After spending two years fighting the Confederacy, Union Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher was ready to fight for his troops. The men of his famed Irish Brigade—many of them immigrants who had fled their homeland during the Great Hunger, some not even American citizens—had done everything the Union had asked of them. Now, Meagher had come to the White House to ask the Union to do something for them in return.
As the Civil War reached its halfway point, Meagher sat down with President Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 1863—the commander in chief’s 54th birthday—to urge the replenishment of his depleted regiments and lobby for the promotion of two colonels—Robert Nugent and Patrick Kelly—who had been overlooked for advancement.
After listening to Meagher’s appeal, Lincoln picked up his pen and composed the following letter to General Henry W. Halleck: “Gen. Meagher, now with me, says the Irish Brigade has had no promotion; and that Col. Robert Nugent & Col. Patrick Kelly, both of that Brigade have fairly earned promotion. They both hold commissions as Captains in the regular Army. Please examine these records with reference to the question of promoting one or both of them.” The president punctuated the missive with his usual signature: “A. Lincoln.”
More than 150 years after Lincoln scrawled his request, the sixteenth president’s letter regarding the Irish Brigade is being auctioned off, appropriately enough, on St. Patrick’s Day. RR Auctions estimates that the document will garner at least $20,000.
It is estimated that more than 150,000 Irishmen fought for the Union in the Civil War, and no group was more renowned than Meagher’s Irish Brigade. Born in Ireland’s County Waterford, Meagher had been among the leaders of the failed Young Ireland uprising in 1848. Convicted of treason and banished to the penal colony of Tasmania, Meagher staged a dramatic escape to the United States in 1852. Once the Civil War began, Meagher enlisted in the Union Army and began to recruit his fellow Immigrants to join him in an all-Irish unit within the 69th New York Infantry Regiment.
Weeks later, the Union Army suffered a terrible defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, but the Irishmen of the 69th won particular praise for the valor they demonstrated on the battlefield that fulfilled the unit’s motto: “Who never retreated from the clash of spears.” Meagher returned to New York City to form an Irish Brigade, and he was given the rank of brigadier general. The predominantly Irish 63rd and 88th New York Infantry Regiments, along with the 69th, formed the initial core of the brigade. They were eventually joined by the 116th Pennsylvania and 29th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments.
The Irish Brigade led the way in many of the Army of the Potomac’s major battles, and Meagher’s men paid a heavy price. At Antietam, they charged into battle under the Gaelic cry of “Faugh-a-Ballagh” (“Clear the way!”) and shouts of “For Ireland!” and “For St. Patrick!” During the bloodiest single day in American history, the Irish Brigade lost 540 men—half of its force—as casualties.
Three months later at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meagher’s men again sacrificed themselves for their adopted home. Before sending them into battle, the brigadier general ordered his men to put sprigs of green boxwood in their caps so that when their bodies were found it would be known that they were Irishmen. Confederate troops mowed down the Irish Brigade as it charged up a hill with no cover, its green flag emblazoned with a gold harp and sunburst struggling to stay aloft. Half of the brigade’s 1,200 men were killed or wounded.
“The gallant stand which this bold brigade made on the heights of Fredericksburg is well known,” said Confederate General Robert E. Lee after the battle. “Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry on that desperate occasion. Their brilliant though hopeless assaults on our lines excited the hearty applause of our officers and soldiers.”
The attrition suffered by the Irish Brigade eventually took its toll on Meagher, who resigned his commission several months after meeting with Lincoln. Kelly, a native of Ireland’s County Galway, assumed command of the Irish Brigade and led them into the slaughter at Gettysburg in July 1863. More than 200 of the brigade’s 530 remaining soldiers were lost. Kelly would be killed in June 1864 during the siege of Petersburg before receiving the official promotion requested by Lincoln. Nugent, born in Ireland’s County Down, became the last of the Irish Brigade’s commanding officers and eventually earned the rank of brigadier general in the waning days of the war. After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Nugent led the Irish Brigade—what remained of it—as it paraded through Washington, D.C. Only two other Union brigades that served during the Civil War sustained higher casualty rates.
Online bidding for Lincoln’s letter will conclude at 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.