With today being the 148th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg I thought I would do short bio of a regiment made famous by this battle, the Irish Brigade.
The Irish Brigade was formed in 1861, after the battle of First Manassas. Thomas Meagher (who earlier was a captain in the 69th New York) was under order from the War Department to “arrange with the colonels commanding of four other regiments to be raised to form a brigade, the brigadier-general for which will be designated hereafter by the proper authority of Government.”This new brigade then became known as the Irish brigade, 2nd brigade, 1st division 2nd corps, Army of the Potomac. It was made up of the 28th Massachusetts, 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York, and the 116th Pennsylvania regiments.<
Here is Brigadier General Thomas Meagher’s report of the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg.
“Hdqrs. Irish Brig. (Second Brig.), Hancock�s Div.,
In Camp before Fredericksburg, Va., December 20, 1862
I have the honor to report through you to the brigadier-general commanding the division the part taken by the brigade I have the honor to command in the action of Saturday, the 13th instant.
On the Thursday morning previous, December 11, at 7 o�clock precisely, the brigade left the camp from which this report is dated, and proceeded toward the pontoon bridge over the Rappahannock, which it was arranged the division should cross. The brigade never was in finer spirits and condition. The arms and accouterments were in perfect order. The required amount of ammunition was on hand. Both officers and men were comfortably clad; and it would be difficult to say whether those who were to be led, or those who were to lead, were the better prepared or the more eager to discharge their duty.
Arriving within a few hundred paces of the headquarters of Major-General Sumner, commanding the right grand division of the Army of the Potomac, the brigade was halted, by order of Brigadier-General Hancock, in a well sheltered valley, where we stacked arms and bivouacked from 9 o’clock until 4:30p.m. The fire of our batteries and those of the enemy, incessant and terrible as it was, taught every man of the brigade to prepare himself equably and sternly for a desperate conflict.
A few minutes after 4 o’clock, word was conveyed to me that a body of daring volunteers had crossed the river in boats, and taken possession of the city of Fredericksburg. The State of Michigan will fairly reserve to herself the largest measure of pride justified by this achievement. Immediately after this word was brought to me, an order reached me from Brigadier General Hancock to march forward my brigade and take up position nearer the river.
At 7 o’clock the following morning the brigade was under arms, and in less than two hours the head of the brigade presented itself on the opposite bank of the river. The order of the advance of our division on this occasion was as follows: Colonel Zook, commanding French’s old brigade, led the way; the Irish Brigade came next, and the Brigadier-General Caldwell’s brought up the rear.
Passing along the south bank of the Rappahannock to the lower crossing communicating with the city, the brigade halted, counter-marched, stacked arms, and in this position, ankle-deep in mud, and with little or nothing to contribute to their comfort, in complete subordination and good heart awaited further orders. All this time, and until night came on, the batteries of the enemy continued their fire; at one time, especially, so operating that an entire division, crossing immediately on our left flank, was compelled to fall back and wait for the approaching night to conceal and protect its advance. An order was issued by Major-General Couch, commanding the corps, that no fires should be lit after nightfall. This order was uncomplainingly and manfully obeyed by my brigade. Officers and men lay down and slept that night in the mud and frost, and, without a murmur, with heroic hearts composed themselves as best as they could for the eventualities of the coming day.
I do not wish to introduce into an official report, where facts alone should be narrated, any expression of personal feeling; but it would be doing an injustice to my brigade if I did not say that the fortitude and endurance with which the hardships of that night were borne were such as to affect me deeply. I shall also digress from the strict line of an official report, in vindication of the honor and humanity of the brigade, to state that during the occupation of the city of Fredericksburg, previous to as well as after the advance of our forces on the batteries of the enemy, the Irish Brigade scrupulously abstained from any act of depredation.
On the morning of Saturday, the 13th instant, we were ordered under arms. The order was delivered to me at 8a.m. Having formed the brigade, I addressed to every regiment separately a few words, reminding them of their duty, and exhorting them to do it bravely and nobly. Immediately after, the column moved up the street, headed by Col. Robert Nugent and his veteran regiment, being exposed during the march to a continuous fire of shot and shell, several men falling from the effects of each. Even while I was addressing the Sixty-ninth, which was on the right of the brigade, 3 men of the Sixty-third were knocked over, and before I had spoken the last word of encouragement the mangled remains – mere masses of blood and rags – were borne along the line.
Advancing up the street, at the front of which the right of the brigade in line had rested, and worried by shell and shot and rifle balls every step we took, we crossed, the mill-race immediately outside of the city, which water course may be described as the first defense of the enemy. The entire brigade, consisting of 1,200 men, at that moment had to cross a single bridge, and, passing to the right, deploy into line of battle. This movement necessarily took some time to execute. The Sixty-ninth, being on the right, was compelled to stand its ground until the rest of the brigade came up and formed. This ordeal it had to endure for fully half an hour. I myself, accompanied by Lieutenant Emmet, of the staff, crossed over on foot from the head of the street through which the brigade had approached the battle-field. It was not, however, more than thirty minutes after the head of the column had reached the right of the line, on which the brigade was to form preparatory to its advance, that the other regiments of the brigade, unbroken and undismayed by the terrific fire which poured down upon them, dashingly came up.
Reaching the head of my column, accompanied, as I have said, by Lieutenant Emmet, and having crossed the mill-race with the assistance of two wounded soldiers, I found that Colonel Nugent had just halted his regiment. Remaining here in conversation for a few minutes with the colonel, Lieutenant Miller, of Brigadier-General Hancock’s staff, late of Major-General Richardson’s rode up and delivered me further instructions, in obedience to which I directed Colonel Nugent to throw out two companies of his regiment as skirmishers on the right flank. I had hardly done so before the Eighty-eighth, Sixty-third, Twenty-eighth, and One hundred and sixteenth, coming up, and deploying themselves in line of battle, drew down upon the brigade a still more terrific fire. The line, however, was beautifully and rapidly formed, and then boldly advanced, Colonel Nugent leading the Sixty-ninth on the right, Col. Patrick Kelly, commanding the Eighty-eighth, being next in position, and both displaying a courageous soldiership which I have no words, with all my partiality for them, adequately to describe. Maj. Joseph O’Neill, commanding the Sixty-third, was as true that day as he has ever been. His position was on the left of the center of the line.
The center was assigned by me to the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts Volunteers, commanded by Col. R. Byrnes (this regiment carrying the only green flag under which the Irish Brigade this day had the proud privilege to do its duty, the old colors having been sent to New York several days before, and the new ones not having as yet arrived). The Twenty-eighth was originally destined for the brigade; it was raised especially for it. Its ranks were filled under the impression it would be one of the first regiments of the brigade. Under that impression hundreds of good and true men enrolled themselves in it, but, owing to some blunder, the Twenty-eighth was ordered to Port Royal, and it was not until the other day that, through the friendly interposition of General Sumner, it renewed its associations with the Irish Brigade. On the left of the line was the One hundred and sixteenth Pennsylvania Volunteers, a new regiment; it had but very recently joined the brigade, but in its conduct from Bolivar Heights, where I had the satisfaction of welcoming it to our camp, down to the present moment, when its headlong gallantry is placed on record, it has proved itself worthy of the cause into which with so much enthusiasm it had thrown itself.
Thus formed, under the unabating tempest of shot and shell, the Irish Brigade advanced at the double-quick against the rifle-pits, the breastworks, and batteries of the enemy. I myself ordered the advance, encouraged the line, and urged it on; but, owing to a most painful ulcer in the knee joint, which I had concealed and borne up against for days, I was compelled, with a view to be of any further service to the brigade that day, to return over the plowed field over which we had advanced from the mill-race. I did so to get my horse, which had been left at the head of the street from which our column had debouched, in care of my orderlies, along with the other horses of the field and staff officers of the brigade, Brigadier-General Hancock having suggested that it would be advisable for all such officers to act on foot. On going for the horse on the left of the line, I met Captain Hart, the acting assistant adjutant-general of the brigade, who was moving up from the left to the right with the perfect coolness and intelligent bravery, forming and steadying the men for attack. Halting a moment on the left, I gave the word, and instantly saw the brigade impetuously advance. Passing down the slope, and through crowds of slain and wounded, I reached the spot where I had left my horse and mounted him.
Having mounted, I started with one of the orderlies to rejoin the brigade on the right, and with that view took the street across which the two companies of the Sixty-ninth, under Capt. James Saunders, a staunch and fearless officer, has been deployed as skirmishers. I had not proceeded many paces up this street before I met the remnant of the Sixty-third, bearing the regimental colors, coming toward me, under the command of Captain Gleeson, one of the bravest and most reliable officers of the brigade. With these few survivors of the Sixty-third were a portion of the Sixty-ninth.
Fearing that the enemy might break through our lines, which had begun to waver under those torrents from the musketry and artillery of the enemy that seemed every instant to increase in fury, I halted this handful of the brigade on the street parallel with the mill-race. Here I remained, by order of Brigadier-General Hancock, who personally communicated with me at the time, gathering in the fragments of my brigade, until finally I was ordered by him, through one oh his aides, to fall back and concentrate on the street from which we had commenced our approach to the battle-field. In this street the hospitals of the brigade had been established, and to it, consequently, all the officers and men of the brigade instinctively returned. I was, therefore, enabled, after three or four hours, to ascertain pretty accurately the available force that remained of the brigade. But while the fragments of the brigade were thus being reconcentrated, I had every reason to become convinced that the hospitals were dangerously, if not fatally, exposed; consequently I sent two of my aides, Captains Hart and Lieutenant Blake, of the Eighty-eighth, to Brigadier-General Hancock, to request of him that he would be so good as to authorize me to take what was left of the brigade across the river, the request for such authority being based on the fact that while there were not over 300 of the brigade, maimed and serviceable, who had reported themselves up to that time, the badly disabled were so numerous as to require the assistance of all those who were unhurt. Even while I was waiting for Captain Hart and Lieutenant Blake to return, several discharges of shells and rifle-balls broke through and over the hospitals of the Sixty-ninth and Sixty-third, and Eighty-eighth.
All this time, however, the officers and men of the brigade obeyed my orders and conducted themselves with perfect calmness and cheerfulness. Captain Hart, upon his return, having given me to understand that I had a conditional authorization to remove the brigade from the city, under the circumstances mentioned, I assumed the responsibility of doing so. I did so under the impression that Brigadier-General Hancock had given me such authorization for the purpose, which impression, a few hours later, I discovered was erroneous. I should not, however, have brought my command to the opposite side of the river, nor have dreamed of asking permission to do so, but for the horrible accidents to which the wounded of the brigade were exposed. That I myself did not wish to retire out of range of the rifle-pits and batteries of the enemy; that I was solely actuated by an affectionate and intense concern for the wounded officers and soldiers of my command, it will suffice for me to refer to Brigadier-General Butterfield, who, on questioning me regarding the brigade the afternoon of the assault, at the headquarters of General Willcox, and in the presence of other officers, was told by me that I feared the Irish Brigade was no more; that out of 1,200 men I had led into action that morning about 250 alone had reported to me under arms from the field, and added that, were I left without a command, it would gratify me to act as one of his aides. This I did at the time, not knowing that Brigadier-General Hancock had been deprived of most of his staff.
It was late in the afternoon when I learned that Lieutenant Miller, Lieutenant Parker, and Lieutenant Rorty, three of his active and gallant staff, were wounded and disabled. Had I been sooner made aware of the loss he sustained in these intelligent and brave young officers, I should have cheerfully volunteered my services in the contingency I had mentioned to Brigadier-General Butterfield – my services on the staff of a general who so well deserves all the support he can receive. Having placed, with the assistance of their more fortunate comrades, our wounded in the encampment we left the night before, I rode up to the quarters of Major-General Sumner to report myself and my action in the matter to him. He was not there; none of his staff were there; but General Burnside, coming in a few minutes after I had arrives, I communicated to him what I have here stated. He did not appear at all dissatisfied with the course I had taken, and with marked cordiality inquired after the brigade. Shortly afterward Major-General Sumner entering with this staff, I repeated to him what I had stated to General Burnside, adding, however, that my principal object had been, after reporting to him and explaining the reason of my crossing the river, to procure rations and ammunition for my men. The rations had been flung away as the brigade advanced to the assault. The ammunition had been exhausted in the field.
Having seen my wounded and disabled men as comfortably encamped as it was possible for them to be under the circumstances, I recrossed the Rappahannock, and between 11 and 12 o’clock at night reported to Brigadier-General Hancock. On the way, however, I stopped at the houses that had been taken as hospitals for the brigade that morning, and in them found many officers and privates who had been brought in from the field since I transferred the brigade to the opposite side of the river. Most of them were in great agony, not having had anything to sustain or soothe them since they received their wounds. Lieutenant Emmet, who accompanied me from where I had left the brigade, returned at once to bring our surgical and medical assistance. Dr. Powel promptly obeyed the order.
Next day, a little after daybreak, every officer and private of the brigade able to again take the field, by order of Brigadier-General Hancock, recrossed the Rappahannock and appeared upon the ground they occupied the day before, previous to their marching to the battle-field, all of them prepared and eager, notwithstanding their exhausted numbers and condition, to support the Ninth Corps in the renewal of the assault of the previous day, that renewal having been determined on by the commander-in-chief commanding the Army of the Potomac. Two hundred and eighty men only appeared under arms to represent the Irish Brigade. This little band, unswerved and undeterred, still full of heart, inspired by a bright sense of duty, sorrowful for their comrades, but prouder and still more emboldened that such men had fallen bravely as they did, awaited the word that was once again to precipitate them against the batteries and defenses of the enemy.
I close this report by acknowledging the gallantry and practical ability and the confirmed steadiness of the officers of the brigade, and in making this acknowledgment have sincerely to deplore the loss of such men as Major Horgan, of the Eighty-eighth New York Volunteers, than whom a better and braver soldier I have never known.
Col. Robert Nugent, commanding the Sixty-ninth New York Volunteers, acted with signal bravery, leading as he did the column into the field with a brilliancy of bearing worthy of the military reputation of his family name. His demeanor and the spirit he displayed, his words and looks, all were such as could not possibly fail, as they did not fail, to encourage and incite his men that day. He bore from the field a wound which will long be an honorable testimony to his daring. Maj. James Cavanaugh, also of the Sixty-ninth, most ably and with utter fearlessness supporting his colonel, fell severely wounded, but I trust not fatally, for never was there a truer heart; never was there a bolder arm; never was there a brighter brain. But it would be out of place in this report to enumerate, in the terms of affectionate appreciation I desire, the loss which the Irish Brigade has incurred.
Hereafter, should an opportunity be afforded me, I shall speak and write of such men as Lieutenants Birmingham and Buckley, men who so worthily supplied the place of the officers who fell on the battle-field before Richmond and in the great repulse of the enemy at Antietam. Looking along the ranks of the Eighty-eighth, as I did, with a mournful pride the day after the assault, I missed others besides Maj. William Horgan. I missed Lieutenants Murphy, McCarthy, and Young, the intelligent and diligent adjutant of the regiment. In the contemplation of these losses some consolation arises from the fact that men like Col. Patrick Kelly, Lieut. Col. Quinlan, Capt. Patrick K. Horgan, Capt. John Smith, Captain Nagle, Captain Clarke, Lieut. James B. Turner, and other intelligent and brave officers like them are still to the work.
In the Sixty-third New York Volunteers I have lost, for some time at all events, the services of Maj. Joseph O�Neill, services ever most promptly and liberally rendered wherever his military obligations of patriotism required them.
Had I time it would be indeed a truly pleasing duty for me to speak, in connection with the Sixty-third, of such officers as Captain Gleeson, Captain Condon, Lieutenants Moore and Brady, and others whom it is now difficult to mention, not having the leisure to speak of them in terms of adequate commendation.
Within the last two months two regiments were incorporated in the brigade. Pennsylvania contributed the One hundred and sixteenth Volunteer Regiment of that state; Massachusetts contributed the Twenty eighth Volunteer Regiment of the Old Commonwealth. The fact that Colonel Heenan and Lieutenant-Colonel Mulholland, of the former regiment, were badly wounded, speaks sufficiently for the intrepidity and metal of the men of which it is composed. When there are such officers there must be staunch men.
The Twenty-eighth Massachusetts Volunteers, as I have already mentioned, was raised for the brigade, but, owing to some mistake, was kept aloof from it until, by a most fortunate vicissitude of the war, it was restored to us two weeks ago. It is a substantial and splendid accession to the Irish Brigade. It has sinew, heart, and soul. It is commanded by an officer (Col. R. Byrnes) than whom it would be difficult to find one superior aptitude for such a command, combining as he does the practical experience and matured capacity of a soldier of some years’ standing with the natural qualities which enable one to figure successfully in military life. I have not a word, other than that of unqualified commendation, to bestow on this well-regulated and admirably disciplined regiment. Major Caraher, one of the best of its excellent officers, was wounded in the head.
The chaplains and surgeons of the brigade could not be excelled in their devotion to the wounded. Their services were unremitting and most zealously rendered. Drs. Francis Reynolds, [J.] Pascal smith, and Laurence Reynolds, with their assistant surgeons, behaved nobly. The first-named officer vindicated the brilliant reputation he brought with him from the Crimea, and his conduct is all the more deserving of eulogy and gratitude, as a day or two before the battle he had obtained leave of absence, but, greatly to his inconvenience, remained with the brigade rather than be absent from his post at such a time.
A correct return of the killed, wounded, and missing of the brigade has been forwarded to the headquarters of the division.*
I close with especially recommending to the most favorable notice of the brigadier-general commanding the division every member of my staff. Capt. W.G. Hart, of the Eighty-eighth New York Volunteers, the acting assistant adjutant-general of the brigade, was active, fearless, and indefatigable throughout the action. Lieut. John J. Blake, of the same regiment, was not less distinguished for his courage and his energy; but in displaying these qualities on the day referred to, he displayed the courage and energy which distinguished him in every battle in which the brigade has been engaged. Lieut. Richard Emmet, also of the Eighty-eighth, astonished all who were witnesses of his conduct, by the bright intelligence and fearlessness which carried hum through the thickest of the fight, with laurels which an older brow might proudly wear.
In enumerating the members of my staff, I cannot omit Capt. Malachi Martin, the able and indefatigable quartermaster of the brigade, who has on several occasions stood the enemy’s fire with me, and rendered at every risk important services to me in gallant style.
I have the honor to be, most faithfully, your obedient servant,
THOMAS FRANCIS MEAGHER,
The Irish Brigade saw action throughout the entire war following 1st Manassas, and at the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg. By 1864 there were more men from the Irish Brigade who had died then still lived. Their brigade along with two others from the 2nd corps were disbanded. They were angered by this (rightly so) and threatened to desert. They did not though. They were consolidated with other New England brigades. Thus becoming known as the “Consolidated Brigade. They fought valiantly from the beginning of the war until the end when they were present at the “Grand Review” in Washington DC in May 1865. They were led in the review by Colonel Nugent, riding on a beautiful black horse. They were cheered thunderously when they past the review stand with their emerald green flags and the stars and stripes. In their hats they wore the sprig of boxwood just like they had at Fredericksburg. The remaining 700 men from the Irish Brigade (only 400 were from the original Irish Brigade) were sent to New York and mustered out of the Army of the Potomac. Thus ended the illustrious career of the Irish Brigade.