September 17, 1862 has the sad distinction of being the bloodiest single day of fighting in America’s bloodiest war. Combined casualties at the Battle of Antietam were 26,134. Few regiments suffered more than the Irish Brigade on the Union side of the battle.
The Irish Brigade was formed of the almost exclusively Irish American 69th, 63rd and 88th New York and the “honorary Irish” of the 29th Massachusetts.
The Union Army was already heavily engaged, when the Irish Brigade was ordered to advance through an open field and to take an area of high ground. Subjected to accurate Confederate rifle fire as they crossed the field, the Brigade marched on in disciplined order, the National and the famed Green Regimental Colors fluttering overhead. When they encountered a fence across their line of march, eighty volunteers rushed forward to knock it down, rather than see the whole Brigade slowed by the obstacle and exposed to fire. Over half of these volunteers would be killed. Seeing the Irish continue to press forward, the Confederates fell back as the Irish advanced up the hill.
What no one on the Union side knew was that on the other side of the hill was a farmer’s dirt road that years of rain had eroded into a ditch five feet below the surrounding ground level. “The sunken road” was a perfect rifle pit and was filled with John B. Gordon’s Georgians. As the Irish crested the hill, they were met with a volley that decimated the Brigade, including killing or wounding every single Color Bearer. Seeing the flags fall from across the field, an aide to Union General McClellan exclaimed, “The battles lost, the Irish are fleeing!” only for McClellan to respond, “No, the flags are raised again, they are advancing”. Eight successive Color Bears of the 69th New York alone would fall that day as men would pick up the flags from fallen comrades. Captain Patrick Clooney, though wounded himself, would snatch up the colors from the 88th’s fallen color bearer only to be killed by multiple shots, the Green Flag wrapping around him like a shroud befitting a hero. Another Color Bearer, the staff of his Irish Brigade flag snapped in two by a rifle shot, draped the flag over his shoulder like a sash and continued to move forward, personifying the Gaelic phrase on the flag he was carrying “Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn lann”, “Who never retreated from the clash of spears”.
The fire of the Confederates was so intense that the Irish Brigade could not advance, but they did not flee either. Despite the failure of promised reinforcements that never materialized, the Brigade poured fire into the enemy at 300 paces, turning “the Sunken Road” into “Bloody Lane”. When their ammunition was depleted, the remnants of the Brigade, with drill ground precision, formed and then marched back to the Union lines, the Irish Brigade never “ran” from the enemy. Another Union unit would take the “Bloody Lane”, but most credited the punishment that the Irish Brigade inflicted on the enemy, at a terrible cost to themselves, with making it possible. The New York Regiments had taken over 50% casualties. The Irish Brigade was now no bigger than a single regiment. As the depleted ranks of the 88th marched passed, Union Major General Israel Richardson saluted as it passed with the words ‘Bravo 88th, I shall never forget you!’
During the course of the War, the Irish Brigade suffered over 4,000 casualties, more men than the Brigade ever had at any one time. The Fighting 69th lost more men than any other New York regiment.
The Battle of Antietam is remembered as the Union victory that allowed President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the Confederate States. It is all too often forgotten that this emancipation was secured in no small part with the blood of Irish Immigrants, Immigrants who were denied civil rights in their own country and faced before and after the Civil war discrimination in their adopted county.