brigade with the Army of the Potomac by Fr. William Corby (1st Edition 1893) p. 71.
6. Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years in the Irish Brigade with the Army of the Potomac by Fr. William Corby (1st Edition 1893) p. 78.
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.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites