Irish Brigade had mixed motives in fighting for Union in Civil War

The Irish Brigade proved itself in battle time after time during the Civil War, but as important as

The Irish Brigade proved itself in battle time after time during the Civil War, but as important as those soldiers were to the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac, they weren’t fighting to eradicate slavery in their adopted homeland.

“The motives were mixed, but while the cause of [the] Union may have interested some of them, the cause of slavery did not,” said former Siena College history professor Tom Kelly. “The Irish-Americans, particularly those in New York, were in direct economic competition with free blacks, so they were pretty savage in their treatment of blacks.”

Kelly, who retired from Siena in 2001 after 40 years of teaching history, will talk about the Irish-American contribution to the Union cause during the Civil War on Sunday at the Irish American Heritage Museum at 370 Broadway in Albany. Kelly’s presentation is titled “The Life and Death of the Irish Brigade,” which is being offered in conjunction with the museum’s current exhibit “Irish in the Civil War.”

‘The Life and Death of the Irish Brigade’

WHAT: A lecture by former Siena College history professor Tom Kelly

WHERE: Irish American Heritage Museum, 370 Broadway, Albany

WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday

HOW MUCH: $3 for adults, $2 for seniors, free for children 14 and under

MORE INFO: 427-1916 or

“Some of those men fought for the Union, some, as always, out of a sense of adventure, and some, very clearly, were thinking about using the war as training and then going back to Ireland to overthrow British rule,” said Kelly. “I think they appreciated what America had provided for them when they fled British rule, so some fought for that reason, but it wasn’t about slavery.”

According to Kelly, the Irish experience in America’s Civil War is part of the legacy created by the Battle of the Boyne way back in 1690 on the east coast of Ireland.

“When the forces of William of Orange defeated those of King James, a great many Irishmen fled and ended up in various other European armies,” explained Kelly.

“So, from that time right up to the French Revolution, there had always been an Irish brigade in the French army. There was also an Irish brigade in the Habsburg Army of Austria, and the Spanish army. For those who formed the Irish Brigade, this notion of exiled Irish fighting for various causes was very important psychologically in terms of Irish nationalism.”

When the Civil War broke out in the U.S. in 1861, Irish immigrants quickly joined forces to form the 69th and 63rd New York regiments, which became the core of the Irish Brigade. The unit fought at the First Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and by July of 1863 had been reduced from 3,000 men to under 500.

“They took tremendous casualties at Antietam, and then again at Fredericksburg,” said Kelly. “Then, on the second day at Gettysburg, when Longstreet’s corps is in some danger of winning the day, the Irish Brigade is roughly in the center of the line on the far left of the line with the 20th Maine.”

Desperate move

Kelly was referring to the scene portrayed in the movie “Gettysburg,” where Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine, in an act of desperation, decides the only course left is to charge downhill at the Confederate forces. The move took the Confederates by surprise and ended up turning the tide of battle on the second day. It also cemented what was already known by most people in those days: the Irish Brigade was made up of a great group of fighters.

“The Irish were fierce fighters,” said Kelly. “If you look at Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, a Union assault that never should have been ordered, it was the Irish Brigade that got closest to the Confederate line. They had a great reputation as fighters. They were always at the forefront of the battle, but by the time their blood was spent at Gettysburg, the regiment wasn’t that large to really have an impact on the war. They were just a ghostly reminder of what they had been.”

Kelly, who was born in Port Henry on Lake Champlain and raised in the Syracuse and Buffalo areas, went to the College of New Rochelle for his undergraduate degree and Fordham University for his master’s. A Schenectady resident, Kelly said the Civil War remains fascinating to most Americans for a number of reasons.

“It made us what we are,” he said. “At the time of the Civil War, there was still some doubt about the nature of the Union. They used to say ‘the United States are,’ and after the war it was ‘the United States is.’ It also eliminated one of the worst hypocrisies in American history, the issue of slavery, and it was also about big government or little government, and how the courts interpreted federal power. Those are battles we’re still having today.”

Exhibit artifacts

Included in the exhibit at the Irish American Heritage Museum are various Civil War prints from the collection of Rev. Jeremiah Brady of Mobile, Ala., and some personal belongings of Patrick H. White (1832-1915), a Medal of Honor winner for bravery during the war. White is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

Also featured at the museum is an exhibit on the Rev. William Corby, a member of the Irish Brigade and former president of Notre Dame University.

“We are proud to have the exhibition at this time as the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the War of the Rebellion, more commonly referred to as the War Between the States or the Civil War,” said Jeff Cleary, executive director of the museum.

“It is imperative that Americans remember the sacrifices made by so many sons of Erin in the American Civil War.”

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