The Irish Brigade

Immigrant Fighting Unit Became Famous for Bravery and Tenacity

69th Regiment poster
Recruiting Poster for an Irish Brigade Regiment. Library of Congress

The Irish in the Civil War:

Civil War regiments were often recruited and organized along ethnic lines, and one of the most famous fighting units in the Union Army was the Irish Brigade. At its peak, the brigade was composed of four regiments, New York's 63rd, 69th, and 88th and the Massachusetts 29th Regiment. Many of the brigade soldiers were Irish immigrants from New York City, particularly the Lower East Side.

Part of the recruiting appeal for Irish immigrants in America was the concept that military training received in the Union Army could eventually be used fighting the British to liberate Ireland.

Controversy Helped Recruitment:

The original commander of the Irish Brigade was Colonel Michael Corcoran, who became famous when, out of Irish pride, he refused to have the 69th Regiment of the New York State militia parade in honor of the visiting Prince of Wales. A court-martial to try Corcoran was dropped in 1861 when the US government realized his potential value in recruiting Irish soldiers into the Union Army.

The original recruiting posters for what became the Irish Brigade often refer to "Corcoran's Irish Legion." At least one such poster defiantly proclaimed, "Irishmen, you are now training to meet your English enemies."

Off to the War:

When war broke out, the 69th Regiment was dispatched to Virginia.

The New York Times of April 24, 1861 contained a story detailing the festive scene as the regiment marched down Broadway. A company of firemen led the march, and thousands of people lined the sidewalks to cheer. The newspaper noted that along with a "splendid silk Stars and Stripes," the regiment also unfurled "the colors of Old Ireland."

By late afternoon the procession had reached a pier on the Hudson River, and 1,200 of New York City's Irish left for what people hoped would be a short and glorious war.

Thomas Francis Meagher:

The most famous leader of the Irish Brigade was Thomas Francis Meagher, an Irish revolutionary who was living in exile in New York City at the outbreak of the Civil War.

In the 1840s Meagher had been involved in revolutionary activity in Ireland, and the British government convicted him of treason and sentenced him to death. His sentence was commuted to "transporation" and he was sent to the penal colony at Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania).

Meagher escaped and made his way to New York, where he practiced law and was a well-known advocate for Irish freedom.

Early Action in Virginia:

In the summer of 1861 the 69th Regiment participated in the defense of Washington, DC, which followed the Battle of Bull Run. The other regiments were assembled, and in early 1862 the fully constituted Irish Brigade deployed during the Peninsula Campaign of General George McClellan.

The brigade fought at Yorktown and Fair Oaks. Morale was high. For diversion, the "Chickahominy Steeple-Chase" was held by the Irish Brigade at the end of May 1862.

Officers raced horses over hurdles, and to cap off the day, drummer boys raced donkeys. As the races ended, the brigade marched off to the Battle of Seven Pines.

Charging to Glory at Antietam:

Perhaps the Irish Brigade's greatest glory came at Antietam, where the brigade led a ferocious charge against Confederate riflemen entrenched in a sunken farm road that became famous as Bloody Lane.

Assembling on the morning of September 17, 1862, the entire brigade was given absolution, the late rites of the Catholic Church, by a chaplain on horseback. The men then battled toward the sunken road, finishing with a bayonet charge. Casualties were horrendous.

General Meagher had his horse shot out from under him, and critics spread the rumor that had been drunk and toppled from his mount.

Slaughter at Fredericksburg:

Three months after Antietam, the Irish Brigade again found itself in the vortex of a crucial battle. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, on December 13, 1862, the brigade made a series of charges against Confederate riflemen assembled behind a stone wall.

Out of 1,200 Irish soldiers in the attack, approximately half were killed or wounded. The scenes on the battlefield were ghastly, as the wounded were trapped under murderous rifle fire and many died before they could be helped.

Following Fredericksburg, the Irish Brigade held a requiem mass for its many fallen soldiers at the Old St. Patrick's Cathedral in lower Manhattan.

Valor at Gettysburg:

The Irish Brigade, with some of its wounded restored to active duty, was able to assemble approximately 600 men before the summer of 1863. At the Battle of Gettysburg the brigade again saw heavy action and sustained horrific casualties.

The focal point of the Irish Brigade's action at Gettysburg was in the area known as The Wheatfield. A green granite monument to the Irish Brigade soldiers placed at the site in 1888 features a Celtic cross and a wolfhound, a symbol of Irish loyalty.

The Brigade Nearly Destroyed:

By 1864 the Irish Brigade had lost so many men that it the entire brigade had shrunk to the size of a single regiment. The US Army absorbed it into other units.

The dream of a trained Irish-American unit that would liberate Ireland from British rule never came to pass, of course.

The 69th New York Regiment later saw service in other wars, including World War I and World War II. Soldiers from the 69th New York have also served in Iraq.