By David Kincaid

In the spring of 1862, a call was made by the Federal government for more troops. The Civil War had been in progress for more than a year, and the 116th Pennsylvania, recruited principally from Philadelphia, was one of the regiments then authorized. Tipperary-born Dennis Heenan, 

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St. Clair A. Mulholland, commander of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry. 
Mass. MOLLUS Collection

a man of years of prewar militia experience, had served as Lt. Col. of the Irish 24th Pennsylvania in the early months of the war, and was chosen as the One-sixteenth's Colonel. Though only in his twenties, Antrim-native St. Clair A. Mulholland, also with militia experience and described as an "excellent drill instructor," had raised two companies for the regiment and was appointed Lt. Colonel. George H. Bardwell was selected as Major.

Though originally recruited as an Irish regiment intended to be called the "Brian Boru United Irish Legion," pressures to fill the regiment in a timely manner made it difficult to maintain a purely Irish character, and a number of "Pennsylvania Dutch," who would by the end of the war account for roughly 18% of the regiment, were recruited to the ranks.

Toward the end of August 1862, the One-sixteenth mustered approximately seven hundred men. Although still understrength, the regiment was ordered to move to Washington without delay after General Banks' defeat and hasty retreat down the Shenandoah Valley. For the next month the regiment was shuffled back and forth between Maryland, Washington and northern Virginia, engaged in drill, fatigue, guard and picket duties. The regiment was then ordered to report to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and on October 10th, joined Brig. General Thomas F. Meagher's famed Irish Brigade. This turn of events was undoubtedly favorably received by the unit's commanders, as both Col. Heenan and Lt. Col. Mulholland had attempted to raise units for the Irish Brigade the year before, and Col. Heenan had been planning to offer the One-sixteenth to Corcoran's Irish Legion, being raised at this time.

Shortly afterward, the regiment received its first colors. By all accounts it is clear that initially the 116th Pennsylvania received one flag, called the "state and national colors" by Col. Mulholland--that being the elegant national flag issued by the state of Pennsylvania, bearing the state seal in the canton. What is unclear, and what has been the subject of heated debate in recent times, is whether or not the regiment ever received a green Irish regimental flag, like those issued to the other regiments of the Irish Brigade. It is the opinion of this writer that compelling arguments can be mounted supporting either side, and until conclusive evidence surfaces, the question remains open and subject to interpretation.

The regiment's first engagements, Charles Town and Snicker's Gap, would be minor, producing no serious injuries or fatalities, and not in any way preparing the the men for their 

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Capt. John O'Neill, of Co. K, was badly wounded at Fredericksburg. He is the father of Rough Rider Buckey O'Neill 

first taste of real war--the futile and tragic assault on Marye's Heights at the battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862. At the close of the battle, most of the One-sixteenth's field and company officers were killed or wounded, with severe losses in the ranks. The new regiment never wavered and fought like veterans, establishing the reputation for courage and discipline that that would be their hallmark throughout the war.

After Fredericksburg the decimated One-sixteenth was consolidated into a battalion of four companies, Mulholland accepting a demotion to major to remain in command. The unit bravely fought through the remaining battles of 1863 as a battalion and was cited for gallantry for recovering the guns of the 5th Maine Battery at Chancellorsville. Col. Mulholland's command of the rear guard at Chancellorsville earned him the Medal of Honor.

In his regimental history, Col. Mulholland emphasizes that most of the men of the 116th were from the city, often citing the "superiority of the city men over those who had come from the farm." Nowhere was this more apparent than on the long forced-march in late June 1863 toward Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where very few men were missing when the roll-call was given at its end. Though fatigued from the march in the oppressive heat, arriving in their home state revitalized the men.

On the morning of July 1st, 1863, the men were marched and bivouacked within three miles of Gettysburg, to what Mulholland would call the "Battle of the Century." Arriving too late to participate in the first day's battle, the 116th PVI, along with the rest of the 2nd Corps, was moved on to the line of Cemetery Ridge on the morning of July 2nd, to the left of the "Umbrella Trees." From this vantage point, the men rested as they anxiously watched the advance of the 3rd Corps into the Peach Orchard. Spoiling for a fight, the order then to go to the aid of the recoiling Union troops was received with pleasure. The 1st Division, commanded by General John C. Caldwell, to which the Irish Brigade belonged, moved off by the left flank toward Little Round Top. Arriving at the foot of the hill little damaged by enemy artillery fire intended to stop the advance, the division formed in line of battle. The Irish Brigade, commanded by Col. Patrick Kelly, was deployed on the right of the line.

As the division advanced and fought, the One-Sixteenth held its extreme right flank. Advancing at "right shoulder shift" through hilly, rough ground strewed with trees and huge boulders, the regiment's alignment was well maintained as it approached the crest of a hill. A body of the enemy, having first reached the top from the other side, delivered a volley over the heads of the men of the 116th. The regiment rushed forward and delivered a volley of their own, having deadly effect on the enemy, and the lines were soon within a few feet of each other.

The 116th had fought the men of Kershaw's Brigade, who had poured deadly fire into its ranks at Fredericksburg

The battle became hand-to-hand but the enemy, weary and demoralized, soon surrendered and were sent to the rear. The brigade was halted and aligned where the monuments now stand. In a twist of irony, the 116th had fought the men of Kershaw's Brigade, the same who had poured deadly fire into its ranks at Fredericksburg. The enemy soon had troops advancing in the front and rear of the brigade, and orders were given for the division to retire. The Irish Brigade maintained relatively good order, although under a cross-fire, as it went at a run back through the Wheatfield to the foot of Little Round Top, where it remained until the fighting on the left was over for the day. At dusk the division reformed on its original position on Cemetery Ridge.

The next morning the 116th was placed in support of Sterling's 2nd Connecticut Battery by General Hancock, commander of the 2nd Corps. Here they waited until eleven o'clock, when the men joined in the glad cheer for the 12th Corps' victory on Culp's Hill. During the two hour artillery duel that followed, the men hugged the ground closely as they lay in front of Sterling's guns, with both his fire and that of the enemy's passing over them. The rebel gunners over shot, and the 116th's Company B, deployed in rear of the battle line as divisional Provost Guard, suffered more than the men in front. Col. Mulholland's men were never happier than when watching the Confederate infantry advancing to sure destruction in the midst of "Pickett's Charge."

Said one: "It was Fredericksburg reversed, never were the men of the Regiment so eager to rush into the fight." The enemy disappeared behind a knoll just as he came within firing range--the 116th was ordered "ready!" When the rebels reappeared it was not the Confederate battle flag that was seen, but the white flag of surrender, and within ten minutes most of Wilcox's Brigade were prisoners of war. The battle ended abruptly as "the firing suddenly ceased and Gettysburg became the victory that marked the beginning of the end of the war." Of the 2nd Corps, Col. Mulholland states that "thirty-three battle flags, six thousand prisoners and thirteen thousand stands of small arms were truly a bountiful harvest to be gathered by the men who wore the trefoil." Of the men of his command, the Colonel reported that "every one of them did their duty in a manner that excited my warmest admiration and gratitude."

New recruits were finally received by the 116th in the spring of 1864, and six new companies: 

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Reunion ribbon of St. Clair Mulholland. 
Courtesy CWLM

E, F and G from Philadelphia, H, I, and K from Pittsburgh and surrounding area, brought the regiment up to full strength for the first time. Though the majority of its men were now new recruits, the regiment fought with its characteristic steadiness and gallantry throughout the Spring campaign of 1864.

In July the Irish Brigade was broken up -- the 116th Pennsylvania transferred to the 4th Brigade of the 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps, where it remained when the brigade was reinstated in November, 1864. The men deeply regretted leaving the Irish Brigade, having fought nearly two years and many a bloody battle alongside them, being regarded a "core" regiment in their honored ranks. The regiment served out the remaining months of the war with great distinction, and Col. Mullholland, one of the most beloved and respected commanders in his division, was given command of the 4th Brigade by the end of the 1864. The 116th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry had spent 31-1/2 months in U.S. combat service in the American Civil War, 23 of those (73%) as members of the Irish Brigade. They would, through the mingling of their blood and spirit on many a terrible battlefield with that unit's other gallant regiments, be proudly, and forever after, an integral part of its history and hallowed name.

The Present Day 116th Pennsylvania

Co. I, 116 Pennsylvania Infantry, Irish Brigade (Reenactors) began as simply "The Irish Brigade" in April 1976, an off-shoot of another seminal reenacting unit known as "Sherman's Bummers," beginning as early as 1965. By 1982 reenacting had evolved to the point as to make it 

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Scott Mehaffey, left, at the 125th Anniversary Re-enactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1, 1988)
WGT Photo / G.A. Regan

necessary to take on a designation more realistic to the unit's size. Co. I, 116th PVI was the sole Irish Brigade company from Pittsburgh, and most of our men being from that city, that designation was chosen. Authentic reenacting owes a great debt to both Sherman's Bummers and the early Irish Brigade, they being some of the first to dress in authentic uniform, drill properly and present the most realistic period camp-sites.

Many great talents came from our ranks: Spence Waldron -- Uniforms and Drill, Greg Connell -- footwear, Scotty Mehaffey (Click here for a memorial tribute to Scott.) for his acting abilities, Captain Kraus is a well-known multitalented artist who recently sculpted a brilliant statue of Col. Strong Vincent for the city of Erie, PA. Mike's command talents also earned him the position of Federal commander at every major event during the 125th anniversaries. My album, "The Irish Volunteer," is only a small part of the unit's ongoing tradition of historical contribution, and to the men of this company I owe a great debt for their inspired and devoted portrayal of the Irish Union Soldier.

New York City resident David Kincaid is first sergeant of the 116th's Co. I, lead singer and guitarist with the rock group The Brandos, and the creator of the album "The Irish Volunteer: Songs of the Irish Union Soldiers 1861-1865."


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Tags: American, Civil, States, United, War

Comment by James Francis Smith on March 14, 2013 at 5:14pm

Enjoyed your article. As a native of Philly, I included the 116th in my narrative-history The Civil War's Valiant Irish. Visit my blog for a glimpse of what my books contain.


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