The Stories Behind the Songs: 'Kelly's Irish Brigade'

The Stories Behind the Songs:
'Kelly's Irish Brigade'

By David Kincaid
Special to The Wild Geese Today

Other "stories behind the songs"

"The Irish Sixty Ninth" 
"Camp song of the Chicago Irish Brigade"

Click to buy
"The Irish-American's Song."

This song's very title gives rise to the question of the existence of an Irish Brigade in the Confederacy ( link). No such unit did, in fact, ever exist. A brigade, it should be remembered, generally contained three regiments operating as a unit (infantry regiments consisted of 10 companies of roughly 100 soldiers each). This rule was not concrete; some brigades had only two regiments, while the Union's "Irish Brigade" (WGT Shops), the only unit on either side to officially carry that title during the Civil War, consisted of five through most of its existence.

At the time of the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, and before the formation of the above mentioned Union Army Irish Brigade (WGT Shops) in the fall of that year, there were already Irish militia companies in existence—North and South—and more being formed to meet the demands of the growing conflict.

You too can "Remember Fontenoy" by buying a T-shirt or sweatshirt featuring this "Flags of the Irish Brigade of France" graphic at our "Irish Brigade of France Shop."

In the minds of these Irish soldiers of the early part of the war, there was only one unit known as the Irish Brigade—that of the French Army(WGT Shops), which had existed from 1691 to 1791, had a sterling reputation, and with which these new units wanted to closely associate themselves.

For this reason, several early-war units of less than brigade strength (and often of only company strength), from both sides, used or incorporated the name "Irish Brigade" into their titles, or at least into their songs. Such was the case with the "Washington Blues" from St. Louis, Missouri, an Irish militia company and temperance organization commanded by British Army veteran Captain Joseph Kelly, which became part of the Confederate Missouri State Guard in 1861.

This combat record of this unit was uneven, and it would eventually be driven from Missouri, but not before it would achieve its greatest victory at Lexington, Missouri, in September 1861. There it would help capture 3,500 Union troops, including the "Mulligan's Irish Brigade," officially the 23rd Illinois Infantry regiment. Joseph Kelly would rise to the rank of colonel in the Confederate army, but would never command a rebel "Irish Brigade."

The research for the material from both of my albums (i.e., "The Irish Volunteer" and "The Irish-American's Song") began with a book entitled"Songs of the Civil War" (Amazon), given to me in 1989 by my friend and entertainment lawyer Peter Thall. He'd been given this book as a boy when it was new, and upon learning of my deep interest in this subject, presented me with the copy he'd kept for so many years. Compiled, edited, and published by Irwin Silber in 1960 for the Civil War Cenntenial, it carried the subtitle "The Most Complete Collection of Civil War Songs Ever Published," a claim that I believe, in terms of commercial publications, holds true to this day. Although it contained only two songs of the Irish, the abbreviated "Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade" and the slanderous parody "Who Will Care For Mickey Now?" Silber's liner notes, source and reference lists indicate enourmous research (all done before computers). They are a gold mine of clues about other Irish song material from the war.

Only a few of these songs of the Irish and their fighting brigades have survived the passage of years, but history tells us that the songs of Irish bravery and devotion in the Civil War do not overstate the case.
—Author Irwin Silber

Once such reference made was that to the Confederate ballad "Kelly's Irish Brigade." Two slightly varying versions of this were found. The first is from "Ballads and Songs, Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society," edited by H. M. Belden. His notes on it mention that Civil War period publisher Horace Partridge of Boston had two broadsides of this same title, both voicing Union sentiment, and that this Rebel version had been "made over for Missouri and the Confederacy." The second is from an amazing collection called "Irish Emigrant Ballads and Songs" (Amazon), edited by Robert L. Wright, his version found as a broadside with no imprint in the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. The two Rebel versions of "Kelly's Irish Brigade" are identical, with the exception of the choruses:

The Missouri version has the following chorus:

Three cheers for the Irish Brigade
Three cheers for the Irish Brigade.
And all true-hearted Hibernians
In the ranks of Kelly´s Irish Brigade!

The Richmond version uses the following as its chorus:

When they met with the Irish Brigade,
When they met with the Irish Brigade,
Didn't those cowardly Lincolnites tremble,
When they met with the Irish Brigade.
The Irish Brigade of France attacks in this fanciful version of the action at Fontenoy, probably dating to the 19th century. The green uniforms are an invention of the artist. The Brigade worn red uniforms throughout their existence.

While they are both great choruses, I found the line "Didn't those cowardly Lincolnites tremble" to be irresistibly belligerent and telling of the times, and used this version on the album. Sadly, not one of the six Confederate ballads on my new album, "The Irish-American's Song," came with music notation, nor listed any traditional melody to which the lyric had been written, as was a common practice of the era.

Although a songwriter in my own right, my preference in these situations is to find a traditional Irish melody that would have been known to exist at the time—true to the ancient bardic tradition, and for this one settled on the well-known 1798 ballad "Men of the West" (also known as "Rosin the Bow"). This was inspired by the classic version recorded by the great Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, who have made many recordings counted among my personal favorites of all time. This particular one was sung by Irish folk music legend and institution Tommy Makem, and the martial attitude, rhythmic feel, and phrasing of his rendition made it a perfect fit for this Civil War lyric.

This song, written in honor of Captain Kelly and his men, was undoubtedly penned in 1861, and it is my belief that the version chosen for the album—that with the phrase "cowardly Lincolnites"—was the later version, written not long after the above-mentioned victory at Lexington. The lyric is clearly leveled directly at the Irish on the Union side:

They have called us Rebels and Traitors,
But themselves have thrown off that name of late;
They were called it by the English Invaders,
At home—in the year of "Ninety-Eight ..."

Here, the writer portrays Kelly's resistance to Federal authority as analogous to the Irish struggle against the British "invaders" who put down the Rising of 1798 (WGT), an event that gave birth to modern Irish nationalism.

It is also very likely that some of these songs of mythical or unofficial "Irish Brigades" were written when the units were just being formed, when every hope existed for the formation of a unit the size of a true brigade. There can be no doubt, however, that the spirit of bravery and gallantry which chacterized the old Irish Brigade in the French service (WGT Shops), which had seen many victories—none so dear to the Irish as that over the British at Fontenoy in 1745—lived on again in these men. Irwin Silber put it best in this sobering statment: "Only a few of these songs of the Irish and their fighting brigades have survived the passage of years, but history tells us that the songs of Irish bravery and devotion in the Civil War do not overstate the case."

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Civil War historian Joseph G. Bilby provided the historical background on Capt. Joseph Kelly, the "Washington Blues" and the Missouri State Guard. ""Irish Emigrant Ballads and Songs" (Amazon), edited by Robert L. Wright, was found in the New York City Public Library/Performing Arts Branch. "Ballads and Songs, Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society" (Amazon), edited by H. M. Belden (University of Missouri Studies 1940-1955, Vol. XV, No. 1, University of Missouri Press, Columbia), was found in the Special Collections department of the John Hay Library/Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, with the kind assistance of librarian Rosemary Cullen. "Songs of the Civil War" (Amazon), compiled and edited by Irwin Silber (New York, Columbia University Press, 1960), was provided through the generosity of my friend, lawyer and author Peter M. Thall.

Buy the CD now.

kincai2.jpg - 4.65 KEDITOR'S NOTE: Author David Kincaid, pictured right at Gettysburg, has been the lead singer and guitarist with the rock group, The Brandos, for quite some time. A Manhattan resident, Dave is a keen student of the Irish experience during the Civil War, and re-enacts with Co. I, 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers. His new album, "The Irish-American's Song," can be ordered online from Haunted Field Music.


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

Views: 21740

Tags: America's, Civil, Music, War


You need to be a member of The Wild Geese to add comments!

Join The Wild Geese

The Wild Geese Shop

Get your Wild Geese merch here ... shirts, hats, sweatshirts, mugs, and more at The Wild Geese Shop.

Irish Heritage Partnership

Adobe Express:
What will you create today?


Extend your reach with The Wild Geese Irish Heritage Partnership.

Congrats to Our Winners

© 2023   Created by Gerry Regan.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms of Service