If someone mentions the "Fighting Irish," it is more than likely that the upcoming college football national championships come to mind or the golden dome at the University of Notre Dame. However, these are just contemporary associations when compared to a large group of men from New York who fought courageously 150 years ago. This past week thousands of people gathered to commemorate the Battle of Fredericksburg, a battle that took place in the middle of December where more than 200,000 soldiers met in Virginia; brother against brother, Irish against Irish, during the Civil War. It was the largest number of men ever to assemble for combat during the war. Although long ago, it is worth remembering because so many people, including New Yorkers, suffered and died there. They were our fellow countrymen and even our own ancestors.
President Lincoln was frustrated by General McClellan's overly cautious procrastination in making any progress for the north during the war, particularly when he failed to pursue General Robert E. Lee after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Appointing General Burnside as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, the plan was to go through the town of Fredericksburg and on to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Although Lincoln approved the plan, he had warned to do it quickly before Lee and his forces had time to gather reinforcements and entrench themselves in the hillsides outside of the city. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened due to a delay in building the pontoon bridges that were necessary to cross the Rappahannock River. Under fire from Confederate sharpshooters, the engineers were able to construct bridges, although with loss of life with some from New York. Nearly 120,000 Union troops then proceeded across the river.
Urban combat commenced while in the city of Fredericksburg. On Dec. 13, the Union forces attempted to push south through the city and attack part of Lee's army on a high ground called Marye's Heights. Moving across some open fields, Union forces were "mowed down" with huge casualties. Line after line attempted, with one a courageous push from the Irish Brigade; sadly against fellow Irishmen on the other side with similar green flags. These futile attacks continued into darkness and as portrayed in the movie "Gods and Generals," many Union soldiers spent the cold night on the ground, using dead comrades as shields against sustained fire from the Confederates. The Irish Brigade which had a 60% casualty rate from the Battle of Antietam earlier in the fall, also suffered greatly at Fredericksburg, diminished from over 1500 men to about 250. It is said that it was here they were nicknamed the "Fighting 69th" by General Lee because of their valiant charge. It was also here and seen in the movie where Irish soldiers of the Confederacy chanted an Irish war cry as if in a salute for the courage shown.
Last week several Civil War reenactors, including local residents, crossed the Rappahannock River on pontoon boats and bridges as part of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va.
Famous from the Civil War and throughout World War I and II, the Irish Brigade, or the "Fighting 69th" were predominantly Irish Americans and Irish immigrants from the New York City area. Also made up of the 63rd and 88th New York Infantry units, many of these men were Irish revolutionaries, set on gaining war experience with the intent of returning to Ireland to fight for independence from Britain. Others were willing to fight for new found freedoms, particularly for Catholics. Interestingly, one of their chaplains, William Corby, later became the president of the University of Notre Dame. He is featured in the movie "Gettysburg" when he grants absolution to the Irish Brigade before the Wheatfield "massacre." Some tributes to this famous New York group as found on Wikipedia include the words of one Civil War correspondent who said, "When anything absurd, forlorn, or desperate was to be attempted, the Irish Brigade was called upon." Lee said, "Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their gallantry." General Pickett said, "We forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines."
Many Civil War reenactors and spectators attended the battle reenactment this past week to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, including some local citizens who represent the 20th Maine when reenacting. Known for their fife and drum music in local parades and living history events, they also fall in with other groups at national events. During this event, they played the lead field music for the Union, led the Union Army over the pontoon bridges set up by the Army Corps of Engineers, and continued up to Marye's Heights where they met General Longstreet and reenacted that portion of the battle. Even though the actual event was 150 years ago, the feeling for participants was a surreal experience in knowing that many men made the real charge on the very same ground. They were willing to sacrifice their lives for something greater than themselves. Sadly, while some of the acreage has been set aside, much has been built over with suburban sprawl. Who will remember what happened on this sacred ground?
In 1963 President Kennedy said, "The 13th day of December, 1862, will be a day long remembered in American history. At Fredericksburg, Virginia, thousands of men fought and died on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Civil War. One of the most brilliant stories of that day was written by a band of 1200 men who went into battle wearing a green sprig in their hats. They bore a proud heritage and a special courage, given to those who had long fought for the cause of freedom. I am referring, of course, to the Irish Brigade." Perhaps one of your own ancestors fought in the Civil War. For this columnist, several ancestors did, one of whom was Irish Great, Great, Grandfather Michael Burns, from Dunkirk, who most likely enlisted at the Eastern Hotel near Third and Main Streets. Originally an infantryman, but later in the Navy, he never came home. Often having incomplete government records, he left a wife and two sons without ever knowing his fate. Make it a good week and remember our American past.
(Note: Anyone interested in participating in the fife and drum unit may email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information).
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#1 Last week several Civil War reenactors, including local residents, crossed the Rappahannock River on pontoon boats and bridges as part of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va.