On 13th December 1862 the Irish Brigade had fought at Fredericksburg. Along with many other Union brigades they suffered horrendous casualties in the futile attempt to assault the Confederate positions at Marye’s Heights. The losses sent shockwaves through the Irish-American community. Even as some of the mortally wounded lay dying, it was decided something must be done in New York to remember those who wouldn’t be coming home.
In January 1863 the New York Irish-American informed its readers of the proposed ceremony:
THE DEAD OF THE IRISH BRIGADE
A Grand Requiem Mass, for the repose of the souls of the heroic dead, officers and soldiers, of the Irish Brigade, will be solemnized in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on Friday, the 16th inst., at 10 o’clock a.m. The Rev. Mr. Ouillette, the devoted and fearless Chaplain of the Brigade, will be the officiating clergyman on the impressive occasion. His Grace the Most Rev. Archbishop Hughes and the clergy of the city, as well as of Brooklyn and New Jersey, will be present [Archbishop Hughes was in the end unable to attend]. General Thomas Francis Meagher, the members of his Staff, and all the officers of the Brigade at present in New York, will attend this most beautiful, tender, and solemn commemoration of their beloved and heroic comrades. A magnificent choir, assisted by the splendid band of the “North Carolina,” will perform Mozart’s immortal Requiem, and in every respect the event will be one that must leave a lasting and profound impression. Major Bagley and all the other officers of the ever-popular old 69th, State Militia, are invited to accompany their friends and brother-officers of the Brigade to the Cathedral on the occasion, and pay this last tribute of Catholic love and Catholic devotion to the never-to-be-forgotten dead of the Irish Brigade. Immediately after the ceremonies at St. Patrick’s, General Meagher, accompanied by all the officers of the Brigade who are able to travel, will return to his command. (1)
When the morning of the 16th arrived the front of the Cathedral had been draped in black for the occasion. The altar was similarly decorated and lit with large candles. At the top of the aisle a coffin was placed to represent those men who had fallen at Fredericksburg. It was surrounded by a guard of honor made of marines from the USS North Carolina. The ship’s band were located in one of the galleries beside the organ, in order to provide appropriate accompaniment throughout the ceremony. (2)
A large crowd duly arrived for the mass. Pews had been reserved for the officers of the Irish Brigade, and they entered through the central aisle to take their places. Thomas Francis Meagher was seated in front of the high altar along with his wife and staff. Among the other notables in attendance were Colonel Robert Nugent of the 69th volunteers and Lieutenant Mulhall; the latter attended in Papal army uniform as a Chevalier of the Order of St. Gregory. (3)
The ceremony opened with the organ playing Dies Irae, a latin hymn meaning ‘Day of Wrath.’ This music combined with the sombre scene to create a ‘sensation of awe and devotion to which no heart susceptible of the finer emotions of our nature could be indifferent.’ (4)
Mozart’s Requiem was selected for the High Mass, sung by the choir of the cathedral and accompanied by the band from the North Carolina.
According to correspondents who were present one of the strongest pieces of music played was Rossini’s Cujus Animam from Stabat Mater, described by one reporter as ‘one of the finest pieces of concerted instrumentation we have ever heard.’ (5)
Among the other music used for the ceremony were some selections from Tannhauser’s work and from Verdi’s l masnadieri (The Bandits).
After Father Ouellet had celebrated Mass, Father O’Reilly took to the pulpit requesting that widows of deceased members of the 69th New York make themselves known over the coming days, as a fund had been put together for their relief. The religious element of the sermon then began with the 44th chapter of Ecclesiasticus: ‘laudemus viros gloriosos, et parentes nostros in generatione sua’ (‘Let us praise men of renown, and our fathers in their generation).’ Father O’Reilly moved on to talk directly and extensively about the Irish Brigade and those who had fallen:
‘Let us praise those glorious men who have fallen, for they were our countrymen and our fathers, the bone of our bone, the flesh of our flesh, and let their memory live amongst us forever. Brethern, here we are today assembled before the altar of the Living God, to pray and to weep for those who have fallen in battle, our fellow-countrymen, our brethern at all events; and, who, as many among us can say, have been nearest and dearest to their hearts, and who have been bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. Can I, too, not feel emotion in recollecting all those who have fallen, from the first day the Green Banner passed down Broadway. Oh, yes! let us praise them, for they were true men and true Christians. They were true men, those fallen soldiers of the Irish Brigade, and their adopted country shall ever more praise them and honor their memories.’ (6)
Father O’Reilly continued by informing those present why these men were true, and the pride that their families, the Union and Ireland could take from their sacrifice. Speaking directly to the families of the dead, still coming to terms with the loss of their loved ones, he attempted to provide some comfort:
‘And you, families of the departed members of the Irish Brigade, you may well be proud of their memory, and the inheritance of virtue and honor they have left you. Many a father among us might have seen his hopes extinguished every day, and the son whom he loved best fall in some obscure and unholy strife; but when the father, the husband and the son lays down his life in a noble cause- and when by doing so, in the highest patriotic spirit, he ennobles that cause, then I say that his family to the latest generation have a right to boast of his life, to resound his fame and to emblazon his name upon the walls of their household.’ (7)
Following the sermon the Reverend Dr. Starrs intoned the Requiem and Absolution, after which the mass ended. It was reported that many of the congregation remained in the Cathedral long after the ceremonies had concluded. The officers of the Irish Brigade and officers of the 69th New York State Militia retired to Delmonicos restaurant on Fifth-Avenue. Here General Meagher presented the 69th NYSM with ornate resolutions from the Irish Brigade, acknowledging the services of the militia in paying the funeral costs of the Brigade’s fallen when the bodies had returned to New York. Meagher then spoke to the assembled officers:
‘We have but two wants to-day- one for the dead, and the other for the living. To the dead we have paid our tribute this morning, and listened to the eulogy so eloquently pronounced by my reverend and revered friend, the old chaplain of the Sixty-ninth. I feel that any word I can say in reference to my lost officers and men would be improper, because it would be superfluous. But I will exercise the privilege of being the host on this occasion and avail myself of the opportunity to say that war for me has no attractions beyond those developments which it gives for heart, mind and genius, and the most remarkable and delightful and consoling recollection with me, to my wife, my family and my friends, is the memory of the charities, the amenities, the sweetness of disposition I have seen- and which, in my ignorance, I never gave human nature the credit of possessing, I have seen what we are taught to regard as the rebel soldier, receiving the cup to assuage his parching thirst; I have seen the Federal arm bind his wounds; I have seen friendly and kindly words uttered, and I believe that even on the terrible battlefield there has been more done to cement this Union of American people than anywhere else. I give you The Stars and Stripes, and the heroism of both armies.’ (8)
This received loud cheers, and the festivities continued after Meagher’s speech with a series of toasts. Over the coming days the officers of the Brigade would return to their camps, readying themselves for the next offensive. They were soon to face the battlefields of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg- engagements which would add to the ranks of the fallen ‘glorious men’ of the Irish Brigade.
(1) Irish American January 1863; (2) Ibid; (3) Irish American January 1863; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid.; (8) New York Times;
References & Further Reading
New York Irish-American January 1863. The Dead of the Irish Brigade
New York Irish-American January 1863. The Dead of the Irish Brigade. Solemn Requiem Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral
New York Times January 1863. The Dead of the Irish Brigade. Grand Requiem Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral