The popular focus on the Battle of Fredericksburg is that of the Union Soldiers, time after time, engaging in failed assaults on the Confederate lines on the stonewall at the base of Marye’s Heights. Possibly the worst executed engagement of the war by the Federals, many have forgotten that the battle was nearly won south of town near Prospect Hill. Some of the driving factors in the attention given to the assaults on the stonewall is that it holds a certain human element. There is the image of Richard Kirkland, the South Carolinian who braved enemy gunfire the day after the battle to bring water to the wounded Yankees lying in front of the wall. Much can be said of the courage of the Union Soldiers who, after seeing one assault break after another, still had the fortitude to march into battle. One such attack was made by Thomas Francis Meagher’s Second Corps brigade, a mixed unit of men from New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, simply known as the Irish Brigade.
They are famed in song and story and one of the most recognizable and colorful brigades in the Army of the Potomac. The brigade was organized in the fall of 1861 and made up mostly of immigrants from Ireland who had left the poverty that had ravaged the country through the mid-twentieth century. Although the brigade would claim several different regiments as their own throughout the war, the nucleus was the 63d, 69th and 88th New York Infantry. The Sixty-Ninth had been a pre-war militia unit.
At Fredericksburg, the brigade consisted of the aforementioned New York regiments along with the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania. The man who commanded the brigade from early 1862 through to the end of the Chancellorsville Campaign was Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher was a native of Ireland who counted himself among the Revolutionaries in that country. Convicted of sedition in 1849, Meagher was exiled to Australia. Three years later, he escaped and turned up in New York City. Meagher would fight at First Manassas and was the driving force behind the formation of the brigade. As such, it is his name that is most closely associated with the unit. Meagher lead his men through the Seven Days’ Battles and during the Battle of Antietam, the brigade sustained tremendous casualties during the attack on the “Bloody Lane”.
Meagher and his men spent the first day of the Battle of Fredericksburg in reserve, as their comrades forged a crossing of the Rappahannock. The men were roused at seven on the morning of December 12th and by nine, they were crossing the pontoon bridges at the Upper Pontoon Crossing. After his five regiments crossed, Meagher turned his men to the left and marched them south on Sophia Street to the city docks and the Middle Pontoon Crossing. There, they stacked their arms and went into camp. The next morning, the Irish would be ordered into battle.
Meagher rousted his men on the morning of December 13th around eight and prepared for the work that lay before them. Their objective for the day was to assault the Confederate lines located on the high ground that rose just to the west of the city. Rebel artillery was posted on the top of a rise known as Marye’s Heights. The batteries protected and supported infantry positioned in a road that ran along the base of the eminence. This thoroughfare, known as the Sunken Road, had a chest high stonewall which ran along its eastern length. Unlike today, there was open ground stretching all the way from the road to the city. To reach the Confederate lines, the Federals in the city would have to maneuver through the tight streets and cross this open expanse, all the while under fire from enemy artillery and musketry. Arguably, the position at Marye’s Heights was one of the strongest ever held by the Army of Northern Virginia. Even as they readied for the attack, other Union brigades were trying their hand unsuccessfully at carrying the Confederate line on Marye’s Heights.
As the men formed, there was something distinctive missing from the ranks. Since their formation, the New York regiments had carried green flags with the Harp of Erin with a sunburst over it. The flags clearly distinguished the brigade on the battlefield from their sister units. By December of 1862, the flags had been so badly damaged that Meagher had them sent back to New York for repair. Noticing the missing flags, Meagher and several of his staff officers disappeared into the neighborhoods surrounding the docks. In one of the most memorable moments of the war, they returned with boughs of boxwood. The individual sprigs were distributed to the ranks and placed in the caps of the men.
After passing out the boxwood, Meagher addressed each regiment and then the column turned up Sophia Street.
As the brigade reached each intersection, they came under enemy artillery fire. The city streets themselves acted as veritable alleys for Rebel cannonballs which knocked the Yankees down like tin pins. Reaching the foot of George Street, the column turned left and headed for the edge of town. The jumping off point for the assault was the edge of town, in the area where Maury Stadium is now located.
With the advance of yet another Union brigade stymied in front of Marye’s Heights, Meagher received the orders to initiate the assault. The Irish moved down a knoll and crossed a millrace that ran along the edge of town (today, the millrace would run roughly under Kenmore Avenue). The 69th and 88th New York, along with the 28th Massachusetts, crossed over the ditch on a bridge. The 63rd New York and 116th Pennsylvania waded across. The regiments then took cover in a depression on the other side of the ditch (despite modern development, this depression is still visible today). It was here that the brigade reformed, with the line being from right to left, the 69th New York, 88th New York, 28th Massachusetts, 63rd New York, and the 116th Pennsylvania. Meagher gave the command to fix bayonets and the brigade moved forward out of the ravine. Reaching the ravine’s crest, the Irish were met with volley after volley from the stonewall. However, their line continued forward, finally reaching a swale (modern Littlepage Street) where they took cover. Meagher’s men took cover in the swale with the detritus of other Union brigades whose attacks had also been repulsed. However, elements of each regiment made an attempt to advance beyond the swale, only to be cut down by enemy fire. The attack, like all of the others that day, had foundered.
Meagher’s Irish shared in the devastating loss with the rest of the Army of the Potomac. Of the many Union assaults made that day against Marye’s Heights, it is theirs that is most often remembered. Meagher’s unit has unto itself transcended myth and become ingrained in the public mindset. As fate would have it time and again, the Irish Brigade was often involved in the heaviest fighting of the war in the Eastern Theater. They were at the “Bloody Lane” at Antietam, in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg and assaulted the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania. Yet, they are more often than not associated with the Battle of Fredericksburg, although their monument at the city dock pales in comparison to those at Gettysburg and Antietam. Unlike these aforementioned battles, the Army of the Potomac displayed a willingness and determination that it had not yet exhibited previously during the war. This would be borne out in the grim and admirable bravery of the Union Soldiers in their futile assaults against Marye’s Heights. To many, the Irish Brigade became an embodiment of this courage. Although cloaked in defeat, Fredericksburg would be a watershed for the Potomac Army. The valor borne out at that battle would help carry them through the months and years to come, until final victory was attained.