‘I once found an old flag, an Irish Brigade flag which had been used during the Civil War by the Irish Brigade here in this country. He liked that very much, and we got it to give to the President of Ireland. He and Mrs. Kennedy spent a great deal of time deciding how it should be presented; how it should be framed, encased in glass, what the plaque should say. The President, being such an historian, insisted that the plaque tell the whole story of the flag. He made me check and recheck, and he said, “That sounds fishy. Something’s wrong with your facts. Get your facts straight“.’(1)
This is how Letitia Baldrige Hollensteiner, White House Social Secretary to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, remembered the preparations for JFK’s visit to Ireland in June 1963. It would be the first time a serving U.S. President would visit Ireland, and his address to the Irish Parliament in Dáil Éireann would be the first occasion on which television cameras would be allowed to film an event there. Clearly the President needed to bring an extra special gift.
The flag that Letitia Baldrige Hollensteiner had sourced was the second green color of the 69th New York, the first Regiment of the Irish Brigade. By late 1862, the original colors which had been presented to the Regiments of the Irish Brigade in 1861 were in tatters, and badly needed replacement. The new flags were sponsored by New York merchants and consisted of one green flag and one national color per Regiment. They became known as the ‘Tiffany’ Colors as they were manufactured by Tiffany and Company. Although they were officially presented to representatives of the Brigade by Henry F. Spaulding in early December, they had not yet arrived at the front when the Irish Brigade made its famous charge against Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg on 13th December.
It is somewhat ironic that the new flags arrived in Fredericksburg immediately after the Brigade had been effectively annihilated charging the Stone Wall. Indeed the Irish appropriated the theatre in Fredericksburg to have a reception for the colors, despite the fact that the town remained under fire. The banquet was attended by General Hancock, who noted that ‘Only Irishmen could enjoy themselves thus.’ (2) The flags were returned to New York to await the Brigade’s return to full strength; however it was destined never to recover from the losses sustained at Fredericksburg. As a result, the colors never saw battle, though they were used during the Grand Review in 1865 (3). The Brigade’s 1st Regiment green color remained in the Armory of the 69th in New York, until in 1963 they kindly permitted President Kennedy to present it to the people of Ireland.
JFK chose to open his speech in the Irish Parliament by discussing the flag. It is interesting to note that his speech-writer allowed a number of inaccuracies to slip through; for example rather than referring to the 13th December in Virginia the President spoke of the 13th September in Maryland. One wonders if an earlier draft may have chosen Antietam as the battle to focus on rather than Fredericksburg, and that some details in the redraft were overlooked. Here is what JFK said on that momentous occasion:
Mr. Speaker, Prime Minister, Members of the Parliament: I am grateful for your welcome and for that of your countrymen.
The 13th day of September, 1862, will be a day long remembered in American history. At Fredericksburg, Maryland, thousands of men fought and died on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the American Civil War. One of the most brilliant stories of that day was written by a band of 1,200 men who went into battle wearing a green sprig in their hats. They bore a proud heritage and a special courage, given to those who had long fought for the cause of freedom. I am referring, of course, to the Irish Brigade. General Robert E. Lee, the great military leader of the Southern Confederate forces, said of this group of men after the battle: “The gallant stand which this bold brigade made on the heights of Fredericksburg is well known. Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry on that desperate occasion. Their brilliant, though hopeless, assaults on our lines excited the hearty applause of our officers and soldiers.”
Of the 1,200 men who took part in that assault, 280 survived the battle. The Irish Brigade was led into battle on that occasion by Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher, who had participated in the unsuccessful Irish uprising of 1848, was captured by the British and sent in a prison ship to Australia, from whence he finally came to America. In the fall of 1862, after serving with distinction and gallantry in some of the toughest fighting of this most bloody struggle, the Irish Brigade was presented with a new set of flags. In the city ceremony, the city chamberlain gave them the motto “The Union, our Country, and Ireland Forever.” Their old ones having been torn to shreds by bullets in previous battles, Captain Richard McGee took possession of these flags on September 2nd in New York City and arrived with them at the Battle of Fredericksburg and carried them in the battle. Today, in recognition of what these gallant Irishmen and what millions of other Irish have done for my country, and through the generosity of the Fighting 69th, I would like to present one of these flags to the people of Ireland.
At this point the President pulled back the curtains to reveal the 69th’s Tiffany color. He continued:
As you can see, gentlemen, the battle honours of the Brigade include Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Yorktown, Fair Oaks, Gaines Hill, Allen’s Farm, Savage’s Station, White Oak Bridge, Glendale, Malvern Hills, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Bristoe’s Station.
The Irish contribution to the American Civil War was of course a natural starting point for such an important speech by the President of the United States. The flag remains the most significant object relating to the Irish experience of the American Civil War in Ireland. Following the President’s visit, the flag was hung in Dáil Éireann, where it remains today. It is deeply unfortunate that the flag is located in the Parliament building, where visiting is restricted and its exposure to the general Irish population is low. A far more appropriate location would be in one of the Country’s national institutions, such as the National Museum of Ireland. Such a setting would allow the flag to be interpreted and presented in a way which would enable the Irish people to learn more about their forebears contribution during the Civil War. It would also ensure the flags survival for future generations, as it could be regularly monitored by conservators and displayed in climate controlled conditions. The upcoming 150th anniversary of the American Civil War provides an ideal opportunity for the flag to become more publicly accessible to the people of Ireland.
(1) John F. Kennedy Oral History Programme: 19; (2) Conyngham: 330-337, 354; (3) Pritchard 2004: 36
References & Further Reading
Conyngham, David Power (edited by Lawrence Kohl) 1994. The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns (1st Edition 1867)
Letitia Baldrige Hollensteiner, recorded interview by Mrs. Wayne Fredericks, April 24, 1964, (19), John F. Kennedy Library Oral History Program.
Pritchard, Russ A. 2004. The Irish Brigade: A Pictoral History of the Famed Civil War Fighters
President Kennedy Presents Flag of the Irish Brigade to the Nation (RTE Archive Film Footage)