ECW welcomes back guest author Abbi Smithmyer
Every year, thousands of visitors flock to the Fredericksburg Battlefield. As they walk along the sunken road, stand behind the stonewall, gaze into the windows of the Innis House, and walk through the National Cemetery atop Marye’s Heights, one of the most iconic stories of the historic battle is the gallant charge of the Irish Brigade. The doomed, yet heroic charge of the famous Irish unit has remained a dominating part of the historiographical narrative of the December 13th battle. While interesting, this narrative fails to acknowledge the overwhelming disillusionment among New York’s Irish community. Of the 1,200 men in the Irish Brigade who made the attack, 545 were killed, wounded or missing. This large loss of Irish life, coupled with lack of acknowledgment by native-born Americans, left the Irish community feeling as though their sacrifice was unappreciated. Unlike today, Fredericksburg left a dark memory on many Irish families in the Union and greatly impacted ethnic morale.
Illustration of the Irish Brigade’s advance on Marye’s Heights (Courtesy The National Tribune)
While many initially considered Antietam a great Union victory, as time went on and the casualty reports circulated throughout the northern papers, the Lincoln administration realized it was not a miraculous success. This realization came after the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued, which meant the President needed a military victory to silence his opponents before it went into effect on January 1, 1863. Without a Union victory before the start of the new year, the already demoralized soldiers and civilians of the North would have little support for the continuation of a war now centered on the abolition of slavery. Lincoln’s need for a victory meant that the newly appointed general, Ambrose Burnside needed to move swiftly and fight a winter campaign, something almost unheard of in the nineteenth century. The Army of the Potomac was an army in turmoil when he took command and his troops doubted his ability to follow in the footsteps of their beloved commander, General George B. McClellan. However, Burnside moved quickly, marching his Army southward towards Richmond. To get to the Confederate capital, he needed to take his army across the Rappahannock River and through the city of Fredericksburg. Unfortunately for the newly appointed general, his army was delayed by the late arrival of pontoon boats, which forced him to fight the rebels who had weeks to prepare for the December battle. Continue reading