This Week in the History of the Irish: December 13 - December 19

DOMHNAIGH -- On Dec. 13, 1862, the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac suffered horrendous casualties as they assaulted massed Confederates firing from within a sunken road beneath Marye's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

(Right: Courtesy of Historical Art Prints
Don Troiani's "Clear the Way," showing the 28th Massachusetts advancing its colors against Confederate fire at Fredericksburg.)

The attack, ordered by the new commander of the Army, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, was undoubtedly one of the most ill conceived of the entire war by an army whose staff was famous for ineptitude during the war's first half. Just 3 months earlier, the Irish Brigade had been similarly mauled as it assaulted another Confederate position within a sunken road during the Battle of Antietam. Now, reinforced by the Irish 28th Massachusetts, which had replaced the 'Yankee' 29th Massachusetts, and the 116th Pennsylvania, the Brigade would advance with only one of its signature green banners. After Antietam, the bullet-torn flags of the New York regiments were no longer fit for use and had been returned to the city. Replacements were on the way but did not arrive in time to be carried that day. Only the 28th Massachusetts would carry a green banner up Marye's Heights that day; but that would not be the only green to go into the fight with the Brigade. As they stood in formation in Fredericksburg, with a few Confederate shells falling around them, Brigade commander Thomas Francis Meagher and his staff distributed sprigs of boxwood that the men placed in their caps. Only about 1,200 men began the Irish Brigade's advance toward one of the finest natural defensive positions that either side ever occupied during the war. The Confederate infantry not only had the sunken Telegraph Road at the base of the heights in their favor, but also a stone wall on the side facing the Federals. And the rebel artillery had the heights behind them to fire over their own men and down on the Federal advance. Gen. French's division had already assaulted the position and failed, as had Zook's brigade of Winfield Hancock's division. The Irish Brigade, also in Hancock's division, was next, going in at the double quick, rifles at 'right shoulder shift.' It was more like murder than war, but on the Brigade went, through a maelstrom of shot and shell. The Georgians in the sunken road, many of them also Irish, cut down the Brigade by tens and twenties; great gaps appeared in their ranks until finally they had done all humans could do and they lay down to try to hold their position. The National flag of the 69th would be saved by the color sergeant., who wrapped it around his body under his great coat before he died. One flag would be lost -- a guidon or camp color of the 69th. It was the only flag of any kind that the regiment would ever lose. The Brigade losses would total over 540, about 45%. With some stragglers still making their way back, the entire Brigade numbered barely over 260 men present for duty the next day. When that sad remnant of the Irish Brigade fell in for morning formation on the 14th, Gen. Hancock noticed three privates of the Brigade, standing off by themselves, slow to fall in. 'Damn it, you there," shouted Hancock, "close up on your company!" One of the privates saluted and answered, "Sir, we are a company." "The hell you say," replied Hancock, no doubt saddened and impressed. He straightened up and returned the salute smartly, "As you were."

CÉADAOIN -- On Dec. 16, 1971, soldier and politician General Richard Mulcahy (left) died in Dublin. Mulcahy was born in Waterford. After being educated in the Christian Brothers schools, Richard went to work for the postal service, like his father before him. He was a member of the Gaelic League and joined the Irish Volunteers soon after they were formed in 1913. During the Easter Rising in '16 he was second in command to Thomas Ashe during the Volunteers' attack at Ashbourne. Mulcahy was arrested and interned at Frongoch. He was released during the general amnesty in 1917 and was soon appointed Chief of Staff of the republican army. He was elected MP from Clontarf in 1918 and was Minister of Defence until Cathal Brugha assumed the post in 1919. Mulcahy worked closely with Michael Collins during the War of Independence and supported the treaty in 1922. He was Chief of Staff of the National Army as well as Minister of Defence in the Free State government. He tried very hard to arrange an accommodation with the republican forces to avoid the civil war before it began and then met in September 1922 with de Valera to negotiate an end to the war. When those efforts failed, he vigorously prosecuted the war against the republicans. Following his failed effort with de Valera, he asked for and was granted, a Special Emergency Powers act which gave him a free hand against the republicans. Between November 1922 and May 1923, 77 republicans would be executed as a direct result of this Act. After the war, Mulcahy remained involved with Irish politics, serving in the Dáil, Senate and in various government ministry posts and was the leader of the Fine Gael party through the late 40s and 50s. He retired from politics in 1961 and spent the last 5 years of his life organizing his papers, which he donated to University College, Dublin, before his death.

DEARDAOIN -- On Dec. 17, 1803, rebel leader Michael Dwyer, whose guerrilla attacks had maddened British colonial authorities since 1798, surrendered. Dwyer was born in County Wicklow and he participated in the 1798 Rising; however, unlike most of the leaders and soldiers in that Rising, he did not either leave the country or return to his normal life nor was he captured. Dwyer retreated into the Wicklow Mountains with a band of men and drove the British to distraction in their attempts to apprehend him.

(Right: Michael Dwyer, last holdout of the United Irishmen.)

A reward was placed on Dwyer's head and another for each of his men, but he led the British authorities on a merry chase for 5 years, with many daring narrow escapes, each adding to his legend. Some called him the 'Outlaw of Glenmalure.' In 1803 he planned to assist Robert Emmet in his rising but he never received the signal to join the rising. At this point, he recognized the futility of his situation, and he also wished to relieve the suffering of a number of his family members, including his sister, who had been jailed for no offense other than their family relationship to him. Some claim that when he contacted the British to ask terms of surrender Dwyer was promised he and his men would be sent to the United States. If so, and not for the first time, their word to an Irishman proved worthless. After 2 years of brutal treatment in Kilmainham Jail, under the infamous Edward Trevor, Dwyer was transported to Botany Bay. Dwyer and his family, along with a number of his men, set sail for Australia on board the Tellicherry on August 25, 1805; however, the story of Michael Dwyer does not end there. In Sydney, Dwyer ran afoul of the Governor, a certain Capt. William Bligh, of Bounty fame. Bligh accused Dwyer of being the leader of a rebellious plot involving other United Irishmen in the area, which, if true, would certainly not have been out of character. Bligh shipped Dwyer off to Norfolk Island, one of the worst hellholes of the British penal system in Australia. After 6 months he was transferred to Tasmania, where he remained for another 2 years. In 1808 Bligh left the Governorship and Dwyer finally made it back to his family in Sydney and was granted 100 acres of land nearby. Like many transported Irish rebels, he eventually became part of the local establishment and, in a bit of irony, the 'Outlaw of Glenmalure' was appointed constable. Michael Dwyer died in 1825, but his wife lived to be 93, not dying until 1861. With her passing the last connection to the 'boys of '98' in Australia. Dwyer remains a legend among the people of the Wicklow Mountains to this day.

SATHAIRN -- On December 19, 1877, Land League organizer Michael Davitt was released from Dartmoor Prison. Davitt, revolutionary and agrarian agitator, was born in Straide, County Mayo. Davitt's family was evicted from their small farm when he was just a boy. After they emigrated to England, Davitt lost his right arm at the age of 11 while working in a cotton mill.

(Left: Michael Davitt (Note the empty right sleeve.)

He joined the Fenians in the 1860s. On February 11, 1867, he participated in their raid on Chester Castle. Through the late 1860s, he was one of the chief arms procurers for the Fenians until his arrest and conviction in 1870. Davitt served a typically brutal jail sentence. After his release in 1877, he began what would be his life's work, agrarian agitation. After a stay in the United States, where he met revolutionary John Devoy, Davitt returned to Mayo and became involved in the local land agitation there. This activity led to the formation of the Land League in 1879, using funds raised by John Devoy and Clan na Gael in the United States, and allied with Charles Stewart Parnell. This organization forced many reforms in the corrupt Irish landlord system and would result in Davitt serving a number of short jail sentences, courtesy of Her Majesty's government. Davitt was a member of Parliament for a time in the 1890s but resigned in protest against the Boer War. Michael Davitt died in Dublin on May 31, 1906.

VOICES

It will be a sad, sad Christmas around many an Irish hearthstone in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.' 
 
       -- An unidentified officer in the Irish Brigade's 88th New York Infantry quoted in The Irish American newspaper after the battle of Fredericksburg.

At length, brave Michael Dwyer, you and your trusty men
Are hunted o'er the mountains and tracked into the glen.
Sleep not, but watch and listen; keep ready blade and ball;
The soldiers know, you're hiding tonight in wild Imaal.

He baffled his pursuers, who followed like the wind;
He swam the river Slaney, and left them far behind;
But many an English soldier he promised soon should fall,
For these, his gallant comrades, who died in wild Imaal.

-- From a poem by T. D. Sullivan.

'If the nationalists want me [the Irish farmer] to believe in and labor a little for independence, they must first show themselves willing and strong enough to stand between me and the power which a single Englishman, a landlord, wields over me.'
          -- Michael Davitt, giving voice to the attitude of the small Irish farmer toward Irish independence, December 1878

BIRTHS

13, 1905 - Críostóir Mac Aonghusa (writer and promoter of the Irish language - Blackwater, Co. Offaly)
14, 1791
- Charles Wolfe (poet and clergyman - Blackhall, Co. Kildare)
18, 1798 - James Henry, physician and classical scholar, is born in Dublin.

SIGNIFICANT EVENTS

13, 1867 - Fenian explosion of Clerkenwell gaol.
13, 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg (VA) - Irish Brigade attack on the "Sunken Road."
14, 1602 
- Red Hugh’s O’Donnell’s brother, Rory, surrenders to Mountjoy at Athlone.
14, 1715 
- Irish-born Thomas Dongan, soldier and colonial governor of New York, dies in poverty in London.
14, 1918 
- Sinn Fein, pledged to an Irish Republic, wins 73 of 105 Irish MP seats.
14, 1921
 - Dial Eireann begins Anglo-Irish treaty debate.
15, 1715
 - Thomas Dongan, soldier and colonial governor of New York, dies in poverty in London.
15, 1899 - Irish units of the Boer army face the Dublin Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, and the Inniskillings in the battle of Colenso
15, 1993 - Albert Reynolds and John Major announce that Sinn Fein can enter all-party talks if violence ends.
16, 1971 - General Richard Mulcahy, soldier and politician, dies in Dublin.
17, 1803 - Rebel leader Michael Dwyer surrenders to English.
19, 1803 - Count Philip George Browne, general in the Austrian army, son of Field Marshal Browne, dies in Hubertusburg.
19, 1877 - Land League organizer Michael Davitt is released from Dartmoor Prison.

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Tags: American Civil War, Irish Freedom Struggle, Military History, On This Day, United States

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