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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Irish Brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas

In honor of the anniversary of the first major battle in the Civil War, I have decided to post a small section of my History thesis. The entire thesis, entitled "'Paddy's Jubilation': The Wide-ranging Patriotism of Irish-Americans in the North During the American Civil War", can be found in the Christendom College Library, where all the undergraduate thesis are preserved. The following is adapted from a section in the first chapter. The whole chapter deals with Irish in the North's military during the Civil War, and their patriotism. This section specifically deals with the events which occurred July 21, 1861. . . .

Other Irish regiments formed in other states, particularly the 69th and 116th in Pennsylvania, which fought at the Battle of Gettysburg along with the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers, and the 15th Maine.[i] However, none of these regiments ever approached the sheer size of the famous “Irish Brigade” from New York, the most famous Irish fighting force in the Civil War. The Irish Brigade was for most of its existence filled with soldiers from New York, particularly the famous “Fighting 69th” regiment, although other states were occasionally represented. Not only was this brigade the largest group of fighting Irishmen in the Civil War, dwarfing any regiment from other Northern cities, but it is also one of the best-documented fighting bodies in the entire history of the Civil War thanks to Captain David Power Conyngham. Conyngham, who had received a chest wound at the Battle of Resaca while working as an aid to the Brigade’s general, Thomas Meagher, wrote a detailed history of the Brigade soon after the Civil War ended.[ii] The work remains the standard volume on the subject.

The Brigade itself received praise not only from Irish writers and Union generals, but also from such strange sources as a writer from the London Times. This was, by all accounts, a valiant group of men, devoted not only to their adopted country of America but their mother country of Ireland as well. Conyngham notes that, “many a patriotic young Irishman wanted to learn the use of arms and the science of war, with the hope of one day turning them to practical use in his own country.”[iii] Others had fought for Ireland and had escaped the English by immigrating to America. General Meagher is a prime example. He had emigrated from Ireland after being arrested as part of the “Young Ireland” movement in the 1840s.[iv] He, like many of his troops in the Irish Brigade, saw the Civil War as a sort of stepping stone to fighting for freedom in Ireland. It was not as much a fight for one country or another, but rather was a fight for the high ideals of freedom and unity. He urged his men to fight not only as Americans, but also as Irishmen.

This is clearly shown in the Brigade’s martial performance at the First Battle of Bull Run (known as the First Battle of Manassas in the South), the battle of Antietam, and the battle of Fredericksburg, where the Irish fought with awe-inspiring bravery. These three battles, important ones in the Civil War, were also the three major battles that featured the Irish Brigade as a unified force. Later battles that featured members of the Brigade, such as Gettysburg, only featured scattered parts of the Brigade. However, these three battles from the first two years of the war capture not only the bravery of the Irish Brigade, but also the bravery of all the Irish fighting for the Union.

The First Battle of Bull Run, which occurred on July 21, 1861, near Manassas, Virginia, was the first major battle of the Civil War. It was here that the Union’s hope of a short war vanished. At the start of the battle the Union forces held their own, but by the end they found themselves retreating from a confident army of Confederates. Despite the loss, the Irishmen present rose to the occasion, harnessing their notorious Irish temper against the enemy forces.

The Battle was well underway when the Irish Brigade was sent in to attack. Conyngham’s portrayal of the battle depicts the Confederates as repelling, “charge after charge, regiment after regiment.”[v] The Brigade, primarily made of the “Fighting 69th" of New York, immediately faced enemy fire. Conyngham’s description, gripping and passionate, is as follows:

Stripped of knapsacks and overcoats, they swept up the hill, across the open field, on towards the wood, delivering fire after fire on their concealed foe. Batteries opened on them right and left, hurling grape into their very faces, while from the shelter of the woods a stream of lead was poured on them. It was a gallant charge, gallantly led and gallantly sustained. After each repulse, the regiment formed and charged right up on the batteries.[vi]

This continued on until the Brigade was ordered to retreat, which it did “without panic,” as Edward Spann describes.[vii] Even the Confederates were impressed with their bravery, with one commenting that, “‘The Irish fought like heroes,’ and at the end ‘did slowly retire.’”[viii] It was a performance that impressed General Irvin McDowell, Union General during the battle, so much that he personally rode over and thanked the Irish soldiers.[ix] That first battle caught the attention of generals, solidifying the Irish Brigade as a band of great warriors.

[i]Joseph P. O’Grady, How the Irish Became Americans (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1973), 46.

[ii]David Power Conyngham, The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns (New York: William McSorley & Co., 1867. Reprint, New York: Fordham University Press, 1994), 12.

[iii]Ibid., 6.

[iv]Ibid., 533–535.

[v]Conyngham, 36.

[vi]Ibid., 36-37.

[vii]Edward K. Spann, “Union Green: The Irish Community and the Civil War,” in Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher, ed. The New York Irish (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 196.

[viii]Ibid., 41.

[ix]Conyngham, 37.


  1. Anonymous2:21 PM

    I was trying to find a way to contact you via this blog but I couldn't find anything so I'm hoping you'll be notified of this comment even though the posting is pretty dated.

    I am currently working on a thesis paper of my own of a very similar topic and after Googling some basic concepts, I stumbled upon this blog posting.

    I rather enjoyed reading your excerpt and was hoping I could have the chance the read the entire thesis. Based what I have read so far, your thesis would be a great secondary source to include in my paper.

    Thanks for your time and once again, great work.
    -Kevin Dunbar

  2. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  3. It's striking that a few dozen boys born in different parts of Northern Ireland in the 1860s-70s were named Manassas. This might be a patriotic echo - from either side, as Stonewall Jackson's folks hailed from Northern Ireland...