Civil War Myth Busting: The Fictional Confederate Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg

Another anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg has come and gone. Mention of the December 1862 battle immediately brings to mind the repeated Federal attacks against Marye’s Heights that all failed to reach their objective. One of the most famous of those attacks was by the Army of the Potomac’s heralded Irish Brigade; going into action with 1,200 men, the five regiments suffered 45% casualties by the time their action was done. The story, already rife with drama, has morphed recently into a legend far more dramatic: The Irish Brigade fought Confederates who were also Irish! The two opposing sides of Irishmen, having immigrated to their new country, now found themselves on the same battlefield shooting each other to pieces.

 

Sometimes it’s a regiment of Confederate Irishmen, sometimes it’s even a full Confederate Irish Brigade. Sometimes the story goes so far as to suggest that Robert E. Lee himself feared the Confederate Irish would not shoot their Union brethren, and so had reserves moved up just in case. Except, there’s a problem: The whole story is fake. There wasn’t a Confederate Irish Brigade (or even regiment) at the base of Marye’s Heights. So how did the impression that there was get started?

As it happens, from an Irish Brigade veteran. Lieutenant Colonel St. Clair Mulholland, commanding the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry at Fredericksburg, later wrote a regimental history. In his section on Fredericksburg, Mulholland wrote, “And now occurred a strange and pathetic incident. . . behind that rude stone breast-work were ‘bone of their bone, and flesh of their flesh’—the soldiers of Cobb’s Brigade were Irish like themselves.”

St. Clair Mulholland, 116th Pennsylvania (LOC)

According to Mulholland, the Confederates recognized the Irish Brigade and let out, “‘Oh God, what a pity! Here comes Meagher’s fellows!” That quote has been repeated ad nauseum in writings regarding Fredericksburg, but it’s important to remember it was Mulholland writing it, not a Confederate. If one inspects the various writings of Confederate defenders, there never appeared to be even an instant of hesitation before opening fire. According to a newspaper from Athens, Georgia, the Southern Watchman, regimental commander of the 24th Georgia, Robert McMillan, drew his sword and said, “That’s Meagher’s brigade. . .. Give it to them now, boys!”[1] Far from shirking away, the Georgians held fast.

Over fifty years after the battle, the Irish vs. Irish proved the foundation of the next iteration of the myth, a poem published in 1913 by John B. O’Reilly. “At Fredericksburg,” details the battle and the attacks at Marye’s Heights, but has this to say in the middle of its stanzas: “From gun-mouth to plain every grass blade in view./ Strong earthworks are there, and the rifles behind them/ Are Georgia militia—an Irish brigade—/Their caps have green badges, as if to remind them/Of all the brave record their country has made. . . ‘ O God! what a pity!’ they cry in their cover. . . /“Tis Meagher and his fellows! their caps have green clover. . . /It is green against green, but a principle stifles/The Irishman’s love in the Georgian’s blow.” It is clear from the poem that O’Reilly used both Mulholland’s writings and the reporting of the Southern Watchman, as he borrows and paraphrases language from both.[2]

The Confederate Irish at Fredericksburg myth made its jump to the big screen later in the 20th century. As part of Ken Burns’s sweeping Civil War documentary, the episode “Simply Murder” includes the throwaway line: “The Irish Brigade got within 25 paces of the wall; the men of the 24th Georgia who shot them down, were Irish too.”[3] Just over ten years later, Ron Maxwell brought the idea of a Confederate Irish regiment at Fredericksburg sparring with the Federal Irish Brigade to the big screen in his 2003 film Gods and Generals. Seen by countless Civil War enthusiasts the film has certainly had the biggest impact and reach in spreading the myth of the Confederate Irish at Fredericksburg.

Maxwell threw subtlety out the window during his scenes of the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg. As the Federals attack across the open plain below Marye’s Heights, the camera spans over Confederates firing from the stone wall and a title card flashes across the screen: “Brigadier General Thomas R.R. Cobb’s Irish Regiment, Georgia, C.S.A.” In the background hangs a Stars and Bars pattern Confederate flag with an Irish harp in the middle of the white field and “24th Georgia Vols” painted in gold lettering across the top. To top off the scene, a trio of officers see the Federals approach and cry out in Irish brogues, “That’s the Irish! Don’t they know we’re fighting for our independence? Did they learn nothing at the hands of the English?”[4] Yet the faithful Confederates open fire and after decimating the Irish Brigade, shed tears out of sadness, frustration, and despair at having to fight their own. Beyond the sappiness, two problems: 1) There was no such thing as “Cobb’s Irish Regiment” and 2) That flag is as phony as a three-dollar bill.

A still from “Gods and Generals” with the fictional ‘Cobb’s Irish Regiment’ given a title card. Note the harp on the flag. (RQ)

Reality is that the 24th Georgia Infantry did exist, but not in a form or fashion as the movie shows. The regiment was formed in 1861 and served with the Army of Northern Virginia from the Seven Days Battles all the way through Appomattox, where only 60 survivors surrendered. It was a tough as nails combat unit with the record to prove it. But it was never known as “Cobb’s Irish Regiment,” a moniker created entirely for the film.

Also created entirely for the film is the flag with the Irish harp. It’s shown twice, once in the film’s introduction and then again during the battle scenes, but it has no basis in historical fact. There are two known surviving flags, or pieces of flags, left from the 24th Georgia. One is a banner for Company B, held in the collections of the Chicago Historical Society. It is a similar Stars and Bars pattern flag but has no harp in the middle. The only other surviving piece of flag is in the collections of the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park; when the regiment surrendered in 1865, rather than give up their flag the survivors tore it shreds and took the remnants home. The result is a piece of fabric only a few inches tall and a few inches wide.

The only surviving piece of fabric from the real flag of the 24th Georgia. (Appomattox Court House National Historical Park)

I shared a photo of the surviving piece with a friend of mine, Josh Bucchioni, who researches flags and their history. After taking some time with it and comparing it with other known flags, Josh gave me his assessment. “Looks to me like a homemade, 2nd or 3rd [N]ational flag (most likely 2nd).” He added “from the geometry of the piece, there’s no way it’s a [S]tars and [B]ars.” Like the fake name that Gods and Generals bestowed on the regiment, the film also gave it a fake flag.

The film’s depiction of the flag has taken hold. Today one can find cheap reproduction after cheap reproduction available of Stars and Bars pattern flag with a big gold harp smack in the middle. A flag with no bearing in reality now represents the 24th Georgia, whose own real identity has been dwarfed and shadowed by its on-screen depiction.

If the regiment wasn’t Irish, and their flag didn’t look like its film depiction, why then, is there even an impression at all that the 24th Georgia was Irish? Gods and Generals, as discussed, has had the biggest impact on the public perception, but more than that, the root of the problem lies with the commander of the regiment. Robert McMillan, the regiment’s colonel at Fredericksburg, was Irish himself. Born in 1805, McMillan had immigrated to Georgia almost thirty years before the war, and when the 24th Georgia was created, Company K was named in his honor. And yet, as historian David Gleeson notes in his book The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America, with the exception of McMillan and his son, “The rest of the company was decidedly American, which is not surprising considering the mountainous parts of North Georgia had very few Irish residents.”[5] Kelly J. O’Grady in his own work Clear the Confederate Way: The Irish in the Army of Northern Virginia lists just two companies of predominantly Irishmen in the entirety of Thomas Cobb’s Georgia brigade—the McMillan Guards and the Lochrane Guards (Co. F, Phillips Legion).[6] Knowing that the McMillan Guards in fact weren’t Irish, that leaves just a single company in the entirety of Cobb’s brigade that were Irish, and that company wasn’t even in the 24th Georgia.

The fictional flag of the 24th Georgia.

The myth that the 24th Georgia was predominantly Irish has even received a boost in books written by supposed academic sources. As an example, let’s look at Philip Thomas Tucker’s Irish Confederates: The Civil War’s Forgotten Soldiers, published in 2006. Within a chapter entitled “The Celtic-Gaelic Brothers’ War: The Twenty-Fourth Georgia Meets the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg,” Tucker writes that the 24th “was heavily Irish” and “provides good evidence of the ethnic clannishness of the Confederate Irish,” though he doesn’t cite any evidence to support his claim.[7] In his narrative of the fighting at Marye’s Heights (which he misdates to Dec. 12), Tucker goes so far as to write “One British observer reflected upon the scene at Fredericksburg: ‘Southern Irishmen make excellent Rebs, and have no sort of scruple in killing as many of their northern brethren as they possibly can.’” That sentence is likewise uncited, but when “British observer” gets brought up in Civil War literature, one name immediately springs to mind: Col. Arthur Fremantle. Sure enough, a scan of Fremantle’s Three Months in the Southern States finds the quote on page 232. But wait. Fremantle didn’t even arrive in the Confederacy until April 1863, four months after the battle of Fredericksburg. And his passage about the “Southern Irishmen” clearly comes from his diary dated June 24 at Winchester, Virginia as he tagged along with the Army of Northern Virginia to Gettysburg. It wasn’t just incorrect to quote Fremantle for a battle he didn’t witness, it was intellectually dishonest on Tucker’s part.[8]

With no basis in fact, it is easy to deconstruct the myth of the Confederate Irish Brigade/Regiment at Fredericksburg. And yet, because of the staying power of films like Gods and Generals and cherry-picked quotes like Tucker’s, the idea has stuck around. Those cheap nylon flags continue to sell, even if inaccurate in every detail, as do paintings and miniatures of the event. Sometimes even paintings of other Confederate regiments, like the 10th Tennessee, which had a very real green flag, get swapped as stand-ins for the 24th Georgia’s mythical Irishmen. The battle of Fredericksburg was dramatic enough and has enough real human-interest stories already—it doesn’t need the addition of fake ones that muddy the historical waters.

______________________________________________________________

[1] St. Clair A. Mulholland, The Story of the 116th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion (Philadelphia: F. McManus, Jr., & Company, 1903) 72; Athens Southern Watchman, Feb. 25, 1863.

[2] John B. O’Reilly, “At Fredericksburg,” in Selected Poems (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1913), 19-21.

[3] Ken Burns, “Simply Murder,” in The Civil War. PBS, 1990.

[4] Ron Maxwell, Gods and Generals, Ted Turner Pictures, 2003.

[5] David T. Gleeson, The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 105.

[6] Kelly J. O’Grady, Clear the Confederate Way: The Irish in the Army of Northern Virginia (Mason City: Savas Publishing Company, 2000), 104.

[7] Philip T. Tucker, Irish Confederates: The Civil War’s Forgotten Soldiers (Abilene: McWhiney Foundation Press, 2006), 56.

[8] Arthur Fremantle, Three Months in the Southern States: April June, 1863 (New York: John Bradburn, 1864), 232.

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23 Responses to Civil War Myth Busting: The Fictional Confederate Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg

  1. Jon Tracey says:

    Great article. A solid lesson as to how popular culture and dishonest “research” can lead to myth-making without a basis in reality.

  2. Lyle Smith says:

    If only the Irish Brigade had fronted up on some of the two Louisiana Brigades’ companies, then there would be a little less myth.

  3. patyoungcarecen2019 says:

    Thanks for writing this article Ryan. A decade ago when I began researching The Immigrants’ Civil War series I was told repeatedly about the 24th Georgia being an Irish regiment. I was skeptical. Georgia’s total Irish-born population was only 6,586 people. With only one-in-twenty immigrants settling in what became the Confederacy, there were very few Irish immigrants in any Confederate state other than Louisiana. But, I thought, I might as well try to find out about the origins of its soldiers.

    As I searched for information on the regiment I could not find any contemporary sources that described it as an immigrant or Irish regiment. After a short while I wrote this off as a “Rainbow Confederate” chimera. At the time, many Lost Cause enthusiasts were on a quest to invent a diverse Confederate army filled with Irish, Jews, Latinos, and, of course, Black Confederates.

    I did not want to spend my time trying to accumulate enough evidence to demonstrate that this was pure myth, so I am glad you did so.

    With the family at the center of Gone With the Wind being sired by a fictional Irishman, perhaps it was natural that some would think Georgia had a particularly Irish lilt. In fact, Georgia was one of the least Irish immigrant state in the Union in 1860. Only 1% of Georgians were immigrants from ANY country. By comparison, New York was 26% foreign-born, Minnesota was 34%, Wisconsin was 35% and California was 38%.

    The states that became the Confederacy were extremely toxic for mid-19th Century immigrants. Of every 20 immigrants who came to America in the decade before the Civil War, 18 went to the Free States, one went to the four slave states that stayed in the Union, and one went to the eleven states that would form the Confederacy.

    You may sometimes find references to states having an “Irish Brigade.” It was common in 1861 for those trying to recruit an Irish company to call it “The Irish Brigade.” This was done in the North as well as in the South. The name was not designed to suggest that the unit had thousands of men in it. Instead, it was a name picked because of the potent memory of the French Irish Brigade that fought for the King of France. For example, “Mulligan’s Irish Brigade” was in fact a regiment, the 23rd Illinois. There was a Confederate “Irish Brigade” in Missouri that was the size of a large company. of 125 men that was organized by Joseph Kelly. The fact that there is a song about “Kelly’s Irish Brigade” has given it more fame than its small numbers would indicate.

    The failure of modern readers to understand that the name “brigade” in these instances was either purely aspirational or simply a tribute to a famous Irish unit in the French army leads to confusion.

    • Ryan Quint says:

      Thanks for the comment, Pat. I thought about including “Gone with the Wind” and the inclusion of Cobb’s Legion in the movie with its Irish soldiers, but in a post that was already teetering on too long, it went the way of the Dodo Bird. Thanks for bringing it up.

    • Bill Elliott says:

      My Great Great Grandfather and Great Uncle were in company G of the 24th Georgia. There family were Dutch, Vandivour spelled at that time as today, Vandiver. The Vandivour’s are first mentioned in America before 1700 in Prince George county Maryland. My 4 Greats Grandfather George Vandiver fought in the revolutionary war and his son Adam fought under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. Most of the 24th Georgia were of Scottish origin. I have the book on the Confederate pension rolls that has the full roster of the 24th in it.

  4. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Excellent article, and spot on!

  5. Nice research!

    Tom Crane

  6. bryanac625 says:

    Ryan,
    Excellent article- thanks so much for shedding light on this! But, of course, it won’t make much of a dent in dispelling the myth for those who are unable or unwilling to accept that it’s not true.

    I do recall reading some time ago that the story of US Irish vs. CS Irish at the stone wall was questionable as to if it actually happened. I think I read that in an article about the movie “Gods & Generals.” But I didn’t know, however, that it was so faske that the film actually created- out of whole cloth (I don’t usually pat myself on the back but did you see what I just did there)- a flag that never existed. Now I’m wondering what happened to the square, flat plastic bag it came in and if Ron Maxwell asked his wife to iron out the folds.

    Seriously, the fictional Irish regiment plays an important part in Maxwell’s movie. The film presented the “Rainbow Confederacy” that so many desparately want to believe. Yes, there were Irish and German immigrant Confederate soldiers. But it’s likely that they were unfortunately subject to xenophobia as immigrants in the North were. I recall reading that Robert E. Lee wanted Southern Independence to be won as much as possible through isolationist Confederate nationalism (with the help of Black slavery, of course).

    In his book on CIvil War movies, Gary Gallagher said that films are usually a reflection of the current time period they are released in. “Glory,” for example, was the product of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But he said that “G&G” was not really a reflection of current events. But I think it absolutely is. That film, I think, is a literal “Confederate Fantasy Island” and it is a salve to some people who can’t deal with the multicultural, multiethnic world that they are living in.

    • John Foskett says:

      It would take a few pages to list the errors, fictions, and fantasies in G&G. There are a lot of reasons for the fundamental public misunderstanding of the Civil War and its many aspects, but Maxwell’s gem plays its role.

  7. About 10% of Georgians claim Irish decent and not the 1% mentioned in the comments here. Savannah was one of the main shipping ports from Ireland and Scotland just before the war.

    https://www.ajc.com/news/local/here-where-irish-people-live-georgia/0FpDDPP51cVyQ7zcUC6rCL/

    • To Searles O’Dubhain, in the 1860 Census there were 6,586 people who were born in Ireland. out of a population of 1,057,286. Irish immigrants made up .6% of the population of Georgia at the time of Secession. The article you cite from the Atlanta Journal Constitution is based on statistics from 2017, not 1860. In addition, they are for people who “claim Irish heritage,” not for immigrants born in Ireland. I “claim Irish heritage” because I have Irish ancestors, but I am not an Irish immigrants because I was born in the U.S.

  8. One problem in discussing Irish immigrants in Georgia in 1860 is the oversized role some assign to the Irish community in Savannah. Because the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration there is one of the largest in the region and because, as the AJC article claims, “as many as one in three white households in Savannah in 1860 were from Ireland.” While this seemingly large number of Irish in Savannah might be thought to support arguments that Georgia’s Irish population was large, a closer look at the statistics indicates otherwise.

    Savannah was a small city in 1860, with only 22,302 total population. 38% of the city’s people were Blacks. The leading source on Irish in the South, David Gleeson’s “The Green and the Gray” says that “over 20%” of the white population of Savannah was Irish-born in 1860. Doing simple math that is a pretty small number of people in a state with over a million residents at the start of the war.

  9. John Foskett says:

    Phillip Thomas Tucker. All anyone need do is take a gander at his Amazon page bio.

  10. John Pryor says:

    I love Young’s description of the Southern states being “toxic” to Irish immigrants, using it as an explanation for the relatively low immigration figures. Of course, the fact that the greatest port in America, New York, was situated closer to Great Britain, and therefore cheaper, had NOTHING to do with the skewing of the figures. And the Irish immigrants in New York and Boston would of course found Patrick’s imputation of those points of settlement as “non toxic” would not have been able to stop laughing. Between their tears

    • To John Pryor:

      In 1860 more Irish immigrants lived in Manhattan (200,000) than in the entire Confederacy (84,763). John would have us believe that Irish who travelled all the way across the Atlantic Ocean were incapable of going another few hundred miles to the South! But even if we were to accept Mr. Pryor’s contention that being a large port gave New York an unmatched advantage over the entire South, we have only to look at other Northern states more distant from the Atlantic to demonstrate the incorrectness of his contention.

      In 1860, Illinois had a total population of 1.7 million, of whom 85,000 were born in Ireland! In other words, even Illinois, far from any Atlantic port, had about the same number of Irish immigrants as the entire Confederacy combined.

      Virginia with 1.2 million people had an Irish-born population of 5,800, while distant Minnesota with only 172,000 people was home to 12,000 Irish immigrants. North Carolina, with 632,000 total population, was home to fewer than 3,000 Irish immigrants, while Iowa with 675,000 people had 35,000 Irish-born. Are Minnesota and Iowa closer to ports of entry for Irish coming to the U.S. than Virginia and North Carolina?

      Immigrants found the South toxic and did not settle there. They settled in the Atlantic ports of New York and Boston, true, but they also settled in the Midwest and even on the Minnesota Prairie, but they did not settle in the Slave States that would later form the Confederacy.

      Here is a useful tool for examining historical census data https://depts.washington.edu/moving1/migrationhistory-states.shtml

  11. John Pryor says:

    Right. Again, Patrick, the direction of the existing railroad and road infrastructure played no part in this. You continually draw the conclusions you wish to from results, not causes.

    • To John Pryor: Really? You first claimed that the lack of Irish immigrants in the states that later formed the Confederacy was due to the fact that “New York, was situated closer to Great Britain” than the Southern states. When I demonstrated that Irish immigrants were more willing to travel 1,200 miles west of New York City to settle in Minneapolis rather than in much nearer Southern states you now respond that I have ignored the “existing railroad and road infrastructure.” Was it really easier to get to Minneapolis from New York City than it was to get to Arlington, Virginia which is only 232 miles away and easily accessible by railroad or coastal ship?

      What John also ignores is that Baltimore was the third largest port of entry for Irish immigrants in the 1850s and 1860s. Baltimore is only 45 miles from the Virginia border and there was daily train service to Washington and transfers to points South. Heck, an immigrant could have walked to Virginia from Baltimore in just three days. Yet, while some Irish stayed in Baltimore, most headed from that port to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. They did not go South. Not even to Virginia.

      As this map of railroads at the time of the Civil War shows, an immigrant arriving in Baltimore in the 1850s could take a train to Washington and transfer to a train heading to Harpers Ferry (then part of Virginia), or take a ferry to Alexandria and board a train travelling through central Virginia and onward to Lynchburg, or take a train to the Valley. A steamer could easily take the immigrant down the Potomac to board a train to Fredericksburg or Richmond. Here is a link to the map:
      https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/Railroad_of_Confederacy-1861.jpg

      The point I am making is that it was not lack of transportation that stopped Irish immigrants from settling in a state like Virginia.

  12. Brandon Hardman says:

    The 24TH did have a large number of Irish in it’s ranks. I can not argue the point of whether or not it was or was not known as the “Confederate Irish Brigade”. The soldiers from Northeastern Georgia were in large part Irish for example, Franklin County (Currahee Rangers) were mostly Irish. I know this as I have more than a few relatives that were part of that particular company. I am in my Forties and was lucky enough to have my Great Grand Parents and Grand Parents until I was close to adulthood with the last passing away when I was in my late twenties. I heard stories that had been passed down of the Northern Irishmen charging our Irish companies. I heard from other ancestors the horrors of the Union POW Camps who were well supplied in contrast to the poorly provisioned Confederate POW Camps toward the end of the war. I had a GGG Uncle who was released from Elmira, Ny’s POW camp and had to walk home to the Georgia Mountains bare footed and wearing tatters. He made it to what was left of the barn after Sherman had burned the farm out and called out to a passerby to please bring him water to clean up with and what clothes that could be so he could clean up not wanting the family to see him in the state he was in upon arrival. It is said he could barley carry himself and that he was skeletal. His beard was falling out along with his nails and teeth from what he had been put through imprisoned and then walking home from Elmira some 800 miles. I hope your time spent myth busting was worth it to you. I wouldn’t pay a bent nickle for your opinion sir.

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