Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Homage is paid to Irish Brigade



It wasn’t the main event, but Sunday’s commemoration of the Battle of Fredericksburg began with a moving nod to the valor of one of its most famed participants: The Irish Brigade.

At noon, families, history lovers, Irish dignitaries and Irish–Americans gathered at City Dock on the Rappahannock to rededicate the monument there honoring the Irish immigrants who fought the South on this soil.

Taking part were an Irish Defence Forces honor guard; National Park Service historian Frank O’Reilly; Ralph Victory of the Embassy of Ireland, representative of Irish Ambassador Michael Collins; the brigade’s descendant unit in the U.S. military; members of the 69th Infantry Veterans’ Corps; Fredericksburg Councilman Matt Kelly; and an area Sons of Union Veterans officer.

“What they did on the streets of Fredericksburg did make them Americans so every soldier on this battlefield became a piece of the Irish Brigade as well,” O’Reilly said during the brief ceremony.

Afterward, Richard Ehrle explained the small, stone monument to his two children, Elisabeth, 7, and Christian, 9. The Stafford County family has several ancestors who fought in the war.

“This is my way of putting my kids in touch with the Civil War,” Ehrle said.

Last year, he had driven past the monument and noticed a wreath falling apart. He righted it, and that led him to join the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

The Irish Brigade’s descendant, the New York Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, sent 75 soldiers to join in the battle’s commemoration on Sunday.

They rededicated the Irish Brigade monument alongside the Irish Defense Forces members. Then, with drums beating and flags flying—including the battalion’s battle flag—all of the participants marched up Sophia Street to join the larger public procession from Riverfront Park to the Sunken Road.

The experience of the Irish Brigade is by far the best known of any military unit—a powerful symbol of the sacrifice and bloodshed extracted by the nation’s deadliest conflict

Attacking the stone wall in front of the now-famous Sunken Road below Marye’s Heights, the brigade saw its fighting strength cut from 1,600 soldiers to 263 in a matter of minutes.

Capt. John H. Donovan of the 69th New York, blinded in one eye in combat at Malvern Hill near Richmond in July 1862, recounted the Battle of Fredericksburg for Northern readers on Jan. 3, 1863.

“What the government intend to do with the remnant of the brigade I know not,” he wrote, in an account published in the New York Irish–American paper.

“I can only say that as an ‘Irish Brigade’ it has ‘fought its last battle.’ [C]ould the spirits of its honoured and immortal dead, whose rude graves spot the soil of Virginia and Maryland, but have the privilege or power to look down upon the future of this Republic, they can now tell whether or not the cause for which they have offered up their lives is to perish.”

Clint Schemmer: 368-5029