On St Patrick’s Day 150 years ago, the Union Irish Brigade took time out from the American Civil War to embark on a day of celebrations for Ireland’s National Day. The festivities wowed all who witnessed them. The 17 March 1863 has passed into American Civil War legend, a permanent reminder of Irish participation in that conflict. So what took place on that day all those years ago, and why were these men there in the first place?
ON THE EVE of the American Civil War, an incredible 1.6 million people living in the United States were of Irish birth. The majority were clustered around the industrial cities of the North; New York, Boston, Philadelphia, but others had gone further South, particularly to New Orleans and other settlements on the great Mississippi River. A visitor to New York in 1860 would have found that one in every four people they encountered was Irish-born. The majority of these 1.6 million Irish had fled a cataclysm that had nearly cost them their lives, victims of the Great Famine that had engulfed Ireland in the 1840s. Now, as 1860 drew to a close, many were destined to experience the second great trauma of their lives, as the American Civil War loomed on the horizon.
The only conflict in the Irish experience to compare with World War I
The entire Irish-American community in the United States were affected by the Civil War to one degree or another. On the front lines, the Irish contributed at least 150,000 men to the armies of the North, with a further 20,000 serving the South. The majority chose to remain loyal to the State where they lived, be that in the Union or Confederacy. Although no figures survive as to the numbers of Irish who died during the conflict, it certainly ran to tens of thousands, with many more physically or emotionally scarred. It is a little known fact that the American Civil War is the only conflict in the Irish experience to compare with World War I in terms of the number who donned military uniform.
This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most famous Irish occasions during the American Civil War. In March 1863 the Union Army of the Potomac was camped in northern Virginia, preparing to bring the war once more to the Confederate forces arrayed against them. The Army of the Potomac boasted huge numbers of Irishmen, some of whom served in ‘green flag’ ethnic Irish regiments, such as the 9th Massachusetts Infantry. No group was more famous that Brigadier-General Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade, made up of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York, 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments. The Brigade had been virtually annihilated in December 1862 at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and as St Patrick’s Day 1863 approached, the Irishmen determined to make it one the entire army would remember.