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The charge of the Irish Brigade

 
ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

Part 22 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. See previous stories.

OF THE MANY Union charges at Fredericksburg, by far the most celebrated was that of the Irish Brigade. The brigade was composed largely of Irish immigrants who had come to America in the 1840s and '50s to escape famine and political turmoil in their home country. Their leader was Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced "Marr"), a 39-year-old Irish revolutionary who had been arrested for fomenting rebellion against the British government and exiled to Tasmania, an island halfway around the world.

Meagher managed to escape his island prison after three years and fled to the United States, settling in New York City. He rose to become a leading spokesman for the Irish-American community, and when the Civil War began he rallied his countrymen to support the Union cause:

"Every blow you strike in the cause of the Union," he told his volunteers, "is aimed at the allies of England, the enemy of your land and race. Today it is for the American Republic we fight--tomorrow it will be for Ireland."

In February 1862, President Abraham Lincoln authorized Meagher to organize a brigade of Irish immigrants culled from cities in the Northeast. Initially the unit had just three regiments--the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York--but the addition of the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania later in the year brought the brigade up to full strength. By December 1862, it numbered 1,200 rifles.

To remind his men of their heritage, Meagher had each regiment carry a green flag bearing an insignia of the golden harp of Ireland. (The one exception was the 116th Pennsylvania, which was not fully Irish.) These flags of the older regiments had been badly shot up in earlier campaigns, however, and
a few days before the Battle of Fredericksburg Meagher had them sent back north to be replaced by new flags. Before the replacement banners arrived, however, the army crossed the Rappahannock River. Consequently, the only regiment that carried the Irish colors into battle at Fredericksburg was the 28th Massachusetts.

Meagher and his brigade entered Fredericksburg on Dec. 12, making camp at the steamboat landing at the lower end of town (the modern City Dock). The troops carried three days' rations and 60 rounds of ammunition. Stacking arms, the men dispersed to explore the town. Many took part in the shameless pillaging that followed, despite denials of their commander to the contrary. By evening, they returned to the landing and bedded down in the cold mud to spend what, for many, would be their last night on Earth.

Too soon the shrill call of the bugle brought the men to their feet. They made themselves a hasty breakfast of coffee, pork, and hardtack before forming ranks and moving up to the railroad. Around noon the battle began, and Confederate cannonballs crashed through the buildings around them.

"It was a time well calculated to try the stoutest hearts," remembered one soldier. Casualties from other units came drifting back from the front. A shell had sliced through the leg of one soldier, and it dangled from his body by a piece of flesh. He begged those carrying him to sever the mangled limb, but they were too intent on getting to the rear to stop. A man in the 116th Pennsylvania drew a knife and mercifully removed the useless appendage.

After a two-hour wait, the Irish Brigade moved up Caroline Street to George Street. The battle was in full swing now, and Confederate projectiles rained down on the unit with increasing venom. The bombardment clearly put the men on edge. To steady them, Meagher ordered them to place sprigs of boxwood in their caps. The greenery, he explained, would remind the troops of their Irish heritage.

The general then addressed each regiment, urging it to do its duty and strike a deadly blow to the traitors of its country.

"This may be my last speech to you," he told one unit, "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 fighting in the most glorious of causes." The brigade responded with three cheers.

It was then about 12:30 p.m. Four Union brigades had attacked Marye's Heights and failed; it was now the Irish Brigade's turn to enter the fray.

At the command, "Shoulder arms, right face, forward, double quick, march!" Meagher's men turned up George Street and headed through town toward the dreaded ridge. As they crested the hill, Confederate artillery opened on the brigade with renewed violence. Shells exploded overhead, while solid shot caromed down the lane ricocheting off buildings and knocking soldiers from the ranks. One particularly deadly shell exploded in the midst of the 88th New York, injuring 18 men.

The brigade broke into a trot as it descended the shallow valley behind modern Maury School. At the bottom of the hill, a canal ditch blocked its path. (After the war this canal ditch was covered over to form Kenmore Avenue.) The soldiers broke ranks, splashed through the muddy obstruction, and reformed ranks on the other side in the shadow of a slight ridge.

An officer remembered those harrowing moments: "In a few minutes came the word, 'Attention!' and every man was upon his feet again; then 'Fix bayonets!' and as this was being done, the clink, clink of the cold steel sounding along the line made one's blood run cold."

After what seemed an eternity, Meagher gave the order, "Irish Brigade advance. Forward, double quick; guide center." With a shout, the brigade rose to its feet and charged over the hill and across the plain leading to Marye's Heights. A hail of musketry greeted the five regiments as they left the cover of the valley.

"Officers and men fell in rapid succession," wrote Lt. Col. St. Clair Mulholland of the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers. "Lieutenant Garrett Nowlenfell with a ball through the thigh. Major Bardwell fell badly wounded; and a ball whistled through Lieutenant Bob McGuire's lungs. Lieutenant Christian Foltz fell dead, with a ball through the brain. The orderly sergeant of Company H wheeled around, gazed upon Lieutenant Quinlan, and a great stream of blood poured from a hole in his forehead."

Ignoring its losses, the brigade pressed on toward the ridge, the men dropping by scores.

"No cheers or wild hurrahs as they moved towards the foe," remembered Mulholland. "They were not there to fight, only to die."

The unit advanced to within 50 yards of the rebel line. By then, all organization was gone. Most of the regimental officers had been shot, and many companies had lost half their men. The brigade stood its ground for a few minutes, exchanging fire with the Confederates, then dissolved into the broken, bleeding sea of humanity lying at the foot of the heights. Some ran the

The next morning, just 230 men of the brigade rallied to the colors. Several hundred others straggled in during the course of the day, but nearly half the brigade lay bleeding in front of Marye's Heights. In the final tally, the Irish Brigade lost 545 men at Fredericksburg, 45 percent of the men it took into the battle, including 14 of its 15 field officers. The only officer above the rank of captain to escape harm was Col. Patrick Kelly of the 88th New York. He narrowly escaped death when a bullet pierced his coat just below his spine.

Yet, terrible as the Irish Brigade's toll was, it did not match the casualties suffered by Gen. John C. Caldwell's brigade, which followed it into battle. Caldwell lost a staggering 952 men.

Today, a monument to the Irish Brigade stands at the City Dock, where the brigade had bivouacked prior to the battle. In addition, the drum of the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers is on display at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. These objects remind us of the exemplary courage shown by the Irish Brigade and, indeed, every Union soldier who charged Marye's Heights that day.

NEXT: The Washington Artillery defends Marye's Heights

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of ìAbraham Lincoln at City Pointî and ìRichard S. Ewell: A Soldierís Life.î