The Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg
“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 After the battle of Malvern’s Hill, he traversed the battlefield all night with a lantern after the Union army had withdrawn, seeking wounded to help and dying to save.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.