Organizing the Legendary Irish Brigade, President Abraham Lincoln Approves an Officer’s Appointment at the Request of Its Leader, Thomas F. Meagher

That Brigade became the most famous battle unit in the Union Army, and arguably in American history.

An incredible rarity, one of just five references by Lincoln to the “Irish Brigade” in all “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln”; Among the pantheon of heroes and heroic units in the Civil War, the name, legend and history of one group of men stands out: the “Irish Brigade” of the Union...

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Organizing the Legendary Irish Brigade, President Abraham Lincoln Approves an Officer’s Appointment at the Request of Its Leader, Thomas F. Meagher

That Brigade became the most famous battle unit in the Union Army, and arguably in American history.

An incredible rarity, one of just five references by Lincoln to the “Irish Brigade” in all “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln”; Among the pantheon of heroes and heroic units in the Civil War, the name, legend and history of one group of men stands out: the “Irish Brigade” of the Union Army.

After the Battle of Bull Run in July 1961, Captain Thomas Francis Meagher, who had served there, applied to have the 69th New York Volunteer Militia reorganized into Federal service as the core unit of a larger brigade composed predominantly of Irish immigrants. In September Secretary of War Simon Cameron agreed, authorizing the formation of an Irish Brigade, with the 69th New York State Volunteers designated the first regiment of the Brigade. Command of the brigade was assigned to Meagher himself. With word that a brigade of Irish infantrymen was being raised, Irish-Americans of every walk of life, from dock workers to college professors, stepped forward to answer the call. Many felt that one sure route to social acceptance in their adopted nation was through military service. The brigade’s nucleus, in addition to the 69th N.Y. Infantry, was the 63 and 88th New York, both of which joined in November 1861. Mustering the brigade began on September 17, 1861, and ended November 17, 1861. After that the units went into winter camp for training and preparation. In the fall of 1862 the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania were added to the brigade. These ‘Sons of Erin’ carried distinctive green flags, embroidered in gold with a harp, shamrock and sunburst. Officers wore green plumes in their hats, while Meagher was partial to green jackets, embroidered with far more gold lace than regulations called for, set off by a yellow silk scarf.

The Irish Brigade saw action in the Peninsular Campaign, at Antietam, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cedar Run, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, in the 1st Division of the II Corps. It suffered over 4,000 casualties in killed and wounded, a total which exceeded the number of men enrolled in it at any given time. The Irish Brigade particularly suffered severely at Antietam, where it lost over 500 officers and men killed or wounded. Two of the regiments sustained staggering casualty percentages: the 69th suffered 61.8 percent and 63d, 59.2 percent.

Meagher, the original commander and organizer, was the most colorful and flamboyant of its leaders. Born in Ireland in 1823, he was described as ‘the counterpart of some rash, impolitic, poetic personage from Irish poetry or fiction.’ He was an active disciple of Irish liberty and participated in various independence movements. In 1845 the British exiled him to Tasmania. Three years later he escaped and made his way to New York City. At various times a lawyer, lecturer, newspaper editor, and politician, his flaming oratory made him a favorite of the ‘Young Ireland’ group and he soon became the political leader of the Irish element in New York. At the outbreak of the Civil War he raised a Zouave company and commanded it at First Bull Run as part of the 69th New York State Militia. That winter he organized the Irish Brigade and President Lincoln appointed him brigadier general of Volunteers in February 1862.

When Meagher was completing the original staffing for the brigade in November 1861, he requested that William W. Leland of New York City be named brigade commissary. On November 13, 1861, in response to Meagher’s request, New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan wrote to President Lincoln recommending the appointment.

Lincoln approved. Autograph endorsement signed, Washington, November 16, 1861, the recipient being identified by “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” as Secretary of War Simon Cameron. “The appointment of Mr. W. W. Leland, is desired by the Irish Brigade, including much of the elements of the late 69th. & of Col. Mulligan’s regiment. If it is possible to oblige them in this, let it be done.”

Incredibly, a search of the “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” for the term “Irish Brigade” yields only five entries for the entire Civil War, with just four while Meager was in command. This is the first one them.

Leland was appointed with rank of captain from November 16, 1861. After serving with the Irish Brigade, Leland would be promoted to the rank of major on the staff of General U.S. Grant. After the war he was a noted hotelier.

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