About 190,000 Irishmen contributed to both sides of the American Civil War. It is estimated that 150,000 served on the side of the Union and that about 40,000 served the Confederacy. After the war was over, more than 130 Irish soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor.
Many factors led to the large number of immigrant soldiers. Like it or not, the Irish were viewed with suspicion and much prejudice as wave after wave of emigrants arrived from the famine stricken country. Most were very poor, most were Catholic, and were thought to be capable of no better than servant work or hard labor. Thus, a considerable number of Irishmen enlisted to receive pay for their work, as well as clothing, shelter and food. It was also said that the Irish were well suited for the fighting life, having had plenty of practice on their home soil.
Two main Union regiments were the 63rd, 69th, 88th New York (The Irish Brigade under Thomas Francis Meagher, February 1862 – June 1864) and the 9th Massachusetts. For the Confederacy, the majority of the Irish appear to have enlisted in the 17th South Carolina and the 6th Louisiana.
The Irish Brigade is probably the most well-known. Comprised of troops from New York who were mostly Irish-Catholics, this unit proved itself in some of the most important battles.
Key Civil War figures such as U. S. Grant (whose maternal grandfather was from Co. Tyrone), Meagher, Cleburne, Sheridan, Corcoran, and so many others who are famous for their bravery and leadership in battle. A principal player in the Irish Brigade was the chaplain, Fr. William Corby. A remarkably brave priest, Fr. Corby ministered tirelessly to his troops during the war. Through his devotions and his willingness to be ever-present at the encampments, as well as at the front, the souls of the Irish Brigade were always cared for. There was one moment, one gesture, for which his is best remembered.
On July 2, 1863, just a tiny remnant of the Irish Brigade remained. Once numbering in the thousands, just 530 men were left. Led by Galway-born Colonel Patrick Kelly, they prepared to fight in Rose’s Wheatfield. With the din of battle raging around them, Fr. Corby stood upon a rock and granted the soldiers general absolution. Undoubtedly, it made a profound impression and a huge difference to the spirits of the soldiers. The outnumbered brigade later emerged from the battle minus forty percent of its men, but with all of its flags and its honor intact.
Following the war, Fr. Corby returned to the University of Notre Dame where he eventually became president. In 1886, he was elected Provincial General of the Congregation of the Holy Cross for the United States. Later he became Assistant General for the worldwide order. He died of pneumonia on December 28, 1897. His casket was borne to the grave, not by his fellow Holy Cross priests, as was the custom, but by aging Civil War veterans. His coffin was draped in the flag of his old regiment and a rifle volley was fired as his coffin was lowered into the grave. Accompanied by the sound of a bugle, old Grand Army of the Republic veterans sang a song over their heroic chaplain’s grave:
“Answering the call of roll on high.
Dropping from the ranks as they make reply
Filling up the army of the by and by”
On October 29, 1910, a bronze statue of Father Corby was dedicated on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the only one ever placed on that celebrated field to memorialize a chaplain.
On July 2, 1888, one of the most distinctive memorials on the Gettysburg battlefield was dedicated on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Irish Brigade fight in the Wheatfield. The three New York regiments combined their state appropriations to have the memorial created. Father Corby attended the dedication ceremony where he blessed the monument and held a military mass for the returning brigade veterans.
The artist, William Rudolph O’Donovan, (ironically an ex-Confederate soldier who had fought the Union army at Gettysburg), created a bronze and granite base supporting a carved Celtic cross with a life-sized Irish wolfhound lying at the base mourning its lost masters. The cross bears the trefoil corps badge of the Second Corps, in which the brigade served, as well as four medallions containing the numeric designations of the three NY regiments, and the seal of the State of New York. Beneath the medallions there is an additional bronze panel depicting numerous symbols of Ireland. Bronze plaques at the base of the cross provide brief histories of the regiments.
Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three years with the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac edited by Lawrence Kohl
The Irish Brigade in the Civil War: The 69th New York and Other Irish Regiments of the Army of the Potomac by Joseph G. Bilby