Why did the 69th Irish Brigade pass into legend at the battle of fredericksburg?Who won?

The 69th Irish Brigade

The heroics of the 69th Irish brigade at the Battle of Frederickburg have gone down in the annals of Irish American history. For many, this bloody battle during the American Civil war was the moment when Irish immigrants to the US finally received some level of acceptance in their new country.

No longer could disloyal papist slurs be bandied about when referencing the Irish. The Irish had proven their loyalty to their new country by the blood that they had shed on the fields of Fredericksburg.

At the start of the Battle, the 69th Irish Brigade was made up of 1600 men but by the end of the days engagement only 256 men remained standing. The appalling attrition rate is evidence of a number of things (1). The reckless bravery of the 69th (2). The utter incompetence of the US military leadership.

Whilst needless deaths did occur, the bravery and heroics of the 69th on that faithful day is beyond question.  Commenting on the 69th the legendary Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee said,

“Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry on that desperate occasion.

So who where the 69th Irish brigade and who led them?

69th Irish brigade

By any standard Thomas Francis Meagher led an extraordinary life. He was a leader of a failed rebellion in Ireland in 1848 and for his so called crimes he was banished to the remote and inhospitable Van Diemens land.

For most Irish convicts once they had arrived on the island that was it, there was no way off, but Thomas Francis Meagher was made of far sterner stuff that your average man, as he proceeded to bust out of captivity and sail all the way across the oceans of the world to the United States.

When the civil war was in its infancy Meagher saw a path in which newly arrived Irish immigrants could be accepted by their new country and this path was by proving their loyalty across the battlefields of the civil war. Mostly because of Meaghers influence the Irish Brigade was set up.

The brigade quickly began to distinguish themselves across the battlefields of the American Civil war. But it was to be the Battle of Frederickburg and in particular the Brigades assault on  Maryes Heights that the 69th  would be remembered for.

The Battle 

69th irish brigade

On the 13th of December 1862 the 69th Irish brigade fell in line beside the banks of the Rappahannock River. Brigader General Thomas Francis Meagher had overall command of the brigade. The brigade also comprised of the 63rd, 69th and 28th Massachusettes and New York regiments and the 116th Pennsylvania regiments. These regiments almost exclusively comprised of Irish immigrants.

General Ambrose Burnside had ordered suicidal full frontal assaults against Robert E Lee’s confederates who were positioned behind a stone wall at Maryes Heights. A number of attacks had failed when Burnside turned to the Irish Brigade to try and break the deadlock.

When Meagher was given the order to prepare for attack he ordered his men to put sprigs of evergreen on their caps so that they could be distinguished as being from the 69th. Meagher was dressed in a distinctive green suit which further impressed on those witnessing that this was going to be an Irish military operation.

When the soldiers of the brigade starting cheering and hollering the Gaelic saying, “faugh a bellagh” (clear the way) the men began to advance up the hill. As the 69th made their way up the across the bodies of the dead and the dieing waiting for them behind the wall was Col Robert McMillans Georgia Brigade which was a Confederate Brigade which also comprised of mostly Irishmen.

When Confederate General Robert E. Lee saw that his Irish contingent would have to shoot down their fellow countrymen he ordered reinforcements in case the Irishmen in his ranks wilted under the emotional pressure of having to shoot down their fellow brothers. But Lee need not have worried as his Confederate Irish brigade, in spite of conflicting emotions, were about to unleash hell upon the 69th.

The 69th Brigade made their way towards the stone wall at double quick pace as showers of musket and cannister shot rained down upon them. One eye witnessed noted how the 69th had a “half laughing, half murderous look in their eyes” as they advanced up the hill towards their inevitable doom.

Some of Lee’s Irish soldiers had tears in their eyes as they pulled their triggers on their fellow countrymen. But spite of their conflicting emotions, from a Confederate perspective, these soldiers performed their duties to last, raining musket-ball after musket-ball into the brave but hapless 69th Irish Brigade.

The men began to fall like domino’s as wave after wave red hot fire cut right through their ranks. But still the 69th marched on. Eyewitnesses were taken aback at the near suicidal bravery of the Irish Brigade.

Confederate General Pickett said of the attack, “The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. … We forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”

The Brigade made it to within a few feet of the wall but they were eventually, for the first time in their history, forced to retreat during a battle.  The relentless and murderous confederate gunfire had proved too much.One eye witnesses stated “Nothing could advance further and live.”

 

The aftermath

69th

The Irish Brigade’s bravery at Fredericksburg received a great deal of international attention, The London Times correspondent wrote, “Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, or at Waterloo was more undaunted courage displayed by the sons of Erin than during those six frantic dashes which they directed against the almost impregnable positions of their foe.”

 When news of the mammoth casualties suffered by the 69th began to leak through, amongst the Irish community, the initial reaction was one of horror. For many, The attrition rate was further proof that the US authorities would needlessly sacrifice Irish lives. Over time, it seems, that scribes have romanticized the wanton destruction and needless deaths that were caused, but such is the nature of war.

In spite of it being obvious that the capture of Myers Heights would have been an impossibility, Burnside insisted on the pig headed full frontal assault upon an impregnable position, his actions undoubtedly caused many needless deaths. But his negligence wasn’t just limited to the 69th , with the entire Union Army suffering vast casualties, so I think its a bit wide of the mark to suggest that Burnside singled out the 69th for special treatment.

Overall

The heroism of the 69th was the day that the Irish finally began to be accepted by sections of the American establishment. Tales of the brigades exploits abounded in local media sources who lavished praise on the sacrifice of the men. From Generals like Robert E. Lee to senior sources in the media, to the wider public at large, the 69th’s sacrifice would endure not only in that era but would endure right through the annals of history.

This article was compiled by SEO writer Seamus Hanratty.

Why did the Saint Patrick’s Battalion change sides and fight for Mexico?

saint patricks brigade mexico

The story of how an Irish Battalion defected to the Mexican Army during the Mexican American war is a story of courage, a story of right and wrong, a story of men who answered the call of their conscience.

Known as the Saint Patricks Battalion or in Mexican as the San Patricios, the men mostly made up of Irish immigrants decided to down tools and switch sides during the brutal conflict that took place in 1846-1848.

Every year, on the September the 12th, Mexicans gather to honor the men of Los San Patricios. Flowers are placed close to a marble plaque where a list of engraved names are read. A Mexican band plays both the Irish and Mexican national anthems in honour of the sacrifices that the Irish brigade endured during the conflict.

On the 12th of September 1997 Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo paid tribute to the special sacrifice of these men where he stated in his speech:

“One hundred and fifty years ago, here in San Ángel, … members of the St. Patricks Battalion were executed for following their consciences. They were martyred for adhering to the highest ideals, and today we honor their memory. In the name of the people of Mexico, I salute today the people of Ireland and express my eternal gratitude.” The president finished by, saying: “While we honor the memory of the Irish who gave their lives for Mexico and for human dignity, we also honor our own commitment to cherish their ideals, and to always defend the values for which they occupy a place of honor in our history.”

Why they deserted

San-Patricios

There are a number of theories that abound as to why the men switched sides.  The most common theory is that the men were subject to widespread anti catholic and anti Irish sentiment in the US Army.

And that by coming from a small impoverished land that had been continually battered, bruised, and bullied by a bigger neighbour that these Irishmen saw common cause with the Mexicans in their fight against US imperialism.

The Irish soldiers where also denied the rights to to practice their religious beliefs and where routinely flogged and beaten for any minor indiscretion, leading to simmering resentment festering against those in power. It was said that Mexicans Generals who where watching from afar noticed the ill content amongst the US Army and offered any deserters land and money for switching sides. This story may have been made up by the US authorities in an attempt to blacken the name of the San Patricos.

Another story goes that Irish catholic conscripts heard the church bells ringing in a nearby Mexican church and decided to down tools and practice their catholic faith in defiance of their commanders in the US army. Over time they built up a relationship with some of the Mexicans and found that they had much more in common with the impoverished Mexicans than they had with the greedy land hungry American army.

Another thing that must have played some part in the minds of the Irishmen was that Mexico had abolished slavery, and that the unconscionable and widespread use of slaves by the United States must have been abhorrent to an embattled and abused race like the Irish. Whatever the real story is, soldiers began to desert in droves to fight for the Mexicans.

The leader

Saint Patricks brigade mexico

The deserters where led by a man from Clifden in Co Galway, Captain John Riley. In 1846, Reilly began organising an artillery unit which was mostly comprised of Irish Catholics. This unit formed the nucleus of the San Patricios brigade.

A number of months after the creation of the unit over 200 soldiers formed part of it, which was enough to form a battalion and two companies. Some historians reckon that at the battalions peak there were over 700 men who part of the San Patricos.

Whilst the majority of the battalion was made up of Irishmen there were other volunteers of European descent. The Galway man set about forging a distinctly Irish identity to the battalion by commissioning a green flag with an image of Saint Patrick on one side and a harp and a shamrock on the other.

O Reilly when asked about what he thought of the charcater of the Mexicans stated that, “Do not be deceived by the prejudice of a nation at war with Mexico, because you will not find in all the world a people more friendly and hospitable than the Mexicans.”

Battles

saint patricks brigade mexico

The San Patricos where responsible for some the most ferocious resistance experienced by the US army during their invasion of Mexico.

At the Battle of Buena Vista, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion fought with real courage with the unit being instrumental in the capture of a large number of American Cannon. Eye witnesses described the ground held by the Patricos as, “ a strong Mexican battery….moved….by dint of their extraordinary exertions….that commanded the entire plateau.”

At one stage during the battle, The commander of the US forces General Zachary shouted in frustration at his troops, “to take that damned battery” but on that particular occasion the assault failed. Ultimately, the Mexican army were forced to retreat with the Irish contingent covering their withdrawal with ferocious tenacity.

Even though the heavily out-gunned Mexicans lost the battle the bravery of the Irishmen was acknowledged by the Mexican General Mejia who wrote in his battle report that the San Patricos where “worthy of the most consummate praise because the men fought with daring bravery.”

A number of the Irishmen where awarded the Mexican medal of honour “The War Cross” for their heroism in the heat of the battle.

But it was at the Battle of Chrubusco where the San Patricos passed into legend. In this engagement witnesses from both the US and Mexican sides stated that the unit had, “fought like demons.”

During the heat of the battle, as ammunition began to run out, the Mexican army tried to raise the flag of surrender but Officer Patrick Dalton tore down the white flag. Members of the Irish Battalion urged the men, if necessary, to fight on with bare hands.

When the Mexicans attempted to raise the white flag two more times members of the San Patricos shot and killed them. Some brutal hand to hand fighting ensued with bayonets and swords being the order of the day.

The legendary Irish brigade only surrendered when they ran out of every last piece of ammunition and weaponry and were completely surrounded by the US Army. The great American General Ulysses S Grant stated that it was “the severest battle fought in the valley of Mexico.” The Irish Battalion lost over 60% of their men in the engagement and the rest were taken prisoner.

The execution

saint patricks brigade

And so, just after down on September 10th, 1847, the villagers of San Angel a small on the outskirts of Mexico City, awoke to the sound of carts rustling into the center of the village. Inside the carts where members of the Patrick’s Battalion who where chained and bond and guarded by members of the United States army.

The carts drew to a halt beside specially constructed gallows which had been erected in the center of the village. The gallows consisted of 40 foot long beams,in which 16 nooses dangled in the Mexican air. Five Catholic Priests who were present at the time began to hear the prisoners confessions and administered the last rites.

The nooses where then placed around the necks of the prisoners and the order was given to drive the carts forward, whereby some of the prisoners fell to their deaths. Other captives where not so fortunate as they dangled in the air slowly choking to death.

A number of days after the executions at San Angel another thirty San Patricos where hanged at the village of Mixcoac. Anyone who escaped the hangman’s noose was branded and scared with a D on their face with a hot iron. The D identified them as deserters from the US army. Reilly was one of the fortunate ones to avoid the hangman’s noose.

One of the reasons for this, in spite of being instrumental in the formation of the Battalion, was because O Reilly had deserted from the US army before the war had actually began. Reillys punishment was to be branded with the D on his cheek. In all, over 50 members of the Saint Patrick Battalion were hanged, the largest mass execution in US history.

Side note

It’s also an interesting fact that the Irish have a well established history of fighting for other nations throughout Europe and the world.  In the 16th and 17th Century many Irishmen fought for the Spanish army during the continental wars, these soldiers became known as the “Wild Geese”.

Irish soldiers have also played a significant part in many South American wars for independence. During the Boer war many Irish soldiers deserted the British Army and took up arms to fight for the Boers.

Overall

The tale of the Saint Patricks battalion is a tale of people rising up against widespread discrimination and prejudice. These human beings where brutalised and discriminated against in their famine stricken homelands, and when they immigrated to another country for a better life, they were once more on the receiving end of hatred and abuse.

It seems that the members of San Patricos had enough of being treated like the refuse of the world and decided that they would rather die fighting for the Nobel cause of freedom than for the cause of imperialism, colonialism, and oppression.In the eyes of any right thinking man the San Patricos where and are heroes to the underdog standing up against impossible odds.

You can read more Irish immigration stories  by seo writer Seamus Hanratty here.

The Real Life Halloween Horror Story Of An Irish Cannibal | Did He Enjoy The Meat??

There are few acts more gruesome known to man than to eat your fellow human being for dinner and a Monaghan man from Clones, Ireland, by the name of Alexander Pearce, not only ate his fellow human being but he did so multiple times! In 1819 Alexander Pearce was sentenced to 7 years penal servitude in the ominous sounding Van Diemens land, also known as Tasmania.
 
The conditions which Pearce and his fellow detainees would have had to endure where horrific with lashings and vicious beatings being the order of the day. So whilst serving his sentence in the notorious penal colony Pearce and seven other convicts broke out their confinements and made a break for freedom. Their plan was to steal a boat and then sail across the Pacific Ocean but things began to go awry as the men made snail like progress through the hellish and thick forests of Van Diemens.
 
After two weeks of backbreaking cutting and trekking through the inhospitable forests the men had completely ran out of food and so they came to a momentous and macabre decision. They decided to draw straws and whoever drew the shortest straw would be sacrificed as a food source for the rest of the group. When one unfortunate picked the shortest straw the leader of the gang Robert Greenhill quickly attacked his lunch with an axe and then proceeded to slice out the pickings amongst the rest of his men.
 
At this point three of the gang, who where evidently disgusted by the actions of the Greenhill, decided to flee and make their way back to jail. This left 4 remaining survivors of the original gang who packed up their parcels of meat and set off on their journey. Initially the men ate their fellow escapee raw but after a while they decided that the taste was more palatable if the meat was cooked over a fire.
 
But as the days ticked by the men’s hunger once more began to gnaw on them as they ran out of their supplies of food. The four remaining men began to eagerly eye each other up, each wondering who would supply the next supper. Greenhill, and a man by the name of Travers where close friends, and so they began to look elsewhere for dinner in the direction of Pearce and another man called John Mathers. Eventually, Greenhills decided that Mathers looked like the tastier piece of meat and so he proceeded to butcher Mathers instead of the Irishman.
 
Once more with their appetites satiated the men set on their way. But as they days went by the men’s hunger returned and with two best friends against the solitary Alexander Pearce things did not bode too well for the Irishman.   
 
From Pearces perspective the situation looked even bleaker as the other two men where armed with the only axe but then a stroke of faith saved him when Travers was bitten on the leg by a snake. Greenhills initially insisted that his best friend should be helped along the way but after a few days of struggling Greenhills couldn’t resist the urge and then he proceeded to execute his best friend and then share out the spoils with Mr Pearce.
 
This left only two men Greenhill and Pearce, and no sooner had they eaten the last man they began to suspiciously eye each other up. What followed was a game of cat and mouse as both men tried to trick the other into making the first fatal mistake that would mark their demise. Each man was afraid to fall asleep lest he might wake up inside the belly of the other.
 
To counteract this threat the wily Pearce put a heavy coin inside his mouth and each time that he fell asleep the coin would fall to the floor alerting him to stay awake. Eventually, Greenhills was the first to fall asleep and as soon as he did Pearce ran over, grabbed the axe, battered Greenhills with it, and then feasted upon his body.
 
Eventually Pearce was caught by the authorities and soon confessed to all of his crimes but the authorities disregarded his confession believing that he was simply covering for the other men who where still roaming the wilds of Van Diemens land. Pearce was returned to his original place of captivity but soon enough he escaped again with another man, Thomas Cox.  
 
The Monaghan man was soon recaptured but this time when he was caught he had pieces of Thomas Cox inside his pockets. The authorities where astonished with the return of events and many commented that Pearce did not look like a cannibal! Whatever one is supposed to look like!! The local newspaper commenting on the incredible story stated “ He did not seem like someone who was “laden with human blood and someone who had banquetted on human flesh.”
 
The scary thing about the Thomas Cox killing was that Pearce had spare food supplies with him, he did not need to kill Cox, Pearce it seems had developed a taste for human flesh. Just before Alexander Pearce was executed he was reported to have said, “Man’s flesh is delicious, it tastes far better than fish or pork.” Now hows that for a real life Halloween horror story for you??

Why The Early Irish Settlers To The USA Nearly Won The Civil War

For a small area, my local locality of Monaghan, Cavan,  Louth, and South Armagh has produced some remarkably talented sons and daughters who’s ripples can be felt down through the ages of history. Of course, we all know of our Patrick Kavanaghs,  Barry McGuigans,  and Pierce Brosnans, but what about some of our more forgotten  hero’s throughout history who’ve left an indelible mark upon the world.
 
This column will take a look at these people and show how they’ve made an impact which have crossed borders, oceans, and cultural boundaries to reach the apex of the new worlds in which they found themselves. In countries as diverse as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, USA, you’ll find the hand of difference inspired by a local man or woman.
 
For example, a Monaghan man became a hero in the Chilean war of independence, a Cavan man emerged as the Bishop of Perth, a Louth native developed into a world renowned explorer, and another local infamously ended up as a notorious cannibal who dined on his fellow prison escapees.  These are just a short sample of some of the fascinating and sometimes forgotten people who have emerged from our little corner of the world.  In this column I’ll attempt to shine a light upon these people.
 
The first character we’ll take a look at is someone who emerged as a hero for the pro slavery confederate side during the American Civil war. That man was called, Joseph Finnegan, and he was born to humble beginnings  in Clones, Co Monaghan in 1814.  In his early twenties Finnegan emigrated to Florida were he quickly displayed his entrepreneurial skills in setting up a saw mill and becoming involved in the railroads.
 
Whilst his early successes in business were quite remarkable, it would be his later exploits in the American Civil war that would come to define him.   When the civil war broke out Finnegan’s political connections, that he cultivated through his marriage, ensured  him a plum post as the rank of General in the confederate Army.  At the onset of war in 1862, his forces mostly had to deal with mundane internal affairs within the state of Florida, but then a battle occurred that would change all of that.
 
In 1864 with federal forces massing beside Florida and poised to attack, it fell to the inexperienced Monaghan General to defend his new homeland. So on February the 20th of that year the stage was set for an epic clash between north and south a clash that would forever become associated with the Clones man . In one corner stood  Generals Seymours 5,500 federal troops and facing him in the other was Finnegan with his  5,000 confederate soldiers.  
 
After some initial skirmishes, the two sides eventually clashed in a bloody confrontation in what later became known as the Battle of Olustee.  When the fighting commenced the action swung back and forth throughout the day with hundreds of wounded and dying lying scattered across the blood soaked battlefield.  As the day neared its end, and with victory still hanging in the balance, the Clones man gambled and committed his last reserve to the fight which finally caused the Federal line to break and flee in a panic across the Saint Johns River.
 
The Monaghan man had emerged victorious, but at a huge cost. When the fighting had ceased Finnegan’s confederates had inflicted some 1,861 casualties on the Federal forces compared to 946 casualties on his own forces.  It was one of the highest per capita casualty rates in the entire civil war.  Nonetheless the Monaghan native had speared headed a rare, but much needed victory for the beleaguered confederate side.  
 
After the battle was over Finnegan was transferred to serve under Robert E. Lee in his famous Army of Northern Virginia.  He distinguished himself under Lee’s command were he fought in a number of engagements,  paramount among these the crucial battle of Cold Harbour.  Ultimately, with the confederates eventually being defeated, the Monaghan man’s efforts were in vain as he found himself standing on the wrong side of history in what was a titanic clash between slavery and freedom.
 
But as he looked back on his life, the man who came from humble beginnings in Clones in County Monaghan could be satisfied that he’d come a long way in life as an entrepreneur, state senator, and military general  . Joseph Finnegan died in his sleep, aged 71, on October 29, 1885.