Remembering the Irish Who Fell at Fredericksburg

Remembering the Irish Who Fell at Fredericksburg

Fontenoy and Fredericksburg! Inscribe them side by side;
Sarsfield, Dillon, Meagher, all men of the Brigade –
Who for every friendship given to their land beneath high heaven
In the coinage of their heart's fair valor paid.

-- From "Veterans of Fredericksburg" (1912) by Eleanor Rogers Cox

thewalls.gif - 19.47 K LONG ISLAND CITY, N.Y. -- In stark contrast to New Yorkers' more usual Yuletide shopping, merriment and errands, 24 stalwarts braved blustery winds and near-freezing temperatures to recall the Irish slain or wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg 135 years earlier.

Above left, the last thing many of the men in the Irish Brigade saw as they marched across the field was this stone wall, depicted here protecting Confederate rifle men. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War [Click for a more detailed view. 97KB]

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The rites took place on Saturday, Dec. 13, in Woodside, Queens, N.Y., at First Calvary's Civil War Monument, on a rise known as "Soldiers Hill." The monument overlooks the graves of hundreds, if not thousands, of Irishmen who served the Federal Army -- arguably the cream of the vaunted Irish soldiers who served their adopted nation. As New York's Irish fought their way through every major battle of the Eastern Theater, First Calvary Cemetery, the oldest section of the cemetery once referred to as New York's "City of the Celtic Dead," must have been the scene of military funerals almost daily.

Right, First Calvary Cemetery's Civil War Monument, commissioned by the City of New York in 1863. WGT File Photo, 1990 / Gerry Regan

Members of the Irish Brigade Association, the 69th New York Infantry Historical Association, the 69th Regiment Veterans Corps, and friends, from five states overall, gathered to remember the men of the Irish Brigade who fought and died trying to capture Marye's Heights on Dec. 13, 1862. The futile and costly effort resulted in the sacrifice of nearly 13,000 men, and failed to gain a victory over the Confederate forces defending the Virginia town. The Irish Brigade, badly mauled at the Battle of Antietam three months earlier, became a mere shadow of itself after its assault on Marye's Heights. The brigade lost 545 of the 1,200 men taken into the battle, on the heels of its 540 casualties suffered at Antietam.

Jack Conway, below right, points out the unmarked grave of Col. Patrick Kelly, who led the Irish Brigade during the Battle of Gettysburg. WGT Photo / Gerry Regan

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Before the ceremony, the IBA's Jack Conway led the gathering on a tour of the more prominent Irish military graves nearby. They ended the tour at the gravesites of Col. Patrick Kelly, who survived the hellish assault at Fredericksburg only to be killed while commanding the Brigade at Petersburg in 1864, and Brig. Gen. Michael Corcoran, commander of the 69th at the First Battle of Bull Run and later commander of Corcoran's Irish Legion. Among those gathered for the afternoon rites were T.L. Kelly, the author of "Kelly's Heroes: The Irish Brigade at Gettysburg," and Lt. Col. William H. Gibson, of the Irish army. In May, the IBA and the County Galway Association of New York City expect to erect a new stone on the grave of Kelly, whose original stone was removed at some point in the last 133 years.

At the monument, Steve O'Neill, president of the 69th New York Infantry Historical Association, spoke of the service of the Irish Brigade during the War, singling out two Brigade members who suffered mortal wounds at Marye's Heights: Lt. Andrew Birmingham of the 69th New York and Maj. William Horgan of the 88th New York. Birmingham had been shot through both legs and later died of his wounds, O'Neill pointed out, while Horgan's body was not recovered until several days after the battle during a truce. When his body was found it was said to have been the closest one to the Confederates' sunken-road position. The two were buried close by the cemetery's lofty monument.

Jesuit seminarian Rob Carter, chaplain of the 69th New York Historical Association, recalled how the Irish Brigade chaplain, Father William Corby, had assured the men before the battle that, "The Generals could not be so foolish as to order us up that hill." He related that the ranks of the Irish Brigade were so depleted by the losses at Fredericksburg that one of their chaplains,corbypq.gif - 1.23 K a French Canadian and Jesuit, Father Thomas Ouellet, realized the tiny remnant of the Brigade no longer required two chaplains. Ouellet then requested, and received, a transfer to an assignment in North Carolina. In 1864, with the ranks of the Brigade replenished, Oullet would be welcomed back to the Brigade. In a fitting tribute to the men of the Brigade, Carter blessed, in Latin, the assemblage and those soldiers at rest in this city of graves, using the words the soldiers would have heard in 1862.

"Never since the war began have the Union forces met with such a disaster as that we have just suffered. As for the Brigade, may the Lord pity and protect the widows and orphans of nearly all those belonging to it! It will be a sad, sad Christmas by many an Irish hearthstone in New York.… " said the IBA's Gerry Regan, quoting from a letter written after the battle by an officer in the Irish Brigade.

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