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.”
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!” 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.
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.” 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?” 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.
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.
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.” 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). 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 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. 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.
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.
 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.
 Ken Burns, “Simply Murder,” in The Civil War. PBS, 1990.
 Ron Maxwell, Gods and Generals, Ted Turner Pictures, 2003.
 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.
 Kelly J. O’Grady, Clear the Confederate Way: The Irish in the Army of Northern Virginia (Mason City: Savas Publishing Company, 2000), 104.
 Philip T. Tucker, Irish Confederates: The Civil War’s Forgotten Soldiers (Abilene: McWhiney Foundation Press, 2006), 56.
 Arthur Fremantle, Three Months in the Southern States: April June, 1863 (New York: John Bradburn, 1864), 232.