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The Tragedy of Fredericksburg


The colors of The Irish Brigade, a golden harp under on sunburst on a flag of green


In early December, 1862 the Army of the Potomac was making its way across the freezing Rappahannock River towards the small town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Waiting for them was Robert E Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. 1862 had been a bad year for the Union commanders and their men, having been outfoxed if not decisively beaten by Lee at every turn, they were desperate for a victory. President Lincoln too was becoming impatient and after relieving General George B McClellan of his command gave his new Union Commander Ambrose Burnside a simple order; find Lee and his Confederates and destroy them. By the morning of December 13th the stage was set. The Union Army had control of the town of Fredericksburg and the Confederate Army was entrenched in the hills just beyond known at Mayre’s heights. All morning and afternoon the Union ranks attacked the Confederate positions and each time were repelled by the rebels who enjoyed superior ground. A more seasoned commander than Burnside would have withdrawn his troops to better ground and fought a defensive battle, but Burnside was a stubborn man and in a scene that was all too familiar during the Civil War, reason was thrown out for passion. Burnside, turned next to a young Brigadier General named Thomas Francis Meagher and his Brigade to carry out the next assault.


Meagher was an Irishman, born in Waterford. He joined the Young Irelanders during the failed rebellion of 1848 against the British. Arrested for treason he was exiled to Van Deiman’s land (later renamed Tazmania). Meagher dreamed of a new life in America and escaped in 1852 to New York where he worked as a journalist and dabbled in public speaking. He joined the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War and was rapidly promoted. He commanded what became known as the Irish Brigade, a force made up of immigrants from Ireland that would fight not just under the American flag but also a flag of green emblazoned with a golden harp.


Irish Revolutionary and Union Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher


As Meagher and his men charged the Confederate positions on December 13th they faced off against another force who fought under a green flag, the 24th Irish Regiment of Georgia under the command of fellow Irishman Colonel Robert McMillan. The 24th was made up mostly of Irish volunteers who also had fled the famine on immigrant ships, but instead of coming ashore in New York or Boston they landed in Savannah, Georgia. The terrain that day was too much for General Meagher and his men to overcome and the Union formations again broke under the vicious Confederate counter attack. The Union Irish Brigade suffered over fifty percent casualties and lost almost all of its officers. As Meagher ordered his men to retreat, the Confederate Irish Regiment stood up from behind their stone wall and cheered their countrymen’s bravery. Men that would have been comrades back home had slaughtered each other on a wintry day half a world away.


'To the Sons of Erin' The Irish Brigade monument at Fredericksburg National Military Park in Virginia


Both Thomas Francis Meagher and Robert McMillan would survive the war, with Meagher later becoming Acting Governor of the Montana territories. History remembers the bravery of all who died in the Civil War, especially fondly those like Meagher's men from Ireland who gave their lives so that other men could be free.

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