By Lizann Lightfoot
When Americans think of “the Fighting Irish,” they may picture the football team of Notre Dame. However, there have been thousands of Irish and Irish American troops who fought for America in various wars. Approximately two-thirds of America’s Medal of Honor recipients have been Irish—more than twice as many recipients of any other ethnic group. Today, let’s honor some of the fiercest Irish fighters in American history:
Revolutionary War: They fought against the British
During the Revolutionary War, American colonists forged an important alliance with France. The French Navy sailed to support the colonists and brought with them 1,400 trained Irish troops. These Irishmen fought in the Caribbean and laid siege to the British in Savannah, GA.
The most famous Irishman to serve under George Washington was Francis Marion, better known as “The Swamp Fox.” He led the South Carolina militia and a handful of fellow Irishmen and Scotsmen in guerrilla attacks against the British for more than two years, until Washington’s troops finally liberated South Carolina. His story is the inspiration for the movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson.
Another important Irish regiment was the Hibernia, which consisted of Irishmen trained in Spain. During the Revolutionary War, Spain fought against the British in the Caribbean. The Hibernia regiment defeated the British in Pensacola, Florida. The defeated troops sailed to New York and joined the rest of the British Army there. Because of the reinforcement in New York, General Washington decided to make the final attack at Yorktown instead. So we can thank the Irish regiment from Spain for the British surrender at Yorktown!
Civil War: The Irish Brigade of New York
During the Civil War, the 69th New York Infantr — or “Fighting 69th”–was called the Irish Brigade because it was mainly composed of Irish immigrants. Having an ethnically based brigade in the Union army was an indirect warning to Britain that if the British sided with the Confederacy, they may face rebellion from Ireland. Forming an Irish unit was also a strategic move for the North, since the Irish were the largest immigrant group and did not automatically side with the Union. Many were sympathetic to the Confederate rebellion against a powerful government, since Ireland had been rebelling against British rule for centuries.
To ensure Irish support, the Union offered immigrants signing bonuses and the promise of Catholic chaplains. Their battle cry was the Celtic phrase “fág an bealach” which means “clear the way!” Some Irish officers could purchase a standard officer’s sword with a four-leaf clover stamped into the handle.
The Irish Brigade distinguished themselves at the battles of Manassas/ Bull Run, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Gettysburg. They suffered so many casualties that by the time they reached Gettysburg, the five regiments of the Irish Brigade numbered less than the total of a normal regiment. Before the battle of Gettysburg, the chaplain famously blessed the men while they all knelt and prayed. This scene is depicted in the movie Gettysburg. In the ensuing battle, 320 of the remaining 530 members of the Brigade were killed. There are monuments to the Irish Brigade on the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg.
Civil War: The Irish Brigade that stopped Pickett’s Charge
A separate Irish brigade during the Civil War was the 69th Pennsylvania, formed by Irish immigrants and Jews from the city of Philadelphia. They were named the 69th in solidarity with the Fighting 69th of New York. Although the immigrant volunteers were originally mocked and insulted as “Paddies in uniform,” the unit became famous after the Battle of Gettysburg, where they held the line during Pickett’s Charge. The green flag of the Irish Brigade flew over the stone wall called The Angle during the bloody fight at Cemetery Ridge. In fact, this attack was called the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” After Pickett’s failed charge and the brave actions of the Irish Brigade, the tide began to turn and the Confederate Army began to lose the Civil War.
Irish Americans in World Wars I and II
The Fighting 69th of New York served in World War I as part of the “Rainbow Division,” so named because it combined National Guard units from 14 different states. Membership in the division stretched across the country from coast to coast like a rainbow. Although the unit is no longer predominantly Irish, the 69th Division has carried on the lineage of the Irish Brigade since 1907, when it became part of the New York National Guard.
Famous Irish Americans who earned Medals of Honor in modern wars include Daniel Daly, Richard O’Neill, Joseph O’Callahan, Edward O’Hare, George O’Brien, Jr., Roger Donlon, David McNerney, and Michael Murphy.
Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at [email protected]