THE LITTLE IRISH CHURCH OF ST. MARY OF THE SORROWS

Maj. Gen. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, aimed at capturing the rebel capitol at Richmond, was beaten back after the Seven Days Battles 150 years ago in June, 1862.  Union forces, including the partial Irish Brigade, made it back to relative safety, but suffered almost 16,000 casualties during a strategic retreat.  Lee’s army had taken the offensive, but lost close to 20,000.  Convinced that McClellan no longer posed a threat to Richmond, Lee moved his army into northern Virginia and headed for Washington via Maryland.

Many Irish immigrants had signed on to build America’s railroads, so it was no surprise to find names like Cunningham, Hammil, Maher, and Doyle among those who had built the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in northern Virginia which now stood right in the path of Lee’s advancing army.  These and other Irish workers had built a small town around one of the railroad’s stations and the community became known as Fairfax Station.  One of the first projects of the Fairfax Station Irish was the erection of a Catholic church.  They labored in their off-hours to put up a small frame building in Sept, 1858 and pooled their money to buy a bell.  The new St. Mary of the Sorrows Church at Fairfax Station had barely opened its doors when the Civil War began.  Many of the Fairfax Station Irish joined the totally Irish Regiments that had been formed in the Confederate Army such as the First Virginia Regiment which became The Emmet Guard and the 27th Virginia Infantry which was called The Virginia Hibernians.

The little town of Fairfax Station was strategically located between the important railroad station and a main road to Washington, DC.  The Union Army had taken the railroad depot at Alexandria in order to protect the Capitol and southern forces occupied the station at Manassas Junction on the other side of Fairfax Station making the area the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.  In July, 1862, General Lee sent his best commanders, Generals Stonewall Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart and James Longstreet up through Virginia to intercept the Union Army of General Pope who was en route to join forces with the army of General McClellan that was then moving back toward Washington after the Seven Days Battles.  Lee and his forces met the Union Army on August 30 and fought what came to be known as the Second Battle of Manassas or, as the Union referred to it – Second Bull Run.  Three days of fierce fighting left 1,744 Union dead and another 8,452 wounded.  Unlike the calamitous retreat at the First Bull Run a year earlier, the Union withdrawal was orderly and the Confederates, weary from battle and low on ammunition, broke off and did not pursue them.  Although Lee had won the battle, he had not achieved his objective of destroying the Union army and the Union forces had successfully stopped an invasion of the north.

During the battle, two gallant Union officers were lost, Major Generals Kearney and Stephens.  Major General Philip Kearney had been a hero of the Mexican War where he fought at the side of General Robert E. Lee.  When Lee heard that his former comrade had fallen, he ordered both bodies returned to the Union camp.  Under a flag of truce, amid the roar of artillery and the thunder of an approaching storm, the bodies of Kearney and Stephens were carried by Confederate Honor Guard to a tent at a makeshift field hospital which had been set up beside the little Irish church of St. Mary of the Sorrows.

Hundreds of wounded were treated on the high ground around St. Mary’s.  A terrible storm made the scene one of confusion as wounded men lay dying in the mud waiting for a doctor to reach them.  It was to this scene that a woman from Washington, DC came to offer her help.  She had spent the first year of the war tending wounded in Washington, and hearing of the heavy fighting, made her way to Fairfax Station.  With two assistants, she set up an operating room inside the little Church and assisted the surgeons in their tedious tasks.  She moved tirelessly among the wounded, cleansing wounds, writing letters, and praying with them until a doctor was available.  While serving the many wounded in these deplorable conditions, she conceived a plan for a civilian organization that could act quickly with proper medical supplies and trained staff in any emergency – in peacetime or in war.

A final Confederate raid forced the evacuation of the wounded amid terribly unsanitary conditions, and the brave little lady from Washington was among the last to leave.  The advancing Confederate troops found the station and most of the town destroyed by fire, but as if by a miracle, the little Church was barely touched.  Only a few of its pews had been used by the Union Army for firewood.  Years later, when President Grant heard of this, he ordered $765. in war damages to have them replaced, for the Church of St. Mary’s had earned a special significance in American history.  It was there that the heroic little lady from Washington, DC had conceived the idea for a noble organization.  The lady was the angel of the battlefield, Clara Barton, and the organization was the American Red Cross. . . and the little Irish Church of St. Mary’s where it all started is still in use to this day, but as a national shrine.

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The Bloody Shamrock

Before the Civil War, the 69th NY State Militia regiment, was commanded by Sligo-born Michael Corcoran. On November 15 1860, he was arrested for refusing to parade the 69th before the visiting Prince of Wales. Less than two months later, on January 9, 1861 Fort Sumter was fired on and everything changed.

The commander of the artillery battery that opened fire on Fort Sumter was Capt. John Mitchel, who had escaped from Van Dieman’s Land with his father, Irish patriot John Mitchel. After the surrender of the fort, Mitchel allowed defending Major Anderson a cannon-salute to their flag in tribute to a courageous defense. However, with fire and sparks all around the cannon, a flake of fire entered the muzzle of one of the guns and when the cartridge was rammed down it exploded, killing Private Daniel Hough and wounding five men. Private Hough, who became the first casualty in the American Civil War, was a recent immigrant from Ireland.

In April, 1861, Lincoln called for volunteers and Col. Corcoran’s pending Court Martial was dropped so he could lead the 69th to protect the nation’s capitol. One Hundred and Fifty years ago, on July 21, Confederate forces marched north and Union forces were sent to Manassas, VA to meet them at a creek called Bull Run. The largely untrained Union forces were buttressed by Corcoran’s 69th while on the Confederate side Brigadier General Thomas Jackson commanded a brigade of Virginians. Jackson, whose great-grandfather hailed from Coleraine, Co. Derry, held firm in the face of furious assaults against his lines earning him the nickname Stonewall, and launching a legend in military history.

In Jackson’s command was the 1st Virginia Infantry, whose Company C, Montgomery Guards, was almost totally Irish, led by another Irish patriot, John Dooley. There were also Irishmen from Alexandria, Va. in the Emmett Guards and O’Connell Guards, which were incorporated into the 17th Virginia Infantry. There were other Irish in the Confederate forces as well, like the rough and tumble Irish longshoremen from New Orleans, fighting with Roberdeau Wheat’s 1st Louisiana Special Battalion, known as the Louisiana Tiger Rifles.

The Irish in the Union and Confederate forces met at Bull Run where the Confederates built up enough troops on the Union right side to overrun their flank leading to a disorderly retreat to the North. This was the first major engagement of the War and the Federal army was routed, but the 69th regiment had charged bravely and stubbornly held its ground. Even after its commander, Col. Corcoran, was wounded and captured, the 69th retreated in order, protecting the rear while panicked Union soldiers swarmed around them headed for Washington. After the battle, Union commander General McDowell personally thanked them for their gallantry.

Shortly after the battle, the regiment was re-enlisted and re-formed as the 69th New York State Volunteers. Capt. Thomas Francis Meagher was commissioned colonel, and the War Department authorized him raise four more regiments to form a brigade. Col. Meagher formed the Irish Brigade – a name chosen not merely to describe the nationality of its men, but also in honor and remembrance of the men who had gained a reputation for valor during the preceding century in the French Army where names like Fontenoy and other great European battle-fields flew among their battle-ribbons. The original Irish Brigade was dissolved in 1791 by the revolution. In 1792, Count de Provence (later Louie XVIII) presented them with a ‘farewell banner’ embroidered with an Irish Harp, shamrocks and fluer-de-lis. The future King said, We acknowledge the inappreciable services that France has received from the Irish Brigade in the course of the last 100 years; receive this Standard as a pledge of our remembrance, a monument of our admiration, and our respect; and in future, generous Irishmen, this shall be the motto of your spotless flag: Semper et ubique Fidelis (Always and Everywhere Faithful) – a motto not unfamiliar to U.S. Marines!

Meagher intended the brigade to be made up of two New York, one Boston, and one Philadelphia infantry regiments, with artillery forming the fifth regiment. Initially made up of the 63rd 69th and 88th NY regiments and four small artillery companies of the 2nd NY Light Artillery Battalion, they began training at Fort Schuyler, NY, the first Headquarters of the Irish Brigade. In the fall of 1862, the 2nd New York Light Artillery was reassigned and the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania were added. Meagher ordered 69-caliber smoothbore muskets, which many considered obsolete, but were very effective at close range which was the style of fighting he had in mind for the Irish Brigade. Close fighting had won the day at Fontenoy, and he intended to follow this tradition. These tactics would make the Irish Brigade famous on both the Union and Confederate sides, but would also produce heavy casualties within its ranks since they had to get up close before being effective.

The Irish Brigade fought in every campaign of the Army of the Potomac, from the Peninsular Campaign in the early half of 1862 to the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865. At various points throughout these campaigns the brigade’s ranks became so depleted that its very existence was threatened and they were actually reorganized in February 1863.

After First Bull Run, when Gen. McClellan was put in command of the Army of the Potomac, he placed the Irish Brigade in the 1st division of the II Corps. The emblem of II Corps was the Club (playing card suit) and 1st, 2nd and 3rd Division colors were Red, White and Blue; thus as part of the 1st Division of the II Corps, the emblem of the Irish Brigade was a Red Club.

Out of a total enlistment of 7,000 men during the war, the Brigade returned to New York in 1865 with just 1,000; one company was actually down to seven men. The 69th NY suffered 75 per cent casualties among enlisted men; compare that to the famed Light Brigade which rode into the ‘Valley of Death’ at Balaklava and lost only 36.7 per cent of its men. Is it any wonder that the men of the Irish Brigade referred to McClellan’s Red Club emblem as the ‘Bloody Shamrock’!