The Irish Brigade at the Battle of Antietam
By Ranger Mike Gamble
At the base of the War Department Observation Tower on the Antietam National Battlefield, the Irish Brigade Monument vividly depicts the courage and audacity of four Union infantry regiments on the morning of September 17, 1862. This monument, dedicated on October 25, 1997, not only describes the attack of the Sixty-ninth, Sixty-third, Eighty-eighth New York and the Twenty-ninth Massachusetts, but also the story of its famed commanding officer Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher. It was Meagher, leading his soldiers against withering enemy fire in the Sunken Road that epitomized the reputation of the brigade as one of the most experienced and fearless units in the Army of the Potomac.
Born in Waterford, Ireland on August 3, 1823, Thomas Francis Meagher came to New York City in 1852 after escaping British imposed exile in Tasmania. Meagher had been a member of the “Young Ireland” movement and was arrested by the British for advocating the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland. He was popular with the large Irish Community in New York where he became active in Irish political affairs. When the Civil War began, Meagher used his influence to recruit soldiers for the New York Militia and raised a company within the Sixty-ninth New York. The unit achieved a good reputation at the First Battle of Manassas. Returning to New York, he conceived the idea of forming a brigade of Irish regiments modeled after the French Army’s Irish Brigade that achieved notoriety for fighting the British in the Eighteenth century. Meagher assumed command of the Irish Brigade and was commissioned a Brigadier General on February 2, 1862.
Brigadier General Thomas Meagher
The Irish Brigade came to the farm fields outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland as part of Major General Israel Richardson’s division of Major General Edwin Vose Sumner’s Second Corps. Because of their battle record during the Seven Days Battles, Major General George McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac, knew that Richardson’s men would insure the safety of his command headquarters and placed this division near the Pry Farm until relieved.
From his headquarters, McClellan received reports of the First and Twelfth Corps attacks against the Confederate left flank during the early morning hours of September 17, 1862. By 7:30 A.M., Sumner’s Second Corps received orders to support these attacks that were at a standstill. Sumner ordered Major General John Sedgewick’s division to assault the Confederates who had taken a stand in the woods west of the Hagerstown Pike. Brigadier General William French followed with his division but veered south in order to support Sedgwick’s left flank. This movement took French’s three brigades towards a fallback position that the Confederates had established in a sunken road south of the Roulette Farm.
Sedgwick’s division assaulted the West Woods shortly after 9:00 AM. Unbeknownst to Sedgwick, famed Confederate commander "Stonewall" Jackson, whose men held the West Woods, was just then receiving reinforcements from Major General Lafayette McLaw’s division that had arrived early that morning from Harpers Ferry. Jackson also received assistance from Major General John Walker’s division and Colonel Tige Anderson’s brigade. Outnumbered by the Confederates, Sedgewick’s men were hit by a furious assault and driven back from the West Woods having suffered fifty per cent losses.
Upon the arrival of Major General Morell’s division at McClellan’s headquarters, Major General Richardson followed French’s route to the battlefield. The lead brigade of Richardson’s division was the 1340 officers and men of the Irish Brigade. Passing by the Henry Newkirk house, they ascended the crest of a second ridge and down a second ravine, which was an extension of the Roulette Farm Lane. Meager placed the Sixty-ninth New York in the lead, followed by the Twenty-ninth Massachusetts, the Sixty-third New York and the Eighty-eighth New York. Brigadier General John Caldwell’s brigade formed on the left of Meagher and Colonel John R. Brooke’s Brigade followed in reserve.
Seeing that soldiers from French’s division had taken cover on the uneven ground north of the Sunken Road, Meagher prepared his brigade for the attack. Leaving unneeded equipment in the Roulette Lane, the Irish brigade formed their battle line. Upon reaching the Sunken Road, Meagher’s plan directed “that after the first and second volleys delivered in line of battle by brigade, the brigade should charge with fixed bayonets on the enemy”.
In the Sunken Road, three of the five brigades in Major General Daniel Harvey Hill’s division piled up the fence rails on the lip of the road and placed their best marksmen in the front ranks. Brigadier General George B. Anderson’s brigade occupied that part of the road directly in the path of the Irish Brigade. Brigadier General Robert Rhodes commanded the other brigade from the Roulette lane intersection to the Mumma farm lane. At that point, survivors from Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt’s brigade extended the Confederate defense to the Hagerstown Pike.
At approximately 10:30 AM, the Irish Brigade began its assault on the Sunken Road. Their regiments were in battle line formation with the Sixty-ninth New York on the right bordering the Roulette Lane. To their left were the Twenty-Ninth Massachusetts, Sixty-third New York, and then the Eighty-eighth New York anchoring down the end of left flank. Through the smoke of battle, the soldiers saw a familiar sight. It was Father William Corby, an Irish Brigade Catholic chaplain, giving his blessing and absolution to the troops.
Father William Corby
Clearing the first cornfield they encountered, the troops tore down a wooden fence and pushed on to a second fence. Brigadier General Meagher ordered the second fence torn down and eighty volunteers sprung to the task. One volunteer, Private Samuel Wright of the 29th Massachusetts, was shot in the back as he ran back to rejoin his unit. For his heroic actions, Private Wright will be awarded the Medal of Honor.
As the Irish Brigade neared the Sunken Road, Confederate Major General Richard Anderson’s division surged through the Piper Farm south of the Sunken Road. Making their way through Mr. Piper’s apple orchard, Anderson was wounded and replaced with the next officer in rank, Brigadier General Roger Pryor. Unable to organize the brigades coming through the Piper apple orchard and the Piper cornfield, Pryor failed to coordinate troop movements as soldiers attempted to reach the relative safety of the Sunken Road. The Confederate reinforcements were wading into the fire of Union troops who were now shooting over the heads of the Confederate men hunkered down in the road. Confederate troops were also taking casualties from federal artillery batteries located two miles from them on the east side of the Antietam creek. Four batteries of twenty pound Parrott rifled cannons were targeting the Confederates located south of the Sunken Road.
The Irish Brigade slowly came in sight of the Sunken Road and as planned came to a halt. Meagher reported “Seated on my horse, close to the Sixty-ninth regiment, I permitted them to deliver their five or six volleys, and personally ordered them to charge upon the rebel columns, while the very same moment I ordered Captain Miller, assistant adjutant general of the Brigade, and Lieutenant Gosson, first aide on my staff, to bring up the Eighty-eighth and Sixty-third immediately to the charge. It was my design, under the general orders I received, to push the enemy on both their fronts as they displayed themselves to us, and relying on the impetuosity and recklessness of Irish soldiers in a charge, felt confident that before such a charge the column would give way and be dispersed”.
Captain Edward Field of the Sixty-third New York described the action: “The rebels seemed to have a special spite against the green flag, and five color bearers were shot down successively in a short time. As the last man fell even these Irishmen hesitated a moment to assume a task synonymous with death. Big John Gleason, Captain of the Sixty-third, six feet seven, sprang forward and snatched it up. In a few minutes a bullet struck the staff, shattering it to pieces; Gleason tore the flag from the broken staff, wrapped it around his body, putting his sword belt over it and went through the rest of the fight untouched”.
Staying with the Sixty-ninth, Meagher ordered the soldiers to fix bayonets. In front of the Sixty-ninth, a rebel soldier screamed “bring them colors in here”. Two color bearers advanced a few steps, shook their colors in the face of the enemy and replied ‘come and take them you damned rebels’.
Captain Patrick Clooney of the Eighty-eighth New York shouted to his men to form their line when a bullet slammed into his knee. Struggling to stand up, he ignored pleas from his men to go to the rear. Two more bullets hit the brave officer, one in the head and other in his chest. He died instantly.
The Twenty-ninth Massachusetts took cover behind the rise directly in front of the line. As Colonel Joseph Barnes did not receive orders from Meagher, his men stayed in position and returned fire.
Failing to coordinate an attack with all of his regiments, the situation for the Irish Brigade became desperate. Galloping down the rise to the Sixty-first New York forming on his left flank, Meagher pleaded for assistance from Brigadier General Caldwell’s Brigade. Colonel Francis Barlow, commanding the Sixty-first and Sixty-fourth New York, had orders to remain in position and regretfully could not support Meagher’s cry for help. Also, Brigadier General Caldwell was not present in the immediate area to approve such a move. Suddenly, Meagher’s horse was killed by a bullet and fell, trapping the General under the weight of the dead animal. Two regimental musicians acted as stretcher bearers and carried Meagher to the rear.
As Major General Richardson observed the worsening condition of the Irish Brigade, he also searched for Brigadier General Caldwell. After hearing that Caldwell was not in direct command, he angrily shouted “God damn the field officers!” and ordered Caldwell’s brigade to cease their flanking movement and support the Irish Brigade. With this order, Barlow led his New Yorkers to a position behind Meagher’s men and began moving through their ranks. Other regiments of Caldwell’s brigade were able to obtain a position above the road that enabled them to fire into the lane.
The Confederates were caught in a crossfire with Union infantry shooting at them from their front and from their right. Colonel John B. Gordon, commanding the 6th Alabama was carried from his regiment, the victim of five wounds. His replacement, Lieutenant Colonel James Lightfoot misunderstood an order from Brigadier General Robert Rhodes and led his men back to the Hagerstown Pike south of the Sunken Road. The other Alabama regiments followed.
With no support on their left, the Confederates still in position in the Sunken Road retreated towards the Piper Farm. Soldiers from Caldwell’s brigade surged forward and were met with furious counter-attacks from the south as well as from the west. In the process of directing artillery fire, Richardson was mortally wounded. He succumbed to his wounds that November.
Action around the Sunken Road was stabilized when Major General Winfield S. Hancock took over command of Richardson’s division. The Confederate line had been pushed to its limits but still held the ground around the Piper farm.
The Irish Brigade had been in action for less than two hours. It began its attack with 1340 men and had been reduced to 688. Of the four regiments, the 29th Massachusetts suffered the lowest loss with 10.2% casualties; the 69th New York suffered the highest casualties, losing 62% of its strength. A total of 113 men were killed, and 539 wounded. With the action now centering on other parts of the battlefield, the brigade was soon ordered back to the Antietam Creek.
The assault by the Irish Brigade's assault on the Sunken Road displayed how costly frontal attacks had become by September 1862. Within three months, the Brigade was called upon to repeat this same maneuver. Ironically, many of these survivors will meet their death near another country road. This one, however, was located in Fredericksburg, Virginia.