December 13, 1862—It was the Union Army’s version of the Charge of the Light Brigade, a valorous but hopeless assault upon an enemy in an impregnable position. But despite a display of courage so conspicuous that it won the respect of Confederate commanders, the “Irish Brigade” was cut to pieces at the Battle of Fredericksburg, as the North closed out its year with its worst showing yet against Robert E. Lee.
Union commander Ambrose Burnside is now known to posterity largely for a flamboyant tonsorial style that led to a linguistic coinage: “sideburn.” Even here, however, he gets no respect, because the usage turns his name inside out.
As it happened, he was as luckless in the art of war as he was in other aspects of life, and his ill fortune spelled doom for the Army of the Potomac in general and its recruits of Irish descent in particular. As a young soldier just out of West Point, he was a poor player at card games. A few years later, it is said, his prospective bride refused to go through with the ceremony right at the altar.
A rifle promoted by Burnside would be used extensively by the North during the Civil War. It had not come early enough for the soldier-turned-civilian however, who had been forced to find a new line of work when the War Department in the 1850s canceled a contract for the weaponry. Two years after Fredericksburg, another potential Burnside brainstorm—digging a tunnel toward the Confederates at the Siege of Petersburg, dynamiting it, then overwhelming the enemy in the resulting confusion—boomeranged on the Union at the Battle of the Crater, bringing his military career to an end.
In November 1862, however, when Lincoln had resolved to replace slow-moving George McClellan as head of the Army of the Potomac, Burnside was the only Union corps commander who had had any success at any level operating independently, when he secured a foothold on the North Carolina coast early in the war. He had pleaded with Lincoln—twice—that he was unworthy to lead an entire army when the President asked him to take over the reins from McClellan. At Fredericksburg, he now demonstrated what he was talking about.
In contrast to McClellan, Burnside moved with dispatch in getting his troops toward Richmond. But bad luck came to the fore for him again. With the success of his plan depending on crossing the Rappahannock River unopposed, he now found that the civilian bridges had been wrecked earlier in the war. He could not get pontoon bridges built fast enough before Lee's Army of Northern Virginia got there first.
On the morning of the 13th, Burnside gave the order to attack, despite serious reservations on the part of his other generals over any offensive against what Lee had turned into a well-fortified position. The battle commenced around noon. A few hours in, a couple of charges at Marye’s Heights, a commanding position with plenty of artillery under James Longstreet, had ended in disaster. Now it was the turn of the Irish Brigade.
The unit, composed largely of Irish emigrants fleeing famine and political repression in their homeland over the past two decades, had nitially contained three regiments--the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York--but the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania were added later in the year.
Thomas Meagher, an Irish revolutionary who had escaped from a British prison in Tasmania to come to the United States, had been designated by Abraham Lincoln to lead the brigade. He had led his unit through two stiff fights already, in McClellan’s Seven Days campaign and again at the Battle of Antietam. The brigade’s banner from the latter fight was still not back from being mended when they found themselves in battle again. As they received another summons to arms at Fredericksburg, Meagher showed concern for his men’s esprit de corps by urging them to wear green sprigs in their caps as substitutes for the giant banner--and as reminders of their Irish heritage.
Even as they emerged from town, the lines of the brigade were riddled with fire, with 18 falling dead. Then they had to break ranks, splash through a canal ditch, reform and move toward the heights. Meagher, with a painful knee injury incurred at Antietam, could only get the men across the canal before he was led away.
The men’s mission was, for all intents and purposes, suicidal: cross 600 yards of open field to get at the Confederates on Marye’s Heights. They already knew that other troops had failed. Waiting on the Confederate side, ironically enough, were a number of their Irish countrymen (many of Brigadier General Thomas Cobb’s troops, especially in the 24th Georgia Infantry unit, were Irish-born).
The strafing of the Irish Brigade’s ranks continued, but so did their courage. Amazingly, amid the murderous fire they had already endured, they made it to within 100 yards of the top when they were greeted by a barrage that, as a survivor recalled, left them “like corn before the sickle.” The soldiers had a triple motivation: not just to attain their military objective, nor even to prove their individual courage, but to demonstrate, to friend and foe alike, that their ancestry did not make them second-class citizens of the United States. Their attitude resembled that in the celebrated couplet by Alfred Lord Tennyson on the men who perished in the slaughter at the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War: “Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to die and die.”
Fredericksburg resembled the Charge of the Light Brigade in other respects. Though it demonstrated the courage of men placed in harm’s way in what Tennyson called “the valley of death,” it just as vividly confirmed the incompetence of their high command. A half dozen frontal assaults were made at Marye’s Heights by Union troops, to no avail. Not an inch of ground was gained in the attempts. Longstreet’s men, entrenched behind a stone wall, with artillery ranged behind them, cut everything that came their way, until Union dead were piled three deep in some places.
Even the Confederate command was moved to pity by the plight of his opponents: “I thought, as I saw the Federals come again and again to their death, that they deserved success if courage and daring could entitle soldiers to victory,” Longstreet remembered more than two decades later. Lee’s view, expressed to Longstreet at the height of battle, became one of the most quoted remarks of the entire conflict: "It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it."
Casualties were perhaps more lopsided in favor of Lee than at any other time in the conflict: 12,700 men killed or wounded for the Federals versus only 5,300 for the rebels.
The futility of the whole affair drove the North mad. With great difficulty, Burnside had to be persuaded the next day not to personally lead another frontal assault. When he heard about the extent of the losses, Lincoln responded, “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.”
Hell defined what the Irish Brigade endured at Fredericksburg: 545 men lost, nearly half of what they took into the battle, including 14 of its 15 field officers. One survivor predicted, “It will be a sad, sad Christmas by many an Irish hearthstone.” As a result of its three main battles fought over the past six months, the brigade had suffered at least 1,200 casualties.
And yet, something more survived. even aside from the enduring legend of the courage "Fighting 69th" (derived, it is said, from another remark by Lee, who, when told the name of the group that had made the gallant dash against his lines, and recalling their similar display in the Seven Days, said, "Ah, yes. That fighting 69th.") Irish soldiers here, as in elsewhere in the war, encountered countrymen in the units of other states, forming a new, common bond in their adopted country, opening vistas far beyond the rural villages of their homeland or the crowded cities of their new nation. If anything, the Irish community formed stronger bonds with the Roman Catholic Church than before, as chaplains became indispensable conduits between soldiers and their loved ones.
Approximately 150,000 Irish-born males enlisted in the Union Army, proving, at often hideous cost, that neither their ancestry nor the Roman Catholic faith so many professed posed any threat to the values of the second American republic coming into being as a result of the war. The postwar Fourteenth Amendment, while constructed principally with freedmen in mind, also contained, in its sweeping opening statement, a guarantee of the rights of the immigrants, such as the Irish and the Germans, who had lately fought to preserve the Union: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."
(The accompanying image, “Battle of Fredericksburg, Laying the Pontoon Bridge,” a chromolithograph by Thure de Thulstrup, is in the Print Department of the Boston Public Library.)