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The Irish Brigade [Print]  [Back]

I had the privilege of joining two friends that I served with in the US Army, members of the Fighting 69th New York, at Gettysburg Battlefield the weekend of 5-6 April 2008. The gathering made up of past and present members of the Brigade paid tribute to all our forefathers who fought America's battles at home and on foreign shores. It was a wonderful weekend and renewed pride in who we are and what we stand for. The following is a brief history of the Irish Brigade that I would like to share with you.

Brother Ed Kane
AOH Newport

The Irish Brigade
Brother Ed Kane

The Irish Brigade was an infantry brigade that served in the American Civil War, made up, for the most part, by Irish immigrants as they stepped off the coffin ships from Ireland. These men were in need of work and newly formed brigade was a perfect fit for employment. The designation of the first regiment in the brigade, the 69th New York Infantry, or the Fighting 69th;, continued in later wars. They were known in part for their famous war-cry, “faugh a ballagh”, which is an old Gaelic phase, “ fág an bhealach”, meaning “clear the way”.

The formation of an Irish Brigade was authorized by the United States Secretary of War in September 1861. The brigade originally consisted of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry regiment, the 63rd New York, and the 88th New York.

In the fall of that year, the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry & 28th Massachusetts Infantry joined the Irish Brigade, giving it its desired complement of five regiments.

The core regiment of the Irish Brigade, the 69th was made up of New York Militia who gained notoriety prior to the civil war by refusing to parade the regiment for the Prince of Wales during his visit to New York City.

The commander of the regiment Col. Michael Corcoran was in the process of being court-martialed when the Civil War erupted. Needing as many men as possible, the Army dropped the charges and rushed the 69th to Virginia.

The brigade served with distinction from September 1861 through July 1864. During their first battle “T he Battle of Bull Run”, Col. Corcoran was wounded and captured by Confederate forces. Without their commander, the brigade was one of the few Union regiments to retain cohesion after the defeat and served as the Army of the Potomac’s rear guard during the retreat to Washington. The brigade motto “They shall never retreat from the charge of lances”, served them well then and throughout the rest of the war.

After Bull Run, Captain Thomas Meagher was promoted to brigadier general and assumed command. Before the war, Meagher was a leading agitator for Irish independence from Britain. A visible participant in the failed Rebellion of 1848, he was tried and sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment in Australia, but he later escaped to New York.

Formation of the ethnically based brigade served three Union purposes:

  1. It warned Britain (which was favoring the Confederacy, as well as entertaining thoughts to enter the conflict on their behalf) that there could be Union-supported consequences in Ireland if Britain intervened as most of the brigade’s membership were known Irish revolutionaries:
  2. It served to solidify Irish support for the Union place. Because of the Confederacy struggle for independence, the Union thought that the Irish was predisposed to support the South as they identified with their struggle for freedom:
  3. It solidified the support of the Catholic minority for the Union cause.

Having Fr. William Corby, a Holy Cross priest and future president of the University of Notre Dame as their own paid Catholic chaplain implied a social acceptance for Irish Catholics. His most famous act of the Civil War was giving absolution to the troops of the Irish Brigade before the Battle of Gettysburg.

Despite their diverse backgrounds and little time to train, the Brigade fought well together. They earned plaudits for hard campaigning during theSeven Day Battles, Savages’ Station, Glendale, and Malvern Hill.

As the Army of the Potomac remained at Harrison’s Landing, Meagher traveled to New York to recruit and replenish the brigade’s losses. As other units retreated to northern Virginia, the Irish Brigade, under Meagher’s command remained and joined up with Gen. George McClellan’s troops.

During the Battle of Fredericksburg, the brigade suffered its most severe casualties. The fighting force was reduced from 1600 to 256 soldiers. The brigade was involved in the Northern battleground at Fredericksburg under the direction of Gen Thomas Cobb. As they assaulted the sunken road of Marye’s Heights which was referred to as the battle of “Bloody Lane”, they formed a wall of men which allowed supporting troops enough time to flank and break the Confederate position at a cost of 60% casualties for the brigade.

This particular unit contained members of the Fenian Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to gaining military experience in the United States, for the purpose of freeing Ireland from Britain after the Civil War.

It was during this battle that Lee, impressed with the gallantry of the brigade, referred to Meagher’s regiment as the “Fighting 69th.

After the battle, Gen. Meagher requested to recruit the brigade back to strength. His request was denied and after sustaining further casualties at the Battle of Chancellorsville, he repeated his request for recruits and again was denied. He resigned his commission in protest and was replaced by Col. Patrick Kelly.

Leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, the brigade recovered several hundred of its injured at Fredericksburg and was able to field nearly 600 men. At Gettysburg, the brigade distinguished itself in Wheatfield under Col Kelly’s command and was later honored with a monument on the Loop on the Gettysburg Battlefield. While continuing to serve with distinction, casualties continued to increase and by June 1864, the Irish Brigade had be enreduced to regimental size. The U.S. Army disbanded the brigade and incorporated the remaining elements into the 3rd and 4th Brigades of the 1st Division, II Corps.

A Second Irish Brigade was reformed from the old Irish Brigade of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York, 116th Pennsylvania, and 28th Massachusetts Regiments as well as the addition of the 7th New York heavy Artillery. The 7th was later replaced by the 4th New York Heavy Artillery in early 1865.

The Irish Brigade fought in the following campaigns: Battle of Bull Run; Peninsula Campaign; Fair Oaks; Mechanicsville; Gaines Mill;Malvern Hill; Antietam; Fredericksburg; Chancellorsville; Gettysburg and Appomattox.

During the modern-day era, the Fighting 69th fought in World War I. For bravery displayed in Lorraine, Champagne-Marne, and Meuse-Argonne, the Medal of Honor was awarded to regiment members, William Joseph Donovan and Richard O’Neill.

By the time World War II came, the Irish influence in the regiment had diminished somewhat, but the regiment continued to serve with distinction in the Pacific Theater as part of the 27th “New York” Division. In 1947, following World War II, the unit was re-designated as a National Guard unit and is currently a member of the New York National Guard.

During the war in Iraq, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry continued the brigade's legacy by once again serving with distinction during their assignment in and around Baghdad. Their mission was to secure and provide security on the roads and highways in the surrounding areas of Baghdad. Because of their outstanding work in that arena, one of the main roads in and out of Baghdad was renamed Route Irish in their honor.

Musician David Kincaid has arranged and performed two albums of Civil War era songs about Irish soldiers in the Civil War. The first "The Irish Volunteer" includes songs about or referring to the Irish Brigade, Thomas Meagher and Michael Corcoran. The second album "The Irish American Song" features songs about Irish soldiers on both the Union and Confederate side of the war.

The Boston band "Dropkick Murphys" recorded a song called "The Fighting 69th", on their album "The Gang's All Here"

This article was printed from the Rhode Island AOH State Board website.