Irish Brigade Monument #2

Irish Brigade Memorial, Antietam (Image by crowolf via Flickr)

148 years ago today, a battle was being fought that would be remembered as the bloodiest single day in American history. Along the banks of Antietam Creek, Maryland, Union and Confederate soldiers clashed for some 12 hours. By day’s end, in the region of 22,720 men would be dead, wounded or missing. Among the troops that participated in the terrible struggle of September 17th 1862 were the soldiers of Meagher’s Irish Brigade, which included the 63rd New York State Volunteers, by now a largely veteran formation. As the battle unfolded, these Irishmen found themselves marching steadily towards the Rebel positions, which were centred on a naturally defensible sunken road.  This road would soon be christened with a name to match the horrors that unfolded there- The Bloody Lane.

The Lieutenant-Colonel of the 63rd New York at Antietam was Henry Fowler. After the battle, and while suffering from a serious wound resulting from it, he would have the unenviable task of recording the experiences of his Regiment on that fateful day. With the horrors of the engagement still fresh in his mind, it was not a task that he would find easy.

The Irish Brigade were called into action by Major-General Richardson, following which they crossed Antietam Creek and approached the enemy positions under cover of rising ground. Moving into a cornfield, the men were ordered to discard unnecessary equipment and shift from column into line of battle. They would have been aware that only moments now separated them from the fight. The 63rd and their companions set off, advancing towards the enemy. Fowler quickly found himself having to take command of the Regiment, as his Colonel, John Burke, disappeared during the early stages of the battle. The right of the Brigade was made up of the 69th New York and 29th Massachusetts, with the left composed of the 63rd New York and 88th New York. The 63rd advanced on the sunken lane to the right of the 88th.

As the Confederate fire intensified, Captain P.J. Condon and Lieutenant Thomas W. Cartwright of Company G quickly fell wounded. The trickle of officer casualties in the 63rd soon became a cascade. Captain M. O’Sullivan of Company F was also wounded, while Lieutenant P.W. Lydon commanding Company D, Lieutenant Cadwalader Smith of Company C and Lieutenant McConnell of Company K all fell dead. The right of the Regiment was practically destroyed. Fowler made his way to the left, where he found ‘Major (Bentley) close upon the line, and Captain  Joseph O’Neill, Company A, whose company had all fallen around him on the right, now assisting the Major on the left. Here also was the stalwart Lieutenant Gleason, Company H, raising and supporting the repeatedly falling colors, with Lieutenant John Sullivan commanding and pushing forward Company K; and here lay the slender form of Captain Kavanagh, Company I, cold in death; the brave and enthusiastic Lieutenant  R. P. Moore, Company E, passing from right to left, boldly urging his men to stand firm, and the gallant Lieutenant  George Lynch, Second Lieutenant Company G, bravely pressing on until he too fell, mortally wounded. The killed died as brave men, sword in hand, and amid the thickest of the fight. Major Bentley was now wounded, and retired to have his wound dressed.’

The inferno that the 63rd found themselves in is almost impossible to imagine. Fowler relates that their numbers were now less than 50 men; the colors were in ribbons and the staff was shot through, with no less than 16 men having fallen while carrying them. It was at this point that the Lieutenant-Colonel was himself wounded, and had to retreat to the rear. Against the odds, the 63rd and the Irish Brigade held, and their efforts played a key role in the eventual capture of the sunken road. Bloody Lane had earned its name. The 63rd’s losses were 202 officers and men killed, wounded or missing. The Brigade as a whole was shattered; it had lost 113 men killed, 422 wounded, and 5 missing.

Writing from his sickbed, Fowler described the 63rd sacrifice best: ‘It is now a solace to my mind, while suffering from my wound, to testify how gallantly and promptly each officer in his place and each company moved forward and delivered their fire in the face of the most destructive storm of leaden hail, that in an instant killed or wounded every officer but one and more than one-half the rank and file of the right wing. For a moment they staggered, but the scattered few quickly rallied upon the left, closing on the colors, where they nobly fought, bled, and died, protecting their own loved banner and their country’s flag, until the brigade was relieved.’

References & Links

Official Records 19, Pt. 1. Report of Brigadier- General  Thomas Francis Meagher, U. S. Army, Commanding Second Brigade, of the Battle of Antietam

Official Records 19, Pt. 1. Report of Lieutenant -Colonel  Henry Fowler, Sixty-Third New York Infantry, of the Battle of Antietam

Antietam National Battlefield Park

Save Historic Antietam Foundation