“Faugh A Ballagh,” Clear the Way for the Irish Brigade

Print of the Irish Brigade of New York (September 27, 1852) | Courtesy of Library of Congress

On April 12, 1861, from Battery Row in Charleston, South Carolina, the sound of cannon blasts and rifle fire from Southern secessionists echoed off the walls of Fort Sumter. The Civil War had just begun, and President Abraham Lincoln immediately responded by sending out a call to arms throughout the United States. One of the regiments to accept the call was the 69th New York Militia, a group of Irish and Irish-Americans who called New York their home. The 69th was led by one Colonel Michael Corcoran, famed member of the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish-American group that sought a free Ireland. The Colonel acted quickly, and had amassed a group of 245 volunteers before the war, recruiting over 1,000 more Irish volunteers for a 90 day enlistment. Just as the regiment got ready to march south, a problem soon emerged. The issue was that Colonel Corcoran had, in fact, a court martial that was processing through the courts, a direct result of his refusing to march his regiment in a parade when the Prince of Wales visited New York in 1860. As it turned out, he only did so out of protest to the mistreatment of the Irish people by the British during the infamous famine of the 1840s and the British general occupation of Ireland. Fortunately for Colonel Corcoran, the court martial was ultimately dropped, and he was able to march his regiment out of New York on April 23, 1861.1

Following the secession of Virginia, the New York 69th regiment crossed over the Potomac River and set up camp near Arlington Heights in northern Virginia. They built Fort Corcoran and were joined by Captain Thomas F. Meagher and his men, who became known as “Company K” throughout the regiment. Captain Meagher was a well-known Irish revolutionary who was sentenced to life in Australia after a failed uprising, but, as fate would have it, he had escaped to New York City and had spent years becoming well known for his patriotism towards both his homeland and his adopted country. On July 18, 1861, with the 90-day enlistment nearing an end, the First Battle of Bull Run occurred. The 69th New York regiment had a limited role early in the battle, and ended the day with 38 dead, 95 missing, and 59 wounded. The Battle of Bull Run showed that the war would not be quick, as many in the North had thought, and would be a bloody affair. While the regiment returned to New York City and was welcomed home, their celebration came to an abrupt stop as Captain Meagher began recruiting men for the 69th New York under a three-year enlistment. Meagher had come up with the idea for the Irish Brigade, an allusion to the famed group of Irishmen who fought in France and Spain, and the starting regiment for the project would be none other than the 69th New York.2 The regiment received a new flag, one boasting expensive green silk with a sewed-on golden harp in the center, with the Gaelic words “Riambh nar druid o sbairn lann,” or, “who never retreated from the clash of spears” below it. The New York 69th regiment became the cornerstone of the Irish Brigade, which consisted of the 66th and 88th New York.3 On February 5, 1862, Meagher officially took command of the Irish Brigade and was promoted to the rank of general. Wasting no time at all, he had his brigade drill over the winter months.4

Drawing of the Battlefield at Manassas (April 6, 1862) | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Irish immigration had been going on for decades before the Civil War, but it certainly saw an influx in the Great Famine years, from 1845-1849. During these years, Irish families left their homeland, by choice or landlord evictions, and looked towards the United States for refuge, a famed land of opportunity. When immigrants had landed in the New World, they were faced with a variety of responses. While some cities generally failed to accept or welcome the influx of Irish, predominantly Catholic ones, like New Orleans and St. Louis, enjoyed a great amount of economic opportunities birthed from their immigration. Their acceptance within Catholic cities stood in stark contrast to the religious bigotry that Irish-Catholics experienced in New England, where they were more concentrated and often faced harsher labor. The rise of European nationalism in the 1840s resulted in the rise of the “Young Ireland” movement, which was unconsciously brought over to the United States, where it was wholly embraced by the Irish immigrants. The Young Ireland movement sought to bring about a free Ireland, either through diplomacy or violence. A major supporter of the Young Ireland movement was Thomas F. Meagher, the aforementioned Captain, who was exiled to Australia following a failed rebellion, and who managed to escape and find his way to New York City.5

The Irish population was split in the Civil War, and a great portion of the Irish community found itself sympathetic to the Confederacy’s bid to separate from an oppressive and overreaching government, and felt their struggle for a free Ireland comparable to the Confederate cause. On the other hand, some Irish believed that a large Irish involvement in the Union would lead to an increase in American support of Ireland, while others still sought to prove their loyalty to their adopted country through military service. While there were many advocates for both sides, over 150,000 Irish-born soldiers fought for the Union, a huge number compared to the roughly 35,000 who fought for the Confederate States.6

In September 1862, General Robert E. Lee crossed into Maryland with the army of Northern Virginia. He later brought his army to where the Potomac River meets Antietam Creek, near the town of Sharpsburg, and set up defensive positions. On September 17, 1862, the battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam, began and the Irish Brigade had an integral part in the battle plan. The Brigade, consisting of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York supported by the 29th Massachusetts, consisting of mainly Puritan descendants, crossed over Antietam Creek and followed General French’s division towards the center of the Confederate line at a position called the Sunken Road. After the battle, its name was appropriately changed to “Bloody Lane.” The Irish Brigade was armed with 1842 smoothbore Muskets that were able to shoot Buck and Ball, a shot that boasts a large ball and three smaller ones that effectively creates a shotgun effect at close range. Although the muskets were great for crowd control, they were utterly ineffective at longer ranges. As they approached the Confederate position, they were met with a Mississippi regiment and exchanged shots before routing and scattering the Mississippians. The Brigade pushed forward toward the Sunken Road and began to volley against the Confederate forces to no avail, as they were not able to break them. Meagher tried to initiate a bayonet charge without success, and eventually had his horse shot out from under him. The Irish were relieved after taking casualties and were replaced by another Union brigade that were eventually able to take the weakened Confederate position. The Irish Brigade was granted permission to abandon the battlefield, but it left 106 members dead and returned with 392 injured, many of whom died of their wounds afterwards. The Battle of Antietam ended in a draw and turned out to be the single most deadly day in the Civil War. Despite this, President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, a statement that freed all slaves in the rebelling states, at least in theory. After it all, the Irish Brigade agreed that the 29th Massachusetts regiment fought valiantly enough to be considered honorary Irishmen, and they were even offered a green flag by General Meagher, which they declined, before being switched with the Irish 28th Massachusetts regiment.7

Drawing of the Irish Brigade at Antietam (September 17, 1862) | Courtesy of Library of Congress

The next major battle involving the Irish Brigade was the Battle of Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg, Virginia is located between the Rappahannock River and steep heights. It was of strategic importance, as it had a major railroad that went directly towards Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. A Union capture of the town would permit the North to transfer troop and supplies easily and efficiently into Dixie land. In late November 1862, the Union army, 120,000 strong, was positioned across the Rappahannock River and found itself unable to cross until pontoon bridges were built. This caused a major delay, as it took seventeen days to set up the bridges and allowed for General Robert E. Lee to set up defenses along the strategic high ground, mainly Marye’s Heights and Prospect Hill, with his vastly outnumbered force of 75,000 troops.8

As the Irish Brigade watched the strengthening of the Confederate positions, Chaplain Fr. Corby, Holy Cross priest from the University of Notre Dame, was told by an Irish private that, “they are going to lead us in front of those guns which we have seen them placing, unhindered, for the past three weeks.” To which Fr. Corby responded,”do not trouble yourself, your generals know better than that.”9 On December 13, 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg started and the private’s greatest fear was a reality as the Irish Brigade was tasked with taking Marye’s Heights with a frontal attack. It turned out that the generals did not know better, as the Irish Brigade’s attack on the heights came after numerous waves and attempts left thousands of dead Union men, left bleeding and battered on the field. The Irish Brigade fought with all of its regiments, the 66th, 69th, and 88th New York, 116th Pennsylvania, and 28th Massachusetts regiments; however, they only marched under the green flag of the 116th Pennsylvania regiment, due to the damage that the other flags had sustained in previous conflicts.10 Marching without a flag was considered bad luck, so Meagher responded by saying, “Fellow exiles of Erin: The flags of our native land have been shot to pieces; the green color is all gone from them, but there is plenty of boxwood in the streets of Fredericksburg. Pluck it, place it in your caps, and you will still fight for your adopted land beneath the immortal banner of green.”11

Before launching the attack, Meagher turned and addressed his soldiers. “In a few minutes,” he told the men of the 88th, “you will engage the enemy in a most terrible battle which will decide the fate of this glorious, great, and good country.., and I have confidence that you will strike a deadly blow to those wicked traitors who are now but a few hundred yards from you …. This may be my last speech to you, but I will be with you when the battle is the fiercest, and if I fall, I can say I did my duty and fell for the most glorious of causes.”12 The Brigade advanced towards the positions held by the mostly Irish 24th Georgia regiment and reached close to fifty yards from the Confederate positions—the closest Union position that would be reached during the battle. The Irish Brigade ended the day losing 545 out of 1,200 men in the battle, which amounted, in reality, to half of the Brigade’s strength. Despite the losses taken, the Brigade had earned the respect on the battlefield of General George Pickett, who wrote to his fiance that, ” Your soldier’s heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their deaths. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. We forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”13 The end result of the Battle of Fredericksburg was an embarrassing loss for the Union and ended in the total retreat from Fredericksburg to a winter encampment. After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meagher requested a shipment of fresh volunteers for the depleted Irish Brigade, but had his proposition ultimately rejected. Following the rejection, Meagher resigned from his post as Brigader General, giving the position, and the entire Irish Brigade, to Colonel Patrick Kelly.14

A popular lithograph of the grand requiem mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral honoring the sacrifices of the Irish Brigade (January 16, 1863) | Courtesy of Library of Congress

The next major engagement was the Battle of Gettysburg, which started on July 2, 1863. Before the battle, the Irish Brigade was limited to 530 men, and, before it was sent to the battlefield, Fr. Corby went atop a rock, began mass absolution, and asked them to pray for God’s mercy and the Act of Contrition. He then gave mass absolution saying, “May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you, and I, by His authority, absolve you from every bond of excommunication and interdict, insofar as it lies within my power and you require; therefore, I absolve you from your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”15 The Brigade then marched towards the wheat field, went into battle formation, and advanced towards Stony Hill, a piece of high ground that overlooked the battlefield. The 3rd and 7th South Carolina regiments occupied Stony Hill, but were unable to see the advancing Irish due to the tall wheat and smoke. The Irish Brigade exited the field and ascended the hill in a flash, where they delivered punishing volleys of buck and ball, eventually driving the South Carolinians from the high ground. The Brigade’s flanks were left unprotected, and, as a result, they were soon to be caught in a pincer movement. However, Colonel Kelly ordered his men to retreat back into the wheat field, effectively saving the Brigade. The next day, the Irish Brigade played a supporting role in the infamous Pickett’s Charge, where a large contingent of Confederates charged the center of the Union line in a final chance of winning the day. Although the Brigade fired a few shots at long range, they were mainly there to support the defense, and even captured Confederate troops who hoped to avoid the slaughter. Even still, the Battle of Gettysburg ended with some regiments of the Irish Brigade taking up to 50 percent casualties. The Battle of Gettysburg was the high water mark of the Confederacy, as it would be unable to ever again invade the North.16

One direct result of the carnage at the Battle of Gettysburg was the Conscription Act ordered by President Abraham Lincoln. In response to this draft, many Irish and German immigrants met with native-born whites in mass protest, creating what would later be known as the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. The first draft ordered by Lincoln was in July 11, 1863, and the protests would begin even before the second drafting occurred on July 13, 1863. The protests started hours before the draft as thousands of workers from the docks, railroads, iron works, and other job sites joined together, heading towards the Ninth District Provost Office, where the draft was to be held. The crowd was pulsing with energy, cutting telegraph wires and looting all the way to the draft office. After a few names had been drafted, a fire company protested that some of their company had been drafted, as they were not required to be in militias and understood their jobs to be part of military service. The fire company quickly broke into the draft office and torched the building, refusing to extinguish the flames as they pushed their way back onto the street. The rioters then continued to close down businesses and harass Republican politicians and newspapers, as it was the Republican party that supported the war and drafts. By noon, all other draft offices in New York City were shut down, and, for some rioters, the destruction of the draft was the only reason why they rioted, and they returned to their homes. Others, however, had grown tired of the Civil War. They continued to loot, vandalize, harass police officers, and they even began killing blacks, burning the Colored Orphanage Asylum to the ground. By the afternoon, previous rioters had banded together to protect their streets from vandalism and destruction.17 As the days continued, the rioting only grew in ferocity. More and more Irish immigrants joined in, and began rioting because they did not consider ending slavery to be a motivator to enlist in the war, as the war had shifted to include the elimination of slavery as a war aim, following the Emancipation Proclamation.18 The Irish community also felt that they were being used as cannon fodder by the Union army and used the high casualties in the Brigade as evidence for this claim. Another reason for their anger was the fact that a payment of $300 would exempt someone from the draft, but this offer obviously meant that low-class laborers would not have the money to save their children or themselves. As a result, the idea that the elite were supporting the war on the backs of the common man only grew in popularity. Another issue existed within the exemption process, the Union boasted: blacks were exempt from the draft as they were non-citizens, and many New Yorkers felt that fighting and dying for blacks was horribly unjust.19

Drawing of General Meagher distributing prizes on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17, 1863) | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
At some point on July 13, it was evident to both Democrats and Republicans that the riots had gotten out of hand and needed to be put down. Republicans pressured the mayor to declare martial law, and claimed that this would put down all anti-draft protests, and that they would then have a military presence in the city. Democrats, on the other hand, wanted to use military force to put down the riots, but to do so, they would have to declare martial law. The mayor, a Republican, decided against martial law, as he believed it would only cause more to join the riots, which would only lead to more destruction and death. The mayor eventually asked President Lincoln for federal troops to help quell the riots as the week dragged on. One outcome of the riots was that $2,500,000 was raised to pay the exemption for every New Yorker drafted.20

Following the victory at Gettysburg, the Irish Brigade followed General Lee’s army into Maryland, then, across the Potomac River and into Virginia. The Union army engaged in a few minor conflicts, but didn’t experience anything major as they set up winter encampments. Many of the veterans from the 66th, 69th, and 88th New York and 28th Massachusetts regiments reenlisted, possibly due to the monetary gain that military service promised. The winter break also allowed recruitment to grow, helping strengthen the Brigade as a whole. While the new recruits primarily came from immigrants fresh from their homeland, there were some who had been in the Brigade earlier. The winter also created time for new recruits to be drilled, except on St. Patrick’s Day, which was reserved for festivities. The Irish Brigade continued to fight in various engagements throughout the remainder of the war and continued to accumulate heavy casualties. The Irish Brigade is known for the stubbornness and tenacity of their soldiers in the face of fire. Despite the massive amount of casualties that they often endured, they always continued to fight until they were relieved. The Brigade was famous for their battle cry “Faugh A Ballagh,” Gaelic for “Clear the Way.” The legacy of the Irish Brigade continues in song and tales of valor and excellent service for their adopted country.21

  1. Joseph G. Bilby, The Irish Brigade in the Civil War : The 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments of the Army of the Potomac (Conshohocken, PA: Hachette Book Group, 1998), 3-5.
  2. Joseph G. Bilby, The Irish Brigade in the Civil War : The 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments of the Army of the Potomac (Conshohocken, PA: Hachette Book Group, 1998), 6-22.
  3. Thomas J. Craughwell, “Remembering Ireland and Fighting for the Union,” American Spectator 44, no. 6 (2011): 26-28.
  4. Joseph G. Bilby, The Irish Brigade in the Civil War : The 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments of the Army of the Potomac (Conshohocken, PA: Hachette Book Group, 1998), 23-27.
  5. Malcolm Campbell, Ireland’s New Worlds : Immigrants, Politics, and Society in the United States and Australia, 1815–1922 (Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), 37-40.
  6. Malcolm Campbell, Ireland’s New Worlds : Immigrants, Politics, and Society in the United States and Australia, 1815–1922 (Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), 62-63.
  7. Joseph G. Bilby, The Irish Brigade in the Civil War : The 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments of the Army of the Potomac (Conshohocken, PA: Hachette Book Group, 1998), 51-63.
  8. Thomas J. Craughwell, “The Fightin’ IRISH,” America’s Civil War 24, no. 5 (2011): 50-52.
  9. Thomas J. Craughwell, “Remembering Ireland and Fighting for the Union,” American Spectator 44, no. 6 (2011): 30.
  10. Thomas J. Craughwell, “Remembering Ireland and Fighting for the Union,” American Spectator 44, no. 6 (2011): 30.
  11. James Callaghan, “Red on Green,” Civil War Times Illustrated 37, no. 6 (1998): 54.
  12. James Callaghan, “Red on Green,” Civil War Times Illustrated 37, no. 6 (1998): 54.
  13. Thomas J. Craughwell, “Remembering Ireland and Fighting for the Union,” American Spectator 44, no. 6 (2011): 30.
  14. Joseph G.Bilby, The Irish Brigade in the Civil War : The 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments of the Army of the Potomac (Conshohocken, PA: Hachette Book Group, 1998), 81.
  15. Thomas J. Craughwell, “Remembering Ireland and Fighting for the Union,” American Spectator 44, no. 6 (2011): 31.
  16. Joseph G. Bilby, The Irish Brigade in the Civil War : The 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments of the Army of the Potomac (Conshohocken, PA: Hachette Book Group, 1998), 87-91.
  17. Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots : Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 17-24.
  18. Malcolm Campbell, Ireland’s New Worlds : Immigrants, Politics, and Society in the United States and Australia, 1815–1922 (Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), 63.
  19. Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots : Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991),  24.
  20. Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots : Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 48-52.
  21. Joseph G. Bilby, The Irish Brigade in the Civil War : The 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments of the Army of the Potomac (Conshohocken, PA: Hachette Book Group, 1998), 93-111.
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26 Comments

  • This Hass to be one of my favorite articles to read because it showcased a big part of the Civil War that I had no idea about. A lot of history books tend to hide a lot of our history as it is and I am glad that I was able to gain more knowledge from just reading your article. It shows why this website is still up and going and you should be very proud of your work. I had no idea that the Irish played any part in the Civil War and therefore have gained some kind of respect for those countries that are not recognized in the helping of the United States becoming one of the most powerful.

  • Wow, before reading your article I had not realized just how big a part that the Irish played in the civil war, I had not realized that they played a part at all. Your article seems to be very well researched and is very well written. This article kept me invested all the way through the end! Good job!

  • Believe it or not, I am actually Irish and I had absolutely no clue about the Irish involvement in the Civil War. I also think it is interesting how this population did not necessarily fight on just one side. In a way this kind of reminds me about the French involvement in the Revolutionary War but, obviously, this situation is not entirely the same. What an interesting part of the Civil War that I did not know! Congratulations on your nomination!

  • This article is awesome. Before reading it, I had not realized the large extent that specific Irish units were utilized by the Union, and that such a large number fought for the South. The author did a great job of research and it really shows. It is incredible the resilience of those within the Irish Brigade, even in the face of heavy losses.

  • This is a truly fascinating article! I cannot believe I have never heard of the Irish Brigade fighting in the Civil War. Thank you for giving a little bit of a background for the Irish immigrants because, I have never put much thought to that. To be honest, I have never really thought of who fought in the war, just that there were two sides. What surprises me even more was that there was a significant number of Irish immigrants who fought for the Union. Great job and congratulations on your nomination.

  • Really good introduction and overall a very well written article. I had no idea that these men were even in the civil war let alone the role that they played. I can tell that this article was very well researched just by how the author made everything in the article just flow together so nicely. This is something that I absolutely need to look more into. Again this was a great article to read.

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