Saturday, May 25, 2013

Those Who Never Retreated From the Clash of Spears

     "Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn Iann", is the motto inscribed across the bottom of the flag carried into battle by the Irish Brigade of Civil War fame.  Translated it reads, "those who never retreated from the clash of spears", and they certainly did not.  Their emerald flag was seen rippling over the fields of every major battle the Army of the Potomac engaged in.

     The brigade, made up of Irish immigrants from New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania was nicknamed, "the Sons of Erin". By war's end that had changed to, "the Fearless Sons of Erin".  At their formation in 1862, the brigade, commanded by Thomas Francis Meagher, numbered 3,000 men.  A year later only 300 were left.  The battles of Fair Oaks, Antietam and Fredericksburg among others, had taken ghastly tolls.  After the
General Meagher
bloody battle at Fredericksburg, Confederate General George Pickett wrote to his fiancee, "Your Soldier's heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their death. The brilliant assault on Marye's Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. Why, my darling, we forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines." 

Colonel Kelly
In May of 1863, following the battle of Chancellorsville, General Meagher,  upset with the war department's refusal to reinforce the brigade wrote to his superiors resigning his post stating, "the brigade no longer exists". Meagher's resignation was not accepted, though he was reassigned, and the Irish,  now under the command of Colonel Patrick Kelly from Tuam, County Galway, were ordered north to Gettysburg.  At that point, some of the wounded of earlier battles had returned, and their numbers had risen to around 530 men, still far short of their original number.  At Gettysburg, the battalion was ordered to participate in the attack on the Wheatfield, but there was one order of business to attend to first.  

     At the start of the war, Notre Dame University, whose sports teams even today bear the name "Fighting Irish", sent many of it's priests to serve as Union chaplains.  One of these was Father William Corby who was assigned to the Irish Brigade.  Father Corby faithfully followed his brigade throughout their battles, and was there with them at Gettysburg.  Many accounts survive of the moving moment that preceded the battle, as Father Corby stepped onto a boulder, and the entire brigade removed their hats and knelt around him as he offered them absolution.  The statue of Father Corby at Gettysburg is said to grace that same boulder.

      After their engagement at the Wheatfield, only around 300 soldiers remained in the battalion.  They continued to serve their adopted country valiantly and were periodically reinforced, but never reached their original force size.  Colonel Kelly was recommended by no less than Abraham Lincoln to receive a promotion to Brigadier General, but that promotion never came.  Some maintain discrimination against Irish officers was the reason General Halleck refused to promote him.  In June of 1864 Colonel Kelly was killed, shot in the head leading the Irish Brigade in an attack of Confederate earthworks at Petersburg.

     Afterwards, the brigade was disbanded and incorporated into other brigades, only to be reformed in 1865.  The only unit of the old brigade that is still active today is "the Fighting 69th", of the New York National Guard.  They served with distinction in Iraq, securing parts of Baghdad and the airport road known as Route Irish, and also in Afghanistan.

     To their memory and the memory of all soldiers who did their duty as they saw it, and paid a terrible price, a humble thank you.



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