In December 1862, the American Civil War which at its start both sides believed would last only for a few weeks and be decided with one major battle was now in its twentieth month and had seen numerous battles and already tens of thousands of lives lost. Despites its numerically superiority in manpower, its overwhelming advantage in supply, the smaller and ill-supplied Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had fought a succession of Union Commanders to a standstill. Even the northern victory at Antietam which led to the Emancipation Proclaimation was incomplete. Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history, should have been the last battle of the Civil War and Lincoln knew it. He knew the overcautious commanding general George McClellan had failed. Unfortunately Lincoln replaced him with Ambrose Burnside.
Burnside was a likeable thirty eight year old whose extravagant side whiskers gave rise to the fashion of “sideburns.” He was a good subordinate, but had already shown himself to be an unimaginative general. He had been offered the command of the Union Army of the Potomac twice and had refused as he felt he was unqualified. Burnside was right and Lincoln should have listened.
Against all this drama and incompetence in the command of the Union Army, the Irish Brigade of the Union Army under Thomas Francis Meagher had won an unequaled reputation for courage and valor. Since three of its NY regiments, the 63rd, 69th, and 88th left New York City in March 1862 to later be joined by the 116 Pennsylvania and 28th Massachusetts they had fought in most of the major engagements of 1862 in the east: Fair Oaks, Gaines’ Mill, Savage’s Station, Malvern Hill and Antietam. On numerous occasions they had acted as the rear guard, being all that stood between the Union Army and destruction. They had earned the respect of their enemy. In frustrated admiration a confederate commander had noted “Here come those damned green flags again”. Now four out of five regiments had no green flags, they had been shot to pieces, only the newly arrived 28th Mass had the green flag inscribed with the brigade motto ‘Riamh Nar dhruid O sbairn lan (They shall never retreat from the charge of lances)’ . At Fredericksburg they would live up to that motto to the last full measure.
Burnside’s plan for Fredericksburg was audacious, he would not be accused as had his predecessor George McClellan of being cautious. Burnside planned to make a rapid dash to the town of Fredericksburg where waiting pontoon bridges would be thrown across the Rappahannock river and the Union Army would make a lightning strike at the Confederate capital.
It was a bold plan, but needed speed and perfect coordination to pull it off. Neither happened. Numerous delays hampered the plan. When the Union Army arrived at Fredericksburg there were no pontoon bridges, but Lee and his army was encamped on a hill overlooking the town known as Maryes’ (pronounced “Marie’s”) Heights. Near the crest of the hill was a stone wall and a sunken road, a natural firing position that the Confederates quickly improved. When asked if he could hold the heights when attacked a Confederate colonel responded “ not even a chicken could live on that field when we open up on it.”
On December 13, 1862, his elaborate plan having fallen to pieces, and lacking the courage to admit his plans failure, Burnside ordered a frontal charge against a position that the enemy had three weeks to fortify. Two earlier assaults on the well entrenched Confederates had already failed when the Irish Brigade was ordered forward, the 28th Mass with the only green “Irish Flag” forming the center. Officers handed out sprigs of green boxwood, the closest available equivalent to shamrocks, to place in their hats so that every man would go into battle with green marking them as member of the Irish Brigade. As they moved into position, Robert E. Lee asked one of his staff who were the soldiers forming to his front? When he was told that they were the Irish 69th, Lee remarked “Ah yes, the fighting 69th.” The name stuck, cemented by the unit’s courage on that day.
The Irish Brigade advanced giving voice to their Gaelic battle cry “Faugh a Ballagh” (“Clear the Way”). They passed by the fallen bodies of the men from the previous two charges. Blasts of artillery tore gaps in their ranks, but other men stepped forward to fill the gaps. The fire was so thick men bent forward as if in a heavy rain storm. They came within yards of the Confederates position behind the stone wall, but were unable to penetrate the wall of lead the Confederates were firing. The color Sergeant of the 116th continued to wave the American flag attempting to inspire his men till he fell, riddled with five balls.
The Irish Brigade ran out of men before they ran out of courage, and they began to fall back. No other unit would advance further than the Irish did that day. As they fell back Confederate General George Pickett, whose men some seven months later would make their own fateful charge noted “…we forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.” Robert E. Lee noted “Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their gallantry on that desperate occasion. Though totally routed, they reaped harvests of glory. Their brilliant though hopeless assaults on our lines excited the hearty applause of our officers and men.” A Union Officer remarked “Their devotion transcended anything I ever saw or even dreamed of.” That devotion to duty was exemplified when, after the battle, the color-sergeant of the 69th was found dead, sitting up against a tree with his hands clasped upon his chest. On examining the body it was found that he had wrapped the Stars and Stripes around his body, to hide them from capture by the enemy. The Irish Brigade would never lose a flag throughout the war.
Fredericksburg was one of the North’s greatest defeats and it was the bloodiest day in the history of the Irish Brigade. Not one officer of the NY 69th was able to report for duty the next day, they had either been killed or wounded. When Thomas Francis Meagher marched out of New York nine months before he had 2,250 men, now 600 were left. These Irish Americans, who had faced and would continue to face prejudice before and after the war, had won admiration on both sides of the battle field on that cold, bloody December day. Yet their exploits are not recorded in our children’s history books, there is but fleeting reference to them on the Fredericksburg National Park web site and most egregiously the contribution of the Irish has largely been overlooked in the current 150th Civil War commemorations.
A memorial on the Fredericksburg battlefield states “To the Sons of Erin who put God, Country and Duty before Self. We must never forget the sacrifices they made for Freedom”. Let us as Hibernians never forget and work to assure that our country and future generations never do.
Neil F. Cosgrove, Historian