The Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg

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“Your soldier’s heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to  their deaths. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish brigade  was beyond description. We forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer  at their fearlessness went up all along our lines!”

Confederate Major General George Pickett in a letter to his fiance

A moving video of the Irish Brigade at the battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, based on the movie Gods and Generals.  It was criminal military malpractice for Burnside, perhaps the most incompetent general in the war, to assault the fortified Confederate positions, but his idiocy does not derogate in the slightest from the extreme heroism of the Union troops who suffered massive casualties while attempting to do the impossible.

The Irish Brigade was one of the units called upon that day to do the impossible.  One of the regiments in the Brigade was the  69th New York, the Fighting 69th as they would be designated by Robert E. Lee for their gallant charge at this battle, a unit faithful readers of this blog are quite familiar with.   This day their chaplain personally blessed each man in the regiment.  They called him Father Thomas Willett.  That was as close as they could get to pronouncing his actual name.

Thomas Ouellet, a French Canadian Jesuit, fit perfectly among a regiment of tough Irishmen.  Normally mild mannered and kind, he could react sternly to sin or to any injustice done to “his boys”.  Abbe Ouellet had been with the regiment from its formation at the beginning of the war.  During the battles of the Seven Days of the Peninsular Campaign earlier in 1862, he had barely slept as he tirelessly tended the wounded and gave the Last Rites to the dying.  After the battle of Malvern’s Hill, he traversed the battlefield all night with a lantern after the Union army had withdrawn, seeking wounded to help and dying to save.  He was captured by Confederates, who, learning he was a priest, treated him with kindness and swiftly released him.

The Irish Brigade went into battle at Fredericksburg with only one of their famed green banners.  The others, torn from battle, had been sent back to New York, and they were awaiting new ones.  It was unthinkable for the men of the Irish Brigade to go into battle without green, so they wore sprigs of boxwood in their caps.  After Chaplain Ouellet had blessed each man in the 69th, Colonel Robert Nugent , commander of the 69th, placed a sprig of boxwood in the Chaplain’s hat, and told his men, to their intense amusement, “I’ll make an Irishman out of the Father this day!”.

Going into the battle the Irish Brigade mustered approximately 1700 men.  After the slaughter 263 were still fit for duty.  The video is correct that many of the Georgians confronting the Irish Brigade were Irish immigrants, a fact that increases the tragedy of the day.

In accord with the brio that was an essential part of the Brigade, General Meagher commandeered a theater in Fredericksburg the day after the battle and held a banquet for the survivors, at which new green flags to replace their tattered banners were presented to the men of the Brigade.  This moment calls to mind for me the observation of G. K. Chesterton, “For the great Gaels of Ireland / Are the men that God made mad, / For all their wars are merry, / And all their songs are sad.”  A first-rate history of the Brigade at Fredericksburg is here.

Father Ouellet resigned from the Army temporarily due to ill health after Fredericksburg.  He rejoined his boys as Chaplain for the 69th in 1864 and served with the regiment for the remainder of the war.  His memory is kept ever green by the regiment to this day.

 

Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg

 

9 Responses to The Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg

  • Thanks Donald. I’ll place the fallen in my prayers today.

  • Hey Donald, you seem well read on the subject of the Civil War- would you mind recommending any good books on the subject for a newcomer?
    I’ve read Battle Cry of Freedom and I’m currently enjoying Volume 1 of Foote’s magnum opus – I do think he is biased, though. I think he goes out of his way to avoid the subject of slavery, but I haven’t read it all yet, so maybe it’ll improve.

  • Not sure if you have posted this before, Donald but “Honest Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade” is one of my favorite ballads from the Civil War:

  • Joseph G. Bilby in the introduction to ‘ Remember Fontenoy!’ wrote concerning the Irish Brigade:

    “It was, many said, the best brigade in the Army of the Potomac. Some said it was the best brigade in the whole Union army and perhaps the best infantry brigade on either side in the American Civil War. Others, with the perspective of history, have come to believe it may have been the best infantry brigade that ever was.”

    Requiescant in Pace.

  • “Not sure if you have posted this before, Donald”

    http://almostchosenpeople.wordpress.com/tag/pat-murphy-of-the-irish-brigade/

    Horton has sung another song about the Irish Brigade, the title of which eludes me at the moment, which I also enjoy.

  • “Hey Donald, you seem well read on the subject of the Civil War- would you mind recommending any good books on the subject for a newcomer?”

    1. Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy.
    2. Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground, his one volume history of the war.
    3. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, a four volume series of magazine articles written in the 1880’s, most of them by generals from the Civil War.
    4. Douglas Southall Freeman’s four volume bio of Lee.
    5. That Devil Forrest, a bio of the wizard of the saddle written by one of his men who went on to be a surgeon in New York City.
    6. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, without a doubt the best memoir written by an American general.
    7. Shelby Foote’s novel Shiloh which gave me a much better understanding of the battle.
    8. Carl Sandburgh’s Lincoln The War Years. Sandburgh was a better poet than historian, and some of his research is shaky, but this is a classic that should be read by all students of the War.
    9. The Twentieth Maine, probably the best history ever written of a Civil War regiment.
    10. John Brown’s Body, the epic poem of the Civil War, written by Stephen Vincent Benet.

  • Cheers Donald, that’s brilliant.

  • oh my heart breaks for our earnest stalwart Irish people… Always in our prayers, Himself and I pray for our families “forward and back in time”. Surely God must hold His Irish in His heart. God bless these brave people now and forever.

  • Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War is without equal…especially if you are looking for a more balanced perspective from the southern side and for a more complete account of the war in the West.

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