The Deadliest Day: The Irish Brigade at Bloody Lane, September 17, 1862

By Joseph E. Gannon
WGT Managing Editor

(Left: Father Corby blesses the Brigade as it steps off, in "Sons of Erin" by artist Don Troiani.)

"He like a soldier fell."

Inscription on the wooden cross on the grave of Capt. Patrick Felan Clooney, 88th New York Infantry, killed at Antietam. 

Oh! Hurrah! for the men who when danger is nigh
Are found in the front, looking death in the eye.
--Thomas Davis

By the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland, there is a meandering creek called Antietam. On September 17th, 1862, that little town and lazy creek were witness to a great Civil War battle. In the South it was called the Battle of Sharpsburg, in the North they called it the Battle of Antietam; by either name it remains the bloodiest single day in U.S. history.

Library of Congress
A dead Irish Brigade soldier? This is a detail from a photo taken by Alexander Gardner near the "Sunken Road" and titled "Dead of Irish Brigade." It was photos such as this that began to bring the horror of war to America's living rooms for the first time.

It was also a deadly day in the history of one of the most famous brigades of the Civil War, Meagher's Irish Brigade. The brigade had already been bloodied during the Peninsula campaign, and there was another nightmare in their immediate future at Fredericksburg, but this day would be as harrowing as any they would ever endure.

The Irish Brigade was in the 1st Division of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac, arguably the best division of the Army's best corps. The 2nd Corps would lose more men during the war than any other in the Federal army, and a large percentage of that number would be left on the fields around Sharpsburg.

The chance finding of a copy of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee's orders to his corps commanders September 13, wrapped around two cigars, led directly to the battle. This incredible bit of luck caused George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, to move much faster than his normal snail's pace in bringing on the battle; still, most historians think he should have moved faster. A golden opportunity to destroy Lee's scattered Army of Northern Virginia fell into his lap on the 13th. Nevertheless, for all his mistakes, McClellan did very nearly destroyed Lee's army that day; any number of small changes in the battle could have led to a Southern rout.

Library of Congress
Gen. George McClellan. In spite of his tactical shortcomings, the Irish Brigade and the rest of the AOP loved him.

As the Irish Brigade approached the battlefield, an artilleryman overheard one Irishman yell, "Boys, we will see some fighting now." In fact, Meagher's brigade would soon see fighting enough to reduce it by a third.

' ... till the sun goes down or victory is won ...

The mission assigned to the Irish Brigade during the battle was a formidable one. Around midmorning they were sent against a position which time, nature and thousands of wagons had turned into a reasonable facsimile of the defensive fortifications both sides would begin to dig intentionally later in the war.

One of the Confederate commanders in this sunken roadbed was Georgian Col. John B. Gordan, one of the finest Southern commanders of the war. Before the Federals attacked, he promised Lee, "The men are going to stay here, General, till the sun goes down or victory is won." It was a promise he could not keep. By the time the sun went down on this day, Gordon would be in the rear severely wounded and near death. Many of his men were still in that sunken road at sundown, but only because the road was carpeted with the bodies of Confederate soldiers. It would be known forever after known as "Bloody Lane."

The brigade moved out, with the regiments lined up right to left, 69th New York, 29th Massachusetts, 63rd New York and 88th New York, Father Corby, their chaplain, rode out in front of them to offer a hasty absolution. As the brigade stepped off, Southern artillery opened fire on them and Irish bodies began to mingle with the bodies that Kimball's brigade had left before them. The brigade stopped to take down a fence under fire, and casualties continued.

Meagher's plan was to overrun the Confederate position without stopping to fire until they were almost in the face of the rebels. Many commanders had very similar plans at numerous other battles during the carnage of the Civil War, and most of the time the rifled musket negated those plans -- this time would be no exception. As the brigade advanced, they were fired on by Posey's Mississippi brigade from the left; the 63rd New York took horrendous casualties from this volley. At that point, the Brigade stopped and poured a tremendous fire into the Mississippians with their smoothbore muskets loaded with "buck and ball," a combination of a .69-caliber musket ball and three large buckshot, which were deadly at this close range.

'Colonel, for God's sake, come and
help me!'

The routed Mississippians retreated to the road. But the confrontation had stopped the brigade's progress, and fire from the road was continuing to drop men from the ranks. As they moved forward again they came to the crest of a rise some 30 yards in front of the Confederates and were halted by sheet of flame from a volley into their faces. The staggered ranks of the brigade then lay prone as they fired back at the rebels, so well hidden below the protecting road-bed. Meagher tried several times to organize a bayonet charge, without success. At one point Meagher was overheard yelling to Col. Francis Barlow, commander of a regiment of Caldwell's brigade, which was in reserve, "Colonel, for God's sake come and help me!" But Barlow yelled back that he could not move without orders. Soon Meagher's horse was shot from under him and he was carried from the field.

The Brigade was devastated by the rebel fire. Eight color-bearers for the 69th New York fell that day. Capt. James McGee would end the day with the regiment's green flag in his hands, the staff cut in two and the banner, like all the other brigade flags, cut to pieces. Capt. Patrick Felan Clooney of the 88th New York grabbed the 88th's green flag and, in spite of a bullet in his knee, tried to urge his men forward, but bullets hit him in the chest and head and he slumped to the ground and died. Capt. Jack Gosson, of Meagher's staff, had one horse shot from under him and procured another which soon took a bullet in the nose. The horse continued to support Gosson through the battle but covered him so thoroughly with blood that those who saw him were sure he was mortally wounded.

Library of Congress
Confederate dead, some perhaps killed by the Irish Brigade, lie in rows where they fell in the "Sunken Road."

In spite of the Confederate's well-protected defensive position, the buck and ball of the Brigade was also taking a heavy toll, but the Irish were rapidly running out of ammunition, not to mention men. Their division commander, Israel Richardson called up Caldwell's brigade to relieve the beleaguered Irishmen. At that point there occurred one of the most remarkable withdrawals under fire by any regiment during any battle of the war.

Most units who found themselves in this sort of situation during the war retreated in much disorder once the order came. Most brigades would have been routed from that field long before they ran out of ammunition. The brigade rose up, formed column and "broke files to the rear," ignoring the fire of the Confederates, disdaining it, as if on a parade ground, practicing brigade drill. As the brigade came off the field, Richardson called out to the men of the 88th New York, "Bravo, 88th, I shall never forget you!" He had little chance to break that promise, he would be mortally wounded within minutes by a rebel shell fragment.

Shortly after the Irish withdrew, the road was taken by the fresh regiments that came up. Most who observed the fight, though, agreed that the Irish Brigade deserved a large share of the credit for taking the position, having softened up the Confederate opposition in the road.

The brigade that came off the field at Antietam was a shadow of the one that joined the fray. The 29th Massachusetts, which would soon leave the Brigade to be replaced by the Irish 28th Massachusetts, had been partially shielded by a dip in the ground during the fight and suffered only 28 casualties; but the three Irish regiments from New York, who went in with slightly under 1,000 men, lost approximately 512 that day.

The day before the battle the Brigade had received 120 recruits; they had been offered provost duty that day but they asked to fight instead and 75 of them lay dead or wounded on the field. What had been the Irish Brigade had been whittled down to the strength of a regiment in one day. Less than three months later, at Fredericksburg, it would take one more charge to reduce these survivors to a battalion.

The battle was over, the dead lay in heaps, 
Pat Murphy lay bleeding and gory. 
A hole in his head, from a rifleman's shot 
Had ended his passion for glory. 
No more in the camp shall his laughter be heard, 
Or his songs he was singin'so gaily. 
He died like a hero, in the Land of the Free, 
Far away from the Land of Shillelagh.

-- From the song "Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade."

Gray Erin at Antietam

The Irish Brigade was the single largest formation of Irishmen on the blood-soaked fields around Sharpsburg, but many thousands of Irishmen who fought there, and in some cases never left, wore Confederate uniforms.

Confederate Memorial Hall, New Orleans
Flag of the Orleans Rifles, Co. H,
6th Louisiana Volunteers.

Early in the battle, the hard-fighting, mostly Irish 6th Louisiana was engaged in Miller's cornfield. That year they had fought in Jackson's Valley Campaign, moved with Jackson to fight in the Seven Days Battles on the Virginia peninsula, and fought at 2nd Manassas and Chantilly. By Antietam, they may have had as few as 100 effectives in the ranks.

They were with Hays' Louisiana Brigade in the West Woods at sunrise on the morning of September 17th, as Joe Hooker's 1st Corps attacked through Miller's cornfield. As the Confederates were pushed out of the cornfield that was quickly becoming a killing field, Hay's Brigade was ordered to advance.

Hays' Brigade, less than 600 strong, hit Gen. George Hartsuff's tiring Federal brigade. The Louisianans drove them back. But it came at a price. Irish-born Col. Henry Strong, commanding the 6th Louisiana from atop his white horse, was killed as they advanced, as was his white mount. It would later be the subject of a famous photo.

Library of Congress
Col. Strong's horse lies dead in front of the East Woods.

The 6th couldn't hold their advanced position without support, and none was coming. They held their ground for a time, and suffered heavily for it. Those who could fell back; Federals advanced in their wake. Hood's Texans moved up to relieve Hays' Brigade. The carnage in the cornfield would continue, but without the Louisiana Brigade, now numbering about 200.

The 6th Louisiana had taken 50 percent casualties, which included nearly all their officers. Command devolved on Captain H. Ritchie, and incredibly even he was killed later in the day by Federal artillery. The Irish of the 6th had suffered as devastating a day as those in the Irish Brigade.


Selected Bibliography:

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

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Tags: American Civil War, Antietam, Irish Brigade, Meagher


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