JULY 21st, 1861, Captain Thomas Francis Meagher of the 69th New York State Militia had his horse shot from under him by a round of cannon-fire. Meagher, that day acting as major for the regiment, sprang to his feet and shouted, "Boys! look at that flag--remember Ireland and Fontenoy."
This was the battle of Bull Run, and the first major engagement of the American Civil War. The Federal army was badly beaten and routed but the Irish Sixty-ninth, an old pre-war militia regiment, had charged bravely and stubbornly held its ground. Even after its commander, Colonel Michael Corcoran, was wounded and captured, the Sixty-ninth as part of the rear guard retreated in good order while panicked Union soldiers swarmed around them. Union commander General Irvin McDowell personally thanked them for their gallantry.
Captain Meagher evoked the name of Fontenoy that day to inspire his men, a name of deep significance to every Irish soldier. At that place, in 1745, French General Maurice de Saxe triumphed over the British, a victory owed to an unstoppable bayonet charge by the French army's brigade of Irish exiles. Throughout its long history this brigade performed many such feats of courage, and though its beginnings date back to a time of more than one hundred-seventy years before Bull Run, its deeds were fresh in the minds of the men of the 69th New York.IT was the year 1685, James II had come to the throne of England and the governorship Ireland, bringing with him many changes that would fill his English subjects and Puritan settlers in Ireland with horror. His first act was to suspend the Penal Laws against Catholics and Dissenters. Furthermore, he decided to effect a reform in the government of Ireland. To accomplish this he sent over Richard Talbot, an Irishman and a Catholic, placing him in command of the army in Ireland and appointing him to the Lord Lieutenancy. Talbot, later known as the Duke of Tyrconnell, made radical changes in the army. The Puritan element was removed from the ranks, regiments were recruited from Irish Catholics and the Cromwellian officers were replaced by Irishmen. "I have placed the sword in your hands", he is reported to have said to the Irish Privy Council. Three thousand of these Irish soldiers were sent to England to reinforce James' army.
The arrival of Irish soldiers on English soil was regarded with horror by the English people. In this same way the the English settlers in Ireland received the numerous political changes that had been effected by Tyrconnell. All this was being watched from the Hague by the King's son in law, William of Orange. King James was warned by Louis XIV of France against William of Orange, a warning that was only resented. Then in 1688, William landed in England, and James' army melted away. Deserted by relations and friends, James ordered his army to be disbanded, and fled to France. The disbanded Irish soldiers made their way home the best they could, but it was clear that the issues between James and William would be decided in Ireland. To some of the Irish, complete independence, with James for King, seemed a not impossible hope.
The Irish nation declared for James, the English settlers in Ireland for William. Tyrconnell at once set about strengthening his army, and in two month's time fifty thousand Irishmen had enlisted. These men became known as "Tyrconnell's blackguards" to the Williamites. Many in their ranks were barely clothed and shoeless. Wisps of hay or straw bands on their heads were worn instead of hats. They were, however, "the material which, later, drilled and armed, was to form the Irish Brigade in the service of France, and prove the best fighters in Europe".
War was declared and James soon arrived from France, to be greeted with foolish enthusiasm by the Irish people, who saw him as the deliverer of the country. James, whose only real desire was the recovery of the English crown, saw Ireland only as a pawn. William sent his army to Ireland and prepared for his campaign. Louis sent seven thousand French regulars to James in exchange for five thousand Irish soldiers that had been sent to France. James then assumed command of his forces, with the direct command being given to various French generals. The French officers varied in quality, and French commitment to the war was sporadic. James would prove a poor military leader and would eventually desert his Irish army. They would gallantly fight it out without him until October 5th, 1691, when, being out-numbered and out-gunned, they were forced to surrender.
William's terms were favorable, and the Irish army was allowed to leave in possession of its colors, arms and equipment, and was brought to France by its commander, Patrick Sarsfield. James' army was eventually dissolved by the Treaty of Ryswick in 1698, but the brigade of Irishmen that had originally been sent in 1688, kept separate from Sarsfield's men, became an integral part of the French army and remained in its service. The brigade's numerous casualties were replaced by a steady stream of volunteers from Erin. Recruiters slipped into the island and had little problem enticing poor country lads, who under the harsh Penal Laws had been reduced to virtual serfdom, to enlist. Since it was illegal for the Irish, considered British citizens by the Crown, to join foreign armies, the recruits for the French service were listed as "Wild Geese" on ship manifests. Heavy with unspoken symbolism, these men would be known forever after by that name.
For a hundred years this Irish Brigade served the French army. Names like Fontenoy, and the names of many other of the great battle-fields of Europe fill their list of battle-honors. They won glory and the highest honors for themselves and for Ireland, and the undying respect of friend and foe alike. The Brigade was dissolved in 1791 by the revolution. In 1792 the Count de Provence (afterwards Louie XVIII) presented the remnant of the Brigade with a "farewell banner," bearing the device of an Irish Harp embroidered with shamrocks and fluer-de-lis. The gift was accompanied by the following address:--
Gentlemen, we acknowledge the inappreciable services that France has received from the Irish Brigade, in the course of the last 100 years; services that we shall never forget, though under an impossibility on requiting them. 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)