Pilgrims in the Irish Brigade

Flag of the Irish Brigade

The addition of the 29th Massachusetts Infantry to the famed Irish Brigade is, I think, one of the more bizarre decisions in Civil War history.  Take a regiment consisting of New England Protestants (the members of which were mostly descended from Mayflower families) and throw them in the same brigade with three regiments of New York Irishmen…what could go wrong with that?

The Irish Brigade, consisting of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Infantries (regiments made up almost entirely of Irish immigrants), had a strong sense of ethnic pride and brotherhood. They were led by the fiery Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, a former Irish freedom-fighter who had, after narrowly avoiding a death sentence in Ireland, managed to escape from a Tasmanian penal colony and made his way to America.  Halfway through the Peninsular Campaign in June of 1862, the hard-fighting Irish Brigade was already growing thin due to casualties. A fourth regiment was needed to fill out the brigade. And so the brass, acting either out of haste or poor discretion (or both), grabbed the 29th Massachusetts, which had just been transferred to the Army of the Potomac and did not yet belong to any brigade.

The 29th Massachusetts consisted mostly of men from Plymouth County. They were almost entirely from old Yankee stock. The names on their roster look a bit like a copy of the signatures on the Mayflower Compact. Contrary to what some Irish Brigade histories say, the 29th Mass was not “aristocratic.” We’re not talking Boston Brahmin elite here. Plymouth families, with a few exceptions, did not have that much wealth. These men were ropewalk laborers from Plymouth, shoemakers from East Bridgewater and farmers from Plympton. But still, they had that Mayflower pedigree and a sense of old Yankee pride.

This was an era of rampant social friction between Irish immigrants and Yankee nativists in Massachusetts and elsewhere. So, the irony that the decidedly “Pilgrim-ish” 29th Massachusetts was placed in the Irish Brigade was certainly not lost on people at the time. Of the assignment, the regimental historian of the 29th Massachusetts wrote, “Although the Twenty-ninth was essentially an American [as opposed to immigrant] regiment , very largely composed of and officered by men who were direct descendants of the early settlers of the Plymouth and Bay colonies…yet it was cordially welcomed to the Brigade by its old officers and members.”

Sounds pleasant enough. But historian David Callaghan in his book on Thomas Francis Meagher quotes some period sources noting that the men of the 29th made for “an unlikely matching with their ancient political foes, the Irish,” and describing the manner in which the Yankees listened, “coldly, in a pinched and critical silence” to Meagher’s flowery speeches. The New Englanders, according to Callaghan, were stoic and somber while the Irish had a flair for the dramatic, the romantic and went into battle singing or laughing “as if it were the finest fun in the world.”

So, it would seem that the 29th Massachusetts never really shared the élan of the rest of the Irish Brigade. However, they fought side by side through the Seven Days Battles and then horror of Antietam during which the Irish Brigade made a harrowing assault on the so-called “Sunken Road” or “Bloody Lane.” Although there probably was tension initially, months spent as brothers in arms likely put a damper on the “ancient rivalry.” And perhaps the brass might have felt some satisfaction in the notion that placing the 29th in with the Irish had worked out just fine. Until…

After Antietam, during which the regiments of the Irish Brigade fought so bravely together under brutal fire, Meagher decided to reward the 29th Massachusetts with a green Irish Brigade flag like those carried by the New York regiments. Meagher said that the men of the 29th “had proved themselves the equals of any others in the Brigade, and had no superiors in the army,” and, moreover, that he considered them, “Irishmen in disguise.” It was high praise. Meagher made the arrangements to have the flag made in New York and planned to have Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner present the flag to the 29th Massachusetts in November 1862.

There was just one problem. Colonel Joseph Barnes commanding the 29th Massachusetts didn’t want the flag. And here is where, as the 29th’s regimental historian so politely put it, “a little trouble arose.” Barnes refused the flag. According to the regimental history, he didn’t object to the 29th Massachusetts being presented with the flag, but he would not allow the unit the honor of carrying the flag due to the fact that they were not Irishmen. Historian Joseph Bilby asserts that Barnes felt the flag would brand them as Fenians, or Irish revolutionaries like Meagher. It is tempting to read between the lines here and to assume that Barnes’s attitude was a product of the old nativist prejudices. But we can’t know for certain.

One thing is for sure–there were some hard feelings. Shortly after Barnes refused the flag, the 29th Massachusetts was transferred out of the Irish brigade. Not just to a different brigade but to a different Corps entirely, ensuring that the 29th Massachusetts and the regiments of the Irish Brigade would likely never cross paths again. They were eventually replaced in the Irish Brigade with the 28th Massachusetts Infantry which was an Irish regiment. In the end, the fact that the Yankee 29th and the Irish Brigade did not get along may have had nothing to do with the rank and file but with politics among the officers.

After the 29th was transferred, the question remained as to what would become of the beautiful silk flag that Meagher had ordered which already had “29th Massachusetts” embroidered upon it. Until someone had the clever idea to remove the “2” and offer the flag to the 9th Massachusetts which, although it was not part of the Irish Brigade, was another Irish regiment. The flag which ultimately came between the 29th Massachusetts and the Irish Brigade was carried by the 9th Massachusetts in many, many battles. Torn by bullets, shot and shell, it is now in the flag collection at the Massachusetts State House.

Though they were but pilgrims lingering a short time, Barnes acknowledged that the 29th Massachusetts, “added to its reputation by the mere fact of its being connected to the Irish Brigade.”

[Sources: William H. Osborne, History of the Twenty-Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1877, p. 142, 203; Daniel M. Callaghan, Thomas Francis Meagher and the Irish Brigade in the Civil War, 2006, p. 76-77; Joseph G. Bilby, The Irish Brigade in the Civil War, 2001, p. 63; Christian G. Samito, Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth, 1997, p. 192.]

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

5 responses to “Pilgrims in the Irish Brigade

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