The American Civil War began, a war that would not only pit American against American but also Irish against Irish. An estimated 150,000 Irish fought on the Union side while about 40,000 fought for the confederacy. While the majority fought with the Union, many Irish had a strong antipathy to a northern culture which they perceived as anti-Catholic and Protestant dominated. The most famous Irish regiment was the Fighting 69th, led by the flamboyant Thomas Francis Meagher, often going into battle with an emerald flag and shouting an old Irish war cry “Fag an Bealagh” (Clear the way.)
Over the course of the war, the Irish Brigade would excel in numerous battles, most famously at Marye’s Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg. During the war, its leaders were General Thomas Francis Meagher, Colonel Patrick Kelly (killed), General Thomas A. Smyth (killed), Colonel Richard Byrnes (killed), and General Robert Nugent.
On the Confederate side, the Irish also had a major impact. Cork born Patrick Cleburne was the highest ranking Irish General during the Civil war and is recognised as one of the finest officers to serve on either side of that terrible campaign.
Robert E. Lee referred to him as a “a meteor shining from a clouded sky.” He became known as the “Stonewall of the West” Cleburne’s campaigns included the Battles of Shiloh, Richmond and Chickamauga.
Image: Remembering the Irish Brigade, Art by Will Coffey