Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Time for a history lesson…
About a hundred and fifty years ago, the “Fighting Irish” weren’t a sports team, but real men who fought and died after getting mixed up in someone else’s war. Beginning in the 1840′s with the great potato famine in Ireland, the United States saw a large influx of Irish immigrants, and with the country at war with Mexico, the one surefire way to gain citizenship and a better life for their families was to enlist in the army and fight. Many signed up and served with distinction, while many were killed in a dusty desert thousands of miles away from their homes, in a place they never envisioned they would step foot in. There was also the unfortunate occurrence of severe racism in the army, with most Americans being Protestants and most Irish being Catholics, with an allegiance to the Pope in Rome, something that commanding officers thought was treasonous. This is all wonderfully illustrated in One Man’s Hero, with Tom Berenger, but to look at a more positive aspect of these men would be to look at the immense bravery they showed in the American Civil War.
Once again, they seemed to be mixed up in someone else’s conflict. Some immigrants came in through ports of entry in New York or Boston, while others came in through Savannah. All they were searching for was a better life for themselves and their children, and the chance to possibly own land and live American Dream. But when war broke out, that all ended, and not being loved to begin with, they decided to do what their forefathers did before them, enlist. Only problem is, for those down south, to what army do put pen to paper for? In a way it did not really matter to them, because they just wanted the chance to fight and prove their mettle to those around them, so that when the war ended they would not only be citizens, but real Americans. This ended up being achieved by most, because even today the Irish Brigades are highly regarded for the way they fought, especially since most of the time they were given suicide missions or “used as cannon fodder” like Brian Mallon told me. Many also seem to forget that there were Irish Brigades in the Confederacy. I actually own a flag of theirs, and the writing set to the famous green background and above and below the harp reads, “Sons of Erin, Go Where Glory [A]waits You!”. That is ironic, because for most of them, death is all that awaited.
What we will focus on today is just one battle of many that an Irish Brigade was involved in, mainly because at Fredericksburg, there is a little sub-story involved that already adds to the drama and tragedy known as the American Civil War. The War was already in its second year, and the Irish had recently proved their valor at the battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) and were starting to turn heads. One one occasion, at the Sunken Road alone (also known as “The Bloody Lane”), eight Irish flag bearers were killed, and at the end of the day, their flag ended up with Captain James McGee, who held it closely to his chest, the staff shattered in two pieces, and the cloth flag reduced to nothing but blood-soaked shreds. Three Irish regiments from New York, who went into battle that day with roughly 1,000 able bodied men, lost 512 in just a single day of fighting. The day prior, the brigade had also received 120 new recruits, who were offered picket and guard duty, but wanted to fight instead—75 of them would be killed.
On to Fredericksburg, the reason why this is even sadder is because the Irish Brigades of each army would finally fight each other for the first time in a large-scale battle. It truly is amazing, when one thinks about it, how these men left the same island, came to the US in different ports, ended up on different armies, yet found themselves fighting one another on the same battlefield. Buster Kilrain, a character from Gods and Generals, remarks to Colonel Chamberlain on how they both know people on the other side, “Some of the lads that I left Ireland with are on the other side as well. Imagine that. We left together to escape a tyranny…and end up shootin’ at one another in the Land of the Free.”
This film does a great job in showing this sentiment, as you will see in the clip below, when the 116th Pennsylvania, under the commands of General Francis Meagher and Colonel St. Clair Augustine Mullholland, lead an attack on the infamous stone wall. With the distance of a little less than a mile of open ground to march across, they then have to sustain devastating fire from Confederate troops behind the wall, who are, ironically, members of the Georgia Irish Brigade under General Thomas R.R. Cobb. They stand their shooting and see the Union’s green colors coming up the hill, and actually stop firing, because they do not want to kill their own countrymen, but war is no time for sympathy, and they must keep shooting. When all was said and done at Fredericksburg, the Irish of the Union got closer to the stone wall than anyone else, a mere 50 yards. This was yet another suicide mission they would be sent upon, only this time, they were joined by fellow Americans in this charge, as wave after wave of men were sent in to their deaths on a pointless assault. An Irish chaplain, Father William Corby, remarked after the battle, “The generals could not be so foolish as to order us up that hill.” And that is what the attack was, foolish, and because of that more than 12,000 Union soldiers would die between December 11-15, 1862, but most of the devastation occurred on the 13th, when Burnside ordered his famous massive frontal assault.
This is a clip from Gods and Generals, which will show a portion of the attack I just described. Notice how when the Union retreats, the Confederates give a cheer, and this was done as a salute to fellow Irish, showing that they did not hate each other, but just happened to be on different sides of the conflict. This scene is beautifully morbid, to say the least:
And so on this day, which celebrates the Irish, let us take time to remember those that fought and died in the Civil War, fighting for a chance at a better life in a country which they were not even citizens of. Today should not just be a celebration of culture, but of bravery and honor, and it can be argued that no brigades showed more honor than those of the Irish—150 years later, and they are still worth remembering.
Erin go bragh!