The Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg

Thursday, December 13, AD 2012

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  After the battle of Malvern’s Hill, he traversed the battlefield all night with a lantern after the Union army had withdrawn, seeking wounded to help and dying to save.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

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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”

    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.

Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade

Saturday, August 11, AD 2012

Something for the weekend.  Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade sung by Bobby Horton, who has waged a one man crusade to bring Civil War music to modern audiences.  Immigrants, especially Irish and German, were a mainstay of the Army of the Potomac, and wherever you have Irish fighting you are going to have Irish songs about the fighting.

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.

G. K. Chesterton

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The Real Fighting Irish: A Review of Notre Dame and the Civil War

Monday, January 24, AD 2011

The peaks of Notre Dame history are shrouded in the mists of war.

Father Hugh O’Donnell, President, Notre Dame-1941

I think it was in 1964 when I read my first book on the Civil War, The American Heritage Golden Book of the Civil War, and I immediately thereafter developed a life long passion for the subject.  Over the intervening 47 years, I have read hundreds of books on the War.  Truth to tell, more than a few of the books I have read on the Civil War have left me with a ho hum feeling, not telling me much that I haven’t read many, many times before.  I am therefore always pleasantly surprised when a tome on the Late Unpleasantness can give me lots of new information, and such is the case with Notre Dame and the Civil War, by James M. Schmidt.  Mr. Schmidt, knowing of my interest in US Catholic Chaplains in the military, was kind enough to send me a review copy, and I am glad that he did, as he has brought forth facts and new pieces of information about Notre Dame and the Civil War that I have not read elsewhere.

Many Protestant denominations in the country were ripped asunder North and South by the Civil War and the decades of turmoil leading up to it.  Not so the Catholic Church in America.  As a global Church, it was not unusual for Catholics to find themselves on different sides in civil wars or national conflicts, and there was never any threat to the unity of the Church in America.  Individual Catholics fought bravely for both the Union and the Confederacy.  The Catholics of Notre Dame, except for a few students from the South, were whole heartedly for the Union.

Even before the Civil War, as Mr. Schmidt brings out,  Notre Dame students were preparing to fight.  Two student military companies were organized in 1858, part of the craze for militia companies, well drilled, in fancy uniforms that swept the nation in the late Fifties.  It was fun being a part time soldier:  drills, nice uniforms, parades, pretty girls cheering on the side lines.  Many of the students of course were soon to have first hand knowledge of darker aspects of military life.

Schmidt skillfully relates the fever to enlist in the Union army that swept through the students of Notre Dame after Fort Sumter.  Along with their students, Notre Dame priests also served as chaplains.  Most famous among them was of course Father William Corby, who marched and fought with the Irish Brigade and who gave them mass absolution on the second day at Gettysburg before they charged into battle.  The book relates the adventures of Father Corby, but also relates the stories of other Notre Dame priests who served as chaplains, including Father Paul E. Gillen, Father James Dillon, Father Joseph C. Carrier and Father Peter P. Cooney, all of whom will be featured in posts in the future.

The Sisters of the Holy Cross of Notre Dame also got behind the war effort.  Sixty of the Sisters would serve as nurses during the war.  The role of Catholic Sisters as nurses in the Civil War is one of the great largely unsung stories of the War.  Usually nursing Protestant soldiers, the Sisters, through their bravery, skill at nursing and simple charity and kindness, often turned fairly anti-Catholic men into friends of the Church and not a few converted to the Faith.  Mr. Schmidt gives these heroic women their due.

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5 Responses to The Real Fighting Irish: A Review of Notre Dame and the Civil War

  • Thanks for posting this! I can’t wait to read it!

  • Pat,

    Glad to see you here on The American Catholic!

    In Jesus, Mary, & Joseph,


  • Thank you!

    ND has helped train gallant officers for America since.

    Today, the University offers Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC commissioning programs. In 2006, 62 ND grads entered commissioned officer service, including three Marines.

    My son served with an ND grad officer/PL in Afghanistan. He had played football there, too. I met him when they came home. Another great grandson of Ireland serving America . . .

  • Don – I am humbled and gratified at the wonderful review. Thank You so much. One of the great things about this book – and the goal I was shooting for – is that it appeals to different audiences: the typical Civil War enthusiast, Notre Dame alumns (bona fide and “subway”), people interested in American Catholic history, and more. Hopefully I did that.

    Thanks so much to the commenters for their enthusiastic response.

    I’m an avid reader – and hopefully a more frequent commenter – here at THC.

    God Bless!

    Jim Schmidt

  • Thank you Jim for your hard work in writing this fine addition to Civil War and Notre Dame scholarship.