Prior to the American Civil War, the regular Army was small reflecting the logic that America was best defended by hundreds of volunteer militia units. Many were little more than glorified fraternal organizations, filled with men who liked to parade, drink, and sometimes drill. New York had the Continental Guards, German Black Sharp-shooters and Hungarian Kossuth Rifles among others. Not to be outdone, the Irish formed the O’Connell Guards, Irish Rifles and Irish Zouaves. The more serious of these units were mustered into a formal state militia. On October 12, 1851, the 69th New York State Militia Regiment was officially organized. It consisted of eight companies of 643 men each, most of Irish birth or parentage. Within a year it topped 1,000. The regiment would go on to earn fame and glory during the Civil War as a key part of the Irish Brigade. The heroic sacrifice of the Irish in battle boosted the reputation of the Irish in America and provided a new and more ennobling meaning to the term “fighting Irish.”
When the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, Regimental Colonel Sligo-born Michael Corcoran called for the American Irish to join the 69th. More than 5,000 applied for only 1,500 billets and 11 days later, Corcoran and his regiment marched down Broadway and steamed away to defend the Union capital in D.C. The first test for the 69th was the Battle of Bull Run. In their first battle, the inexperienced Union army cut and ran back to D.C., but one unit that earned praise was the 69th Regiment who stayed to provide cover for the fleeing troops. They were the last to leave the field suffering 97 casualties and 95 captured, including Colonel Corcoran. The 69th returned to NY to rebuild their tattered ranks. Acting Commander, Captain Thomas Francis Meagher, began recruiting from the Hibernian House on Prince Street. When thousands of Irish responded, Meagher requested permission to form a Brigade. The Army was against forming ethnic brigades, but since England was trading with the Confederacy, they felt that fielding an Irish unit might just give the British pause and so they agreed and the Irish Brigade was born. It included the 69th, 88th and 63rd NY regiments and, later, the 28th Mass and 116th Pennsylvania. Some joined for the $300 signing bonus which was sent to family in Ireland, some out of a sense of duty toward their adopted land and some because of British support for the Confederacy.
The Irish Brigade saw some of the war’s harshest battles and they earned a reputation as the most courageous unit in the Army of the Potomac. After one battle, President Lincoln visiting the troops lifted a corner of the Irish battle flag, kissed it and said, God Bless the Irish Flag. Meagher had ordered 69-caliber smoothbore muskets for his men. They were considered obsolete, but very effective at close range which was the style of fighting he wanted because they fired the more deadly buck and ball ammunition and could take down 3 men at a time. Close up fighting made the Brigade fearsome, but also produced heavy casualties since they had to get up close to be effective. The Brigade fought in every campaign of the Army of the Potomac, from the Peninsular campaign in 1862 to the surrender of Lee at Appomattox in 1865. At Fair Oaks, Gaines Mill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and every major battle fought by the Army of the Potomac, the figure of General Meagher was seen leading his men into battle. Between campaigns new Irish were recruited to replace the fallen. Among all their battles the three most costly were Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. The Sept, 1862 battle of Antietam was the deadliest day in American history, with 23,000 killed and wounded. The Brigade suffered 540 casualties and Gen McClelland later wrote, The Irish Brigade sustained their well-earned reputation, suffering terribly in officers and men, and strewing the ground with their enemies, as they drove them back. Three months later, the Brigade assaulted Confederate entrenchments along Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg achieving international fame with the tenacity of their attack and eliciting cheers from their rebel adversaries, many of whom were Irish themselves. The next day, only 280 of 1,300 men were able to report for duty. Gen. Robert E. Lee later wrote, Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry. In July 1863 at Gettysburg they successfully countered a Confederate offensive near Little Round Top losing 202 men killed out of 530. When Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, the Brigade was there. One rebel officer told a Union officer, the only reason you won was because you had more Irish than we had! On May 23 and 24, 1865 they paraded in review in Washington D.C. and in the following months, 150 years ago, they returned to their homes to celebrate the new national holiday declared by President Lincoln two years earlier — Thanksgiving.
In post-war America, the Irish still faced poverty but discrimination had diminished. Many Americans accorded the Irish a new level of respect since many thousands had made the ultimate sacrifice defending the Union and, as a testament to their bravery, 7 were awarded the Medal of Honor. Soon it became unfashionable to discriminate against the Irish, and the NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs began to disappear from Help Wanted ads. And that was perhaps the greatest victory for the Irish Brigade. Of the 7,715 men who served in its ranks, 961 were killed and more than 3,000 were wounded – more than ever served in its ranks at any one time. The 69th NY suffered 75 per cent casualties while the British Light Brigade memorialized by Alfred Lord Tennyson for riding into the ‘Valley of Death’ lost less than 37 per cent. There is no famous verse for the Irish, but author Joseph Bilby in his book Remember Fontenoy wrote, The Irish Brigade was, many said, the best brigade in the Army of the Potomac. Some said it was the best brigade in the whole Union army and perhaps the best infantry brigade on either side. Today, others with the perspective of history, have come to believe it may have been the best infantry brigade that ever was!