A Civil War Flag for the Irish People

‘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)

The 1862 ‘Tiffany’ Color of the 69th New York, Presented by President Kennedy to the Irish People in 1963

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

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

President John F. Kennedy’s Speech to the Houses of the Oireachtas, 28th June 1963

President Kennedy Presents Flag of the Irish Brigade to the Nation (RTE Archive Film Footage)


 

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Categories: Events, Flags, Post War

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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30 Comments on “A Civil War Flag for the Irish People”

  1. December 2, 2010 at 10:58 pm #

    Great article.

  2. Angela
    December 2, 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    So – what can ordinary people do to begin a campaign to have the flag placed in the safe hands of the National Museum of Ireland ?

  3. December 2, 2010 at 11:50 pm #

    Hi,

    Well I was going to get in touch with the Arts, Sports & Tourism spokespeople of the main political parties and also the Ceann Comhairle to see if something can be done about it.

    Damian.

    • Angela
      December 3, 2010 at 12:10 am #

      Very good – their contact addresses would be very helpful !

  4. David Burt
    December 3, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    **COMING JAN/FEB 2011**

    SUPPLIER TO THE CONFEDERACY:

    PETER TAIT & CO, LIMERICK

    By
    Craig L. Barry & David C. Burt

    The Trans Atlantic writing team of Craig L Barry (Murfreesboro TN, USA) and David Burt (Congleton, Cheshire, England) publish their new book on the Irish firm of Peter Tait & Co, of Limerick, Ireland and their efforts to supply the Confederate States of America with uniforms during the latter part of American Civil War. This is also the story of Peter Tait the man, a remarkable entrepreneur and his invention of a new way to make military clothing. The book gives the story of Tait from his beginnings as a “Hawker” peddling shirts from a basket in Limerick to his setting up the biggest ready made clothing factory in the world. It also tells the story of Peter’s brother James L. Tait and his attempts to deal with the Confederate Government and individual states. It provides details of all the existing Confederate “Tait” jackets in museums and private collections, with exclusive photographs of most of the jackets examined. Also included is new evidence that not all so called “Tait” jackets that still exist were made by Tait & Co, but that some must have been made by another uniform manufacturer, namely Hebbert & Co of London.

    Information is also given on Tait and Hebbert buttons, detailed uniform studies including sections on original epaulettes and ‘Tait trousers.’ The book also examines Tait’s relationship with the notorious Alexander Collie and their purchase of a blockade runner to run the uniforms in to the Confederacy. There are detailed appendices, including information on all the blockade runners and detailed cargo manifests including arrival dates and the numbers of uniforms shipped, to a description on the Limerick Clothing Factory. Other appendices are included on Tait’s family, his time as Mayor of Limerick, the Tait clock plus articles on Confederate uniforms, including the famed “blue grey kersey” and the dyes used in the making of the cloth for the Tait jackets.

    In short, this is the complete story of the man, his company, and his dealings with the Confederate States of America, leading to him becoming a major Supplier to the Confederacy.

    * The book will be available in a Collectors Edition with full colour as well as a standard B/W version
    • 50 Photos and illustrations
    • ? pp
    • Available from Authors online or amazon.com amazon.co.uk WH Smith, Barnes & Noble or your local bookshop.
    • Signed copies available, email; dburt@tiscali.co.uk
    • Price $? £?
    • Join the Burt and Barry Suppliers to the Confederacy Publications Group on Facebook.

    • December 3, 2010 at 5:55 pm #

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the heads up on the new book! I will make sure to add it to the bibiography on the site and pick up a copy when it comes out. Peter Tait is a popular topic on this blog, so a book of this nature is most welcome.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  5. December 3, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    Damian,

    Excellent article, my friend. I will be in Fredericksburg next Monday (I always visit Fredericksburg near the anniversary of the battle). I will say a prayer for all the Irishmen that fell with the “sprig in their hats.” Those boys were a gallant bunch.

    Mike

    • December 3, 2010 at 6:03 pm #

      Hi Mike,

      Glad you liked it! All the Union men who braved the Heights that day having seen what was happening to those who had gone before were truly remarkable. It is difficult to comprehend how they found the bravery to do it. I hope at some stage to get the opportunity to make it to the battlefield myself, to see in person what they faced and to remember them.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  6. Ed
    December 3, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

    I’m surprised this book wasn’t referenced:

    Lysy, Peter J. Blue for the Union & Green For Ireland: The Civil War Flags of the 63rd Regiment New York Volunteers, Irish Brigade. South Bend, IN: Mossberg and Company Inc., 2001.

    • December 3, 2010 at 6:27 pm #

      Hi Ed,

      I haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy of that as yet, although I am hoping to pick one up soon- Jim over at Notre Dame in the Civil War (www.notredamecivilwar.blogspot.com) also had a recent post about it. Although it didnt feature in this post it is listed on the ‘Books’ page of the site -I am hoping eventually to get my hands on everything on the list! The 63rd Tiffany colors are another great example of the flags presented in December 1862.

  7. David Burt
    December 3, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    Hi Damian,
    The Tait book will be out in Jan/Feb 2011. Myself and Craig Barry have been researching Tait & Co for several years, and especially their efforts to supply the Confederacy with uniforms. we have some fifty photos in there, and it will be available in a standard edition (B/W photos) and a full colour collectors edition. It will be the second book in the “supplier” series. The first being “Supplier to the Confederacy S Isaac Campbell & Co, London” available on amazon.
    Regards
    David Burt Co author.

    • December 3, 2010 at 7:33 pm #

      Hi David,

      I have added it to the books page of the site. It looks like a really exciting book, I am looking forward to it- I think I will have to go for the colour plates edition!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  8. David Burt
    December 4, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    Thanks very much Damian, very much appreciated.

  9. October 23, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    Has anyone found facts or a photo of the 88th New York regimental flag?

  10. Ed
    October 25, 2011 at 3:38 am #

    There are photographs of the 88th flag in the book – Lysy, Peter J. Blue for the Union & Green For Ireland: The Civil War Flags of the 63rd Regiment New York Volunteers, Irish Brigade. South Bend, IN: Mossberg and Company Inc., 2001.

    Copies are $16.95 plus shipping from the University of Notre Dame. I’d suggest calling about availability before sending money. http://archives.nd.edu/flag/default.htm

    I referenced the book earlier in this thread.

  11. Dennis J. Francis
    November 14, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    Was reviewing this article again. Wonder what it was that caught JFK’s eye as being fishy – the interview doesn’t say. That the Tiffany flags saw battle?

    • November 16, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

      Hi Dennis,

      Unfortunately the interview dosent state what it was, but it would be great to know- it may well have been that or to do with the details of the battle- he obviously had an interest in the brigade’s history in anycase!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  12. Phil Gilson
    December 12, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    What happened to the letter “G”? Upper right hand corner of the flag.

    • December 13, 2011 at 8:39 am #

      Hi Phil,

      That area had decayed away so has been restored with a green backing as I think some of the edges were frayed, but originally it did have the ‘g’.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  13. Interesting to see the Gal Gréine or Fenian Sunburst symbol on the flag (the sunrays descending from the cloud above the more traditional Harp). A useful reminder of the status and influence of the Fenian Brotherhood in the Irish-American communities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia both before and during the US Civil War.

    I’ve seen Sunburst iconography on several unit flags of the Union army but never the Confederate. I presume that reflects the lesser role of the Fenian Brotherhood in the South and in its military affairs?

    • May 8, 2012 at 9:35 am #

      Hi Seamus,

      That is a good question, and I must admit I don’t recall coming across it on any Southern flags either. There were Confederate Fenians, but the nature of Irish service in the southern military did not lend itself to the same levels of organisation that the Fenians in the northern forces attained. Still I don’t think there has been much work carried out on Confederate Circles, and it is certainly something that is worth looking into in further detail.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  14. Most studies I’ve read suggest that the majority of Fenians sided with the Union cause (whatever their personal views about slavery, etc.) while only a minority went with the Confederate one. I suspect in small part that may be explainable by the relative lack of organisation by the Fenian Brotherhood in the South due to the lower concentrations of new Irish immigrants who tended to crowd the north-east cities and states.

    The Irish communities of the south tended to look to nationalists of the generation of John Mitchel, etc. rather than the more militant newer generation of Irish exiles, and seemed to be more “conservative” in terms of their nationalism. Unfortunately there is not much out there examining the experiences of the Irish-American communities of the southern US.

    Hoping to get my hands on Mitchell Snay’s book “Fenians, Freedmen, and Southern Whites: Race and Nationality in the Era of Reconstruction” which might have some details.

    Great blog by the way, lots of fascinating articles and very professionally done. Keep up the good work! ;-)

    • Dennis J. Francis
      June 19, 2013 at 5:32 am #

      Seamus, there’s also “The Irish in the South, 1815-1877″ by David T. Gleeson; thought it very good.

  15. August 14, 2012 at 2:10 am #

    On the Flags, I have seen a number of the 69th New york Flags at their HQ on Lexington Ave. NYC. The Prince Of wales Flag is in the Col. Office. Many other New york Regimental flags are up in Albany in the NYS Military Museum.
    On the Irish fighting for the south, a Southern Irish Regiment was lined up to fight the Irish at Fredricksburg. Gen Robert E. Lee sent a non Irish Regiment to re-enforce them, he didn’t have to. The Southern Irish shot down the Irish Brigade. Note the Fighting 69th came closest to the wall. Have a son a 1st Lt. in the 69th N.Y.N.G. we take trips to walk the fields. The Antietam web site is Maryland My Maryland, Sept 8th 2012. I forget the 150 site for this December at Fredricksburg, but I hear the present day Fighting 69th will be involved. Our rooms are booked already.
    Our family fought in 51st N.Y. & 1st Mass. Cav from Thomastown. 170th N.Y. Cavan
    182nd N.Y. Tyrone & the 9th New york
    Hope you Irish found this of some interest

    • August 15, 2012 at 8:56 am #

      Hi Steve,

      Many thanks for the comment- would love to see the flags in New York some day!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Irish in the American Civil War’s 1st Birthday! | Irish in the American Civil War - May 12, 2011

    [...] about President John F. Kennedy presenting a color of the 69th New York to the Irish Parliament, A Civil War Flag for the Irish People. Bringing up the rear is A Long-Lived Confederate Irishman which I think lags behind purely by [...]

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