The American Civil War is justly regarded as one of the most noteworthy and tragic episodes in the history of both the 19th century. Over something as tawdry and immoral as slavery, one of the great powers of the world found itself torn in two, and spent five years in vicious combat, spilling blood on a scale that the United States had never seen before and has never seen again. On both sides, Irishmen fought. Predominantly, most of them would have found service with the northern or Union Army, and that will be the subject of today’s entry.
As previously discussed, the United States military found a potent recruiting pool within the hordes of Irish arriving in the country, having emigrated for various reasons. The Irish who populated so much of the great north-eastern cities like New York, Boston and Washington D.C., were just the kind of people who tended to fall into military service: working menial jobs for little pay if they could even get that, but still tough, resilient and strong. The attraction of military service was both financial and emotional, in that it offered guaranteed money and adventure. Many Irish jumped at the chance to join both the Army and the various militias that sprang up in cities like New York before the Civil War started: some of these would actually be units organised by entities like the Fenian Brotherhood, a way of gaining military training and drill experience in the open without drawing undue suspicion. Later of course, the Irish population of these cities would be a key part of anti-conscription riots like those that occurred in New York in 1863, proving that enthusiasm for the Union war effort was far from all encompassing. Certainly, it would be inaccurate to say that the majority of Irish soldiers fighting for the Union were great believers in the abolitionists cause.
The war itself was practically inevitable, as many people foresaw. The Union was expanding ever westward, and the divide between those who wished to see an end to slavery, whether it be for moral reasons or because of the economic advantages in offered states to the south, and those who saw the practise as part and parcel of their lives, had long since been fated to end in gunfire and death. The westward expansion, and the creation of new states and territories, brought the issue of abolition firmly to the top of flammable political issues. When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, his abolitionist leanings pushed the emergent Confederacy into action, and by 1861, with the assault on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the Civil War had begun in earnest.
Irish service in this war is especially synonymous with one regiment, whose descendants continues to be a part of the United States Army today: the New York 69th, better known as the “Fighting Irish”.
As early as 1849, Irish patriots had been organising militias in New York. One of these, dubbed the “First Irish Regiment” and commanded by 1848 veteran John Doheny, was the nucleus for what would eventually become the 69th, after it was paired or merged with several other Irish militia companies and regiments. Recruited from the poorer areas of New York City, the 69th was engaged in combating civil disturbances throughout the latter 1850’s, and famously did not take part in a welcome parade for the visiting Prince of Wales in 1860 when it’s then Colonel Michael Corcoran – who claimed to be a descendent of Patrick Sarsfield – disobeyed orders and refused to march his unit out. Corcoran was arrested and faced a court martial, before the Civil War intervened.
The 69th was part of the mass movement of troops that were engaged in the first significant clash of the war, the First Battle of Bull Run, where their overall commander was one William T. Sherman. The Confederate victory there set the stage for much of the next few years of fighting, as Union armies were repeatedly outwitted and outfought in the eastern theatre: the 69th formed part of the rearguard action that day, that prevented the collapse of the Union advance from turning into a slaughter. Corcoran was taken prisoner while attempting to capture Confederate artillery. His replacement was none other than Thomas Frances Meagher, the one-time Young Irelander firebrand who had taken part in the events of 1848, before being transported to Australia. Having organised an escape from there, Meagher travelled the United States with the aim of joining the already existing pool of Irish nationalists assembling in numbers in the United States, and soon found himself swept up in the rush of training, recruitment and formation of military units as the war approached and then arrived. At Bull Run, then Captain Meagher had effectively commanded a “Zouve” company – essentially specialised light infantry – and now made a bid for greater recognition.
Meagher applied that the 69th be federalised into a more formal volunteer entity rather than a militia, and be matched with other regiments of an Irish nature to form an “Irish Brigade”. In September of 1861, Lincoln’s government agreed, and Meagher was constituted as the Irish Brigade’s Brigadier General, commanding the 69th, 66th and 83rd Regiments, all New York based and all with a distinctly Irish character. They were later joined by regiments from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. The Brigade had Irish symbols and slogans among its identifying labels, and was unique in its Catholic chaplains, something the American military had long forsworn. While there was a common theme in the Brigade in the ethnicity of its soldiers, there was still a great deal of diversity in background: New York dockworkers were serving alongside rural puritans from further north, and the leadership itself included both ardent Irish revolutionaries and men whose sympathies were not altogether with the Union. But they soon gained a fearsome reputation for both their hard campaigning and their unity in battle. The Irish Brigade was part and parcel of the primary fighting force of the Union, the Army of the Potomac, which would go toe to toe with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War’s most notable battles.
In 1862, the “Seven Days” battles, as blow hard Union General George McClellan attempted to take the Confederate capital by a roundabout route, were another set of Union defeats where the Irish distinguished themselves, really now earning that reputation for standing solidly and attacking with vigour, and taking the casualties you would expect. At Meagher’s insistence, most of the Brigade was armed with guns that were largely obsolete, more shotgun than rifle, as the General insisted the regiments would be doing most of their fighting up close, a situation not rectified until the latter stages of the war. This action certainly marked the Irish out, but did mean that they were more fired upon than firing back when it came to actual engagement.
Victory for the south in the Seven Days allowed Robert E. Lee the opportunity to invade the north, a campaign that culminated in the bloody stalemate at Antietem in September of 1862. The Irish, under-manned after the losses suffered previously, had been busy trying to get more recruits in New York when they were suddenly rushed into battle again: at Antietem, they assaulted the road later known as “Bloody Lane” right in the centre of the Confederate position. The casualties suffered were horrendous, but bought other units enough time to flank and capture the position, though the larger battle was essentially a costly draw for both sides, with Lee obligated to retreat south.
The following Battle of Fredericksburg in December was a real watershed for the Irish regiments. It was there that a huge section of the Union Army was dashed to pieces assaulting a Confederate position behind a low stone wall at the foot of a hill: the Irish Brigade suffered incredible casualties in the failed attack, their strength reduced from 1600 to 256 from dead, wounded and missing. According to popular remembrance, one of the Confederate units firing from behind the wall was made up largely of Irish recruits, who included IRB members among their ranks, just as the attacking Irish Brigade did: Lee was worried enough by the similarities in national origin to station reserves nearby in case his Irish refused to fire, but fire they did. It was Lee who allegedly coined the phrase “the Fighting 69th” at that battle. Fredericksburg, another awful Union defeat, left the Irish Brigade in pieces, it’s Brigade status itself largely a fiction that was only true on paper.
Meagher, who led the Brigade personally at Antietem but was later accused of being drunk at the time, was continually frustrated by repeated refusal of requests that he be allowed to take his units out of the line and replenish through of a period of active recruitment: after more losses suffered at the Battle of Chancellorsville – yet another Union defeat – he resigned his commission in protest, and was replaced by Patrick Kelly, a Galway native and survivor of Fredericksburg. Meagher would come back to the Union Army later and fight in the western theatre, after which he served as a Governor of the Montana territory before his death by drowning in 1867, after falling overboard a steamer on the Missouri River.
The larger Civil War pivoted around the fighting that took place in the first days of July, 1863. Lee’s army invaded the north again, hoping to draw the Army of the Potomac into a final decisive clash. The Potomac, under new commanders and desperate for any kind of victory, followed. For three days the Confederates attacked Union positions on the high ground outside the Pennsylvanian town of Gettysburg, with many of the smaller sections of the battle achieving immortality in their own right: places like the Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield saw both armies crash into each other, with what seemed like the very fate of the United States in the balance. It was in the Wheatfield that the Irish Brigade, now barely at regiment strength, was called into service, moving out from defensive positions on a hill to face the oncoming Confederates, after famously receiving a general absolution from their Chaplin William Corby, a moment since immortalised in art. While they held for a time, Union reversals elsewhere made the position untenable, and the Irish and other Federal troops were soon overwhelmed, though the actions of other units meant the high ground was held. The Union would prevail at Gettysburg after the failure of “Pickett’s Charge” on July 4th: from that day on, the Confederate war effort began to more seriously falter. For the Irish, the repeated bloodbaths and mass casualties could now no longer be made up for.
In 1864, at places like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbour the Irish were flung into battle again and again, now under the more steely and determined command of Ulysses S. Grant, a man who understood the numerical advantage of the Union and was was perfectly willing to exploit it in costly assaults that produced numerous Union defeats, or stalemates, but which drained the Confederacy of men they could not easily replace, a weakness the north did not share. The Irish Brigade continued to match its heroism with losses, and when its latest commander, Cavan’s Colonel Richard Byrne, was killed in the failed assault at Cold Harbour, the Brigade was disbanded, with its constituent regiments re-assigned to other units.
The 69th remained with the Army of the Potomac though, with many of its number now draftees from New York ghettos rather than volunteers. At the Siege of Petersburg, which started in June of 1864, Lee’s army found itself bottled up and unable to operate effectively, as the Union Army, the 69th among its number, dug in and waited. In the larger war, the Confederacy was strangled by setbacks in the west and the naval blockade of its coastline. After numerous failed assaults, a breakthrough was achieved in March of 1865, forcing the Army of Northern Virginia into flight, and the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond.
The eastern theatre of the Civil War drew to a close at Appomattox Court House, where the last desperate section of Lee’s once all-victorious army was cornered and forced to surrender. The badly mauled 69th was present, if not heavily engaged: it was among the regiments that famously gave Lee’s surrendered army the salute as it marched away for the last time. By then a new Irish Brigade had been commissioned, but its service was barely needed, the war coming to close by May of 1865. The overall casualty levels experienced by the Irish Brigade were immense, running well into the thousands: only two other Brigade’s suffered higher, and only six regiments endured more loss than the 69th, which remained in being after the war, but relegated to National Guard duty in New York.
The Irish experience of the American Civil War is almost entirely bound up in the story of the Union, primarily because of the service of regiments like the 69th, that would be resurrected for active service later in American military history. But, though little noted on this side of the Atlantic or the other, Irish did fight in grey colours between 1861 and 1865. Their story will be the focus of the next entry.
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