“I Want To See How Irishmen Fight”: The Irish Brigade at Fair Oaks

Thomas Meagher and the Irish Brigade at Fair Oaks (Currier and Ives)

The Irish Brigade of the Union’s Army of the Potomac is probably most associated with Antietam and Fredericksburg when their battle experiences come to mind. However, their first major combat experience took place during the Peninsula Campaign at the battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines) on May 31-June 1, 1862. Although the results of the battle are labeled “inconclusive,” for part of General Edwin Sumner’s II Corps, the battlefield was theirs, through the “gallantry” of the Irish Brigade.

The following account appeared in the compilation entitled Memoirs of General Thomas Francis Meagher, published a few decades after his death by fellow Irishman, Michael Cavanaugh. Captain Field, of the U. S. Artillery, penned this version of the Irish Brigade at Fair Oaks which Cavanaugh included in the volume:

“We could follow the fluctuating fortunes of the day by the way the fire advanced and retired, accompanied by the solid cheers of our men and the sharp continuous yell of the enemy. Presently the fire came nearer, with an increased crash on the other side and a perceptible slackening on ours. In a few minutes stragglers and wounded men began to emerge from the timber. The first brigade of our division was being driven in. General Sumner sent in the next brigade, Howard’s, and with this fresh force the fire again resumed its full volume, reaching the climax of the battle.

General Edwin Sumner

A nearer approach of the fire, another lull in our direction and wild yells, meant a second repulse, and now we saw General Sumner ride up to the Irish Brigade, but a bare quarter of a mile off on our right front. We saw his hat off and his gray locks bared as he evidently made short speech, probably the only one of the old hero’s life. We learned afterwards that he told them that they were his last hope; if they failed him all was lost, “but,” said he, “I’ll go my stars on you,” pointing to his shoulder straps. “I want to see how Irishmen fight, and when you run I’ll run too.”

A hearty cheer greeted his last words, and the brigade moved into the woods with the air of men who were going to stay. A fresh crash showed when they struck the enemy. For a few minutes the fire was deafening, then it began to retire. The yells gave way to long continuous cheers, an aid galloped up to order a section of artillery to follow our advancing line, and the battle of Fair Oaks was won.

It was an inspiring opening of a heroic history, and from that day General Sumner swore by the Irish Brigade.

During the latter part of the action, an officer dashed up to General Sumner – wearing a cap heavily laced with gold, jacket similarly ornamented, with  long grizzled moustache curled up to his eyes. He saluted and gave a report of the close of the action.

General Sumner said, “That was a gallant charge of your brigade, Captain Gosson.”

“Be’gad, sir,” said Jack, raising his cap, “we gave them a healthy dash.”


Michael Cavanagh, Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher (Worcester: Messenger Press, 1892) Pages 446-447. Accessed through Archive.org https://archive.org/details/meagherfranc00cavarich/page/446/mode/2up?ref=ol&view=theater

1 Response to “I Want To See How Irishmen Fight”: The Irish Brigade at Fair Oaks

  1. Or as Gen. Taylor said about the Louisiana Irish long after the war about a night when his Irish troops performed very well: “his heart “warmed to an Irishman since that night.”

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!