by NJ Rebel

America's Bloodiest Day:
Slaughter along a Sunken Road - The Irish Brigade Enters the Fray

The savage, often close range, fighting finally wore down and took its toll on the men belonging to Kimball’s brigade as well as the surviving men of Weber’s brigade (both of French’s division of Sumner’s Second Army Corps). The fighting had now gone on for close to approximately two hours at this point. But Sumner had one more division on the way to the aid of French. The division commanded by Major General Israel "Fighting Dick" or "Greasy Dick" Richardson was prevented in advancing with French’s division due to a direct order from General McClellan, who needed to have a fresh division on immediate call as a reserve---in case disaster threatened anywheres on the northern part of the field that morning. Morrell’s division from the Fifth Army Corps (Fitz John Porter) showed up near McClellan’s HQ at the Pry House around 8 am, freeing Richardson and his men. Richardson wasted no time in getting his brigades moving, with the Irish Brigade under Brig. General Thomas F. Meagher in the van, followed by the brigades of Brig. Gen. J G Caldwell and Col. J R Brooke. Crossing a nearby ford across The Antietam Creek with his division, Richardson and his staff soon rode ahead to confer with Gen. French on the tactical situation. Meagher and his men arrived not a moment too soon.

The land around the Roulette Farm is undulating enough that entire regiments could hide in the folds of the ground and be invisible to an opposing enemy. Additionally, the men of French’s division had driven Confederate skirmishers (sent ahead of the main battle line in the Sunken Road) from around the Roulette house and outbuildings in their advance. Kimball’s brigade occupied a roughly two-thirds to one-thirds division in the brigade line of battle, with the Roulette lane leading to the Sunken Road separating the larger portion of the brigade from the smaller. The portion of Kimball’s brigade on the western (Antietam Creek) side of the Roulette lane was in imminent danger of being flanked on its left by a strong but local counter-attack from elements comprised of at least portions of the Fourth North Carolina if not from the Fourteenth or Thirtieth North Carolina regiments. (Depending on which map you look at, the placement of Anderson’s North Carolinians in the road show an arrangement as follows: 2nd NC, 4th or 14th NC, 14th or 4th NC, 30th NC. Also, Meagher’s men were confronted by Confederates from Alabama and Georgia under command of Brig. Gen. Ambrose Wright, who extended the right of the Confederate battle line past the Carolinians.)

Hastily conferring with Kimball and French in the Roulette Lane not far from the Roulette house itself as the Irishmen of Meagher’s brigade came huffing up, Richardson instantly saw the overall situation and the danger posed by the localized Confederate counter-attack. Without hesitation, he ordered Meagher to take his brigade, move by the left oblique into line and advance against not only the Confederate column threatening Kimball’s left flank but also extend the fight further along the Confederate position. Caldwell’s brigade would eventually advance on the left of Meagher and Brooke would be in reserve behind Meagher, ready to support either brigade if it achieved success. The Irishmen went to work, and marching under their ancient battle cry of "Faugh a Ballagh" ("Clear the Way!"), advanced to within almost point blank range of their waiting enemies in the road. Meagher’s plan was to give the Confederate defenders three volleys at extremely short range—thirty yards or less—and charge with the bayonet à la Fontenoy. But the plan failed…on the storm of leaden hail from the combined fire of men of North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

The fighting, previously savage, at close range and furious, seemed to swell to a crescendo of pandemonium, chaos and confusion. Most of the regiments in the Irish Brigade in farmer Roulette’s pasture and the North Carolinians in the road were armed with smoothbore .69 caliber muskets. (The 28th Massachusetts in the Irish Brigade somehow had been armed with .577 Engfields. Their place in the battle line gave them some measure of protection from the murderous leaden hail and their longer-ranger Enfields enabled them to inflict casualties on Confederate re-inforcements moving up to the road from the Piper Orchard and Cornfield.) Firing a "buck and ball" load (usually one .64 or .65 ball and three .30 buckshot), the muskets made terrible execution on either side. For every man killed outright by each musket, at least two more would be wounded. Both sides loaded and fired as rapidly possible, keeping as much lead in the air as humanly possible. Musket pipes became so hot that ramrods oft flew out of the tubes due to premature discharges. The casualties in the ranks of the Irish Brigade mounted. On the Confederate side, the defenders in the road and in the Piper cornfield also suffered horribly. On the Union side, Meagher’s horse was shot down and, in the fall, rolled over onto him. Meagher had the pommel of his horse go deep into his chest, causing a serious contusion and partial paralysis. He was lucky he was not killed; somewhat semi-conscious, Meagher was moved to the rear. (Later, rumors floated of his being drunk during the battle. Meagher, like many Irishmen, liked his liquor; the anti-Irish prejudice of the time ensured the existence of the rumor would continue to resonate—even to this day, where mention of his being drunk at Antietam before the Sunken Road can still be found in some books.) Promising junior officers in the Irish Brigade regiments went down, killed or horribly wounded. The slaughter was horrific.

After many small charges, counter-charges and repeated volleys, the stalemate finally broke after two regiments in the brigade of Col J R Brooke (the 61st/64th New York, commanded by Francis Barlow) managed to fight their way into the Sunken Road. The two New York regiments broke into the road (at approximately where the Observation Tower now stands) and delivered a telling enfilade fire into the right flank of the Carolinians and surviving men of Wright’s brigade. Prior to that, Caldwell’s brigade was called on by Richardson to advance but would not advance without orders from Caldwell himself. There was, though, one small problem. General Caldwell was no where to be found. Sword in hand and blistering the air with oaths, General Richardson personally ordered the regiments in Caldwell’s brigade to advance and help lessen the pressure on Meagher. Eventually the exhausted and bloodied Irishmen were relieved from the firing line and allowed to replenish their ammunition. Going into the fight with over 1,000 strong, the brigade now numbered under 500 men. Meagher’s fine brigade, one of the crack units in the Army of the Potomac, had effectively wrecked itself on a farmer’s fields just north of a little hamlet in western Maryland not far from the Potomac River.

Perhaps the greatest compliment was paid to Meagher’s boys by a Confederate officer, who later wrote:

"I wish here to bear witness to the gallantry of the men of Meagher’s Brigade and the superb courage of their commanding officers on that bloody day. They stood in line on their ridge, in plain view, with three flags as colors - … Our men kept those flags falling fast, while just as fast they raised again. Several times the deadly fire of our rifles broke the ranks of those men and they fell behind the ridge, but quickly re-formed each time and appeared with shorter lines but still defiant."

The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore)

The Minstrel Boy to the war is gone

In the ranks of death you will find him;

His father's sword he hath girded on,

And his wild harp slung behind him;

"Land of Song!" said the warrior bard,

"Tho' all the world betrays thee,

One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,

One faithful harp shall praise thee!"

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman's chain

Could not bring that proud soul under;

The harp he lov'd ne'er spoke again,

For he tore its chords asunder;

And said "No chains shall sully thee,

Thou soul of love and brav'ry!

Thy songs were made for the pure and free,

They shall never sound in slavery!"

The Minstrel Boy will return, we pray;

When we hear the news, we all will cheer it,

The minstrel boy will return one day,

Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit.

Then may he play on his harp in peace,

In a world such as Heaven intended,

For all the bitterness of man must cease,

And ev'ry battle must be ended.

(Note: An excellent anthology of the Irish Brigade at the Sunken Road at Antietam, titled "My Sons Were Faithful and They Fought" co-edited by Joseph G. Bilby and Stephan D. O’Neill, is available from Longstreet House, PO Box 730, Hightstown, NJ 08520 and may also be purchased at the bookstore at the Antietam NBP Visitor Center.)

© 2003
Editors Note: Mr. Mayers is a feature writer on the writers staff. He can be contacted at