At the Battle of Antietam, the Irish Brigade led its division in attacking the infamous Bloody Lane. In preparation for the deadly work ahead, Father William Corby, one of the brigade’s chaplains and future president of Notre Dame, rode down the firing line and administered a general rite of absolution to the men.
Thomas Meagher advanced to the crest of a hill overlooking a brigade of North Carolinians hunkered down in the sunken road bed and let loose with two volleys. The Confederates responded with a heavy fire of their own that killed or wounded eight of the brigade’s color bearers. When Capt. James McGee of the 69th New York picked up his regiment’s flag from the ground, a bullet cut the staff in two. He reached down for the colors again and a bullet tore through his cap. Despite the heavy fire, Captain McGee finally retrieved the flag and defiantly waved it at the enemy.
Meagher drew his sword and shouted, “Boys! Raise the colors and follow me!” He wrote in his after-action report that he believed “the impetuosity and recklessness of Irish soldiers in a charge” would dislodge the rebels. Meagher’s men leveled their bayonets and got within 30 yards of the enemy position before the Confederates stopped them with fierce musket volleys.
The Brigade suffered a 60 percent casualty rate by the time it withdrew from Bloody Lane. The division commander, the beloved Gen. Israel Richardson, was among those lost, later dying of infection after being wounded by shell fragments.
Photo: Irish Brigade Monument at Antietam, the inscription on the monument reads in part:
“The Brigade fought in all of the major campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. It lost over 4,000 men during the war. This total is larger than the number of soldiers who served in the Brigade at any single time. Eleven Brigade members were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Of the Five Officers who commanded the Brigade, three were killed or mortally wounded. Colonel Richard Byrnes (Cold Harbor), Colonel Patrick Kelly (Petersburg), and Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth (FarmVille).”