The Charge of the Irish Brigade
In December 1862, Union and Confederate troops met at Fredericksburg, Virginia. At the end of four days of fighting, there was no ambiguity about which side had won: Fredericksburg is remembered as one of the most lopsided Confederate victories of the entire conflict. One Union charge in particular – the assault on a Confederate-protected hill behind a stone wall- would amount to more or less a suicide mission for the unite selected to lead it – a unit made up largely of Irish immigrants, called the Irish Brigade, known by the appropriately emerald green flag its
soldiers carried into battle.
That winter’s day in Fredericksburg, the brigade’s battle-worn flag was making its way back to New York for some much-needed repair, so the troops instead put sprigs of green boxwood in their caps to identify their Irish heritage. Nearly half the brigade were casualties at Fredericksburg (545 of 1,200 men were killed, wounded, or missing), but in the years after the war, it was commonly said that no one showed more bravery in the face of certain death than the troops who had marched on the hill with the greenery in their hats.
For Irish-Americans at the time, though, the battle wasn’t just a tale of Irish heroism, but also an example of Irish mistreatment – of Irish immigrants being used as cannon fodder by native-born generals. We talked with Craig Warren, a professor at Penn State Erie about the implications of the battle and how it was remembered afterwards.
On Irish discontent and how it led to riots in New York City
“Many Irish-Americans decided that what had happened was that the Irish Brigade had been wantonly sacrificed during the battle by generals who saw them simply as cannon fodder. The war effort wasn’t bringing people around to see the Irish as true Americans, and so they turned their backs on that war effort and decided that it was not worth investing further time, energy, lives, and money into. It’s not too much to say that you can draw a straight line between the Battle of Fredericksburg and the New York City draft riots of 1863.
[During those riots] there was a mob of white protesters who did a number of destructive things, smashing buildings, finding African American freedmen in the streets and lynching a number of them. It took actually a detachment of soldiers from the Army of the Potomac to come into the city and restore order. And at the end of this encounter, the vast majority of the rioters who were killed or were imprisoned were of Irish descent. This really was a black eye for the Irish-American population during the war and convinced a number of other Americans that in fact, they were not loyal to the war effort.”
On how the stories told about the Irish Brigade after the battle romanticized the soldiers’ experiences
“After the war, Irish Brigade veterans forged a remarkable body of literature that took the low point of the Irish Brigade’s history, the Battle of Fredericksburg, after which they effectively ceased to operate as a brigade, and transformed it into the Brigade’s most glorious moment. They did this by publishing a series of memoirs that championed the Irish soldier, that portrayed him in the best light possible, and which showed his suffering and sacrifices at such places as Antietam and especially at Fredericksburg as his ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his American nation. All of them want, in memory of Irish participation in the war, to remember the Irish Brigade soldiers on the field, not rioting Irishman back home in the city. And so they did everything they could to elevate and even mythologize the Irish soldier during the Civil War.
One of the emphases that we find in the memoirs of Irish Brigade veterans is the story of the Irish Brigade encountering a full brigade of Confederate Irish, who supposedly recognized their countrymen by those sprigs of boxwood in their caps and who, though reluctant, fired into those ranks, standing by their Southern convictions. And that was enhanced and embellished in the post-war memoirs to be seen as this tragic, poignant, ironic conflict between Irishmen North and South.”
On the significance of this new Irish mythology
“The message [of these stories was] contrary to prewar beliefs that the Irish were not true Americans, that they were interested only in the state of Ireland across the Atlantic. Instead, these men were willing to fight and die for their adopted country and for their homes, be it North or South, and that that was a stronger connection ultimately than the shared heritage.
I think that their strategy [for winning American acceptance of Irish immigrants] worked. There was a wide-scale celebration of the Civil War veteran during the late 19th century and early 20th, and there was a receptive audience for stories about soldiers in uniform and their adventures and achievements and sacrifices. This story folds the Irish-American story into the larger story that we so often hear about the Civil War, and that is that it was a brothers’ war. Irish memoirs stressed this as a way to show that they were as true Americans as any other citizens of the United States.”