St. Patrick’s Day is the one day of the year everyone wants to be Irish. I can’t blame them. My Polish last name, Mackowski, belies the Cawley and Dempsey in me, so few people realize I’m Irish—but it’s there aplenty, and I’m proud of it.
It’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, American’s weren’t so eager to embrace their inner Irish—whether it be honorary or actual. Prejudice against the Irish, and Irish Catholics in particular, was so bad that an entire political party sprang up against them (Know-Nothings, anyone?).
The Civil War changed all that, though.
What buff hasn’t heard the tales of the Irish Brigade at Antietam, which broke the Confederate line at the Sunken Road but decimated their ranks in doing so? Or of that second, unbroken Sunken Road, fortified by the Stone Wall, at Fredericksburg, where the Irishmen got closer than any other unit? Who hasn’t admired the sad Irish wolfhound under the Gaelic cross in Gettysburg’s Wheatfield?
Each of these episodes diminished the strength of the Irish Brigade, but in doing so, they opened the way for replacements to intermingle with the survivors, simultaneously demystifying and humanizing the Irishmen. Those veterans would go home and tell tales of the Irishmen who were very much like they themselves were. The personal loyalty forged on battlefields did much to overcome larger prejudices.
Another key factor was the tireless efforts of Brig. Gen. Thomas Meagher (pronounced “Mahrr”). Meagher, an Irish ex-patriot and revolutionary agitator against the British, started the war as a captain by raising a company of Irishmen for the 69th New York State Militia. That unit would eventually lead to the foundation of the brigade: the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York, and later, the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania.
The brigade lost some 600 men at Antietam. At Fredericksburg, it lost 545 of its 1,200 remaining men. By Gettysburg, they were down to 530, and they lost 320. I’ve seen several sources say the brigade lost as many as 4,000 men over the course of its life.
Following Gettysburg, the army sent Meagher on leave so he could do more recruiting. He missed much of the fall of 1863, although he came back to visit the army in late November only to nearly get captured during the fight at Robinson’s Tavern in the Mine Run Campaign (Confederates mistook him for a journalist and opted not to chase him).
Meagher’s recruiting efforts helped replenish the ranks, but more importantly, he served as a massive one-man P.R. machine. He worked tirelessly to spread the word of the brigade’s valor on the battlefield. Such stories demonstrated that the Irish were just as brave, just as hard-working, and just as patriotic as any other Americans. On the battlefield, Meagher argued and newspapers confirmed, the Irish had earned their place.
I don’t mean to over-romanticize my Gaelic ancestors, who were indeed victims of oppressive prejudice but who, in turn, demonstrated prejudice of their own. As the second-lowest rung on the social ladder, they had no interest in emancipation, which would suddenly flood the labor market with millions of competitors for the low-wage jobs the Irish filled. If society was prejudiced against the Irish, the Irish were prejudiced against blacks. The Irish were also involved in the New York draft riots of 1863, protesting the disproportionate impact draft laws were having on recent immigrants.
That’s all a lot to think about on this St. Patrick’s Day, which is usually reserved for green beer and good cheer. It’s also a good day for walking the battlefield, which serves as a good reminder of the humanity of these sons of Erin, in all its complexity.
For me, that means Fredericksburg. (My colleague, Kevin Pawlak, posted a great Irish Brigade walk at Antietam here.) At the city dock, a monument set into the ground—to keep it from being razed by occasional flooding—commemorates the spot at the middle pontoon landing where the Irish Brigade began its march into combat on December 13, 1862. Each year as part of the National Park Service’s commemoration of the battle, historian Frank O’Reilly leads a public tour that traces these steps.
As the brigade advanced up Hanover Street, a member of the 8th Ohio, Thomas Francis Galwey, watched them pass. In his memoir, The Valiant Hours, Galwey noted the withering fire that had pinned him and so many of his fellows from advancing.
There is one exception, the Irish Brigade, which comes out of the city in glorious style, their green sunbursts waving, as they have waved on many a bloody battlefield before, in the thickest of the fight where the grim and thankless butchery of war is done. Every man has a sprig of green in his cap, and a half-laughing, half-murderous look in his eye. They pass just to our left, poor fellows, poor glorious fellows, shaking goodbye to us with their hats! They reach a point within stone’s throw of the stone wall. No farther. They try to go beyond but are slaughtered. Nothing could advance farther and live. They lie down doggedly, determined to hold the ground they have already taken. There, away out in the fields to the front and left of us, we watched them for an hour, lying in line close to that terrible stone wall.
Today, I shall raise a toast to those sons of Erin who, on those long-ago battlefields, did so much to not only save America but change American attitudes—so much so that, every year on this day, we all want to be a little Irish.