'Undaunted Courage': The Irish at Fredericksburg: Part Two: 'Give It to Them Now, Boys!'

Library of Congress
Telegraph Road on Marye's Heights, the position of Cobb's Brigade on December 13, 1862.

In 1862, the second year of America's Civil War, Meagher's Irish Brigade made two of the most gallant charges in American history, crashing bloodily against a Confederate strongpoint at Antietam's "Bloody Lane" and, 87 days later, attacking Confederates, many Irish, behind Fredericksburg's "Stone Wall." WGT is proud to present the story of the Irish at Fredericksburg in a three-part series.

by Joseph E. Gannon

"Amid the wreaks that mark the foeman's path
I kneel, and, wailing o'er my glories gone,
I still each thought of hate, each throb of wrath,
And whisper, Father, let thy will be done."

-- From "The Prayer of the South" by former Confederate chaplain Father Abram Ryan

As the Irish Brigade stepped off, there were men in gray behind the stone wall who knew full well who was coming into their rifles's sights. The brigade of General Thomas Cobb included the 24th Georgia Infantry and Phillips Legion. The 24th was commanded by Antrim-born Colonel Robert McMillan and included many Irishmen.

Phillips Legion included an Irish company known as the Lochrane Guards, from Macon, Georgia. A captain from another company in Phillips Legion, Joseph Hamilton, a native of County Tyrone, would command the Legion when its high-ranking officers fell during the battle.

These Irish Confederates sat at the foot of Marye's Heights, where the fighting became legend in the years since, but in truth the Union army came closest to victory in its assault on the Confederate right flank. Irishmen were also prominent in the fighting there.

The 19th Georgia, and its Irish color company, the Jackson Guards, was more prominent than its men would have liked. Placed in an exposed position on the left of Archer's brigade, the regiment was nearly surrounded and captured. The 19th broke rather quickly under the onslaught of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves in its front, and the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves in its left flank and rear, but their casualty figures of 87 killed and 107 captured belie any idea that they broke without a fight.

Most troubling to the men of the Jackson Guards was the fact that they lost their colors, the only Confederate colors lost that day. The company's commander, Irish-born Captain John Keely, later claimed they had been overrun by "Meagher's Brigade of Irish troops." It wasn't, of course, but perhaps it made Keely and his men feel better to think they had been over run by other Irishmen.

Unfortunately for the Federal army, it failed to send in reinforcements to exploit its advantage at the point where it overran the Irishmen and their comrades. The Confederates stopped, and then repulsed, the near Union breakthrough. Keely and the men of his color company helped regain the ground they had lost, but the loss of so many comrades, and the ignominy of losing their colors must have weighed heavy on their minds.

Battles and Leaders
A drawing of Phillip's Legion of Cobb's Brigade firing from Telegraph Road. Note that the picture above appears to be of the same spot. (Single centered upstairs window on house with tree to the right as seen in the picture above.)

Meanwhile, few of the Irishmen in Cobb's Brigade could have fretted as they watched the approach of Irish Brigade. They were veteran soldiers, and undoubtedly appreciated the strength of their naturally fortified position. No more than 15 minutes after the first assault on their position was repulsed, Cobb was mortally wounded by a musket ball that shattered his thigh. The man who replaced him was McMillan. Thus, an Irish officer repulsed the Irish Brigade.

At the start of the war, McMillan had organized a company in Habersham County that drew many Irishmen. It adopted his name, becoming the McMillan Guards, and became part of the 24th Georgia. By August 1861, he rose to command of the regiment. On this afternoon, his military career would reach its zenith.

As he and his men viewed the 28th Massachusetts' green flag coming from town, did McMillan contemplate the repeated historic tragedy of "Irish killing Irish" likely to be played out at his command? Not likely, as he more likely focused on his brigade's mission, destroying its attackers. He had a battle to win, in addition to having three sons in the 24th Georgia.

The Irish Brigade did not have a monopoly on Irish in the ranks on December 13, 1862, there were many in the Confederate ranks as well. Read the stories of all the Irish in Robert E. Lee's army in "Clear the Confederate Way" by Kelly J. O'Grady

(A portion of your purchase price will help support "The Wild Geese Today.")

In his book "Clear the Confederate Way," author Kelly O'Grady* dismisses the oft-told tale of Irish Confederates' "regret" at their destruction of the Irish Brigade at Marye's Heights. Though there are some recorded comments of admiration for the assaulting Irish (and the other Brigades as well), the men coming at the wall were intent on killing those behind it. Few men behind that wall, loading and firing as fast as they could, had time for regrets until after they made sure that the enemy, Irish or not, was the one that would "die for their country" that day.

As the green flag came into clearer focus up the rise, McMillan observed, "That's Meagher's Brigade!" But shortly after, he gave the command to fire on that flag, crying out, "Give it to them now, boys! Now's the time! Give it to them!" He never wrote of any regret at that crucial moment.

When his men were done repulsing the Irish, the battle was far from over for McMillan and his brigade. All through the afternoon, McMillan strode up and down his line, exposing himself to fire and exhorting his men hold their line as brigade after brigade of Federals troops, 15 in all, swept up the heights like bars of blue steel, only to shatter against McMillan's brigade. McMillan's post-battle report did not mention the Irish Brigade, but ended with this: "The heaps of slain in our front tell best how well they [his brigade] acted their part."

A contemporary newspaper drawing of the dead being buried during a truce at Fredericksburg confirms McMillan's report of "heaps of slain in our front."

In a letter to a Charleston, S.C., newspaper, a Georgian soldier wrote that McMillan was "waving his sword and encouraging him men, they seemed to catch the spirit of their leader and redouble their efforts." In his official report, Confederate commander Kershaw said of the soldiers in McMillan's brigade, "their fire was the most rapid and continuous I have ever witnessed." McMillan did have one scare during the battle when a spent ball struck him in the neck while one of his sons, horrified, looked on. McMillan assured his son he was fine, then calmly picked up the round and put it in his pocket.

When the momentous battle of Fredericksburg was over, McMillan and his brigade were left standing, their mission accomplished at the expense of Meagher's brigade. McMillan's was, by all accounts, the most outstanding performance by an Irish-born officer fighting for either side on December 13, 1862.

Read Part 3: 'I Am Wounded All Over'

* O'Grady's book takes some strong criticism of Thomas F. Meagher and his brigade. I disagree with many of these, but am in accord with him on this point. Controversial opinions not withstanding, O'Grady's book is a welcome addition to the history of the Irish in the Civil War. -- JEG

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: America's, Civil, Fredericksburg, War

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