The Irish Brigade was an infantry brigade that served in the American Civil War, consisting predominantly of Irish immigrants. The designation of the first regiment in the brigade, the 69th New York Infantry, or the "Fighting 69th", continued in later wars. They were known in part for their famous warcry, the "faugh a ballagh", which is an old Gaelic phrase, fág an bhealach, meaning "clear the way".
The core regiment of the Irish Brigade, the 69th New York Volunteers, was comprised largely from the 69th New York Militia, a unit which first gained notoriety prior to the Civil War, when Colonel Michael Corcoran refused an order to parade the regiment for the Prince of Wales during the latter's visit to New York City.
At the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), the regiment served under the command of Colonel William T. Sherman, and was one of the few Union regiments to retain cohesion after the defeat, despite the wounding and capture of Col. Corcoran by Confederate forces. The 69th served as the Army of the Potomac's rear guard during the disorganized retreat to the defenses of Washington.
After Bull Run, the Captain of Company K (Thomas Francis Meagher) applied to have the 69th New York Volunteer Militia reorganized into Federal service as the core unit of a larger brigade composed predominantly of Irish immigrants. Meagher was promoted to brigadier general and designated the brigade's commander. Before the war, he was a leading agitator for Irish independence from Britain. A visible participant in the failed Rebellion of 1848, he was afterwards tried and sentenced to death (commuted to life imprisonment in Australia, but he escaped to New York).
Formation of the ethnically based brigade served three Union purposes: 1) It warned Britain (which appeared to be favoring the Confederacy, if not deliberating entry into the conflict on their behalf) that there could be Union-supported consequences in Ireland if Britain intervened (most of the brigade's membership were known Irish revolutionaries), and 2) It served to solidify Irish support for the Union. Many Irish were naturally predisposed to support the Confederacy due to their sympathy with struggles for independence. They also didn't want a flood of freed slaves to migrate north and compete for the lowly jobs for which they already had to scrabble. 3) It solidified the support of the Catholic minority for the Union cause. Having their own paid Catholic chaplain implied a social acceptance for Irish Catholics which had eluded them in the antebellum period. Their chaplain was Fr. William Corby, CSC, a Holy Cross priest and future president of the University of Notre Dame. He became famous for his giving absolution to the troops of the Irish Brigade before the Battle of Gettysburg.
Before the full five regiments of a typical brigade could be raised, the unit was called to combat. In March 1862 the brigade, composed of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York regiments, was assigned to Major General Edwin V. Sumner's division in the Army of the Potomac as the 2nd Brigade and shipped to the Virginia Peninsula. While the Army of the Potomac crept slowly toward Richmond, a fourth regiment joined the brigade: the 29th Massachusetts, a regiment formed mainly of Puritan descendants. Massachusetts had pledged to provide an Irish regiment, intending to send the 28th Massachusetts, but that Irish regiment was not complete when the Army of the Potomac went into action. Instead, the next available unit, the 29th Massachusetts, was sent.
Despite their divergent backgrounds, the 29th Massachusetts and the rest of the brigade fought well together, earning plaudits for hard campaigning during the Seven Days Battles; most notably at Savage's Station, Glendale, and Malvern Hill. After Malvern Hill, the Army of the Potomac languished at Harrison's Landing on the Peninsula and Meagher gained permission to recruit in New York to replenish the brigade's losses. While other units were transferred to northern Virginia during the summer of 1862 to fight under Gen. John Pope, the Irish Brigade remained on the Peninsula with Gen. George B. McClellan.
After Pope's complete rout at Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas), Gen. Robert E. Lee took the offensive, moving into Maryland. McClellan and the remainder of Army of the Potomac were rushed north. The brigade's new recruits, approximately a tenth the number that Meagher had hoped to raise, joined the unit at Tennallytown, Maryland, in time to march in pursuit of the Confederates.
On September 17, 1862, the Union and Confederate armies met at Sharpsburg, Maryland, in the Battle of Antietam. Command confusion led to the disjointed use of the II Corps, and instead of supporting renewed assaults on the Confederate left at the West Woods, the Irish Brigade found itself facing the center of the Confederate line, entrenched in an old sunken farm road. The brigade again acted conspicuously, assaulting the road, referred to after the battle as "Bloody Lane". Although unsuccessful, the brigade's attack gave supporting troops enough time to flank and break the Confederate position, at the cost of 60% casualties for the Irish Brigade.
The brigade suffered its most severe casualties in December at the Battle of Fredericksburg where its fighting force was reduced from over 1600 to 256. The brigade was involved in the northern battleground at Fredericksburg where they assaulted the sunken road in front of Marye's Heights. Ironically, one of the regiments manning the sunken road defenses was a predominantly Irish Regiment commanded by Gen. Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb. Knowing that Cobb's men manned the wall, and that both Cobb's and Meagher's units contained members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to gaining military experience in the United States, then freeing Ireland from Britain after the Civil War, Lee ordered reserves sent to the position. He need not have worried. Cobb's men helped decimate the Irish Brigade before the reinforcements could settle in place. It was at Fredericksburg that Lee allegedly referred to Meagher's regiment as the "Fighting 69th".
After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Gen. Meagher again requested to recruit the brigade back to strength. This time the request was denied. In May 1863, the brigade sustained further casualties at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Meagher repeated his request to recruit replacements, was denied, and resigned his commission in protest. Meagher was replaced by Col. Patrick Kelly.
Leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, the brigade recovered several hundred of its injured at Fredericksburg and was able to field nearly 600 men. At Gettysburg, the brigade distinguished itself in the Wheatfield under the command of Col. Kelly as the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division (Brigadier General John C. Caldwell) of the II Corps (Major General Winfield S. Hancock). The brigade has a monument on the Loop on the Gettysburg Battlefield.
While continuing to serve with distinction, casualties continued to increase and by June 1864 the Irish Brigade had been reduced to regimental size. The US Army disbanded it and incorporated the remaining elements of the brigade into the 3rd and 4th Brigades of the 1st Division, II Corps.
A Second Irish Brigade was reformed from the old Irish Brigade of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York, 116th Pennsylvania, and 28th Massachusetts Regiments as well as the addition of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery (later replaced by the 4th New York Heavy Artillery in early 1865).
Since 1947, the Fighting 69th has been a unit of the New York National Guard.