U.S. Civil War History & Genealogy
Clear The Way
By Tom Gladwell
The Irish Brigade from Fair Oaks to the Bloody Lane
Despite suffering through the anti-immigration "Know Nothing" movement over 160,000 Irish born soldiers fought in the Union army during the Civil War. They fought in predominately "Yankee" regiments and in units composed of their own countryman. There were famous Irish American outfits including the 37th NY "Irish Rifles," "Irish 9th Massachusetts, 69th Pennsylvania, and 23rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry regiments. None fired the imagination of Irishman and Yankee alike as did Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher's "Irish Brigade. "The brigade, composed of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Volunteers, was later augmented by the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Meagher was the most famous Irish-American of his generation. A leader of the 1848 "Young Ireland " rebellion, he was condemned to death, reprieved, exiled to Tasmania and escaped to the United States, where he practiced law, published a newspaper and gained a reputation as an orator without peer. Meagher fought at Bull Run as a captain in the 69th New York Militia, was discharged at the end of that unit's three-month active service and then set to work raising the Irish Brigade. Many of the officers and men of the new brigade were veterans of the 69th Militia, making that unit, in a very real sense, the father of the Irish Brigade.
Through the Civil War, the men of the Irish Brigade were found wherever the fighting was thickest. At Antietam, Fredricksburg, Gettysburg, and a dozen other battles they gained a reputation second-to-none for discipline and gallantry. That reputation cost them dearly, and the brigade lost 4,000 men killed and wounded.
The welcome home was overwhelming, as if victory had been won. The Battle of Bull Run was three weeks in the past. After the dirt, the terror, the defeat and the exhausting retreat, the sixty-ninth regiment's spirit was at its lowest. Lt. Colonel Haggerty and thirty-seven others were dead; buried in Virginia mud. Sixty were wounded. Just as bad, almost one hundred were captured, including their brave Colonel Michael Corcoran.
At the head of the sadly reduced ranks on that August day rode Thomas Francis Meagher. Although a junior captain, Meagher was the best known officer with the regiment that day. A young Irelander of 1848, Meagher had captured attention by his escape from exile in Tasmania and his public speaking in favor of an Irish Republic, free from Great Britain. Meagher had raised CO. K for the 69th , known as Meagher's Zouaves for their distinctive uniforms. Company K fought bravely on the hills above Bull Run. Injured by a cannon shot during the battle, Meagher was spared capture by a New York cavalryman, who rode up and carried him off the field.
Sergeant Joseph O'Donoghue marched in the front of Company K. Born in Bantry, County Cork, he was twenty-two. A daring soldier, he believed that his Irish good luck would save him from his many scrapes. Three bullets passed through his clothing during the battle.
Marching close to O'Donoghue was his good friend Sergeant John O'Connell Joyce. A man in his early twenties, Joyce left Fermoy, County Cork in 1860 to emigrate to the United States. Accompanying his parents and eight siblings, Joyce looked to America for his salvation from the poverty and oppression in Ireland. But life was not easy in New York. His father suffered from asthma and rheumatism and could find no work. Joyce became the sole support of his family, working odd jobs that were available to Irishman in New York.
Joyce kept an interest in the growing Irish Republican movement, following the exploits of Meagher, Corcoran and O'Mahony. When Meagher called for recruits, Joyce was among the first to answer. His evident good qualities led Meagher to appoint him Sergeant, arguably the most important position in a Civil War infantry company. Joyce fought the Bull Run battle at the flank of the company. He was not injured and returned safely to Fort Corcoran outside Washington.
Further back in Company K's ranks marched Private Patrick T. Clooney. Like Meagher a native of Waterford, Clooney left Ireland to join the Papal Army during the recent wars in Italy. Soon after his return home, news came of the War in America. Clooney took ship for New York, arriving in early July 1861. He immediately enlisted in the Sixty-ninth and reached the regiment in time to join in the Bull Run battle. Clooney's military bearing and courage won immediate attention from his comrades. Great things were expected of him.
In command of Company G rode captain Felix Duffy. A colorful and irascible man, Duffy was , after Haggerty, the most respected company commander in the Sixty-ninth. His company was called the " Mechanics Guard" for the large number of artisans in its ranks. Duffy was an early immigrant to the United States, arriving in 1840 from County Monaghan. He joined the New York Militia, fighting in the Mexican War and gaining recognition for his gallantry and bravery on the battlefield. After the war he remained in the New York Militia and was appointed to the staff of the First Division. Duffy's company fought hard at Bull Run , forming part of the infantry square that defended the Stone Bridge against Stuart's cavalry at the end of the battle. A number of the men captured came from Company G, including Private James McKay Rorty.
Back in New York, just weeks after the terrible loss, a huge crowded cheered them on. They were escorted by the Seventh Regiment New York State Militia. The Seventh had men soon to be famous: Robert Gould Shaw, who would command the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth, the first black regiment, and Francis Barlow, Shaw's brother-in-law, soon to have an unfortunate encounter with the Irish Brigade. Its Emerald Green flag in front, the Sixty-Ninth marched to its Armory at Essex Market and disbanded..
The Irish Brigade
After recovering from the shock of Bull Run, the spark of an idea formed in Captain Meagher's mind. Ireland had a long tradition of sending her sons to fight in foreign lands. Why not forum an Irish Brigade to carry on that tradition in the United States. Besides lending direct aid to their adopted country, the Brigade could be a training ground for the Fenian forces needed to free Ireland.
The Idea generated great excitement in the minds of Irish and non-Irish alike. President Lincoln gave his endorsement as did most of the New York Politicians. Meagher set about raising the Brigade. He planned to form a small division made up of three regiments of infantry, a battery of twelve guns and two squadrons of cavalry.
Meagher's idea of forming an all arms force was very modern. But in one respect he settled for the old ways. Rather than equip his men with modern rifles, he chose the Caliber 69 Model 1842 Springfield musket as the infantry weapon for the brigade. He believed that the Brigade's role would be to engage the enemy at close range, where the smoothbore musket firing buck and ball rounds would be most effective. Close range also meant using the bayonet, which Meagher believed the Irish would relish.
Recruiting began on the trip back to New York. By the time the regiment returned to the Armory, more than half of the Sixty-Ninth's men had volunteered. Captain Duffy came forward to command a new Company G in the Sixty-Ninth Volunteer regiment, and became senior captain. Meagher was promoted to Colonel in command of the volunteers with Lt. Colonel Robert Nugent as his second in command.
The Sixty-third and Eighty-eight Volunteer regiments were forming at the same time. The new regiments offered a great chance for promotion for experienced men from the Sixty-Ninth. Meagher offered his friend Sergeant Joseph O'Donoghue a captaincy and command of Company C in the Eighty-eight. O'Donoghue accepted and went to see John O'Connell Joyce about volunteering as well. Joyce was named as 1st Lieutenant in Company C. Patrick Cloney Volunteered for the Eighty-eight at the same time as Joyce. His good qualities as a leader were put to use recruiting men for the regiment. Clooney raised enough men to form a company and he was appointed Captain of Company E on October 2, 1861. The Eighty-eighth had a jovial spirit and became known as Mrs. Meagher's own.
Meagher took his recruiting campaign far and wide. He spoke to rallies in many states, hoping to raise recruits from upstate New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. As word of the Brigade spread through the country, many Fenian militias sent recruits.
One was the Shield's Guard from Chicago. Earlier in the summer, the Shields Guard formed the 23rd Illinois. Commanded by Colonel James Mulligan, the regiment was called "the Irish Brigade of the West." Timothy Shanley, a twenty-seven year old New Yorker, left his young wife Margaret to join the 23rd . Shanley was with Mulligan at Lexington, Missouri when the regiment was sent to cover the Union Army's withdrawal from Wilson's Creek. The 23rd Illinois, along with some cavalry and local militias, held General Price's Confederate army of 20,000 for over a week. When no reinforcements were sent, Mulligan was forced to surrender on September 20, 1861. General Price paroled the men back to Chicago where they were exchanged for Confederate prisoners of war.
Hearing word of Meagher's Brigade, Shanley returned to New York with a number of men from the Shield's Guard. Arriving in October, they were enlisted into the Sixty-ninth at Fort Schuyler. Meagher encouraged Timothy Shanley to raise a company for himself. Shanly did, and was elected captain of Company D on November 1,1861.
In the late fall of 1861 the Irish Brigades three regiments were up to strength and prepared for mustering into the United States service. The Brigade moved to Washington City and marched to its quarters in Camp California, near Alexandria in Northern Virginia. The Brigade was assigned to the Army of the Potomac under the command of Major General George B. McClellan.. Numbering twenty-five hundred muskets, its ranks stiffened with men who had fought at Bull Run, In Italy during the Papal Wars, in the Crimea, and in the Indian Mutiny, they were the best known Brigade in the Army.
With Corcoran still a prisoner, only one other man could command the Brigade: Thomas Francis Meagher, Meagher was appointed a brigadier general by President Lincoln and was unanimously approved by the Senate in February 1862.
General McClellan assigned the Brigade to the First Division, Second Corps, an association that continued until the final victory. The Second Corps was commanded by Major General Edwin V. Sumner. Sumner was old army and a renowned Indian fighter. Richard Byrnes, who would command the 28th Massachusetts, had served with his sergeant. Sumner's last posting was in California, where he did much to ensure that the state remained with the Union. His reputation as an impetuous fighter fit well with the Irishman's own opinion of then selves and they came to hold Sumner in the highest regard.
The Peninsula Campaign
McClellan began the Peninsula Campaign with a feint into Northern Virginia. He ordered the Second Corps forward, with Richardson's division sent to Manassas and the old battlefield of Bull Run, while Sedgwick was sent to Point of Rocks and the upper Potomac. While the Second Corps pinned the Confederate Army north of Richmond, McClellan sent the rest of the army by sea to Virginia's Tidewater region on the peninsula between the James and York rivers. At the end of April the whole army was in front of the Confederate defenses between Yorktown and the James River.
The Confederate lines were manned by about 10,000 troops opposed to McClellan's 100,000. McClellan, perhaps mindful of the carnage he saw in the Crimea, decided to lay siege to the Confederate lines rather than take them by assault. McClellan spent most of April perparing his siege and scheduled the opening bombardment for may 4, 1862. The Confederates knew McClellan's plans. The night before the planned atack, they pulled out of their trenches and retreated towards Richmond.
McClellan pursued on land and water. While the main forces advanced up the peninsula and fought a battle at Williamsburg, McClellan sent the Second Corps on transports up the York and Pamunkey rivers to outflank the Confederates from the north. Landing at West Point on the Pamunkey, the Second Corps secured McClellan's supply base at White House, and then moved forard to a position north of the Chickahominy River.
The Battle of Fair Oaks
McClellan now opposed General Joseph E. Johnson's Army of about 60,000 men arrayed behind earthworks less than ten miles from Richmond. Although he heavily outnumbered Johnson, McClellan strategic position was not secure. He expected McDowell's First Corps to advance on Richmond from the north, joining the Second, Fifth and Sixth Corps on the north side of the Chickahominy and covering his base at White House. Heintzelman's Third and Key's Fourth Corps were south of the river. The Chickahominy River was very swampy and prone to flooding in the area between the Army Corps.
Johnson saw a chance to defeat McClellan in detail. On May 30th heavy rainstorms flooded the bridges over the river. The next day Johnson ordered his Army forward to attack the two isolated Corps. The battle of Fair Oaks began and ended in confusion. The Confederate forces were not able to coordinate their attacks, or start them on time. Although they pushed the Union Corps back, they could not deliver a killing blow. The Union forces fought well but were pushed back, looking across the flooded river for desperately needed reinforcements.
The sounds of battle alerted the Second Corps that help was needed south of the river. Sumner's men were sent across the flood to aid their comrades. Arriving late in the day, they formed along the railroad on the right of the Union lines and repulsed the last Confederate attacks of the day.
During the night, General Johnson planned the destruction of Key's and Heintzelman's Corps. Believing that the flooded river prevented reinforcements from reaching the Union forces, he ordered his Army forward once more. As they moved against the Union Army's right flank, they were surprised to find the Second Corps against them. The fight was hot but never in doubt. Faced with equal numbers and fresh troops, the Confederates were forced back. General Johnson was severely wounded by a cannon shot as the fight petered out.
This was the Irish Brigades first serious action. The 63rd was sent to reinforce French's Brigade and fought with them all day. The 69th and 88th fought together along the rail line, launching an impetuous attack that drove the Confederate forces from the field. No better initiation to combat could be asked. Casualties were low and success was gained. The battle gave the officers and men the experience they needed to prepare for the really heavy fighting still ahead.
The Seven Days
The Irish Brigade fought in every action during the Army of the Potomac's weeklong retreat to Harrison's Landing. It became known as the hardest fighting brigade in the army.
After Fair Oaks, the New York regiment's numbers were so reduced that a new, non-New York regiment was added to strengthen it. The Massachusetts 28th was assigned after the Fair Oaks battle.. The 28th troops came mainly from Yankee, Puritan stock. Despite their political and cultural differences, the men of the 28th fought just as hard as the New Yorkers. They were named "Honorary Irishmen" by their New York Comrades.
McClellan came close to disaster during the Fair Oaks fight. He strengthened his position south of the river, leaving only Porter's fifth corps on the north side. He ordered McDowell's large First Corps to move by land from Washington to reinforce Porter and cover his White House base.
General Robert E. Lee, now commanding the Confederate forces, still faced an enemy with overwhelming numbers just miles from the capital. Lee planned a new campaign stretching across Virginia. He sent reinforcements to General Jackson with orders to raise havoc in the Shenandoah. Jackson launched the Valley campaign, defeating all Union forces sent against him and launching a feint towards Washington. The Administration panicked at the thought of Stonewall Jackson marching on the capital. Halting McDowell's advance on Richmond, they ordered him back to the Washington defenses. Meanwhile, Jackson and his army left the Valley and hurried toward Richmond.
Without McDowell's 35,000 men, McClellan's base at White House was no longer tenable. He ordered a change in base from the York to the James River. At the end of June, a huge convoy of wagons began moving south, crossing the Chickahominy at Bottom Bridge. Porters Fifth Corps, arrayed at Gaines Mill and along Boatswain's Swamp on the north side of the river dug in to cover the withdrawal.
Lee's strategy was working. Porter's Corps was isolated on the north side of the Chickahominy and McDowell was back in Washington City. Jackson was due to arrive at any moment.. Lee had 85,000 men to McClellan's 120,000. But 60,000 Confederates were on the north side of the river, ready to pounce on Porter's 30,000. On the south side of the river, Lee's troops began active demonstrations that pinned McClellans remaining 90,000 men in place.
The Battle of Gaines Mill
Lee opened on June 26th with an attack by A. P. Hill's division on Porter's advanced position around Beaver Dam Creek. Porter held for the day and retreated to his prepared positions at Gaines Mill. June 27th saw desperate fighting. Porter's position was very strong and Lee's forces broke against it throughout the day. But at the end of the day Jackson outflanked Porter, and with a final push, Lee broke Porters lines. Porter retreated skillfully toward the Chickahominy, leaving Colonel Cass Irish Ninth Massachusetts as a rear guard.
The Second Corps was just south of the river, Richardson's Division was alongside the river bridges, with French's and Meagher's brigades poised for action. When word of the Fifth Corps plight reached them, the brigades moved to the sound of the firing. The sight of the fresh brigades, rallying stragglers and cheering those holding the line, restored the morale of the Fifth Corps.
The Irish Brigade moved to the top of a hill behind THE Gaines Mill position. Sighting Colonel Cass, dismounted, dirty and covered with blood, Meagher said, "Colonel Cass, is this you?" Cass replied with joy, "Hello, General Meagher, is this the Irish Brigade? Thank God we are saved."
Francis Walker said: " And now an unaccustomed cheer rises along the slender Union line. It is the cheer of men overweighted and worn, when they learn that help is at hand. They wave the green flags of the Irish regiments of the reckless, rollicking, irrepressible, irresponsible Meagher. Here comes the brigade of French, the old grim artillerist at the head."
In his report of the battle, McClellan wrote: " These brigades advanced boldly to the front; and by their example, as well as by the steadiness of their bearing, reanimated our own troops and warned the enemy that reinforcements had arrived. It was now dusk. The enemy, already repulsed several times with terrible slaughter, and hearing the shouts of the fresh troops, failed to follow up their advantage. This gave an opportunity to rally our men behind the brigades of General French and Meagher, and they again advanced up the hill ready to repulse another attack. During the night our thin and exhausted regiments were all withdrawn in safety, and by morning all had reached the other side of the stream."
Not only the Fifth Corps, but the wagon trains had reached the south side of the Chickahominy. The trains continued towards the James River. The armies rested for a day, both sides exhausted by the desperate fighting of the 27th. In a meeting with his Corps commanders, McClellan announced his plans to continue his withdrawal to the James River.
The Battle of Savage's Station
After covering the retreat of the Fifth Corps, Sumner's troops returned to their positions around Savage's Station. Lee left the Union Army alone on the 28th while he reorganized his own forces. Jackson remained on the north bank of the Chickahominy, threatening Sumner's flank. While the rest of the newly named Army of Northern Virginia moved to the front of McClellan's Army. On the 29th Lee opened the next phase to drive McClellan from Richmond.
The Second corps covered a large Union hospital and supply dump around the Rail Road station. The hospital contained over 25,000 sick and wounded. Richardson's division formed column of brigades on either side of the tracks. Sedgwick's and Smith's divisions were to the left, forming a solid front from the Chickahominy to White Oak Swamp. The Union position was strong and could not be outflanked. Lee attacked the Union line with two brigades. They were easily defeated by the three Union divisions. At one point in the battle, the 88th New York along with the 5th New Hampshire led a spirited attack up the Williamsburg road and threw back the Confederate advance. At another, the Brigade captured an enemy battery and spiked two of its guns. It was during this attack that Colonel Pierce of the 28th Massachusetts lost his arm to a cannon shot.
At day's end, McClellan ordered a retreat across White Oak Swamp. Sumner exploded, refusing to leave a victorious field and strong position. Finally he was persuaded, and during the night and early morning the Second Corps retreated across the White Oak swamp bridges. Richardson's division crossed at ten a.m. on June 30th, the Irish Brigade covering the rear.
Hazzard's Battery, which had not been notified of the retreat, quietly came up as the Brigade crossed. The battery awakened to reveille from a position in which they knew were no Union troops. Richardson formed on the left of the White Oak Swamp Road and burned the bridge behind him.
White Oak Swamp and Glendale
The Confederates took over the Union positions. Jackson crossed the Chickahominy over the bridges uncovered by the Second Corps and moved to White Oak Swamp. Savage's Station was an inferno of burning, abandoned supplies. Abandoned also were more than 1,000 wounded and sick who could not be moved. The Brigades Chaplains, Fathers Corby and Ouellet, remained with the wounded, returning to the Brigade later at Harrison's Landing.
The stand around Savage's Station gave the Army trains a chance to move beyond Jackson's reach to the far side of White Oak Swamp. Four thousand army wagons camped on the open ground behind the brigade. The destruction of the bridges delayed Jackson for another day. Apart from some heavy skirmishing and artillery exchanges, during which Captain Hazzard was killed, there was no fighting at the Swamp. The scene of action shifted to the Army's left.
Here Longstreet's and A. P. Hill's divisions were advancing along the Long Bridge Road directly into the flank of McClellan's retreat. McCall's division from the Fifth Corps and Kearny's from the Third were posted on either side of the Road at Glendale. Longstreet was ordered to open his attack in conjunction with Huger on his left and Jackson north of the Swamp, neither of whom joined the fight. Longstreet waited all day while the Union forces continued their withdrawal. Hearing the artillery duel at White Oak Swamp at three P.M., Longstreet attacked. His forces broke McClellan's lines and drove Kearny back some distance. Reinforcements from the Sixth and Second Corps were rushed to their support. The Irish Brigade was sent at five P.M. arriving about six p.m., the brigade retook a battery while the Union position were restored. That night, the Union forces remaining on the field retreated down the Quaker Road and took position on Malvern Hill.
The Glendale battle held Lee's forces away from Malvern Hill and wrecked his last chance of stopping McClellan short of the sanctuary of the James River. All day long on June 30th the Army's thousands of wagons traversed the hill and moved to Harrison's Landing. Elements of the Fifth Corps first fortified the hill and several batteries of field and siege artillery set up on the crest. The divisions of Morell on the left and Couch on the right acting under the command of General Porter of the Fifth corps, arrayed themselves in front of the batteries, The Irish Brigade reached the hill early on July 1st and posted along the eastern slopes behind the main Union line.
Most of July 1st was spent in heavy artillery duels and skirmishing. Lee had difficulty getting his division commanders to act in concert. The Union artillery broke up every probing attack. At four p.m. , the Army of Northern Virginia was ready for a full scale assault. Magruder, A .P. Hill, D. H. Hill, and Jackson sent their commands up the slopes and into the teeth of Union artillery. The Confederates reached the Union infantry and began to press them back. Colonel Cass, gallant commander of the Irish Massachusetts 9th, fell mortally wounded from their fire. Watching from behind the Union center, Sumner alerted the Irish Brigade and French's brigade for action. When General Porter called for help, Sumner sent orders to march. General Porter met the reinforcements at the crest of the hill and personally lead the Irish Brigade into the fight.
With the 69th in front and the 88th behind, the Brigade smashed into the Confederate assault. Moving in line of battle with Company D, Captain Timothy Shanley was wounded severely in the arm and was led back to the field hospital at the top of the hill. Captain Felix Duffy, raging at the enemy, pressed forward with Company G. Lieutenant John Conway, in position behind his company , urged his men to fire faster as the Confederates pressed the 69th' flank. Overhead the shells of the field and siege artillery flew into the enemies' ranks. Even the Navy joined in as a number of gunboats on the James River hurled 9 and 15 inch shells into the enemy.
In minutes the 69th exhausted its ammunition. Meagher ordered the 88th to pass through into the attack, while their comrades replenished their boxes. With a shout, the 88th leapt forward. Major Quinlan and Captain O'Donoghue had field command, their superiors being sick in camp. No loss there; with a fierce glee they led the regiment into the assault. Lieutenant Joyce commanding Company C, pressed forward with the front rank of men. Captain Clooney commanded the color company, standing firm with the color guard as the two flag bearers were shot down and the colors picked up by corporals. Clooney had the Holy Fathers special blessing, reserved for all men who fought in the Papal Armies. The colors were safe with Clooney there.
The 88th fired off all its ammunition just as the 69th returned to position. Once again the lines were passed and the 69th advanced. At that moment, Colonel Nugent saw a large enemy force moving on his flank from some woods. He called back to Major Quinlan for help.
Charging into the woods, the 88th surprised the Louisiana Tigers, made up of mostly Irish regiments from New Orleans. The fighting was at close quarters. The Tigers advanced on the 88th with knives and pistols. The 88th men clubbed their muskets and waded into the Tigers. Major Quinlan and Captain O'Donoghue, shouting Gaelic curses, rushed to the front with their men. O'Donoghue was shot down by a rebel, who lost his life in return. The Louisianians could not stand the fight and soon retreated, leaving wounded and prisoners behind. Their commander. Lt Colonel Waggaman of the 10th Louisiana, was pulled from his horse and captured by a private of the 88th. The Confederates fell back to their starting position. Malvern Hill was secure.
"Was my brother in the battle when the flags of Erin came
to the rescue of our banner and protection of our fame?
While the fleet from off the waters poured out terror and dismay,
'til the bold and wearying foe fell like leaves of autumn day."
Captain O'Donoghue's death left a vacancy in command of Company C of the 88th. Lieutenant John O'connell Joyce was promoted Captain on July 4th. Meagher made special mention of Joyce's valor during the fights at Savage's Station and Malvern Hill. His promotion was very popular; his men would have no other. Joyce was a scrapper and a leader of men.
Lieutenant John Conway soon assumed command of his company. Captain McMahon, his company commander, was detached in the middle of August to serve on General Richardson's staff. As 1st Lieutenant, Conway became responsible for his company, althought he was not promoted.
Captain Timothy Shanley's arm wound was serious, but fortunately did not require amputation. He was evacuated from Harrisons Landing to the Military Hospital at Judiciary Square in Washington. Early in August he received news that his wife Margaret was seriously ill. Shanley immediately requested leave to return to New York. His doctor endorsed the request, certifying that Shanley,s wounded arm made him unfit for duty. Back in New York, Captain Shanley nursed his wife and himself back to health. By the end of August he was ready to return to the 69th.
The Antietam Campaign
The Brigade was far from Richmond when Shanley returned. Much occurred during the weeks at Harrison's Landing. General John Pope replaced McClellan, who sat at Harrison's Landing pouting. Lee, no longer threatened by McClellan, concentrated his forces against General Popes Army of Virginia. On August 28th, Lee crushed Pope on the old Bull Run battlefield and sent him reeling back towards Washington. Lincoln had to choice but to return command of the Army to McClellan.
The Army of the Potomac was on its way back to Washington when Pope was defeated. Two of its Corps, the Third and Fifth, were with Pope at Bull Run. The others were near the capital. The Second Corps left Harrisons Landing during the third week in August and marched unopposed to Newport News, where it embarked for Washington. Arriving at Acquia Creek on August 26, it went into bivouac at Camp California, its starting point before the Peninsula Campaign. On September 3rd the Second Corps moved to Tenallytown, in Maryland north of the capital. On the 5th the Second and Twelfth Corps marched together to Rockville, MD.
While McClellan reorganized his forces around the Washington defenses, on September 5th Lee marched his Army into Maryland. He prayed that a defeat of the Union forces on their own soil would force Lincoln to sue for peace. If not, Lee believed that Great Britian and France would recognize the Confederacy and would force peace between the divided states. Lee advanced to Frederick, Maryland, about forty miles northwest of Washington. Feeling no pressure from McClellan, Lee divided his forces, sending Jackson to attack Harpers Ferry, and moving Longstreet back behind South Mountain, about fifteen miles west of Frederick. Longstreet was sent to Hagerstown while D. H. Hill covered the passes over South Mountain. Lee wrote detailed orders to all his commanders, one of which was never delivered.
The Battle of South Mountain
As Lee marched away from Frederick, McClellan slowly moved in. He was welcomed as a savior by the city. The Army went into camp in the field around Frederick. While McClellan did nothing, Jackson moved on Harpers Ferry and Longstreet set out for Hagerstown and Pennsylvania. Kicking about in an abandoned Confederate camp, a soldier found three cigars wrapped with a letter. The letter contained Lee's detailed orders for his Army.
Armed with Lee's own plans, McClellan ordered an immediate advance down the National Road to South Mountain. He hoped to catch Lee's Army while it was still divided and defeat it in detail before Lee could concentrate or escape. On the evening of September 13th, the First and Ninth Corps reached South Mountain.
McClellan had succeeded. Only one Confederate division, D. H. Hill's guarded the passes over South Mountain. Jackson, with half the Army, and Longstreet, with the remainder, were miles apart. McClellan was closer to each of them than they were to each other. An Aggressive attack would ensure Lee's defeat and the end of the Rebellion.
Learning of his danger, Lee ordered an immediate concentration of his Army. He chose the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, just north of the Shepherdstown fords over the Potomac, as the place to concentrate. Jackson was ordered to complete his siege of Harpers Ferry and move to Sharpsburg. Longstreet was ordered south from Hagerstown. D.H. Hill was ordered to hold the passes at South Mountain to the last man and delay McClellan's advance.
The battle of South Mountain was fought on September 14th. Hill's men made a valiant stand and held off the First and Ninth Corps all day. By evening, the exhausted Confederates were pushed off the Mountain, and the Second Corps led the Union Army into Boonsboro on the other side. Next morning, September 15. McClellan had the entire Army of the Potomac in Boonsboro and its surroundings. He ordered Richardson's and Sykes divisions forward to Sharpsburg, only seven miles away. Three divisions, including the Irish Brigade, encountered the Confederates posted on the far side of Antietam Creek. The divisions halted at the Boonsboro Pike bridge and deployed to await the arrival of the rest of the Army.
The Army of the Potomac took two days to march the seven miles from Boonsboro to the Battlefield. In the meantime, Jackson forced the surrender of Colonel Miles Union forces of 12,000 at Harpers Ferry and marched more than twenty miles to Sharpsburg. His troops arrived late in the day on the 16th. Longstreet's also arrived on the 16th, marching just under twenty miles. McClellan's failure to attack the Army of Northern Virginia on September 15th or 16th lost the nation its best chance to end the Rebellion. The hundreds of thousands of dead and injured soldiers suffered during the balance of the Civil War are directly attributable to McClellan's inaction on those days.
The Battle of Antietam
On the morning of September17th, McClellan was finally ready to attack. The battle opened at dawn when General Hooker sent his First Corps against the left of the Confederate line. The First Corps went in alone. The Twelfth Corps under Mansfield was on the field, but was not ordered into the attack by headquarters. Hooker's division fought gallantly, placing the names of The Cornfield and The Dunker Church forever into American military history. Only after his forces were exhausted, and Hooker himself was wounded, did Mansfield lead the Twelfth forward. The Twelfth Corps in turn fought an unsupported battle, suffering terrible losses before retreating back to the East Woods and the Cornfield. Mansfield was mortally wounded during the attack. The First and Twelfth Corps were out of the fight.
The Second Corps turn had come. Sumner commanded three divisions, led by Sedgwick, French and Richardson. The battle was more than an hour old when at 7:30 a.m. Sumner ordered the Second Corps to Hooker's and Mansfield's support. Richardson's division, which guarded McClellan's headquarters at the Pry House, was ordered to await the arrival of a replacement division from the Fifth Corps.
Sumner led Sedgwick's and French's divisions to the Pry House ford across the Antietam Creek. On the far side, he met General Hooker being carried of the field. Hooker made an urgent call for help. Without waiting for French, Sumner ordered Sedgwick to form his powerful division into line of battle on a brigade front. As soon as the division was formed, Sumner led it across the field. The three brigades of the division passed across no man's land, between the front lines of the Union First and Twelfth Corps and the Confederates. The Confederates let them pass unopposed into the West Woods beyond the Dunker Church. Then they counterattacked into Sedgwick's flank and rear, crushing his attack and sending his division running to the First Corp's positions on the north of the battlefield. By 9 a.m. Sedgwick was out of the fight.
French's division finished crossing the Antietam while this attack took place. French, separated from Sedgwick and out of touch with him, led his men to the left towards the Roulette farm. He was attracted to this site by the Confederates firing at Sedgwick. He attacked the farm, drove the Confederates from it and pushed them up the rise behind towards a sunken road.
The sunken road is a country lane running generally west to east and stretching between the Hagerstown and Boonsboro Pikes. It sits on a rise above the Roulette farm. Over the years, the road has been worn down by farmers' traffic and is from three to five feet below ground level. The road is bordered by snake rail fences, forming a perfect trench from which to fight. For much of its length, the road is set back some distance from the crest of the rise so that the men standing in the road could see into the ground around the Roulette's and stretching north. Behind the road, the land rises gently towards an orchard and fields in which Confederate artillery was posted.
The road was occupied by North Carolina troops on the left and Alabama troops on the right, all from D. H. Hill's division. These men fought at South Mountain and were still recovering from their severe losses. They looked with frightened admiration at French's division, with Weber's brigade in front, as it moved on their position. Behind Weber's brigade were two others, Morris and Kimball. Weber moved with great precision past Roulett's and up the slope towards the road.
As the first brigade crested the rise, the North Carolinians rose up from the road and fired a volley from a distance of sixty feet. The volley wrecked the brigade. Weber was down, every color was down, and the brigade reeled back behind the crest. Morris's brigade coming forward swept up the remnants of Weber's and pressed on. The Confederates had time to reload. Again they fired a devastating volley at point blank range into the Union forces. Again those forces staggered back
Kimball's brigade coming up had seen the effects of the Confederates fire on the two leading brigades. Much more cautiously, they moved to engage the North Carolinians. Both sides settled into a firefight, the Confederates behind the cover of the road and the Union men behind the cover of the crest. As each man loaded, he rose up over cover to fire at his enemy. Although the Confederates had the better position, French's greater numbers began to tell and the casualties in the North Carolina troops climbed steadily. Sensing the danger, Hill reinforced the road with more troops. French's fight was well underway when Richardson's division was at last sent forward. Leaving the Pry House at 9:30 a.m., the Irish Brigade led the division across the Antietam at Pry ford. The sound of French's battle was overwhelming, and Meagher immediately let the Brigade towards the fight.. The Irishman rushed ahead of Richardson's other two brigades, commanded by Caldwell and Brooke.
The Irish Brigade, with the 69th in front followed by the 28th Massachusetts, the 63rd and 88th , marched at the double quick in column of fours up to the Roulette Farm lane. Richardson cheered them as they advanced, shouting, " Bravo 88th, I shall never forget you!" Captain Joyce, seriously ill with camp fever, joined in the cheer for General Richardson. Joyce could not remain sick in camp while Company C went into battle.
The farm lane was covered with stragglers from French's division. Meagher halted the Brigade and ordered it into line of battle in the fields to the left and behind French's men. Confederate skirmishers on the east side of the sunken road moved to the crest of the rise and fired on the Brigade. Their fire, along with artillery fire from beyond the road, was telling on the Irish. A picket fence ran between two fields across the Brigades front. If left in place, it would break up the Brigade's formation as it advanced. Meagher halted the Brigade in its battle line and called for volunteers to tear down the fence. Seventy-five men, mainly from the 28th and armed with rifles, went forward to do the deed. The Confederates concentrated their fire on these men. The fence went down, but less than twenty five men returned to the ranks.
Fathers Corby and Ouellet rode up and down the Brigades front, granting absolution to the men in the ranks. The Irishmen were unsupported, neither Caldwell nor Brooke was up yet. But French's position was desperate. Meagher Rose in his stirrups and shouted, " Irish Brigade, Raise the Colors and Follow Me!" The Brigade moved forward over the three hundred yards separating it from the sunken road.
The chaplains dismounted and with the Brigades musicians followed behind, ready to care for the wounded. As the Brigade advanced, the enemy skirmishers on the top of the rise continued to take their toll. One of those injured during this advance may have been Private McArdle. A bullet tore through his leg and knocked him down. Fortunately no bones were broken, but he was out of the battle none the less. He was helped back towards the large haystack that the Surgeons set up as the Brigade hospital.
The Brigade swept on as the enemy skirmishers fell back to the sunken road. Alerting their comrades, hundreds of Confederates prepared for the appearance of the Brigade over the rise. A great roar could be heard from below the crest. The Brigade had begun its Gaelic battle cry " Faugh a Ballagh !'' " Clear the Way!" The colors began to emerge over the rise. First the finials and streamers, then the flags themselves, emerald green and red, white and blue. Then the men appeared, in battle line as if on parade. The Alabamans rose up, leveled muskets and fired.
The Irishman saw only the flash and smoke. Death struck the front lines. Every color bearer went down, most with multiple wounds. As much as a third of the Brigade fell at that first volley. Amid the Irishmen's confusion the command of the surviving officers rang out, ' Irish Brigade, Ready, Aim, FIRE!" The Confederates, waiting for the Irish Brigade to break as had all of French's brigades, were caught in the return volley. Now Meagher's insistence on arming the Brigade with smoothbore muskets bore fruit. The Irishmen fired buck and ball rounds into the Confederates that acted like shotgun blast. Dozens of the enemy fell to the Irishmen's fire.
Even more shocking to the Confederates, the Irishmen stood their ground. Standing, kneeling, laying prone, they kept up a tremendous fire into the enemy. Their position on top of the rise gave them a slight height advantage. They could fire directly into the enemy's lines and up and down the sunken road. But the contest went both ways. As each color bearer was shot down, another rose to take his place. Eight men fell carrying the 69th colors. At one point, Captain McGee of the 69th picked up the green color. The flagstaff was immediately cut in two by a rebel bullet. McGee bent down to pick up the color and a bullet snatched off his cap. He wrapped the color around his body and turned again to the fight.
Meagher rode up and down the lines, shouting encouragement to his men. Forty minutes went by as the Brigade fought the battle alone. Captain Clooney with the 88th Company E urged his men to aim low. His voice carried clearly to the regiment, over the noise of battle. Suddenly, a rebel bullet smashed his knee. Clooney fell, then struggled back up, using his sword as a crutch. His men urged him to go to the rear. In agony, he continued to shout encouragement to his men. Then another Confederate ball hit him passing through his body. Clooney fell dead, shocking the brave men in his regiment who thought him under special Papal protection. He lay still, the green plume in his hat blowing gently in the breeze.
By now, ammunition was running low. Muskets fouled by black powder could no longer be loaded. Officers and sergeants were down. The privates fought on. There was nothing fancy about this fight, it was a simple, bloody brawl.
The Confederates were faring no better. French's brigades at first contact falling back and engaging in a long range fight. The Irish were different they fought at close range. The Confederate officers and sergeants working outside the cover of the road suffered terribly. The Irish wounded Colonel Gordon, One rebel died kneeling, a fresh cartridge still in his teeth. A mortally wounded old private cradled the body of a young sergeant in his arms. It was his son, and the older soldier was waiting to join him in death. The fight was to much for the Alabamans to bear. In their twos and threes, as they ran out of ammunition, the Confederates began to run back from the sunken road to the corn field.
Caldwell and Brooke moved cautiously onto the field. Caldwell led his regiments to the left of the Irish but remained under the cover of the rise. Brooke lined his brigade three hundred yards behind the Irish on the reverse slope of a rise. There they stayed in perfect safety while the Irishmen's number dwindled.
Caldwell left his men without orders and hid behind a haystack. Seeing this Meagher rode up to Colonel Francis Barlow, commanding the rightmost regiment. " For God's sake, Barlow, come up and help!" But Barlow refused Meagher, pleading he had no orders. Brave on every other occasion, Barlow would rise to be a major general and command a division. But from that day forward, the Irish Brigade despised him.
Finally, General Richardson arrived on the field. Seeing the Irish in desperate shape and Caldwell's brigades not moving, he ran up to Barlow. Caldwell was nowhere to be found. Cursing loudly, Richardson ordered the brigade to go to the relief of the Irish. Barlow took command and led the way into position behind the Irish Brigade.
The Brigades fight was almost an hour old when Meagher alerted it that relief was at hand. He ordered each regiment to form up. Under intense fire the Irish Brigade and Caldwell's brigade performed a parade ground maneuver, a break of companies to the front and rear. In turn, from right to left, each Irish Brigade company stood to attention and executed a wheel out of line. One of Caldwell's companies marched forward to replace it. After the terrible casualties the Irish suffered, this act was one of the most extraordinary feats in the Civil War. It showed that the discipline of the Irish Brigade was still perfect, and the leadership of its officers and NCOs is awe inspiring.
Sadly for the Irish, one slight delay in the movement cost them dearly. As the Sixty-third slowly moved out of line, the Eighty-eight's rightmost companies stood up. The Confederates poured a last volley into Companies C and D. Many fell, including Captain Joyce, killed by this parting shot.
As Caldwell's troops moved to the crest, they stepped over a human bulwark of five hundred dead and wounded. Among the dead was Captain Felix Duffy, the irascible commander of Company G, Sixty-ninth New York. His first battle was in Mexico and his last in the rolling farmland of Maryland. Lieutenant John Conway, commanding Company K, Sixty-ninth lay dead with more than a dozen of his men. Captain Patrick Clooney of the Eighty-eight's Company E , shot twice and lying dead with the men who carried the flags. His special Papal blessing could not shield him on this day. Captain John O'Connell Joyce of the Eighty-eight lay there killed as he was preparing his company to withdraw. Captain Kavanagh of the Sixty-third, Fenian and young Irelander, now dead before the sunken road. Captain Shanley, just returned after recovering from his Malvern Hill wound, lay wounded with a rifle ball in his shoulder.
Barlow's Sixty-first and Sixty-fourth New York Regiments took up the Irishmen's fight. By now the Confederates had suffered enough. They fired cartridge box loads into the Irish, only to see them march off the field with incredible arrogance. Now fresh troops moved into the attack. It was to much. The Alabama troops broke an ran up the rise behind the road.
Barlow wheeled the regiments into the road and began firing down its length. The whole Confederate position collapsed, and Kimball led the remnants of French's divisions into the road beside Barlow. They followed close behind the Confederates, but halted to repulse a counterattack from the direction of Mumma's Farm, west of the sunken road. General Richardson personally led a battery forward to fire on the retreating Confederates. As he directed its fire, a rebel shell exploded above him, inflicting a mortal wound.
What a sight greeted the Union men! The road was carpeted with hundreds of Confederate dead and wounded. In spots the rebel bodies were piled two and three deep. The Brigade gave as good as it got. The sunken road would be known forever as The Bloody Lane.
McClellan's Final Blunder
General McClellan, standing on a hill south of the Boonsboro Pike, watched the Confederates streaming from the sunken road. He slapped his hands together, '' It is the most beautiful field I ever saw and the grandest Battle!" Franklin's Sixth Corps with 20,000 men was standing ready to engage in the East Woods, less than a mile from the sunken road. Porter's Fifth Corps with another 20,000 was guarding headquarters at the Pry House, a mile and a half from the battle. General Richardson, the only senior officer who knew there was nothing in front but weak batteries and disorganized infantry, was dying. McClellan was out of touch with the battle. He did not order the reserves forward.
Then from the creek, a brigade is seen moving to the Union troops support. Green flags carried high, the Irish brigade was returning to the battlefield. Cartridge boxes full again, Meagher led his men back to the fight. The Irish Brigade was not finished yet! Meagher was enraged at his loses and meant to renew the battle just what the Union needed! As they approached the sunken road, a Confederate sharpshooter aiming at Meagher killed his beautiful bay horse. Meagher was thrown from the saddle and stunned by the fall. He was led away to the Brigade hospital. The spark was gone. Lt. Colonel Kelly of the Sixty-ninth led the brigade into the sunken road where it halted. The battle of the sunken road was over.
The Aftermath of Battle
Turning to its own casualties, the Brigade began the sad process of removing the wounded and burying the dead. More than one hundred lay dead on the rise. Over four hundred wounded were moved back to the Brigade's haystack hospital. Fathers Corby and Ouellet moved side by side, administering last rites and hearing last confessions. The musicians carried the wounded to the hospital, while the soldiers buried the dead.
Most of the dead privates and non-coms were buried in groups, with as many as ten men in each grave. The locations were noted, but the names of those buried were rarely kept. Years later, most of the men buried in these graves were moved to the National Cemetery at Sharpsburg. But not all soldiers were so lucky. Recently three skeletons were unearthed from a common grave in the fields over which the Irish Brigade advanced. They were identified as Brigade dead by their location, their New York state coat buttons and the Catholic medals they carried. Forensic scientist found three minie balls in the rib cage of one of these men. Another was shot through the skull.
Officer dead were treated with more respect. They were given individual graves with simple wooden markers, so that anyone coming later would know who was there. Over the next several weeks family members of the dead officers came to recover the remains. Captains Duffy, Kavanagh, Clooney and Joyce, and Lieutenant Conway's famlies removed their loved one's bodies and returned with them to New York. Each was re-interred in Calvary Cemetery. Captain Duffy's remains were moved once more to their current resting place with its beautiful marker. The others graves have remained unmarked since 1862.
The Irish brigade faced many more ordeals: Fredricksburg, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Cold Harbor and Petersburg were in the future. But in the Army of the Potomac at Antietam, only the men of the Irish Brigade held their position until their ammunition was gone, only they retired under orders, only they left the field in military formation, and only they returned to the battlefield to fight again.
The Irish Brigade Association
The Irish Brigade Association of which I am a member, Some years ago began an annual Memorial Day ceremony honoring a famous Irish American who died during the Civil War. We have honored men such as Michael Corcoran, Michael Doheny, James Haggerty, James Rorty and Richard Byrnes. According to veterans laws, each documented veteran of any of America's wars are entitled to a grave marker provided by the government. We can request these markers for any soldier whose grave was unmarked.
Most of the Irishmen killed in the Civil War rest in unmarked graves. The vast majority are buried on the battlefields ( what better argument for preservation!), but even those returned home are mostly left unmarked. When we learn the life histories of these men and read the pension records of their loved ones, we find that most were poor and their families could not afford the cost of the headstones. By the time the government markers became available, their close relatives had died and there was no one left to request the stones.
We have taken on a lifetime's task. We in the Irish Brigade Association and the 69th New York Historical Association will continue to honor these Irishmen. They are not forgotten..
May they all rest in peace, reunited with their families in God's great Glory
Faugh a Ballagh !
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