"Oh, God, What a Pity!": The Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg and the Creation of Myth

By Warren, Craig A. | Civil War History, September 2001 | Go to article overview

"Oh, God, What a Pity!": The Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg and the Creation of Myth


Warren, Craig A., Civil War History


No event more severely damaged Irish enthusiasm for the Northern war effort than the Battle of Fredericksburg. Northern Irish reacted with horror and outrage to the staggering casualties sustained by the Irish Brigade during its failed assault on Marye's Heights. Of the 1,200 men who made the attack, 545 were killed, wounded, or missing.(1) For many Irish, these grim figures confirmed old suspicion that Northern leaders would waste Irish lives wantonly. It is therefore surprising that the historical record all but ignores the battle's influence on Irish morale. Instead, the literature on Fredericksburg almost uniformly emphasizes the Irish Brigade's gallantry before the stone wall on December 13,1862, and the tragic irony of its clash with Irish Confederates. How did the Irish Brigade come to occupy such a lofty, and often romantic, place in the history of the battle? And why does the brigade's doomed charge still overshadow the consequences of its destruction on the Heights--namely, Irish disillusionment on the home front? Much of the answer depends upon the postwar writings of brigade veterans David Power Conyngham, Father William Corby, and St. Clair A. Mulholland. Refusing to let history dismiss as meaningless the Irish blood spilled at Fredericksburg, these men forged a body of literature remarkable for its propensity to mythologize Irish participation in the Civil War, North and South.

The facts of the Irish assault at Fredericksburg can be summarized quickly. On the morning of December 13, the Irish Brigade fell in along the bank of the Rappahannock River. The unit consisted of the 63d, 69th, and 88th New York, the 28th Massachusetts, and the 116th Pennsylvania--regiments almost entirely composed of Irish immigrants and men of Irish descent. Brig. Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, the brigade's commander, addressed his soldiers and then led them into the streets of Fredericksburg. There, withstanding the intense artillery bombardment of the city, the Irish awaited their turn to advance against the Confederate defenses on Marye's Heights, about a half mile distant from town. At about one o'clock, after Maj. Gen. William H. French's division had failed in its assaults, Meagher's men followed Brig. Gen. Samuel K. Zook's brigade and marched across an open field heavily exposed to Confederate batteries. Passing over the shattered remnants of brigades that had preceded them, the Irish advanced to within thirty yards of the stone wall at the base of the heights. Behind the wall, Confederate infantry unleashed a devastating fire into the Irish ranks until the advance stalled completely. At this point, the Irish regiments either lay down or moved back, returning fire as best they could. Vulnerable to enemy bullets during the rest of the afternoon's failed Union assaults, the survivors staggered, or were carried, back to Fredericksburg after nightfall.(2) All told, the brigade suffered casualties of nearly 50 percent.

As the most famous and visible example of Irish arms in the Northern armies, the Irish Brigade's actions and treatment had enormous influence on ethnic morale. Nothing illustrates this connection better than the despair felt by Northern Irish during the latter half of December 1862. Writing to his father the day after Fredericksburg, Capt. William J. Nagle of the 88th New York expressed horror over the brigade's losses: "Oh! It was a terrible day. The destruction of life has been fearful, and nothing gained. ... Irish blood and Irish bones cover that terrible field to-day.... We are slaughtered like sheep, and no result but defeat.... I do not know what disposition will be made of us now in our shattered condition." New York City's Irish American printed Nagle's letter on December 27, 1862. His insistence that the battle brought the Irish "no result but defeat" must have demoralized readers already affected by the carnage. In a letter to his wife dated December 18, Peter Welsh of the 28th Massachusetts likewise emphasized the battle's heavy toll: "you have heard of the battle before this[. …

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