seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Battle of Chantilly

The Irish 6th Louisiana fights at the Battle of Chantilly (or Ox Hill, the Confederate name), which takes place on September 1, 1862, in Fairfax County, Virginia, as the concluding battle of the northern Virginia campaign of the American Civil War. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson‘s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia attempts to cut off the line of retreat of the Union Army of Virginia following the Second Battle of Bull Run but is attacked by two Union divisions. During the ensuing battle, Union division commanders Isaac Stevens and Philip Kearny are both killed, but the Union attack halts Jackson’s advance.

On the morning of September 1, 1862 Union Maj. Gen. John Pope orders Maj. Gen. Edwin Vose Sumner of the II Corps, Army of the Potomac, to send a brigade north to reconnoiter. The army’s cavalry is too exhausted for the mission. But at the same time, he continues his movement in the direction of Washington, D.C., sending Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell‘s III Corps to Germantown (on the western border of modern-day Fairfax, Virginia), where it can protect the important intersection of Warrenton Pike and Little River Turnpike that the army needs for the retreat. He also sends two brigades from Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno‘s IX Corps, under the command of Brig. Gen. Isaac Stevens, to block Jackson. Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny’s division from the III Corps follows later that afternoon.

Jackson resumes his march to the south, but his troops are tired and hungry and make poor progress as the rain continues. They march only three miles and occupy Ox Hill, southeast of Chantilly Plantation, and halt, while Jackson himself takes a nap. All during the morning, Confederate cavalry skirmish with Union infantry and cavalry. At about 3:00 PM, Stevens’s division arrives at Ox Hill. Despite being outnumbered, Stevens chooses to attack across a grassy field against Brig. Gen. Alexander Lawton‘s division in the Confederate center. The Union attack is initially successful, routing the brigade of Colonel Henry Strong and driving in the flank of Captain William Brown, with Brown killed during the fighting. The Union division is driven back following a counterattack by Brig. Gen. Jubal Early‘s brigade. Stevens is killed during this attack at about 5:00 PM by a shot through his temple.

A severe thunderstorm erupts about this time, resulting in limited visibility and an increased dependence on the bayonet, as the rain soaks the ammunition of the infantry and makes it useless. Kearny arrives about this time with his division to find Stevens’s units disorganized. Perceiving a gap in the line he deploys Brig. Gen. David B. Birney‘s brigade on Stevens’s left, ordering it to attack across the field. Birney manages to maneuver close to the Confederate line but his attack stalls in hand-to-hand combat with Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill‘s division. Kearny mistakenly rides into the Confederate lines during the battle and is killed. As Kearny’s other two brigades arrive on the field, Birney uses the reinforcements as a rear guard as he withdraws the remainder of the Union force to the southern side of the farm fields, ending the battle.

That night, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet arrives to relieve Jackson’s troops and to renew the battle the following morning. The lines are so close that some soldiers accidentally stumble into the camps of the opposing army. The Union army withdraws to Germantown and Fairfax Court House that night, followed over the next few days by retreating to the defenses of Washington D.C. The Confederate cavalry attempts a pursuit but fails to cause significant damage to the Union army.

The fighting is tactically inconclusive. Although Jackson’s turning movement is foiled and he is unable to block the Union retreat or destroy Pope’s army, National Park Service historians count Chantilly as a strategic Confederate victory because it neutralizes any threat from Pope’s army and clears the way for Lee to begin his Maryland campaign. The Confederates claim a tactical victory as well because they hold the field after the battle. Two Union generals are killed, while one Confederate brigade commander is killed. Pope, recognizing the attack as an indication of continued danger to his army, continues his retreat to the fortifications around Washington, D.C. Lee begins the Maryland Campaign, which culminates in the Battle of Antietam, after Pope retreats from Virginia. The Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, absorbs the forces of Pope’s Army of Virginia, which is disbanded as a separate army.

The site of the battle, once rural farmland, is now surrounded by suburban development in Fairfax County. A 4.8 acre (19,000 m²) memorial park, the Ox Hill Battlefield Park, is located off of State Route 608 (West Ox Road) and lies adjacent to the Fairfax Towne Center shopping area, and includes most of the Gen. Isaac Stevens portion of the battle, about 1.5% of the total ground. The park is under the jurisdiction of the Fairfax County Park Authority. In January 2005, the Authority approves a General Management Plan and Conceptual Development Plan that sets forth a detailed history and future management framework for the site.

A small yard located within the nearby Fairfax Towne Center has been preserved to mark the area crossed by Confederate troops to get to the Ox Hill battlefield.

(Pictured: Color lithograph “General Kearney’s gallant charge,” published by John Smith, 804 Market St., Philadelphia. From the Library of Congress.)


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The Battle of Malvern Hill

battle-of-malvern-hillIrish take up arms against each other in the American Civil War as the Irish Brigade of the Union Army and the Confederate 6th Regiment, Louisiana Infantry take part in the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862.

Also known as the Battle of Poindexter’s Farm, the Battle of Malvern Hill is fought between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee, and the Union Army of the Potomac under Major General George B. McClellan. It is the final battle of the Seven Days Battles, taking place on a 130-foot elevation of land known as Malvern Hill, near the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia and just one mile from the James River. Including inactive reserves, more than fifty thousand soldiers from each side take part, using more than two hundred pieces of artillery and three warships.

The Seven Days Battles are the climax of the Peninsula Campaign, during which McClellan’s Army of the Potomac sails around the Confederate lines, lands at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, southeast of Richmond, and strikes inland towards the Confederate capital. Confederate commander-in-chief Joseph E. Johnston fends off McClellan’s repeated attempts to take the city, slowing Union progress on the peninsula to a crawl. When Johnston is wounded, Lee takes command and launches a series of counterattacks, collectively called the Seven Days Battles. These attacks culminate in the action on Malvern Hill.

The Union’s V Corps, commanded by Brigadier General Fitz John Porter, takes up positions on the hill on June 30. McClellan is not present for the initial exchanges of the battle, having boarded the ironclad USS Galena and sailed down the James River to inspect Harrison’s Landing, where he intends to locate the base for his army. Confederate preparations are hindered by several mishaps. Bad maps and faulty guides cause Confederate Major General John B. Magruder to be late for the battle, an excess of caution delays Major General Benjamin Huger, and Major General Stonewall Jackson has problems collecting the Confederate artillery.

The battle occurs in stages: an initial exchange of artillery fire, a minor charge by Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, and three successive waves of Confederate infantry charges triggered by unclear orders from Lee and the actions of Major Generals Magruder and Daniel Harvey Hill, respectively. In each phase, the effectiveness of the Federal artillery is the deciding factor, repulsing attack after attack, resulting in a tactical Union victory.

After the battle, McClellan and his forces withdraw from Malvern Hill to Harrison’s Landing, where he remains until August 16. His plan to capture Richmond has been thwarted. In the course of four hours, a series of blunders in planning and communication had caused Lee’s forces to launch three failed frontal infantry assaults across hundreds of yards of open ground, unsupported by Confederate artillery, charging toward firmly entrenched Union infantry and artillery defenses. These errors provide Union forces with an opportunity to inflict heavy casualties.

The human toll of the Battle of Malvern Hill and the Seven Days Battles is shown clearly as both capitals, Washington and Richmond, set up numerous provisional hospitals to care for the dead and wounded. Ships sails from the Peninsula to Washington carrying the wounded. Richmond is nearest to the battlefields of the Seven Days, and the immense number of casualties overwhelms hospitals and doctors. People from about the Confederacy descend upon Richmond to care for the conflict’s casualties. Graves cannot be dug quickly enough. In total, the Confederacy counts some 5,650 casualties while the Union Army estimates approximately 3,000 casualties.

In the aftermath of the battle the Confederate press heralds Lee as the savior of Richmond. In stark contrast, McClellan is accused of being absent from the battlefield, a harsh criticism that haunts him when he runs for president in 1864.

(Pictured: A watercolor painting of the Battle of Malvern Hill, made by Robert Sneden during the American Civil War at Malvern Hill in Henrico County, Virginia. Sneden was the mapmaker for Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps.)


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The Battle of Antietam

irish-brigade-at-antietamThe Irish Brigade of the Union Army fights in the Battle of Antietam, one of the most famous battles of the American Civil War, on September 17, 1862. The battle has the sad distinction of being the bloodiest single day of fighting in America’s bloodiest war. Combined casualties at the Battle of Antietam are 26,134. Few regiments suffered more than the Irish Brigade.

The Irish Brigade is the brainchild of their commanding officer Thomas Francis Meagher. The former Young Ireland rebel, creator of the Irish Tricolor of green, white and orange, escaped political prisoner, lawyer, newspaper editor and politician forms the brigade with the twin objectives of gaining respect for the Irish by their patriotism for their adopted country and developing a nucleus for a future fight for Ireland’s freedom. The Brigade is formed of the almost exclusively Irish American 69th, 63rd and 88th New York and the “honorary Irish” of the 29th Massachusetts. The regiments of the Irish Brigade had already earned a formidable reputation as a crack unit, having distinguished themselves in every battle of the earlier Seven Days Battles. It is small wonder, many in the Brigade’s ranks had already distinguished themselves in the Mexican-American War or in fighting with the Papal forces in Italy against Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The Union Army is already heavily engaged, when the Irish Brigade is ordered to advance through an open field to take an area of high ground. Subjected to accurate Confederate rifle fire as they cross the field, the Brigade marches on in disciplined order, the National and the famed Green Regimental Colors (flags) fluttering overhead. When they encounter a fence across their line of march, eighty volunteers rush forward to knock it down, rather than see the whole Brigade slowed by the obstacle and exposed to fire. Over half of these volunteers are killed. Seeing the Irish continue to press forward, the Confederates fall back as the Irish advance up the hill.

What no one on the Union side knows is that on the other side of the hill is a farmer’s dirt road that years of rain has eroded into a ditch five feet below the surrounding ground level. The sunken road is a perfect rifle pit and is filled with Colonel John Brown Gordon’s Georgians. As the Irish crest the hill, they are met with a volley that decimates the Brigade, including killing or wounding every single standard-bearer. Seeing the flags fall from across the field, an aide to Union General George B. McClellan exclaims, “The battles lost, the Irish are fleeing!” only for McClellan to respond, “No, the flags are raised again, they are advancing.” Eight successive standard-bearers of the 69th New York alone fall that day as men pick up the flags from fallen comrades. Captain Patrick Clooney, though wounded himself, snatches up the colors from the 88th’s fallen standard-bearer only to be killed by multiple shots, the Green Flag wrapping around him like a shroud befitting a hero. Another standard-bearer, the staff of his Irish Brigade flag snapped in two by a rifle shot, drapes the flag over his shoulder like a sash and continues to move forward, personifying the Gaelic phrase on the flag he is carrying “Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn lann”, “Who never retreated from the clash of spears.”

The fire of the Confederates is so intense that the Irish Brigade cannot advance, but they do not flee either. Despite the failure of promised reinforcements that never materialize, the Brigade pours “Buck and Ball” (a 69 caliber ball and three 30 caliber buckshot) into the enemy at 300 paces, turning the “Sunken Road” into “Bloody Lane.” When their ammunition is depleted, the remnants of the Brigade, with drill ground precision, form and march back to the Union lines. The Irish Brigade never “ran” from the enemy. Another Union unit takes the “Bloody Lane,” but most credit the punishment that the Irish Brigade inflicted on the enemy, at a terrible cost to themselves, with making it possible. The New York Regiments take over 50% casualties. The Irish Brigade is now no bigger than a single regiment. As the depleted ranks of the 88th march passed, Union Major General Israel Bush Richardson salutes as it passes with the words “Bravo 88th, I shall never forget you!”

During the course of the War, the Irish Brigade suffers over 4,000 casualties, more men than the Brigade ever had at any one time. The Fighting 69th loses more men than any other New York regiment. The Battle of Antietam is remembered as the Union victory that allows President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which frees 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 discrimination in their adopted county before and after the Civil War.

In thinking of the Civil War, all Americans should remember the words of a defeated Confederate Officer to his Union counterpart at Appomattox, “You only won as you had more Irish than we did.”

(Credit: “The Irish Brigade at Antietam” by Neil F. Cosgrove, October 17, 2009)