TODAY MANY Irish Americans are unaware that the famous Irish Brigade fought in the bloodiest single-day battle of the Civil War at Antietam. Now, after 134 years, a monument to their sacrifice will become a reality.
Last year the director of the National Park Service approved the erection of the Irish Brigade Monument at Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Known as the "Forgotten Irish Monument," it will stand next to the observation tower at "Bloody Lane," where 540 Irishmen from the famous brigade were slaughtered or wounded. It will be the last of the monuments on the battlefield honoring the bravery of the many brigades that fought there.
Granite from Ireland
Two bronze sculptures will be embedded in a piece of granite from Ireland. The front will depict a battle scene. The reverse will be a bust of the brigade's commander, Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher. Designed by Codori Memorials of Gettysburg, the monument will be 10 feet high, about 6 1/2 feet wide and 4 feet deep. Ron Tunison, of Cairo, New York, is sculpting the two bas reliefs. The total cost will be approximately $150,000.
The Irish Brigade, made up of mostly native Irishmen or their sons, was organized in New York by the Waterford-born Meagher (1823-1867).
He had made a name for himself in Ireland for his rabble-rousing revolutionary oratory. Arrested in 1848 for a seditious speech and his activities in the Irish independence movement, Meagher was tried and sentenced to death, but Queen Victoria banished him instead to the penal colony in Tasmania, Australia.
Escaping three years later, he fled to the United States. In New York Meagher became an attorney, a lecturer and a political power among Irish immigrants and partisans of an independent Ireland.
Meagher was convinced that British sympathies lay with the Confederacy. He organized the Irish Brigade and was commissioned a brigadier general by President Lincoln in February 1862. Because of his military accomplishments during the Civil War, General Meagher was appointed territorial secretary and acting governor of the Montana territory. He drowned mysteriously in 1867.
The Irish Brigade was involved in some of the most bloody battles of the Civil War, taking casualties at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, as well as in the Antietam battle fought September 17, 1862, in and around Sharpsburg, Maryland.
The brigade historian, Capt. D.P. Conyngham, quotes Capt. Edward Field on the fate of the Irish flag carried by 63rd New York Regiment:
"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.
Wrapped in the flag
" 'Big [John] Gleason,' captain of the 63rd, 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 that fight untouched."
A terrible price was paid by the Irish Brigade for its assault on the Confederates that day. Two regiments of the brigade suffered more than 607 casualties. On both sides that day, more than 22,000 men were killed and wounded, more than on any other single day of the entire Civil War.
John E. McInerney is public- relations director of the Irish Cultural Society Foundations. Donations to help pay for the monument may be sent to Irish Brigade Monument Project, c/o Jack O'Brien, 11109 Belton Street, Upper Marlboro, Maryland 20772.
Pub Date: 3/15/96