The handsomest Thing of the War

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIX (17) start of chapter

'Whichever way,' says a Northern general with a splendid 'record,' 'we turn for the history of Irish Americans, the case is the same; we meet with nothing but cause for honest pride—they are true patriots, good citizens, and splendid soldiers.'

'Ah, sir!' said General Longstreet, whom I met in New Orleans, 'that was one of the handsomest things in the whole war!' What was this handsomest thing of the war? The manner in which the Irish Brigade breasted the death storm from Maire's Heights of Fredericksburg. Six times, in the face of a withering fire, before which whole ranks were mown down as corn before the sickle, did the Irish Brigade rush up that hill—rush to inevitable death. 'I looked with my field-glass,' said the Adjutant-General of General Hancock's staff, 'and I looked for a long time before I was certain of what I saw. I at first thought that the men of the Brigade had lain down to allow the showers of shot and shell to pass over them, for they lay in regular lines. I looked for some movement, some stir—a hand or a foot in motion; but no—they were dead—dead every man of them—cut down like grass.' In these six desperate charges that Brigade was almost annihilated. But there was no flinching for a second. Again and again they braved that hell-storm, and would have done so again and again; but of the 1,200 that bore a green badge in their caps that morning, nearly a thousand of them lay on the bloody field, literally mown down in ranks. Little more than 200 rations were that night issued to the remnant of that heroic band. 'It was the admiration of the whole army.' 'Never was there anything superior to it.' But General Longstreet's eulogium—'It was the handsomest thing of the war,' leaves nothing unexpressed.

Behind the stone wall, from which rained the deadliest fire, delivered within range, and with terrible precision, were men of the same blood and race as those who were thus wasting their lives in unavailing devotion. The Georgian regiment which lined that fatal barrier was mostly Irish; and from one of those who took part in that day's terrific strife, I heard some particulars of painful interest. Colonel Robert M'Millan was in command; and though death was in his family, he would not quit his post on that eventful day. When the Brigade was seen advancing from the town, they were at once recognised by their green badge, that sent a thrill to many a brave but sorrowful heart behind that rampart. 'God! what a pity!' said some. 'We're in for it,' said others. 'By heavens! here are Meagher's fellows,' said more. The voice of the Colonel rang clear and shrill—'It's Greek to Greek to-day; boys—give them hell!' And they did. For that deadly fusillade was the genuine feu d'enfer. Well might one of the most brilliant of the military historians of the day assert that 'never at Fontenoy, at Albuera, or at Waterloo, was more undoubted courage displayed by the sons of Erin, than during those six frantic dashes which they directed against the almost impregnable position of the foe.' 'It was a sad but glorious day for our country; it made us weep, but it made us proud,' said an Irishman, who helped to lay those thousand dead in their bloody grave.

A German Staff Officer of the Confederates says of the Irish Brigade, how they fought in the memorable seven days' fight in front of Richmond:—

The attack was opened by the columns of Hill (1st), Anderson, and Pickett. These gallant masses rushed forward with thundering hurrahs upon the musketry of the foe, as though it were a joy to them. Whole ranks went down under that terrible hail, but nothing could restrain their courage. The billows of battle raged fiercely onward; the struggle was man to man, eye to eye, bayonet to bayonet. The hostile Meagher's Brigade, composed chiefly of Irishmen, offered heroic resistance. After a fierce struggle our people began to give way, and at length all orders and encouragements were vain—they were falling back in the greatest confusion. Infuriate, foaming at the mouth, bare-headed, sabre in hand, at this critical moment General Cobb appeared upon the field, at the head of his legion, and with the 19th North Carolina and 14th Virginia regiments. At once these troops renewed the attack; but all their devotion and self-sacrifice were in vain. The Irish held their position with a determination and ferocity that called forth the admiration of our officers. Broken to pieces and disorganised, the fragments of that fine legion (Cobb's) came rolling back from the charge.

Almost while I write these words, I read of the death of one who made his name famous in the military annals of America. Stricken by the Yellow Fever,—that grisly king which has slain more victims by many times than fell at Fredericksburg,—now lies in his grave a gallant Irishman, Richard Dowling, of Houston, Texas, who at Sabine Pass performed one of the most extraordinary feats of the whole war. This Lieutenant Richard Dowling,—'Major Dick Dowling,' as he has since then been familiarly styled,—defending this Pass in an earthen fort, protected by a couple of serviceable guns, and manned by 42 Irishmen, crippled an attacking fleet, baffled an important expedition and actually captured of the enemy more than ten times the number of his gallant band! From the despatches of the Federal commanders the world might have imagined that a legion fought behind that rampart: but the astounding victory was entirely owing to the accurate aim, sheer pluck, and matchless audacity of Dick Dowling and his forty-two Irishmen—to whom the Confederate Congress, as well they might, passed a solemn vote of the nation's thanks. Light rest the earth on the breast of all that remains of gallant Dick Dowling!

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America