Special Report: The Irish Battle at Antietam: 140th anniversary

Special Report: The Irish Battle at Antietam

The Irish played a big part in the Battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg, as the Southerners called it. Here's a look at how, on the occasion of the battle's 140th anniversary.


Library of Congress Geography and Map Division
Map of the battlefield of Antietam. Drawn under the direction of Antietam Board, Col. John C. Stearns, Gen. H. Heth. Theo. Friebus, Jr., 1893. Click the image for a larger view.

In the little town of Sharpsburg, Md., there is a lazy creek call Antietam. On September 17th, 1862 that little town and lazy creek were witness to a great battle of America's Civil War. In the rebellious Southern states, it was called the Battle of Sharpsburg, in the North they called it the Battle of Antietam; by either name it was the bloodiest single day in U.S. military history.

It was also a most deadly, albeit glory-filled, day in the history of one of the most famous brigades of the Civil War, Meagher's Irish Brigade. And mind well, there were Irish delivering death as well as receiving it, on both sides of this great, rolling, immense and death-filled spectacle, played out over hundreds of acres of Maryland countryside. Americans at the time were agog as initial accounts described a battle as momentous as Waterloo. The Irish played their part well, helping fuel the legend that has become Antietam.

It is our great pleasure to bring that day, and the Irish role in it, to light on this, the occasion of the battle's 140th anniversary. Herein, we provide an overview of the Irish role in the battle, as well as the account of the Irish Brigade's fight penned by Capt. James Turner, who served on Meagher's staff. Turner's shoulder was shattered by a bullet at Antietam, and while recuperating, Turner wrote thousands of words on the brigade's role in the battle and its fallen heroes.

Sadly, Turner, a native of Ardee, County Louth, died of wounds received at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, leaving a wife and infant son. His words, published in the columns of The Irish American newspaper, live on. Using the nom de plume Gallowglass, Turner offers a unique perspective on the brigade's battle, one which we are delighted to present to you in parts over the next six days. Our thanks to WGT Contributing Editor Mike Kane for painstakingly transcribing the articles from microfilm.

Historical Art Prints
In this illustration by artist Don Troiani, brigade chaplain William Corby blesses the Irish Brigade as it steps off at Antietam.

As well, we will hear from those "who still hear the guns." This weekend, on rolling farmland 14 miles from Antietam's killing fields, more than 12,000 "living historians" are to gather, to portray those fateful, tragic events of 140 years ago. We have on the ground four "soldier"-correspondents, who will be our eyes and ears, filing dispatches and photographs each day to share their experiences as they apply their senses to the task of better understanding the Irish soldier's Antietam.

It was a soldier's battle, not a general's, as is always the case. Turner in particular appreciated this, knowing the men of the brigade intimately. In The Irish American on October 11, Turner suggests that the story of the epic battle between two massive, flailing armies, only 24 days old, was already losing some of its visceral impact on readers. He asks for remembrance of these beloved comrades:

"The whole story of Antietam is twice told tale to you, is it not? Grave and graphic descriptions of it have appeared in the morning and weekly papers, and you are as familiar with the details of the fight as are they who were engaged in it. Why, then, should I take up the story and repeat what is old and what will very soon be forgotten. Certainly a reasonable query and one deserving an answer. Yesterday, wet and dreary as the dull day was, they bore Joyce and Kavanaugh and laid them in the damp earth of Calvary (cemetery): a day or two ago they carried Duffy to the house that lasts till doomsday; Clooney lies on some hill-side in Maryland, not far, I suppose from the spot where he fell; the unnamed heroes who charged up that hill-side, the rebel flags planted on the top of it, and the rebels bullets almost darkening the sunlight and showering down its slope, are buried not far from the battlefield; they fill soldiers' graves every one of them, and the least we can do is to seize their names even for a day from the dark oblivion into which they have fallen, and kindly remember and record the gallantry of men, a few of the Irish dead who fell fighting for the Republic at Antietam."

We can hope to do no more. Inspired by their devotion and sacrifices, we humbly make the effort. -- The Editors and Antietam Project Crew


Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: American, Antietam, Brigade, Civil, Irish, Preservation., War


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