“The swift sword of Erin”—Sharpsburg, Maryland

Antietam National Battlefield
5831 Dunker Church Road
Sharpsburg, Maryland

Avenging and bright fall the swift sword of Erin
On him who the brave sons of Usna betray’d!
For every fond eye he hath waken’d a tear in
A drop from his heart-wounds shall weep o’er her blade.

 We swear to avenge them! – no joy shall be tasted,
The harp shall be silent, the maiden unwed,
Our halls shall be mute, and our fields shall lie wasted,
Till vengeance is wreak’d on the murderer’s head.

–Thomas Moore

Georgians should never be pissed off before breakfast. At least this was sentiment expressed by a Georgia soldier (many of whom were likely of Irish stock) from one of General John Bell Hood’s (the Hoods were of old Dutch stock, via New York and Kentucky) divisions when he wrote about the morning of September 17, 1862. The soldier complained, “Just as we began to cook our rations near daylight, we were shelled and ordered into formation. I have never seen a more disgusted bunch of boys and mad as hornets.”

General Robert E. Lee (of English stock) was attempting an invasion of Maryland from which he could terrorize Pennsylvania and, hopefully, bring about a swift end to the war. But, General George B. McClellan’s (from Scottish stock) Army of the Potomac had doggedly pursued him and barred his way towards the Keystone State.

Alexander Gardner’s photo of Confederate dead along the Hagerstown Pike near the cornfields where the initial fighting took place, 1862.

In quiet cornfields on the outskirts of Sharpsburg, Maryland, Union General Joseph Hooker (of English stock) hurled his forces at the Confederates stationed near the Hagerstown Pike. Both armies fed multiple divisions into the conflagration in a cornfield watched over by a modest church built for a German Protestant sect, the Dunkers. Into this meat-grinder soldiers of vast and varied heritage met gun-barrel to gun-barrel with their brothers from Wisconsin, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. By 10 o’clock that morning, some 8,000 men lay dead or wounded.

As carnage washed over Miller’s Cornfield, Confederates took up a position in an old farm road that decades of wagon wheels had eroded below the landscape, an old, sunken road. Around midday, Union forces were directed to attack this surprisingly strong position and each was mowed down. Fourth in line for this onslaught was the 69th New York Infantry, known as the Irish Brigade, led by General Thomas Francis Meagher.

Undated photograph of Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher.

Meagher was of solid Irish stock, having been born in the Irish city of Waterford in 1823. His father, a merchant and politician, was Canadian, though his father was born in County Tipperary, Ireland. Young Thomas Francis received his education at the hands of Jesuits in Ireland and later Britain before he settled in Dublin where he became involved in the Irish Nationalist movement.

In the village of Ballingarry, in South Tipperary, Meagher and other “Young Irelanders,” led an attack on a local police unit in 1848. After the police called in reinforcements, Meagher and the other rebels fled. They were arrested and put on trial for treason. The leaders of the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered in the British tradition, but a public outcry led the judge to commute their sentence to being exiled to the British penal colony in Tasmania, Australia.

Arriving in Australia, nearly all of these political convicts escaped with Meagher and John Mitchel making their way for New York City where both settled and became prominent activists and journalists. Taking up the cause of slavery, Mitchel found his way to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he started the Southern Citizen newspaper, and later he served as editor for the Richmond, Virginia newspaper, the Richmond Enquirer. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Meagher was moved to support the Union, despite previous sympathies with the South and his friend, Mitchel.

Of his decision to support the Union, Meagher wrote, “It is not only our duty to America, but also to Ireland. We could not hope to succeed in our effort to make Ireland a Republic without the moral and material support of the liberty-loving citizens of these United States.” He recruited his fellow countrymen and built Company K of the 69th Infantry Regiment, New York Volunteers, which was now being sent into the hail of gunfire and artillery towards the Sunken Road.

Brig, General Meagher and the Irish Brigade at the Battle of Fair Oaks, 1 June 1862, by Currier & Ives. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

To remind his men of the Irish heritage, Meagher wanted to present each man with a shamrock before the battle, but as none were available, he presented the men with sprigs of boxwood instead. The ranks lined up for their charge into the valley of death while the brigade’s chaplain, Father William Corby, rode up and down giving the men conditional absolution. With their emerald green flags flapping in the breeze, the Irish Brigade marched into the fray with an old, Irish battle cry, “Faugh-a-ballagh!” or “clear the way.” Around 540 of his men were killed before the brigade was withdrawn from the field. Meagher reportedly fell from his horse with some reports that he was drunk, while the official Union report presented to General McClellan states that his horse had been shot.

A statue at the Gettysburg Battlefield of Father William Corby with his hand raised in absolution. Photo by Samuel Murray, 2010, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Following the Irish Brigade’s bravery on the field of glory, the Union was able to beat back the Confederates from the Sunken Road, which earned this once peaceful farm road the gory moniker, “Bloody Lane.” The battle progressed south to a picturesque stone bridge on Antietam Creek where the battle concluded with nothing gained by either side. To historians, the battle proved to be the bloodiest day in American history with some 23,000 souls killed, wounded, or missing.

The battlefield at Antietam has been preserved by the National Park Service and it is considered one of the best preserved Civil War battlefields in the country. With all the blood that stained the battlefield that day, it’s no surprise that echoes of the battle still ring across the fields and vaporous martial apparitions continue to appear. One of the most commonly told stories from the battlefield concerns the a visit from a class from the McDonogh School, a private school in Owings Mills, Maryland. After touring the battlefield, the teacher allowed the students to wander the park, consider the events that took place there, and write their impressions. When the teacher began reading the students’ papers he was shocked to read that some students heard shouts coming from the Bloody Lane that sounded like someone singing a Christmas carol, something that sounded like “fa-la-la-la!” Was this the old Irish battle cry from the Irish Brigade of “Faugh-a-ballagh?”

Bloody Lane at Antietam, 2005. Photo b y Chris Light, courtesy of Wikipedia.

In his 2012 book, Civil War Ghost Trails, former park ranger Mark Nesbitt includes another fascinating story that asks if the spirits of the Confederates killed at Bloody Lane may also be active. Some years ago, a group of Civil War reenactors decided to camp at Bloody Lane. Just after settling down, the uniformed reenactors began to hear whispering and moaning as well as feeling odd chills. One-by-one they escaped to the safety of their cars leaving one reenactor alone on the battlefield. As they settled into their cars, the men a shriek and saw the reenactor stumbling back from field.

Still shaking from his experience, the reenactor told his friends that he was laying within on the old road. He had heard the same sounds that frightened the others, but he only thought their imaginations were getting the best of them. Suddenly he saw a hand rise from the ground between his chest and his arm. With brute force the hand began to press on his chest as if to pull him into the earth. After he began screaming, the arm vanished.

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Sources

  • Battle of Antietam. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 17 March 2018.
  • McPherson, James M. Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. NYC: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • John Mitchel. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 17 March 2018.
  • Nesbitt, Mark. Civil War Trails: Stories from America’s Most Haunted Battlefields. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2012.
  • Okonowicz, Ed. The Big Book of Maryland Ghost Stories. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2010.
  • Thomas Francis Meagher. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 17 March 2018.
  • Taylor, Troy. “Haunted Maryland, The Antietam Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland.” Ghosts of the Prairie.
  • Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 17 March 2018.

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