Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on March 17, 2012

Detail of “Sons of Erin,” by Don Troiani. Father Corby rides across the advancing line of the Irish Brigade at Sharpsburg.

On a day when everyone’s just a little Irish, the Very Rev. Dr. Stephen Duncan of Galveston is marching in New York:

Next weekend I will travel to New York City and march with my Civil War re-enactment group the 69th New York State Volunteers Historical Society as a part of the famous Irish Brigade from the Civil War. This unit traditionally leads the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York and this year will be in two of the parades — one for the old Cathedral and the other, larger parade in the afternoon.

The men of the Irish Brigade and their chaplain, Father Corby, helped change the perception of Americans about the Irish.

During the Civil War, many Irish immigrants and Irish Americans enlisted and served with distinction on both sides. There were more Irish serving in Union blue, but there were significant numbers with the harp of Erin under the gray.

Many had joined as members of the Fenian Society. They were determined to gain experience in modern warfare so they could return to Ireland and free it from the yoke of England.

Their fathers and grandfathers had served in the last Irish rebellion and many had fallen on Vinegar Hill.

In the end, the fact that England tacitly supported the South by continuing to buy cotton and sell supplies fueled the fervor of the Irish love for the Union and the freedom it represented for Ireland.

It was how well the Irish performed their duties as soldiers that got the attention of the (non-Irish) American officers.

The Irish as a unit were fearless in battle. They did what they were told even in the face of insurmountable odds, such as at Fredericksburg.

The soldiers closest to the Confederate lines at the end of that dreadful battle wore the green sprig of boxwood in their kepis — reminders of the green of Ireland that Gen. Meagher had asked them to wear as they marched off to the strains of the Garryowen.

At Gettysburg, Father Corby, later president of the University of Notre Dame, climbed on a rock and asked the unit to kneel to receive general absolution before the battle.

The men dropped to their knees, their hats off in prayer. He exhorted them to do their duty and to make a full confession later if they were able and then pronounced the Latin words absolving them of their sins.

The non-Catholic officers nearby were impressed. Certainly this was not the first time general absolution had been given on an American battlefield, but something about the men of the Irish Brigade, en masse, going to their knees in prayer affected the Union officers greatly.

It began a notice that these Irish Catholics were somehow more human, more God-fearing, more American and more like themselves than they had been told all their lives.

Though there were terrible losses, the unit continued through the entire war.

After the Civil War, many of the young soldiers followed Father Corby back to Notre Dame where they became students and loaned their moniker “the Fighting Irish” to that French-founded University de Notre Dame du Lac (founded by the Holy Cross Fathers from France).

To this day, Notre Dame is a symbol of Ireland and Catholicism here in the United States — more than a great football team, more than a fantastic school — a place where the Irish in America found their home.

I think it is a good thing indeed that on every St. Patrick’s Day everyone is at least a wee bit Irish. Erin Go Braugh.

Filleadh abhaile go sábháilte, Father Duncan.


3 Responses

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  1. Patrick Young said, on March 17, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Immigrants often seem strange until we get to know them. Then we see that their outlandish customs spring from the same primal needs as our own.

  2. Will Hickox said, on March 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    “The men of the Irish Brigade and their chaplain, Father Corby, helped change the perception of Americans about the Irish.”

    While you wouldn’t expect a mainstream newspaper to go in-depth on issues such as this, the notion of the Irish proving themselves and winning acceptance from other Americans on Civil War battlefields obscures the ugly truth. Irish-American opposition to Lincoln and emancipation, the New York Draft Riots, and faltering enlistments in the second half of the war gave them a bad reputation in the eyes of many other people. For decades after the war, negative racial stereotypes of the irish persisted, most notably in Thomas Nash’s cartoons.

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