150 years ago, as 1864 dawned, the veteran volunteers of the Irish Brigade came home to New York. These men had come through some of the toughest battles of the war but had taken the decision to carry on the fight. Some were motivated by a desire to see the conflict out, while others were taking the opportunity of a financial bounty and thirty days leave- a chance to visit their loved ones and friends. For some it would be their last January.
The Irish American reported on the return of the veterans. The first to arrive were the men of the 63rd New York, who came back to the city on 2nd January:
On Saturday, of last week, the remnant of the 63rd Regiment, N.Y. Vols., Irish Brigade, reached this city under command of Col. R.C. Bentley, whose officers are Captains Touhey, Boyle and Brady, Adjutant McDonald, Surgeon Reynolds, and Lieutenants Lee and Chambers. Of the returned, one hundred men are reported as having re-volunteered for the next three years or the war; and besides these, as a nucleus for re-entering on active service, a Company, of over fifty men, has been left in the field on duty with the Army of the Potomac, under command of Captain Boyle.
On Monday the remnant of the 69th reached home, numbering some 75 men, under command of the gallant little Captain Moroney and his excellent assistants, Adjutant J.J. Smith, Lieuts., O’Neill, Mulhall, Brennan, Marser, Quarter Master Sullivan and Surgeon Purcell and were welcomed by Col. Nugent and Capt. McGee.
The 88th regiment (Mrs. General Meagher’s own regiment), may, it is said, be hourly expected, under command of Captain Ryder, of Co. B.
The regiments having re-volunteered for the war were sent home to recruit and reorganize, which their officers expect speedily to accomplish. Colonel Bentley has informed us that, from the success of preliminary steps taken by him throughout the State, he hopes to be very soon again filled up; and from the general popularity of the officers of the entire command, it is hoped an equal success will reward the recruiting officers throughout. (1)
David Power Conyngham related that on their arrival in the city ‘the sparse and grimy columns were escorted by a company or two of the Sixty-ninth militia, and the immediate relatives of the members.’ On Saturday 16th January at Irving Hall, past and present officers of the Brigade held a banquet for the veteran volunteers and disabled soldiers of the regiments. The men first assembled at the City Hall around noon, before marching up Broadway behind a military band and eventually into the banqueting room. Those veterans who had lost limbs and were unable to walk waited for the others in Irving Hall. Around 200 privates were seated at five tables extending down the length of the hall, while the NCOs occupied the top table under the stage, where a band entertained the diners. The flags of the Brigade, both old and new, adorned the walls and a military trophy with the name ‘Gettysburgh’ inscribed on it was placed in the centre of the Ladies’ Gallery. Many of the women in attendance wore ‘mourning weeds’, signifying their attachment to one the Brigade’s dead. Mr. Harrison, the proprietor of Irving Hall, served the dinner which was washed down with ale, cider and whiskey-punch. (2)
When the meal had progressed sufficiently Sergeant-Major O’Driscoll, who was presiding over the banquet, called in the officers of the Brigade led by it’s former commander, Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher addressed the men, and his speech was followed by a series of toasts and comments from other officers. Colonel Patrick Kelly of the 88th proposed remembrance of:
‘Our Dead Comrades- Officers and soldiers of the Irish Brigade- Their memory shall remain for life as green in our souls as the emerald flag, under which, doing battle for the United States, they fought and fell.’
This was followed by the playing of a dirge, after which Colonel Nugent of the 69th came forward, promising:
‘No negotiations, no compromises, no truce, no peace, but war to the last dollar and the last man, until every rebel flag be struck between the St. Lawrence and the Gulf, and swept everywhere, the world over, from land and sea.’
More toasts followed, including special mention for the Excelsior Brigade, before Barney Williams sang ‘The Bowld Soldier Boy.’ The Fenian leader John O’Mahony then spoke to the assembled audience, and everyone stood while a dirge was played in memory of the recently deceased General Michael Corcoran. The evening concluded with toasts to the health of Father Corby, the American Press, ‘Private Myles O’Reilly’ and a humorous speech by Captain Gosson. (3)
After the banquet the men returned to their furloughs and their final few days before returning to the war. Over 100 men of the 63rd New York Infantry had re-enlisted as Veteran Volunteers in December 1863. Despite their outward commitment, at least 13 of them chose to desert at the end of their leave period rather than return to the front. For those who did go back some of the hardest fighting of the war lay ahead, as the Irish Brigade went through the meat grinder of the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns. Some would not make it- at least 12 of the men of the 63rd who occupied Irving Hall in January 1864 died, falling in battles such as the Wilderness or in prisons like Libby and Andersonville. By the close of 1864 the Irish Brigade would be unrecognisable, as the horrors of war seemed to drag on and on with no end in sight.
(1) New York Irish-American 9th January 1864; (2) Conyngham 1867:435, New York Times 15th January 1864, New York Irish-American 23rd January 1864; (3) New York Irish-American 23rd January 1864;
New York Irish-American 9th January 1864. Return of the Irish Brigade
New York Irish-American 15th January 1864. The Irish Brigade. Banquet to the Non-Commissioned Officers and Privates
New York Times 15th January 1864. Banquet to the Re-Enlisted Veterans and Disabled Soldiers of the Irish Brigade
Conyngham, David Power 1867. The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns