Hats off to the Irish Brigade

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone, and let us remember this day for Ireland’s patron Saint Patrick (AD 385-461) and for the arrival of Christianity to Ireland. I know there’s a long tradition of consuming green beer and other adult beverages, but let’s try to reserve a space for the true meaning of the day, and to celebrate the Irish culture and heritage which is so carefully interwoven into the fabric of America.

One of the sad and memorable moments in American Irish history I’d like to share is the charge of the Irish Brigade at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862 led by a stout Irish and American patriot, General Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced Marr).

Donald Pfanz, Civil War historian, staff historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park provides this summary.

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General Meagher traveled an interesting path in coming to America. As a 39-year-old Irish revolutionary, he’d been arrested for fomenting rebellion against the British government and exiled to Tasmania, an island halfway around the world. After 3 years, Meagher managed to escape and fled to the United States, settling in New York City. He became 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.”

As Pfanz writes, In February 1862, President Abraham Lincoln authorized Meagher to organize a brigade of Irish immigrants culled from cities in the Northeast. To remind his men of their heritage, Meagher had each regiment carry a green flag bearing an insignia of the golden harp of Ireland.

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). 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.

The following day 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.

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.

The unit managed to advance within 50 years of the rebel line, but the cost was high. The next morning, just 230 men of the brigade rallied to the colors. 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. General Meagher survived, and after the Civil War, Meagher was appointed acting governor of the Montana Territory.

Today, a monument to the Irish Brigade stands at the City Dock in Fredericksburg, Virginia where the brigade had bivouacked prior to the battle. It reminds us of their exemplary courage and their valiant their charge of Marye’s Heights against fellow Irishmen who fought under the flag of the Confederacy.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
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