Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Battle of Fredericksburg
Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill
The Battle of Fredericksburg fought in December 1862 was one of the bloodiest battles in The American Civil War that costs thousands of lives, many of them Irish. It was one of the few battles where the Irish faced each other, on opposing sides, and this will be the main focus of this article.
The Irish fighting for the North have always received more attention, chiefly because unlike the South they were organised into a large brigades, such as the Irish brigade, while the South had 45 different Irish regiments, all fighting independently of each other. It has been estimated that over 40,000 Irish fought for the South, making up 10% of the Confederate Army. The Irish supported the South for a number of reasons. There was less anti-Irish discrimination than in the North and they understood the Southerners desire for freedom. In both the North and the South the Irish were opposed to the abolition of slavery as freed slaves meant increased competition in the job market.
The two main Irish regiments fighting for the North were the 69th and the 116th. The 69th from New York was already famous before Fredericksburg. Shortly before the conflict had erupted they had refused to parade for the Prince of Wales, resulting in court martial for their commander Colonel Michael Corcoran, from Carrowkeel, County Sligo. The outbreak of the war meant that this court martial never took place. He had been taken prisoner the previous year leaving Waterford born Brigadier–General Thomas Meagher to assume command of the brigade. The regiment 69th was easily distinguishable by the Green Flag they carried and the sprig of shamrock they wore in their hats. A hundred years later JFK would present this Green standard to the Dáil when he visited Ireland. The 116th Pennsylvanian Infantry also partook in the assault as part of the Irish Brigade. It was led by Colonel St. Clair Mulholland, from Lisburn, Country Antrim. He was wounded in the assault and was later to receive the Congressional Medal of Honour. Meagher was also injured when a cannonball struck him in the leg. The disaster at Fredericksburg signalled the end of his career and he resigned his commission in 1863.
The Union army moved south towards Richmond and intended to cross the Potomac at Fredericksburg. The union army under General Burnside, numbering 114,000, was much larger the confederate army of 72,000 under General Robert E. Lee. The confederates were however fighting on home ground and more determined. The Union Army was also under pressure from the Northern public to quell the rebellion. Burnside made several mistakes. Although his army arrived on the banks of the Potomac while the confederates were ill prepared, he had to wait until pontoon bridges arrived. This procrastination gave the confederates ample time to fortify their position and prepare for the Union assault. The assault began on 13 December and having crossed the Potomac the Union army entered the town and ransacked it. This outraged southerners and only served to strengthen their opposition to the North.
The Irish Brigade was given the order to attack the confederate positions at Marye’s Heights just outside the town. Not only would it mean attacking uphill but also across open fields, giving them absolutely no cover. The Irish Brigade’s chaplain, Father William Corby remarked in disbelief “the Generals could not be so foolish as to order us up that hill”. He was wrong.
Overlooking the Irish Brigade in the confederate lines was General Thomas R. R. Cobb’s brigade which included the 24th Georgia Infantry regiment which was largely comprised of Irishmen. It was 660 strong and suffered 36 casualties at Fredericksburg. In later battles they were less fortunate and only 65 survived the war. Cobb was mortally wounded in the battle and replaced by Antrim-born Colonel Robert McMillan. The regiment had taken up position behind a stone wall, located at the crest of the ridge, which still stands today. The wall gave them excellent cover. The confederates were confident that they would be able to repeal any assault on their positions. Indeed, the confederate artillery commander Edward Porter Alexander commented "A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it." Unfortunately for the Irish this would prove to be the case.
The attacking 69th had to file in columns when crossing over two small bridges that spanned a drainage ditch, making them a massed target, before entering the open ground. It was a suicidal assault, doomed to fail. Nevertheless they stormed the hill shouting their war cry ‘Faugh an Ballagh’.
Watching the Union assault the Robert E. Lee wondered if Irish troops would fire on their own countrymen and sent non-Irish troops to reinforce them. It turned out to be unnecessary. When the confederates saw the green flag come up the hill they knew it was the Irish Brigade. They knew that approaching them were men who had come over from Ireland with them and men who only a year previously had been in the same army. MacMillan also saw the green colours and shouted out "Give it to them now, boys! Now's the time! Give it to them!” He never wrote any regret about his decision. They may have been fellow countrymen, but now they were the enemy who were trying to kill them. It was kill or be killed. The assault was repelled and the Irish Brigade massacred, although they did get closer to the confederate position than any other brigade that day. Wave after wave was repulsed by the confederate Irish. McMillan urged his men on, walking along the line exposing himself to enemy fire, apparently immune to the fear his men felt. A bullet did strike him on the neck, but he calmly picked it up and put it in his pocket.
The citizens of Fredericksburg must have thought it somewhat ironic that in 1847 when the fields below Marye’s Heights had yielded a good corn crop it was donated to help relieve the famine in Ireland. The people this crop had helped now lay dead and dying on those same fields. The Irish Brigade saw its strength reduced from 1600 to 256 men. The total losses the Union army suffered was 12,653 casualties while the confederates suffered 5,377 casulties.
While the South was jubilant with the result of the battle in the North both President Lincoln and the army came in for criticism. The Cincinnati Commercial commented "It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valour or generals to manifest less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day."
Fredericksburg sent shockwaves through the Irish population in the North. In January 1863 a grand requiem was held at St. Patricks Cathedral in New York. Grief soon turned to outrage and many believed that the Irish were being needlessly sacrificed. As a result the Irish stopped enlisting. The next major battle at Gettysburg would however turn the tables for the Union.


  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.