Irish Brigade

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Irish Brigade
A Short History with Battles and Casualties

Famed Irish Brigade
The Fighting Irish!

The "Fighting Irish!"

The Irish Brigade at Gettysburg
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At Gettysburg, the Wheatfield, Irish Brigade soldiers receive absolution by Father Corby

While nearly 150,000 Irish served in Union units during the Civil War (1861-1865), the most famous was its brigade, the Irish Brigade, which consisted of five regiments: three of New York, one of Massachusetts, one of Pennsylvania. When Union General Edwin Sumner prepared for battle he was known to ask: “Where are my green flags?” and that he once swore that “if the Irishmen ever ran from the field he would have to run as well.” Prior to battle, Father William Corby, later President of Notre Dame, would ride by the ranks of the Irish Brigade and give every man absolution. While charging into battle, the brigade shouted its battle cry, "Faugh a Ballagh!,” meaning “Clear the Way."

Notre Dame is known as the fighting Irish, but what is its origin? During the Civil War, the predominately all-Irish Brigade had a record unmatched in battle: 4,000 casualties, 11 recipients of the Medal of Honor, and 3 of its commanders killed in action. The Irish Brigade, known as the Fighting Irish because of its fighting prowess, was one of only ten "famous brigades" in the Union Army, according to the conflict's acclaimed statistician, William F. Fox. The following work is an introductory study about one of the finest unit's to ever engage in war.
The majority of the men that formed the Irish Brigade had recently arrived in New York, only to be frustrated by prejudice and elusive dreams. With boiling anxiousness to demonstrate their equality by way of bayonet and battlefield, Irishmen entered into the fray of the blue and gray. The sons of Erin donned the Union blue wool, and tramped from battle to battle without an ounce of concern. Although casualties were rising rapidly in their ranks, the Irish Brigade continued to fight like furies and they continued to fall without many worries. Although nearly 4,000 fell, many lived to tell, that the Irish had fought and it wasn't for naught. A nation once divided was now united, and though there was intolerance and indifference towards the Irish, President Lincoln believed that the Irish had made the difference, because, during the war, Lincoln once reached out and gently held the corner of the Irish colors, then kissed it and said, “God Bless the Irish Flag.”
The following easy to read and informative work, unlike any other study of the Irish Brigade online, includes attached regimental histories for each of the five regiments, as well an appended history of the brigade, and lists all casualties by category for each regiment that formed the famous brigade.

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The Absolution at Gettysburg

Nearly one-third of the total Irish population who joined the Union Army resided in New York.
Approximately 150,000 Irishmen, most of whom were recent immigrants and not yet U.S. citizens, joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Some joined out of loyalty to their new found home, while others hoped that such a conspicuous display of patriotism might finally halt the discrimination against the Irish. As the war dragged on and Irish casualties mounted, however, their sympathy for the Union cause began to flounder, and by the end of the war many had abandoned the Northern cause altogether. The majority of the nation's Irish resided in New York City, the recruiting base for many of the Empire State's 42,000 plus Irishmen who joined the Union military. But the determined soldiers who fought in the all-Irish units that comprised the “Irish Brigade” were known for their courage, ferocity and tenacity in battle.
Formed in November 1861, the Irish Brigade was largely recruited in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Its initial regiments were the 69th, 88th and 63rd New York State Volunteers. Other units identified as part of the Brigade included the 29th Massachusetts, 116th Pennsylvania and 25th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiments. The Brigade fought in all of the major campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. It lost more than 4,000 men during the war. This total is larger than the number of soldiers that the brigade had in the field at any given time. Eleven Brigade members were awarded the Medal of Honor, and of the five officers who commanded the brigade, three were killed or mortally wounded. Colonel Richard Byrnes was mortally wounded at Cold Harbor, Colonel Patrick Kelly was killed at Petersburg, and Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth died at Farmville. Brigadier generals Robert Nugent and Thomas Meagher were both wounded, however. The brigade was mustered out in June 1865.
The Gettysburg battlefield is memorialized by historical markers, memorials, interpretative markers, unit markers, and even statues. All of the battlefield's individual statues are of generals -- with the exception of President Lincoln, Chaplain Corby of the Irish Brigade, and one civilian.

Irish at Battle of Gettysburg
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Irish Brigade Battle of Gettysburg Monument

Famous Civil War Brigades
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Soldiers of the Irish Brigade

The Irish Brigade (consisting of the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts, Sixty-third, Sixty-ninth and Eighty-eighth New York and the One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania) was commanded by General Thomas F. Meagher and advanced in Hancock’s Division to the first assault at Marye’s Heights, on December 13, 1862. In this charge the Irish soldiers moved steadily up the ridge until within a few yards of a sunken road, from which Confederate soldiers fired volleys and swept the Irish from the field. Of the 1,315 men which Meagher led into battle, 545 fell in that charge. The officer standing is Colonel Patrick Kelly, of the Eighty-eighth New York, who was one of the valiant heroes of this charge, and succeeded to the command of the Irish Brigade after General Meagher. He was killed at Petersburg. The officer seated is Captain Clooney, of the same regiment, who was killed at Antietam. Sitting next to him is Father Dillon, Chaplain of the Sixty-third New York, and to the right Father Corby, Chaplain of the Eighty-eighth New York; the latter gave absolution to Caldwell’s Division, of Hancock’s Corps, under a very heavy fire at Gettysburg. By the side of Colonel Kelly stands a visiting priest. The identification of this group has been furnished by Captain W. L. D. O’Grady, of the Eighty-eighth New York.

Don Troiani
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Irish Brigade charging into battle

Irish Regiments and an Irish Brigade
Fox, in his Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (1889), was an acclaimed Civil War statistician who also wrote extensively on the "300 Fighting Regiments" of the conflict. The select Union regiments, however, that achieved the Immortal 300 status included the five regiments that formed the famed Irish Brigade. Fox's immense work is still considered the authority by historians and authorities of the hostilities that had North and South engaged in four bloody years of fighting that resulted in unprecedented loss of life. To better understand the unit, the regimental histories of the brigade are also discussed in this study
Fox stated the losses for officers and enlisted in killed or mortally wounded, died of disease, died as prisoner of war, and died from all causes other than battle. While "missing soldiers" were included, many were later presumed "dead," thus making a total count for both categories complex. And though a soldier was indicated as wounded, he often times returned to battle only to be wounded again, and that gave the impression of an inflated grand total of soldiers being wounded. The reason that some statisticians had conflicting totals in the "killed" and "wounded" categories, was because they used data from different dates (records and reports) for tabulations. Since the records and reports had been tallied on different dates, there were soldiers that transitioned from wounded to mortally wounded between the dates. There were also no records of how many of the wounded men died as a result of their wounds following the cessation of hostilities. Another Civil War authority on statistics, Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (1908), has also been referenced for this brigade, and both Fox and Dyer have nearly identical numbers for each category as well as its respective grand totals.

Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher

The Irish Brigade commander was born in Waterford City Ireland on 23 August 1823, a well educated orator, he joined the young Ireland movement to liberate his nation. This led to his exile to a British Penal Colony in Tasmania Australia in 1849. He escaped to the United States in 1853 and became an American citizen. When the Civil War broke out he raised Company K, Irish Zouaves, for the 69th New York State Militia Regiment which fought at First Bull Run under Colonel Michael Corcoran. Subsequently Meagher raised the Irish Brigade and commanded it from 3 February 1862 to 14 May 1863. He later commanded a military district in Tennessee. After the War Meagher became Secretary and Acting Governor of the Montana Territory. He drowned in the Missouri River near Fort Benton on 1 July 1867. His body was never recovered.

Fighting Irish
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Brig. Gen. Thomas Meagher, ca. Civil War

Irish Soldiers in the Union Army
"Faugh a Ballagh"

From 1846 through the mid-1850's, the potato crop in Ireland suffered a blight known as Phyophthora infestans. This water fungus was transported to Ireland from the Eastern United States, where a potato crop had been infected in the previous year. By the harvest of 1846, three quarters of the Irish potato crop had failed, leading to widespread starvation among the rural Irish. Ireland at this time was a huge agricultural power, growing wheat and raising great quantities of beef cattle and other livestock. Despite the wide-spread famine striking over three million rural Irish, the British government did not cease calling on Ireland to export food to England. Throughout the whole famine period, Ireland was a net food exporter despite the starvation of its people.

When faced with this hopeless starvation and evictions when, without crops to sell, the rural Irish farmers were unable to pay their rents, many emigrated to countries around the world. Of the approximately three million Irish suffering starvation, it is estimated that one million or more left their country, many of them bound for the United States. Of those that remained in Ireland, one million starved to death or died of disease from brought on by their malnutrition.
Many of these Irish immigrants came to the major port of New York City, as well as Boston and Philadelphia. These new Irish immigrants entered the country and found that the New World had as many challenges at the Old. Coming from rural backgrounds, many Irish found themselves without the necessary skills for the new industrialized, urbanized economy that was springing up in the United States. Many Irish had to seek jobs as laborers to make ends meet, paving the streets and digging the canals of an expanding New York City while the women were forced into jobs as maids and laundresses.
Unfortunately, the Irish faced another major challenge in the United States – racism. Much of the same prejudices against the Irish, for their race and their religion, followed them to the New World. American politicians, fearful of the Irish, sought to marginalize them and created a political party, the Know-Nothing Party, whose major focus was anti-immigration xenophobia. This party believed that the Irish could not be trusted because of their "allegiance" to the Pope in Rome and because of their insular "clannish" tendencies to look after each other. While thousands of Irish were looking for work, many places would put up signs looking for help that read "Help Wanted. No Irish Need Apply." This, coupled with the religious persecution on the part of their Protestant neighbors, made the Irish community more insular. As a new political powerhouse of Irish voters began to coalesce around the machinery of Tammany Hall, many Irishmen looked for another path to acceptance in their new country – military service.
The young men who arrived from Ireland looking for work often joined the U.S. Army, both for the much-needed income and as a means of finding acceptance among their neighbors. Recruiters waited outside Castle Clinton, an immigrant processing center, and offered bounties to these immigrants for their service. Since many of these men hoped to send money back to Ireland to help their families, they signed the recruitment papers and entered military service. Many Irishmen in New York City also joined the militia, a state-run military organization that trained part-time and whose troops could be mustered into federal service in times of war.
One of the leaders of the Irish in the New York militia was Colonel Michael Corcoran, a native of Ireland and active member of the growing Irish community in New York during the 1850s. Born in Carrowkeel, County Sligo, Corcoran was forced to emigrate to the United States in 1849. He found work as a clerk but felt that he could do more; hoping that what he did and learned in the United States could be used to help free Ireland from British rule. This movement, led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was known as Fenianism, from the Irish word fianna meaning “band of warriors.” Corcoran quickly became active in Fenian circles and looked to get Irishmen armed and trained.

Fox, William F. Regimental Losses
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History of the Irish Brigade

Irish Brigade History and Battles
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63rd New York, Irish Brigade History. Fox, William F.

Irish Brigade Formation, Battles, and Casualties
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88th New York, Irish Brigade History. Fox, William F.

Irish Brigade
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2nd Irish Color, 69th NYSV

Notre Dame and the Fightin' Irish
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Irish Brigade Monument at Gettysburg

The nom de guerre "Fighting Irish" was earned through years of Civil War. Another famous brigade from New York was the Excelsior Brigade (Sickles'), belonging to Hooker's (2nd) division, 3d corps, and composed of the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73d, 74th and 120th N.Y. infantry. Its losses in killed and died of wounds were 876.

Irish Brigade History, Battles, and Casualties
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69th New York, Irish Brigade History. Fox, William F.

Irish Brigade Civil War Casualties and Killed
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28th Massachusetts, Irish Brigade History. Fox, William F.

Irish Brigade Regimental History and Battles
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116th Pennsylvania, Irish Brigade History. Fox, William F.

(Above) A narrative of the brigade, along with a history of each regiment, including battles and casualties:

To that end, he enlisted as a private in the 69th New York Militia. By 1859 he was appointed colonel of the regiment. On October 11, 1860, Colonel Corcoran refused to march the regiment on parade for the 19-year old Prince of Wales, who was visiting New York City at the time, as a protest to the ineffective British response to the Irish Famine. Corcoran was removed from command and a court martial was pending over that matter when the Civil War began. With the outbreak of war, the charges were dropped and Corcoran was restored to his command because he had been instrumental in bringing other Irish immigrants to the Union cause. In July he led the regiment into action at the First Battle of Bull Run and was taken prisoner. He was later released and died in 1863 while in command of his own Irish troops, the Corcoran Legion.
Directly after the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, President Lincoln received a request from a captain of the New York militia, Capt. Thomas Francis Meagher, to form an ethnically Irish Brigade. Meagher was a name already well associated with the Irish, having been involved in an 1848 revolution in Ireland called the Young Ireland Rebellion. It was his rhetoric that gained him the most notoriety and nickname, Meagher of the Sword. When giving a speech about the need for revolution and reform in Ireland, he appealed to the need for physical force nationalism, counting examples of its successful use around the world.
"Be it for the defence, or be it for the assertion of a nation’s liberty, I look upon the sword as a sacred weapon. And if, my lord, it has sometimes reddened the shroud of the oppressor—like the anointed rod of the high priest, it has, as often, blossomed into flowers to deck the freeman’s brow... Abhor the sword? Stigmatise the sword? No, my lord, for at its blow, and in the quivering of its crimson light a giant nation sprang up from the waters of the Atlantic, and by its redeeming magic the fettered colony became a daring, free Republic."
–Thomas Francis Meagher, 1847
Convicted ex post facto by the British government for treason in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution, Meagher was sentenced to death but was given a commuted sentence – transportation to the penal colony in Van Diemen's Land, present Tasmania. Within three years, he had escaped to New York and became a prominent attorney. Like Corcoran, he hoped to gain some military training and joined the New York Militia, commanding Company K of the 69th New York. After the battle, he wrote President Lincoln and was given permission to recruit Irish regiments for the Union Army. Meagher hoped to counter the resentment many Americans felt against the Irish through military service and to support the Union which had given the Irish a refuge during the Famine. More still joined with Meagher in hopes that the military experience they would gain in the Union Army would serve them in later years to help liberate Ireland with the Fenians.

Famous Irish Brigade
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Irish Brigade and Saint Patrick's Day celebration in 1863

(Above) During Saint Patrick's Day celebration, the Irish Brigade holds a steeplechase race. Army of the Potomac, American Civil War in March 17, 1863.

The troops of the Irish Brigade were recruited from the major centers of immigration in the Northeast and many of its soldiers were drawn from the ranks of the working classes, the dock laborers and canal diggers. The troops were issued weapons that were outdated by the time the war began, smoothbore 1842 Springfield muskets whose hundred yard range was dwarfed by that of the new rifled muskets. Meagher, remembering the victory of the Irish Brigade of France at Fontenoy and believing that his men would fight in the same style, insisted on its use. This did not deter the Irish, who would march into battle under their green silk flags, emblazoned with the harp of Ireland, and fire volleys at close range against their Confederate opponents. While their musket, firing a .69 caliber ball and buckshot, was deadly, the Irish Brigade would suffer heavy casualties because of Meagher's choice of weapon.

Meagher's Irish Brigade was composed of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York Regiments, as well as the 116th Pennsylvania and 28th Massachusetts Regiments. These Irishmen fought in the Army of the Potomac throughout the entire Civil War. During the Battle of Antietam, they were sent against an entrenched Confederate position at the Bloody Lane. There, the troops of Meagher’s Brigade withstood heavy fire, losing 60% of their strength as casualties.
Months later, the remnants of Meagher’s Brigade were ordered against the Confederate position at Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg. There, in spite of ferocious resistance, they earned the praise of their enemies and comrades alike. Lieutenant General James Longstreet thought the charge of the Irishmen “was the handsomest thing in the whole war.” Robert E. Lee admiringly declared, “Never were men so brave.” Gen. George Pickett, who would make his own legendary charge within a year, thought “the brilliant assault….was beyond description….we forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our line.” Their division commander, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock remarked, “General Meagher, I have never seen anything so splendid.”
It cannot be forgotten, however, that the Irish did not serve in ethnic regiments alone. Throughout the Union Army, Irishmen and first generation Irish-Americans served with distinction. General Philip Sheridan was born of Irish parents and Generals James Shields and Robert Nugent were both Irish-born. With over 150,000 native Irish in uniform and countless thousands of Irish descent, the Irish fought their way to recognition in the United States through their service in the Civil War. While anti-Irish sentiment continued in many ways through to the twentieth century, the service of men like those in the Irish Brigade brought the waves of Irish immigrants firmly into the fabric of the United States. (See also New York Civil War History.)

New York and the Irish Brigade
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New York and the secession and subsequent readmission of Southern states into the Union

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Honoring Meagher

The Irish Brigade, the Fighting Irish, had 11 Medal of Honor recipients, 961 soldiers killed or mortally wounded, approximately 3,000 wounded, and 3 of its commanders killed in action.
Fox, in his acclaimed Regimental Losses, listed only ten famous brigades during the Civil War--and the Irish Brigade was one of them. What separated the ten famous brigades from the hundreds of brigades that served in the war? Every Federal brigade was filled with patriotic men who rallied around the U.S. flag and willingly fought and even died to preserve the Union. A famous brigade was by no means indicated by Fox to belittle or demean the other brigades not listed. Not by a long shot. The famous brigades had a common theme: each brigade had engaged and turned the tide of at least one major battle; each brigade had suffered staggering casualties in the conflict; and each brigade had Medal of Honor recipients. According to Fox's Regimental Losses, of all Union brigades, only the 1st Vermont Brigade and Iron Brigade (also listed among the "Famous Brigades") suffered more combat deaths (killed and mortally wounded only) than the Irish Brigade during the Civil War. We now examine a brief history of the famous Irish Brigade.
The Irish Brigade was, probably, the best known of any brigade organization, it having made an unusual reputation for dash and gallantry. The remarkable precision of its evolutions under fire ; its desperate attack on the impregnable wall at Marye's Heights; its never failing promptness on every field; and its long continuous service, made for it a name inseparable from the history of the war. It belonged to the First Division of the Second Corps, and was numbered as the Second Brigade. The regiments which properly belonged to the Irish Brigade, together with their losses, were:
Killed and Died of Wounds
63rd New York Infantry 156
69th New York Infantry 259
88th New York Infantry 151
28th Massachusetts Infantry 250
116th Pennsylvania Infantry 145
Total (during the war) 961

Courtesy University of Notre Dame
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The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame

The Irish Brigade lost over 4,000 men in killed and wounded; it being more men than ever belonged to the brigade at any one time. With the exception of the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts, the regiments were small. At the start they were not recruited to the maximum, but left New York with about 800 men each. The three New York regiments became so reduced in numbers that, at Gettysburg, they were consolidated into two companies each; the One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania had been consolidated into four companies.

The brigade, which was organized in 1861, consisted originally of three New York regiments, which selected numbers corresponding to those of certain famous Irish regiments in the British Army. The One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania and Twenty-eighth Massachusetts were added in the fall of 1862. Each of the five regiments carried green flags, in addition to the national colors. While on the Peninsular and Antietam campaigns, the Twenty-Ninth Massachusetts was attached to the brigade, but after Antietam it was detached and its place was taken by the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts. In September, 1864, the remnant of the Seventh New York Heavy Artillery was added; but it was detached in February, 1865, and the Fourth New York Heavy Artillery took its place. In July, 1864, the One Hundred and Sixteenth Pennsylvania was transferred to the Fourth Brigade. But the Irish Brigade was composed, substantially, as above; and, each of the regiments having reenlisted, its service was continuous and unbroken. It was commanded, in turn, by General Thomas Francis Meagher, Colonel Patrick Kelly (killed), General Thos. A. Smyth (killed), Colonel Richard Byrnes (killed), and General Robert Nugent.
The Irish Brigade suffered the third-highest number of battlefield casualties of any Union brigade. Of the 7,715 men who served in its ranks, 961 were killed or mortally wounded, and approximately 3,000 were wounded. The number of casualties was more men than ever served in its ranks at any one time. As a testament to the Irishmen’s bravery, 11 of the unit’s members were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Another famous brigade, comprised of all New York regiments, was the Excelsior Brigade (Sickles'), belonging to Hooker's (2nd) division, 3d corps, and composed of the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73d, 74th and 120th N.Y. infantry. Its losses in killed and died of wounds were 876.
What is the origin of the moniker "Fighting Irish"?
Just exactly where the moniker "Fighting Irish" came from is a matter of much debate and legend. One possibility, as discussed in our subject, is that the nickname was inherited from Irish immigrant soldiers who fought in the Civil War with the Union's Irish Brigade. Notre Dame's claim to the nickname would seem to come from the presence of Fr. William Corby, CSC, the third president of Notre Dame, who was at the Battle of Gettysburg. Fr. Corby served as chaplain of the Irish Brigade and granted general absolution to the troops in the midst of the battle. This is commemorated in the painting "Absolution Under Fire," part of Notre Dame's permanent art collection. A print of the painting "The Original Fighting Irish" by former Fighting Irish lacrosse player Revere La Noue is on permanent display at Notre Dame's Arlotta Stadium. The print also hangs in the office of head Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, who said that he had to have the work which captures the "swagger" and "toughness" of the football program.
The non de guerre "Fighting 69th" (or 69th New York regiment), just one of several Irish regiments that formed the famed Irish Brigade, appears to have been bestowed by Confederate gen. Robert E. Lee while battling the 69th New York in 1862. The Irish Brigade, under Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher, had fought valiantly in a determined assault against Lee's Confederates at Marye’s Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Although the Irish were eventually repulsed, its fighting did not go unnoticed by either side. Lee, Longstreet, and even "Stonewall" Jackson commented on the sheer determination of such men who had confronted daunting odds, regardless of the cost.

See also

Sources: Fox, William F. Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (1889); National Archives; National Park Service; Library of Congress; United States Army Center of Military History; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (1908); University of Notre Dame online


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