Irish Involvement In The Civil War
More than 170,000 Irish-born Americans fought under the flag of the United States between 1861 and 1865. Society in the United States had, up to that time, displayed a marked anti-Catholic sentiment, and most newly immigrated Irish occupied close to the lowest rung of the economic ladder, but this did not dissuade many from rallying to the colors at the beginning of the war. When President Lincoln made his first call for volunteers following the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the 69th NYSM (New York State Militia) was the second unit to leave New York City. The 69th served at 1st Bull Run under the command of then-brigade commander William T. Sherman; it then returned home and mustered out of Federal service. At this point, the decision was made to raise an Irish Brigade for government service. Many members of the 69th NYSM joined the new 69th New York State Volunteers (NYSV), the first regiment of the new Irish Brigade.
Selected as commander of the Irish Brigade was Thomas Francis Meagher, a man of outspoken anti-English sentiments who had been exiled to Tasmania by the Crown for his activities in Ireland. Together with the 63rd and 88th New York regiments, the 69th NYSV joined the Army of the Potomac to pursue the war against the Confederacy.
Beginning with the ill-fated Peninsular Campaign against Richmond, the Irish Brigade in general, and the 69th, in particular, began building a reputation for hard fighting and courage, as well as lavish hospitality. Part of the renowned II Corps, the Irish often figured prominently in any advance and rearguard actions. More than one general was known to ask Where are my green flags?; the reference to the green regimentals of the Irish units is significant. The Irish Brigade went through perhaps its most valorous period between the Battle of Antietam (17 September 1862) and the Battle of Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863).
This series of events, from its frontal assault on the Sunken Road at Antietam through the engagement with Kershaw’s Confederates at the Wheatfield at Gettysburg, saw the Brigade reduced to a bare skeleton of its former strength. The Brigade had figured prominently in Burnside’s disastrous attacks at Fredericksburg (13 December 1862), during which the 69th lost some 75% of its strength, and by the time of Gettysburg, the 69th NYSV numbered under 200 and was comprised of a mere two companies.
General Meagher had also resigned his commission in protest when refused permission to return the Brigade home for recruitment. Despite these hardships, the Irish remained with the Army of the Potomac through the hard fighting under Grant and took part in the surrender ceremony at Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865. By the war’s end, various regiments from various states had passed through the Brigade at one point or another, but the same original three.
New York regiments had always served with the formation. Fresh infusions of manpower had increased their depleted numbers, but many of the best and bravest who had originally marched off to war from New York never returned. Throughout the war, the units of the Brigade were hotbeds of Irish Separatist sentiment, and many of the original members had joined to gain military experience with which they hoped to return to Ireland and free their land from British rule. This dream, however, was not realized, for too many of those devoted to Irish nationalism lay buried along the eastern seaboard, casualties of the bitter years of 1861 through 1865.