The Irish Brigade

The United States Civil War was an incredibly divisive time in the history of this country. It placed families on both sides of the war. The war caused significant destruction to many cities and towns and caused a vast loss of life.  As the United States built up towards what would be a Civil War, the number of immigrants coming to the United States was extremely high. The largest of these numbers of immigrants were the Irish. A great potato famine had stricken Ireland, much of the population was starving and the prospect of a new country and an opportunity to make a new life. Many Irish men in Boston, New York City and Philadelphia saw an opportunity to help their families by joining the state’s militias being formed for the Civil War (Young).

The Irish Brigade had a rather tenuous beginning. Many Irish did not like the fact that they would be fighting for freedom for slaves who may then come and take jobs away from the Irish. The Irish were also concerned about working with any government after the extended oppression from the British government in their own country. After encouragement from Irish political leaders, Irish-only units were formed in several areas.

The Irish Brigade was a unit formed of Irish immigrants from Boston, New York, Philadelphia and other parts of Pennsylvania. The units consisted of the 69th, 88th and 63rd New York Infantry Regiments, the 28th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. The Irish Brigade became a well decorated and revered unit in the Union Army, collecting commendations in nearly every battle. The brigade fought the first actual battle of the U.S. Civil War at Bull Run. The brigade survived as a unit through the final battle and Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House.

The primary purpose of this essay is to show with amazing example, the bravery of the Irish Brigade, a unit made of men that had been downtrodden and discriminated against since their arrival in the United States. These men showed incredible courage in defending a country that had not defended them. Many sources have shown the history of the Irish Brigade, but the purpose here is to show that a group so detested before the war became heroes of their new country.


(Photo from the 69the NYSV Historical assoc.)

The Beginning

In the 1840s and 1850s, Irish immigrants came to the United States in large numbers to escape the oppression of British rule and the Irish Potato Famine, which had much of the country on the brink of death from starvation. The Irish came over on packed ships, often referred to as coffin ships due to the limited space on board and the many people who died making the journey to their new country (Young).

When the Irish arrived in the United States they did not get a warm welcome, in fact, they received quite the opposite. Since the Irish were largely if not completely practitioners of Catholicism, their arrival in the United States was ridiculed by the largely Protestant population. “In 1842, the American Protestant Association was founded and declared that Catholicism was ‘in its principles and tendency, subversive of civil and religious liberty, and destructive to the spiritual welfare of man’” (Gillespie).

Irish immigrants were met with hate and discrimination and were treated the same as slaves and, at times worse than slaves. The Irish were often threatened and even assaulted while disembarking from the ships. The Irish were arriving in droves as many as 37,000 in Boston in 1847 which at the time had a population of 115,000. In New York City, 52,000 Irish immigrants arrived in 1847, while the population of New York City was 372,000 (The History Place) .

Irish immigrants were willing to take what jobs they could to survive.  Most jobs available were usually accompanied with the note, “No Irish Need Apply” or simply “No Irish.” The Irish would often take jobs that no one else would, such as digging tunnels for the New York City subway system, street sweeping, dock workers and firefighting. The anti-Irish sentiment caused a backlash from the Irish and the Abolitionist movement. The Irish found themselves at odds with free Blacks who were coming to the North. The Irish suddenly found themselves competing for jobs with recently freed Blacks because the free Blacks were willing to take lower pay for jobs (Welch).

The arriving Irish were also taken advantage of by those who owned building in both New York and Boston. Immigrants were often packed into houses, there would be whole families living in a small room with no water, and no ventilation. In the mid-1800s there weren’t building sanitation laws or laws that would limit the number of people living in a residence. This overpopulation would often spill out of the building into the yards and streets (The History Place).

The anti-Irish and anti-immigrant sentiment was driven by a group referred to as the Know-Nothing party. The Know-Nothings were an anti-immigration, isolationist movement that was formed to preserve White Anglo-Saxon Christian America. Their isolationist and anti-immigrant views led to discrimination and attacks on immigrants, especially non-Christian and Catholic immigrants who they perceived as a threat to their way of life. In 1854, the Know-Nothings took over the Massachusetts government, passing laws forbidding immigrants from joining any militia within the state’s borders. (R. F. Welch)

The attack on Fort Sumter, which was the first skirmish of the U.S. Civil War, changed a good bit for the Irish. A wave of patriotism came across the northern states. Advertisements appeared encouraging Irish immigrants to volunteer for the Union Army in Irish newspapers. Irish political leaders and organizations, as well as, Irish-Catholic religious leaders began to encourage the Irish to support the Union cause (Welch).

When the Irish began to enlist in the Union Army, many found themselves in non-ethnic units. Some of the immigrants would only fight with Irish groups; these groups were organized in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia. These individual units were added to the Union operations group, the Army of the Potomac.


            The Irish Brigade was largely successful due to the military leadership that the troops held in very high regard. Thomas Meagher was born in County Waterford, Ireland. Meagher was an Irish Nationalist who resisted British rule over Ireland. Meagher was eventually arrested and sent to Tasmania. Meagher escaped to the United States in 1852. Meagher enlisted in the Union Army as an Irish Zouave in 1861. Meagher advanced to the rank of Brigadier General and became the overall commander of the Irish Brigade (Callaghan).


Many commanders were unhappy with the prospect of Meagher, an Irishman, moving up in the ranks. President Lincoln himself, however, saw Meagher’s heroics and leadership potential. Lincoln recommended to the Senate that Meagher be elevated to the rank of Brigadier General and placed in charge of the new Irish Brigade.

Father William Corby was the spiritual leader of the Irish Brigade. Father Corby was born in Detroit, Michigan. He was known for his long flowing beard, but is known even more for standing before the Irish Brigade troops before they marched into battle and granting general absolution to upwards of 3000 troops. Father Corby was well loved by the members of the brigade, so much so that the brigade erected two statues of him after the war: one at Gettysburg, near the boulder where he granted the soldiers absolution and one at Notre Dame, Father Corby’s Alma Mater. Father Corby returned to Notre Dame after the war as a teacher and spiritual leader. Father Corby also attended the dedication and held prayers at the monuments to the Irish Brigade after the war (Corby).

First Bull Run

The first true battle of the war took place near Manassas, Virginia, not far from Washington, DC. The Union commanders expected that the war would begin and end at Bull Run. The commanders had seriously under-estimated the preparation and leadership of the Confederate Army and the battle was lost by the Union Army.

The Confederate Army concealed troops and artillery in the tree line at the end of a large field. The Irish Brigade advanced on this fortified position taking heavy fire from the Confederates including rifle rounds, grape shot as well as ball and chain.

The Irish Brigade, taking and returning heavy fire continued their advancement on the wood line. Several times the brigade was repulsed, then they would quickly regroup and continue their advance on the tree line and Confederate troops. The brigade was eventually advised to retreat from their position. In a statement to the War Department about the battle, Commanding General Irvin McDowell said, “The Irish fought like heroes and at the end, did slowly retire” (Conyngham).

Seven Days Battle

            The Irish Brigade had been ordered to support a division along the Chickahominy Creek that had been “cut to pieces” (Meagher). As the units advanced, one division of the brigade was ordered to fix bayonets to repel and return Union soldiers running away from the battle. The brigade reached the ordered destination and was deployed to assist and relieve the units that had been routed. General Thomas Meagher writes of the great service to the army of one of his captains:

Captain Felix Duffy’s Company was accordingly thrown forward and deployed (and resolute in impetuous spirit with which they discharged their duty the command of their experienced and gallant captain had the effect of almost instantly checking a rout which if not arrested at that movement would have attended with the most fearful of consequence), thus driving back the fugitives and steadying the broken masses of the Union forces that had been engaged all day. (Meagher)

Captain Duffy’s company repelled the Confederate attack and reinvigorated the Union troops on the line to push forward and cause a Confederate retreat. The Union line was falling apart, but the deployment of this single unit rallied Union troops that had been fighting all day and pushed the Confederates back. The deployment of the Irish Brigade had stopped the Union Forces from a horrible loss that day. The very presence of the brigade and their bravery had rallied the Union forces and changed the course of the battle significantly.


The Irish Brigade’s story at Antietam is dark and deadly. Antietam was a bloody and horrible battle for both the Union and the Confederacy. At Antietam, the Irish brigade had their bloodiest day of the entire war.

The Union Army was engaged throughout the battlefield at Antietam and the Irish Brigade was ordered to take high ground in a farmer’s field along what had become a long, extended battlefield. The soldiers were taking heavy and accurate fire from Confederate forces, but continued their march. The brigade toppled a high fence along the field so it would not obstruct their fellow soldiers advancing behind them (Meagher et. al.).

With their brothers falling around them, the Irish Brigade continued across the ground to their destination. As many as half of the brigade fell from the heavy fire as they advanced across the field. As the Confederate soldiers saw the brigade continue their advance, they began to fall back for fear of being overrun, and the Irish Brigade took the high ground.

Once the Irish reached the peak of the hill, they came upon Confederate forces entrenched in what would later be called the Sunken Road in stories of the battle. An aid to General McClellan the commanding officer of the Army of the Potomac saw the brigade flag dropping and stated, “The battle is lost, the Irish are fleeing”. McClellan himself looked and said, “No, the flags are raised again, they are advancing” (Cosgrove).

The brigade entered battle over what is now called the Sunken Road, the road itself running between two farming fields, in a slight valley. The fighting was fierce and bloody. Stories told by stretcher-bearers and doctors at the end of the day said that you could not walk across the lane without stepping on a body; in places, bodies were stacked five deep. The brigade, with the help of Brigadier General Caldwell’s units, had pushed the confederate divisions back, and the Southern forces were now actively retreating their position.

During this melee, the Irish Brigade lost many of its officers and well as a large number of the fighting force. The soldiers and remaining officers did not retreat and continued to fight on until units from the second corps relieved them and continued to advance the line.



            Fredericksburg was the darkest battle for the Irish Brigade; their commander Thomas Meagher was in the rear due to ulceration of his knee. Entering battle without their commander may have had a devastating effect on the brigade. General Burnside had been placed in command of the Army of the Potomac after General McClellan failed to pursue the Confederates at Antietam, a move that could have ended the war. Burnside reluctantly took the command of the Army. Burnside was pressured to make a hard push into Virginia to attack and capture Richmond, the Confederate capital.

As the Army of the Potomac marched towards Richmond, the South prepared their defenses at Fredericksburg. Confederate soldiers had the high ground and a stone wall to cover them as the Union lines approached. Burnside ordered a full-frontal attack against the Confederates.

After the heavy engagement at Antietam, the Irish Brigade’s very recognizable colors were in tatters from repeated gun fire and cannon shot during the heavy fighting. To remain recognizable, McClellan had ordered the men to wear a sprig of evergreen in their caps so that the green was easily recognizable on the field. (Jones)

The call came from Burnside for the Irish Brigade to advance and take the hill.

Raising the old Irish cheer “Faugh-a-Bellagh” (“Clear the Way”), the Irish Brigade advanced up Marye’s Heights over its dead and wounded comrades. Waiting behind the stone wall was Col. Robert McMillan’s Georgia brigade. McMillan was Irish himself, but he had no qualms about shooting his fellow immigrants. A newspaper later reported that when McMillan saw the 28th Massachusetts’ green flag, he yelled excitedly to his men, “That’s Meagher’s Brigade” and drew his sword. “His countenance lighted up,” the account said, “and dashing along the line among men, amid him a shower of balls, and waving his sword around his head, shouted – ‘Give it to them now, boys! Now’s the time! Give it to them!’ And never did men better respond to a call.” (Jones)

The brigade took heavy casualties on their advance up Marye’s Heights.  They began their advance up the hill a force of 1,400 men, they sustained 545 casualties, including all 16 officers of the New York 69th Infantry. “In his description of the battle, the brigade historian, Henry Clay Heisler, declared, ‘It was not a battle — it was a wholesale slaughter of human beings’” (Jones). General Lee, who was familiar with the 69th New York after fighting them in the Peninsula campaign, saw the advance of the brigade and remembered their ferocity. He was reported to have said, “Ah yes, that’s the Fighting 69th”, (Jones) which is a name that stuck with the 69th New York long after the war.  After the battle was over, the members of the 69th were unable to locate their color-bearer. As they searched the field the next day, they found him and a stripped flagpole next to him. The men had never lost a flag in battle. Upon further searching, the soldiers found that the color-bearer had wrapped the colors around him. There was a bullet hole through the flag and his heart (Jones).

After the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Irish Brigade’s numbers had fallen to 340 men. Brigadier General Meagher asked repeatedly to have the brigade sent home for rest and recruitment of new soldiers; on every occasion the request was denied. The continued denial of his requests caused Meagher to resign his position as the Commander of the Irish Brigade.


            On July 2, 1863, the second day of the battle, the Irish Brigade stood in front of a large boulder. Above them on top of the boulder. Father William Corby stood with his hands raised, all the men dropped to their knees and their unit colors and flags dropped. This was a scene that happened before each battle, Father Corby who was known as the spiritual leader of the brigade, asked God for absolution for the soldiers and to keep them safe in the battle (Corby).

The Irish Brigade was at a strength of 530 men, significantly less than where they started at the beginning of the war. As the Irish Brigade entered the battle there was heavy fighting very close to them at Little Round Top. The Union Third Corps had been pushed back to the peach orchard, just to the brigade’s left. The men fixed their bayonets and headed into the fight. Very quickly, the brigade found themselves a few yards from General Longstreet’s Confederate division. The brigade and the Confederate forces were in a heavy firefight now just a few feet away from each other. “The firing suddenly ceased and an officer called out; ‘The Confederate troops will lay down their arms and go to the rear’” (Corby).  Although the brigade had taken heavy fire, they had prevailed and took many prisoners from the Confederate ranks. The 116th Pennsylvania was on the far right of the line and took heavy fire and some crossfire near the wheat field. The 116th took many casualties and some were taken prisoner and eventually died in Southern Prisons (McCarter).

On July 3rd at Gettysburg, The Irish brigade was given the job of guarding the 118 Union Artillery pieces. They largely stood by, as the Union artillery was not firing their cannons to fool the Confederates that the weapons were out of commission. The Union deceit worked; the Confederates had wasted a large amount of ammunition and gave the Union time to range in their artillery and take out the Confederate artillery (Craughwell).  The brigade, however, were noticing the Confederate infantry lining up across the large field. Thirteen thousand soldiers were preparing for what would become known as Pickett’s Charge (McCarter).

Although much of the Confederate soldiers were unable to survive the charge, those who did make it to the artillery positions that were being protected by the Irish Brigade. This is where the Confederate soldiers met their end and the brigade saved the Union Artillery from being taken by the Confederates (Kelly et. al.). The battle ended here, a battle over three days and a significant loss of life. The Irish Brigade lost 202 men, mostly from the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry (Jones).


After the War

            The Irish Brigade began their fight when they arrived in the United States, where they fought discrimination for being both immigrants and Irish. The Irish fought their way through horrible living conditions and jobs that many would not take. They fought their way through stereotypes and being considered less than human. Finally, they fought with the Army of the Potomac from First Bull Run to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House.

After the war, the Irish Brigade received cheers at the Grand Review of the Union Army on May 2nd, 1865. On July 4th, 1865, the Irish Brigade marched in New York City escorted by the 1st Division of the New York National Guard and the men were welcomed back to crowds cheering in a city that discriminated against and even hated them before the war. Although the discrimination against the Irish did not completely end after the war, the heroics of the Irish Brigade cannot be denied.

The soldiers and officers joined an army of a country that largely did not want them, to fight in a war that they didn’t necessarily believe in. The Irish Brigade fought ferociously in the United States Civil War, the brigade finished the war with high commendations from President Lincoln, to the Governors of Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. The heroics and bravery of the Irish Brigade solidified the resolve of the Irish to help build the United States into the country it has become.

The fight against immigration has gone on in the United States since the time of the British colonies into modern times. The story of the Irish Brigade refutes arguments brought forth, saying that immigrants will ruin the United States. The story of the Irish Brigade proves the worth immigrants have had in the United States.


Callaghan, Daniel M. Thomas Francis Meagher and the Irish Brigade in the Civil War. Jefferson, NC: Mcfarland and Company Publishers, 2006. Print

Corby, Father William. Memoirs of Chaplain Life. New York City: Fordham University Press, 1992. Print.

Cosgrove, Neil F. “The Irish Brigade at Antietam.” 17 October 2009. John Cardinal Alton, Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 3. Web. November 2016.

Craughwell, Thomas J. The Greatest Brigade. New York City: Crestline, 2011. Print.

Gillespie, Major William T. “The United States Civil WAR: Causal Agent for.” June 2001. Web. 7 November 2016.

Jones, Terry L. “The Fighting Irish Brigade.” New York Times 11 December 2012. Web. November 2016.

Kelly et. al., Colonel Patrick. “Center for Military History – United States Army.” 9 August 1863. Web. November 2016.

McCarter, William. My life in the Irish Brigade. Campbell, California: Savas Publishing Company, 1996. Print.

Meagher et. al., Thomas Francis. “History.Army.Mil.” 6 July 1862. Center of Military History – United State Army – Peninsular Campaign. Web. November 2016.

Meagher, Thomas Francis. “Center for Military History – United States Army.” 17 September 1862. Web. November 2016.

The History Place. “Irish Potato Famine.” 2000. The History Place. Web. 2 December 2016. <;.

Welch, Richard F. “America’s Civil War: Why the Irish Fought for the Union.” 6 October 2006. Web.November 2016. <;.

Welch, Richard. 3 October 2006. Web. November 2016.

Young, Patrick. “Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?” 24 June 2011. Web. Long Island Wins. November 2016.

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