“You may bet your life on that sor”

After weeks of hard fighting and long marches, the men of the Louisiana Sixth Regiment, sometimes known as the Irish Brigade of the South, had heard that the Union general, James Shields was in the area. Shields was Irish born and had Irish troops. One of the Sixth Regiment Irishmen remarked, “Them Germans is poor creatures, but Shields’ boys will be after fighting.” The Irishman was referring to a prior battle in which the German soldiers – composed of mostly recently arrived German immigrants – performed very poorly in battle. They ran in the face of a strong advance by the Louisiana Irishmen. The Sixth Regiment soldier was saying that if the Union regiment has Irish soldiers, then they will fight better than they did earlier.

Gen. Taylor, once a Know Nothing in Louisiana, responded that his boys could match Shields’ soldiers any time. That remark brought a loud assurances from “half a hundred Tipperary throats.” “You may bet your life on that sor,” said one.

James P. Gannon, Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers(De Capo Press 1998), p. 42.

Rep. Davis Castigates Anti-Immigrant Fervor

In 1861, the Democratic party had wide support across the South. Even today, some people believe erroneously that the Democratic party alone supported slavery. But, certainly, the Democrats largely supported the extension of slavery. Yet, The Democrats also generally embraced the Irish and German immigrants in the decades leading up to the Civil War. In the decades of the ante-bellum era, the German and especially the Irish immigrants were seen as repugnant by many native Anglo Americans. A young Congressman, Jefferson Davis, was friends with prominent Irish immigrants in Vicksburg, Mississippi. His plantation was near Vicksburg.

The future president of the Confederate States of America earned a measure of fame among immigrants everywhere when he attacked the nativist members of Congress and their attempt to restrict immigration. As a freshman Representative in 1844-1845, he castigated the nativist members for their “sordid character [and] their arrogant assumption.” He argued that instead of restricting immigration, Congress should make becoming a citizen easier. It was one of the ironies of American history that a well-known supporter of immigrants was also a large slave owner. No one said ante-bellum politics were simple.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Univ. of North Carolina Press 2001), p. 102.


The Irish Brigade

The New York 69thRegiment is justly famous as the Irish Brigade. The 69thwas often in the thick of the fighting and suffered horrendous casualties. The South also had its Irish Brigade. The Louisiana 6thRegiment was largely recruited from New Orleans. It is fitting perhaps that the Regiment started in the Olive Branch Coffee House in New Orleans. William Monaghan, a native of Ireland, starting recruiting for an Irish Brigade. He must have had a sense of humor when he selected his first recruiting location. Mr. Monaghan was a notary in a city in which notaries drafted contracts and legal instruments. He was much better educated than the Famine Irish. Prior to the Civil War, New Orleans had by far the greatest number of Irish immigrants in the South. The New Orleans port was then the second largest in the country. The fare from Ireland to the U.S. was cheapest to New Orleans.

The Sixth Brigade was not completely Irish, but Irish constituted the largest number of enlistments by far. Of the ten companies in the Regiment, seven were form New Orleans. The first colonel of the Regiment was Isaac G. Seymour, a newspaper publisher and Ivy League graduate. He was originally from Connecticut. He opposed secession. But, when war looked likely, he stepped forward to do his duty. The Crescent City had many “immigrants” from states north of Virginia. The booming economy had attracted many “Yankee traders” during the two decades before the war.

The Louisiana Brigade was assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia. It included three regiments including the Sixth Regiment. Within weeks, Richard Taylor was assigned as the general of the Louisiana Brigade. Son of the former president, Zachary Taylor, Richard was a prominent sugar planter in Louisiana and a former member of the Know Nothing Party. Officially named the American Party, the Know Nothings seemingly grew overnight when the Whig party collapsed in the early 1850’s. The Know Nothing party quickly filled the gap with a virulent anti-immigrant fervor. The Know Nothings killed two Irishmen in New Orleans in 1854. Two years later, they brought in thugs from distant locales into New Orleans to suppress the Irish vote. They opposed all immigrants, but especially the Irish. There is no known evidence that Richard Taylor did not care for Irish, but he was active in the American party. That does suggest he agreed with the anti-immigrant fervor.

In December, 1861, Gen. Taylor executed two Irish soldiers, despite the plea of their commander. Executions were not unknown in either Army during the war, but they were not common either. These were the first executions in the Army of Northern Virginia. He was making an example of these two Irishmen and he said as much.

In May, 1862, the Louisiana Brigade was assigned to Gen. Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah River Valley. The Brigade did very well during the campaign , distinguishing themselves with a brilliant charge during the first Battle of Winchester. Gen. Jackson told Taylor his men had done very well. During the Valley Campaign, Stonewall Jackson was famously surrounded by three different Union armies. He succeeded only by ruthlessly marching his men far beyond the level of endurance for any sane man. In one long night march, so black that owls could not see their way, Gen. Taylor was marching with a smaller contingent of the Sixth Regiment. He was impressed with the tenacity of the Irish soldiers who never faltered, who often had to wheel around and fire at their Union antagonizers. The Irish and Taylor were executing one of the most difficult maneuver in warfare, a rearguard action as Union cavalry stuck to their heels. Gen. Taylor would later say about the Irish, “They were steady as clocks and chirpy as crickets, indulging in many a jest whenever the attentions of our friends in the rear slackened.”

The Irish themselves would say about the long rearguard action that night, “It was a fine night intirely for diversion.” The Federals would gallop up, discharge their muskets at the fleeing Irish, whereupon, wrote Taylor years later, the Irishmen answered, “Devil thank ‘em for that same.” Gen. Taylor would write in his book years later that his heart warmed to an Irishman ever since that night.

James P. Gammon, Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers(DeCapo Press 1998), p. IX, 41

Gen. Lee to the Rear

In the annals of military warfare, it was so extraordinary. There is no record of this happening to Julius Ceasar, Hannibal or Napoleon. In May 1864, in a Battle known as the Battle of the Wilderness, Gen. Robert E. Lee tried to lead the charge of the Texas Brigade. Commanding generals do not typically seek to lead a charge themselves. It just is not done. The commanding general has to keep the entire battle in mind. He has to forecast as much as possible chess moves three or four moves in advance. He must respond to aides hurrying back and forth with urgent messages seeking aid, warning of supply shortages, and he must press recalcitrant commanders. The heat of battle is “prime time” for a commanding general. Yet, when the Texas Brigade moved up to block a penetration by Union General Winfield Scott’s forces, he knew the moment was dire. He knew too that the Confederates were being pressed in ways they had never been pressed. He wanted to be sure the charge succeeded.

Gen. Lee cheered as the Texans moved into position to plug the gap created by Gen. Scott. The Corps Commander, Gen. Longstreet planned to move one brigade into the gap, followed by a second brigade and then a third. When the Texans first arrived, Gen. Lee urged them, “We mustdrive these people back.” A man not given to frequent displays of emotion already showed more emotion than his soldiers were used to. “The Texans always drive them,” he added.  The commander of the Texas Brigade, Gen. Gregg, told his men, “The eye of Gen. Lee is on you.” The Texans responded with cheers. With a shout of “Forward,” the Texans and Arkansans started forward with a yell.

Immediately, the men noticed Gen. Lee was moving with them. Capt. Bedell noticed the general advancing with them well into the enemy fire. Dozens would later insist they were there and they held the reins of Traveller, pulling Lee back to the rear. Traveller was the name of Lee’s horse, named after the horse used by Gen. Washington during the American revolution.

Capt. Bedell had been wounded twice in prior battles. He was one of the original recruits into Co, L of the Texas Brigade. Co. L came from Galveston. Capt. Bedell implored Lee to stop. Gen. Lee responded, “I want to lead the Texas Brigade in this charge.” From commander to his men, bypassing three or four layers of command was unusual in itself. But, the overall commander was negotiating with his men. He could have simply told them to shut up and let him do his job. But, he was negotiating, asking them to let him do what he thought he needed to do ensure success.

It is hard for civilians to understand this remarkable military relationship during war. There is an unspoken understanding that each person, male or female, will do his/her best at all times to ensure success of the military unit. That principle is a sacred duty. It stays with you all your life. In this instance, the Commanding General was asking his men to let him do what he believed he had to do to plug this gap. His men were telling him, “no.” They were assuming the responsibility for the success of this charge. They were saying, “sir, we got this.” They were not just assuring him they would ensure the success of this charge, they were insisting. They were telling their boss, “no,” in terms that did not allow for negotiation.

The tender feeling in that moment cannot be overstated. They were also saying the possibility of losing Gen. Lee was too high a price to pay for the success of one charge. That is an extraordinary honor, one probably never made to as successful a general as Robert E. Lee. Napoleon’s soldiers respected the general, but they did not love him. I am happy to say my soldiers generally liked me, in the best sense of that word, but to insist that I not risk my safety would have been just so beyond the pale.

Other soldiers joined in. “You will get killed dad[d]y.” “We won’t go forward until you go back,” said another. One soldier watching this unheard of display remarked years later, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.” One soldier in a friendly way kicked at Traveller, saying, “Get out of the Wilderness with General Lee, you old looney!” That alone would merit court martial in today’s army. In the Confederate army, assaulting the general’s horse in other circumstances would have resulted in lashes or worse.

The general finally turned toward the rear, as the Texas Brigade surged forward into the fire. Dozens of Texans fell. But, Gen. Lee lived.

When I was a young company commander in the Louisiana National Guard, we trained with the Fifth Division at Ft. Polk. It was an active duty division and they were very good in the field. My company was not so good in the field, or at least in the past, they were not so good. I was new. I talked with my soldiers all the time. I thought they were a great bunch of men and pretty decent soldiers. We trained and practiced various forms of attack all summer camp. The climax was a battle against an active duty Infantry company. The platoon in the lead found a way through a mine field. There was no direct fire on the mine field. So, we cleared the mines and then burst into a seam in the opposing company. We penetrated into the rear of the “enemy” company. We cleaned their clocks. We whipped them. They under-estimated us and paid a price for their over-confidence. For about a day afterward, my soldiers saluted me right and left. I could not go the latrine without returning a half dozen salutes. But, that experience, however small it was, comes nowhere close to soldiers telling their boss, three or four layers up the chain of command that he could not lead them in a charge. And, he took it. He took it. He accepted their refusal. Yes, there is love between men in battle.

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade(LSU Press 2017), pp. 212-213.