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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children. Email
This weekend they re-enacted the Irish Brigade's attack on Marye's Heights as part of a commemoration of the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Fredericksburg was one of the Union's most disastrous losses of the Civil War. Frontal attacks on Dec. 13 against entrenched Confederate defenders on the heights above the Virginia town led to nearly 13,000 Union casualties.
The Irish Brigade, in a gallant, desperate assault on Marye's Heights, lost nearly half of 1,200 men taken into the battle.
"The most glorious day in the history of our regiment in the Civil War was Fredericksburg, where the Old 69th in the Irish Brigade failed to capture the impregnable position on Marye's Heights, though their dead with the green sprigs in their caps lay in rows before it," Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th would write years later, after another war.
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"You doubtless remember when we assaulted Marye's Heights, the soldiers of the Irish Brigade placed little sprigs of 'green' in their caps just before the order was given to advance to the attack. The Brigade had stacked arms in the street. A house near by was overgrown with an evergreen vine, box I believe, and each man of the Irish Brigade passed over it and pulling off a bit of the green stuck it in the front of his cap. In a few moments afterwards the word was given for the assault and very soon a number of the gallant fellows lay dead and wounded with the little green sprigs on their heads." -- W. G. Mitchell of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's staff (The Irish Brigade: A Pictorial History)
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Confederate General D.H. Hill recognized the Irish Brigade advancing: "There are those damned green flags again," he muttered. At Marye's Heights, many of Cobb's Georgians were of Irish descent. A regretful murmur ran along their line as they recognized their fellow Irishmen who advanced, crossed the canal, and moved toward the wall. "What a pity, here comes Meagher's fellows," muttered Irish lips in Cobb's line, according to one listener. (Carl Smith)
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Thomas Galwey, with French's Division in the first charge, described their advance thusly: "The Irish Brigade comes out of the city in glorious style...in the thickest of the fight where the grim and thankless butchery of war is done. Every man has a sprig of green in his cap and a laughing, half-murderous look in his eye. They pass just to our left, poor, glorious fellows, shaking good-bye to us with their hats!
They reach a point within a stone's throw of the wall. No farther. They try to go beyond, but are slaughtered. Nothing could advance further and live. They lie down doggedly, determined to hold the ground they have already taken. There, away out in the fields to the front and left of us, we see them for an hour or so, lying in line close to that terrible stone wall."
Some of their most touching tributes came from the "enemy." General Pickett wrote to his wife that his "heart was wrung by the dauntless gallantry of the Irish attack on Marye's Heights." The correspondent of the London Times, not a Union supporter by any means, wrote, "Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, or at Waterloo was more undaunted courage displayed by the sons of Erin than during those six frantic dashes which they directed against the almost impregnable position of their foe. . . .the bodies which lie in dense masses within forty yards of the muzzles of Colonel Walton's guns are the best evidence what manner of men they were who pressed on to death with the dauntlessness of a race which has gained glory on a thousand battlefields, and never more richly deserved it than at the foot of Marye's Heights on the 13th day of December, 1862."
Nearest to the stone wall was the body of Major William Horgan who, despite numerous wounds and a shattered jaw that kept him from calling out orders, had rallied his men by raising the hilt of his sword and kept moving forward until he finally fell dead only 20 paces from his goal. (88th NY State Volunteers)