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Sláinte! Celebrating the Irish Brigade’s Contributions to America

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St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are an American tradition for anyone with Irish roots, but many may not know that during the Civil War, several Irishmen helped keep an American tradition -- the U.S. itself -- together.

Five Civil War-era men, two standing and three sitting, pose for a black-and-white photo in a wooded area. Clothes can be seen hanging from tree limbs nearby.
Irish Brigade
Five members of the Irish Brigade pose for a photograph at Harrison’s Landing, Va., during the Peninsular Campaign in 1862.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 200302-O-ZZ999-201

What became known as the Irish Brigade was formed almost entirely by Irish-Americans from five units: The 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Infantry Regiments, and eventually the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment and the 28th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, a group famous for yelling “Faugh a Ballagh,” a Gaelic battle cry meaning “clear the way.”

In September 1862, the Irish Brigade helped lead the pursuit of the Confederate rebels in the bloody Battle of Antietam. While heavy casualties were claimed on both sides, the Union was able to force Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to abandon his invasion of the north, retreating back to Virginia.

A unit of men in Civil War garb pose for a photo in front of a crop field.
Irish Brigade
Union Army Lt. Col. James J. Smith and officers of the 69th New York Infantry, known as the Irish Brigade, pose for a photo during the Civil War.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 200302-O-ZZ999-121

The Irish Brigade unfortunately also took part in the doomed Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, where it lost two-thirds of its forces in a resounding Confederate victory. But despite those losses, the men weren’t too tired to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. 

According to a website dedicated to the 28th Massachusetts, the men kept up their “boisterous, rollicking” traditions, including a Grand Irish Steeple Chase, which attracted the attention of the whole army at their camp, as well as several traveling reporters.  According to the website, Col. St. Clair Mulholland, of the 116th Pennsylvania, recalled the festivities, saying, “This time-honored national anniversary was observed with all the exhaustless spirit and enthusiasm of Irish nature."

Six Civil War officers, three sitting and three standing, pose for a black-and-white photo in a field that has a pitched tent behind them.
Irish Brigade
Union Army Gen. Robert Nugent and staff near Washington, D.C. Nugent helped form the Irish Brigade and was its last surviving officer in the waning days of the war. He led his men in a parade through Washington, D.C., after the Confederates surrendered.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 200302-O-ZZ999-287

The Irish Brigade’s forces also played prominently in July 1863 during the second day of the decisive Battle of Gettysburg. The group fended off rebels who were set to overwhelm the entire Union position.

Gettysburg was largely considered the turning point in the Civil War, as well as for the Irish Brigade. By then the brigade had lost the majority of its remaining soldiers. Irish-American support for the war began to wane, too.

A large cross-shaped monument with a bronze wolfhound at its base sits along a path with woods behind it.
Irish Brigade
The bronze likeness of an Irish wolfhound representing loyalty lies atop the base of the monument at Gettysburg, Pa., which honors the New York regiments of the Irish Brigade who served in the Civil War. The monument is a green malachite Celtic cross with a trefoil, an Irish harp and the numbers of the three New York regiments rendered in bronze on its front.
Photo By: National Park Service
VIRIN: 200302-O-ZZ999-811

The Irish Brigade fought several more campaigns in the south after Gettysburg, but it officially disbanded in June 1864 due to heavy losses among the troops.

The “fighting Irish,” as many of them were known, contributed greatly to the Civil War, and their spirit and traditions clearly live on.   Sláinte to them and their legacy!