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The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

May 23, 2013   View Discussion

The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

Patrick Young, Esq.

by Patrick Young, Esq. - Blogger

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Private Peter Welsh of the Irish Brigade survived the Battle of Fredericksburg. A week after the slaughter, Welsh wrote to his worried wife “thank God I came out safe.” But the brigade was not as lucky. Welsh reported that “our brigade got terribly cut up.” He lamented that it was “so small now that it was not fit to go into any further action unless it is recruited up.”1

The Irish Brigade had suffered blow after blow in the last third of 1862. The brigade’s men were hailed for their bravery at Antietam and Fredericksburg. That heroism was paid for with the blood of half of its men. The removal of their beloved General George McClellan as commander of the Union Army of the Potomac was felt throughout the brigade. Furthermore, the January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was not welcomed by many soldiers, who worried that it would harden the determination of Southern whites to fight on to the end and prolong the war.2

News from Massachusetts that the governor was recruiting blacks for the army divided the men. Welsh wrote that “the feeling against n—-s is intensely strong in this army… [Blacks] are looked upon as the principal cause of this war and this feeling is especially strong in the Irish regiments.”3

Welsh disagreed with his comrades about Massachusetts Governor John Andrews’s plan to recruit what would soon be the 54th Massachusetts. Welsh wrote, “I hope he may succeed.” He rejected the notion common among soldiers that blacks had “caused the war”, instead believing that wealthy men in league with the British crown were behind the conflict. He wrote that “England’s whole course has been in aid of the rebels.” The British tried to dismember the U.S. because “all monarchial powers hate republics,” he wrote.4

The months of devastation might lead you to think that Welsh and his comrades were ready to desert. Welsh’s own wife wrote a letter to him asking him to find a way to come home. In a moving response, Welsh reminded her that she had immigrated from a nation where a person from the lower class could never rise. He fought for the United States, he said, because here “the poorest mother may look with joy and satisfaction on her offspring” knowing that child could rise to the highest level of respect in society. American freedom was particularly important for the oppressed peoples of the world for whom the United States is “an asylum which is superior to any the world has ever known…And is this not something worth fighting for?” he asked her.5

Welsh’s willingness to fight would soon be tested. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1863, he was made the flag bearer of the 28th Mass. Volunteer Regiment. Only the bravest and most reliable men were allowed to carry the flag. Welsh wrote to his wife of his promotion; “I shall feel proud to bear up that flag of green, the emblem of Ireland and Irishmen and [especially] having received it on that day dear to every Irish heart the festival of St. Patrick.” 6

The green regimental flag of the 28th Massachusetts was carried by Peter Welsh.

Peter’s wife immediately shot back a letter saying she was “uneasy about [him] carrying the flag.”  Flag bearer was no ceremonial position.  The flag led the regiment, and all of its men looked to it in the confusion of battle to know where to go and how to align. Shooting the flag bearer could freeze the entire regiment. Union flag bearers were the favorite targets of Confederate sharpshooters and Peter’s wife knew that.7

Welsh wrote a response that his wife could not have found reassuring. He said that in seven battles, only three of the regiment’s color bearers had been shot. “Only” one had died.8

Peter Welsh would spend the rest of his life as the color sergeant of the 28th Massachusetts Regiment of the Irish Brigade. The first campaign he would carry the green flag in was Chancellorsville.9

Video: David Kincaid performing The Opinion of Paddy Magee


1. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 40 12/18/1862. Note: I have corrected Welsh’s spelling throughout and made minor additions of punctuation.
2. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986)
3. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 62 Feb. ? 1863
4. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 62 Feb. ? 1863
5. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 67 Feb. 3 1863
6. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986)
7. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 79-81 March 19 & 31 1863
8. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 81 March 31 1863
9. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986)

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that will examine the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear monthly between 2011 and 2015, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War - Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America - Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist- A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. ...And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?- The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”- A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville


Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

Blog Posts

Why I’m Writing The Immigrants’ Civil War

The Five Meanings of “The Immigrants’ Civil War”

Free Yale Course with David Blight on the Civil War

Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War

New Immigrants Try to Come to Terms with America’s Civil War

Important Citizenship Site to be Preserved-Fortress Monroe

Should Lincoln Have Lost His Citizenship?

The First Casualties of the War Were Irish-Was that a Coincidence?

Civil War Anniversaries-History, Marketing, and Human Rights

Memorial Day’s Origins at the End of the Civil War

Germans Re-enact the Civil War-But Why Are They Dressed in Gray?

Leading Historians Discuss 1863 New York City Draft Riots

The Upstate New York Town that Joined the Confederacy

Civil War Blogs I Read Every Week

Book Reviews

The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861 to 1865 by Susannah Ural Bruce

Jews and the Civil War: A Reader Edited by Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn

Civil War Citizens edited by Susannah Ural Bruce

Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich

A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War By Amanda Foreman

Irish Green and Union Blue by Peter Welsh

Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites

Fort Schuyler- Picnic where the Irish Brigade trained











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