Today I give you a story of the Irish in America during the Civil War. Throughout American history the Irish have always had a connection to discrimination – first being discriminated against (No Catholics, No Irish) and then gaining a generalized reputation for discriminating against others. Part of this stems from their own persecution that developed into a deep distrust of anyone outside of their own communities. Some of it is just the age old misconceptions of the Irish in general – that they’re all devoted to shenanigans, violence and little else.
If you buy into those generalizations, you may assume that the Irish Brigade fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Thankfully, you’d be totally wrong. They were a highly effective tool for the North, though many were conflicted and unsure of their allegiance. The Union promised them more freedoms and rights, even if they had to fight for them – but many also worried that emancipation would involve more people who would challenge them in their struggles to find even the lowliest of jobs. But in the end, the Fighting Irish committed to the North and when they did, the North gained a company of men that were brilliant fighters who seemingly would never give up.
The Irish Brigade was nearly decimated more than once but they continued to fight even when they lost more than half their numbers. In the battle of Fredericksburg, their numbers fell from 1600 to a measly 256. It was during that battle that General Robert E. Lee allegedly referred to the Irish company as the “Fighting 69th”. They bled through some of the biggest battles of the Civil War and were disillusioned, tired, and only about 500 strong on July 2nd, in 1863, when they fought in the battle of Gettysburg.
As they prayed near Cemetery Hill before they went into battle, the soldiers knew that they were grossly outnumbered and likely to die. They made their stand in a place that would henceforth be known as the Wheatfield, where they were part of an attack designed to stall the Confederate forces that were advancing. The Brigade initially forced them back, fighting dirty with all they had – hands, knives, bayonets, clubs, and muskets. It was such a fierce melee that one of their opponents was quoted as saying that it was “the hottest and sternest struggle of the war.” Ultimately, after losing over one third of their already skeletal numbers they were pushed back, but their ferocity had slowed the South enough that the Union line held until reinforcements arrived.
In the end, during the entire Civil War, only 2 other Union brigades lost more people than the Irish. There is a beautiful statue of a Celtic cross with a mourning Irish Wolfhound that’s been raised on the battlefield in Gettysburg to commemorate their sacrifice. Gettysburg is hallowed ground to many but near the cross you can almost hear the battle cry of the Brigade – Fág an Bealach, which means Clear the Way. And the nickname that General Lee had given the unit, has stuck around for more than a century, living on even now. The Wolfe Tones wrote a song about them that the Dropkick Murphys have resurrected and covered. Also, since 1907, the Fighting 69th has been a unit in the National Guard Of New York. They have fought in both World Wars and served with distinction in almost every conflict to this day.
Gentlemen, thank you for your service.