Friday, September 10, 2010
SABERS AND SHAMROCKS THE IRISH BRIGADE IN THE CIVIL WAR
Against a field of Kelly green, the golden Fenian harp and circle of embroidered shamrocks are set off by the ancient motto of the Fighting 69th “Riamh nar dhruid O Shairn lan” (Never retreat from the clash of lances). This banner is part of Al Cooper’s collection of hand-crafted national and regimental flags, each of which enjoys its day of honor aloft.
As President Abraham Lincoln took office, and the already-divided states slipped inexorably toward armed conflict, The United States (“Union” or “Federal”) military numbered around 16,000 men across the land, with only 18 armed garrisons east of the Mississippi. In gearing up for a war that would last for four years and eventually involve more than two-and-a-half million Union fighting men, the challenge was staggering. In July, 1861 the U.S. Congress authorized an army of 500,000 men, with leadership initially falling to the relative handful of professional officers and noncoms who had fought in the 1848 war with Mexico. Most of the states however, had organized “militias”, traditionally raised from locally-recruited companies and regiments. It would be around a cadre of these “citizen soldiers” that Lincoln’s army would take shape, and from which the bitterest of internecine struggles would emerge.
Prior to First Bull Run (1st Manassas), northerners commonly thought this enterprise would end quickly and relatively bloodlessly, a mindset which lent legitimacy to the “three-month” enlistments first offered to these local soldiers “called up” for Federal duty. Many of these early “volunteers” lost their enthusiasm for battle once the reality of Civil War took hold, and their replacements would come from a different “marketplace”, prominent among which would be newly-arrived “Americans”. In fact by 1865, 500,000 Union soldiers would be “foreign-born” – roughly 25% of all who served the Northern cause. 175,000 would be of German birth, and 150,000 would emerge from ships arriving from Ireland.
One of the most remarkable of these fighting units would be a collection of regiments known as “The Irish Brigade”. A brigade usually comprised four or five regiments totaling 4000 - 5000, an ideal number from the standpoint of administration and command. In the course of the Civil War, several of these composites would attain historic fame, usually as a result of their unusual unit cohesion, regional roots, fighting style, distinctive uniform, or other identifiable characteristics. Among these would be the Confederacy’s “Stonewall Brigade”, the “Orphan Brigade” of estranged Kentuckians and John Bell Hood’s “Texans” to name a few. The North fielded such units as “The Twentieth Maine”, “The Vermont Brigade” and the “Minnesota Sharpshooters”.
At the core of the “Irish Brigade” was the 69th New York Volunteers, a proud regiment whose name and colors would fight in almost every American war since then. In September, 1861 the organization of a new Brigade built around the 69th was authorized by the U.S. Secretary of War, together with the 63rd and 88th New York, and the 28th Massachusetts Infantry regiments, altogether numbering roughly 5,000 men. Command was given initially to the colorful and controversial Colonel Michael Corcoran, (saved from a pending court marshal only by the outbreak of war). Although other non-Irish regiments would serve temporarily with the brigade in months to come, the basic core would continue to be made up of men recruited from Irish immigrant populations, many of whom could only be led by others conversant with the old-country language. Many of these enthusiastic recruits were veterans of arms in European conflicts, and brought with them a fighting spirit which infected those around them. At the time, England – their traditional “enemy”- appeared to be backing the Confederacy adding to the fighting zeal which marked their service.
After Colonel Corcoran became a POW at Bull Run, the much-loved and equally colorful Thomas Francis Meagher assumed command of the brigade, leading them into battle after battle, from Antietam’s “Bloody Lane” to Gettysburg’s “Wheatfield” and the deadly slopes of “Marye’s Heights” at Fredericksburg. In every engagement, the “Irish Brigade” were usually out front, vocalizing their battle cry “fag en bealach”- (“Clear the Way”!) consistently taking the highest casualty rate of any Union force, losing more than 44% in some instances. By the end of the war, they had lost 4000 men, a number larger than the highest “on duty” list at any time of active service ! An uncommon number of Medals of Honor underscored the valor displayed on the field of battle by the men of “The Irish Brigade”.