At Ease: Green Flags & Yankee Blue
"Those Sons of Erin Fearlessly Rush"
In 1861, the U.S. Secretary of War authorized the formation of an all-Irish brigade. General Thomas Francis Meagher was instrumental in suggesting the unit and recruiting the regiments; he became its battlefield leader in 1862. The first regiments to form the brigade were the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York Infantries and the 29th Massachusetts Infantry. The 29th Massachusetts wasn’t composed of Irish and eventually requested to transfer; it was replaced with the 28th Massachusetts, which was formed predominately of Irish immigrants. Eventually, the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry was also added, making a five-regiment brigade. The Irish Brigade fought at the Peninsular Campaign (1862), Seven Days Battles, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Overland Campaign, Siege of Petersburg, and was present at the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House. The unit had a tenacious fighting record and was often sent on “impossible missions.” Though the brigade won respect and battlefield honor, it also suffered heavy casualties. The green flags of the Irish Brigade became iconic battlefield emblems, creating fear in enemies and admiration in comrades. By carrying a “stand-out” flag, the Irish Regiments were able to reflect their original national heritage through heraldic traditions. Ironically, their flag – designed to make a statement about Irish Nationalism – became an American symbol during the war, signifying the respect the immigrants were gaining in 19th Century society. With a harp on their green flags, the Irish soldiers fought for their new country, for recognition as a people group, and for memories of their first homeland. Their green flags ensured their identity in the 1860s and have been preserved to tell the story of the Irish-American role during the Civil War. In this week's email, you'll find some primary sources focused on the Irish Brigade in the Central Virginia battles and a new video about the charge on the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg.
"Clear the Way" courtesy of Don Troiani
The question was not limited to Central Virginia, and we enjoyed seeing the votes come in last week, answering: "What's your favorite battlefield account or other historical moment for the Irish Brigade?" Antietam took first place with Fredericksburg tallying second. Gettysburg followed in third place while other mentions included the Seven Days Battles and Second Bull Run/Manassas.
In their disciplined advance and charge at Antietam, the Irish Brigade once again preached a wordless appeal to the watching generals and soldiers on both sides. They silently begged for approval and acceptance as they fought and died for their new homeland. Who could doubt their resolve to be Americans – Irish-Americans – as they exchanged volleys to defend the union? (Excerpt from Thinking about the Irish Brigade at Antietam. Used with permission)
General Thomas Meagher
An Irish revolutionary banished to an Australian colony, Meagher made a daring escape from life-long exile and in 1852 sought refuge on United States soil. He established himself in New York, studying law and working in journalism. His daring escape and life circumstances made him a bit of a celebrity and he toured, giving lectures. Meagher positioned himself as a leader among the Irish-American communities and at the outbreak of the Civil War strongly encouraged his countrymen to volunteer and fight for the country that had given them refuge and opportunity. In his opinion, it was a good opportunity to get military training in case they could later “liberate” Ireland. Meagher actively recruited Irish-Americans from the beginning of the war and formed “his” Irish Brigade after the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1862. The brigade fought valiantly in the Army of the Potomac at most large battles in the east, often taking risky positions or maneuvers and winning respect from their brother-soldiers. Meagher insisted on distinctive green flags or other distinguishing features (at Fredericksburg they put boxwood in their caps) and this made the regiments identifiable and guaranteed their fierce courage would be recognized.
New Video: The Brigade at Fredericksburg
Private William McCarter of the 116th Pennsylvania described the charge of the Irish Brigade during the Battle of Fredericksburg. The attack on the Sunken Road decimated the brigade and the unit never fully recovered from the losses.
Major St. Clair A. Mulholland of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment reported on his unit's actions during the Battle of Chancellorsville. The Brigade—still depleted from the slaughter at Fredericksburg—did not take part in a major attack at Chancellorsville, but still had important work to do at the fords and in the retreat: "The Irish Brigade was engaged in supporting the Fifth Maine Battery, commanded by Captain Leppien. When the battery had been engaged with the enemy about one hour, all the officers and men belonging to it had either been killed, wounded, or had abandoned their pieces, with the exception of one man (Corpl. James H. Lebroke), and all the guns were silenced except one. About this time, Major Scott of General Hancock's staff, rode up to me, and requested me to bring out a sufficient number of men to haul the abandoned guns off the field as they were in great danger of being captured by the enemy.... My men obeyed with alacrity, and removed three of the guns off the field, and to the rear. After taking off the last piece, I followed my men up the road and found another gun in possession of one of my lieutenants (L. J. Sacriste, of Company D). This piece he had taken off without my knowledge, and made, in all, four pieces saved by my command."
What About The 1864 Overland Campaign?
The Irish Brigade continued in the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac, but heavy losses in the Overland Campaign reduced the brigade to regiment size. Here's part of a report by Captain Fleming of the 28th Massachusetts about the Battle of Wilderness: "Crossed the Rapidan near daylight at Ely's Ford on pontoon, and reached Chancellorsville at about 3 p.m. May 4, 1864. Bivouacked that night on the old Chancellorsville battleground. From thence at daylight on the morning of May 5, 1864, marched again, this regiment deployed on the left flank of the column as flankers. In the afternoon marched to the right of Todd's Tavern, crossing the plank road, and went into the battle of the Wilderness. This regiment being the only one in the Second Brigade who were armed with rifles, it was constantly acting as skirmishers, while the brigade was at work throwing up their intrenchments of logs and earth. Were engaged again on the 6th, 7th, and 8th of May, suffering much in loss of officers and men, fatigue, etc. The regiment performed the duties assigned them in a very creditable manner, although laboring under formidable disadvantages. In this epoch he regiment lost in killed, wounded, and missing as follows: Killed, 2 commissioned officers, 18 enlisted men; wounded, 3 commissioned officers, 85 enlisted men; missing, 18 enlisted men. Left Wilderness night of May 8, 1864." The Brigade also fought at Po River and the attacks on the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania.
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.