On Memorial Day we pause to remember the sacrifices of so many that made this country what is today. It is fitting that Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War, arguably the most defining event in the history of the United States. As always, Lincoln had just the right words, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
It is possible that Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” was not limited to those who suffered “bondsman’s two and a half centuries of unrequited toil,” enslaved in the U.S., but also included those immigrant groups that became American on the the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Sharpsburg, Maryland and Chancellorsville, Virginia. For example, the “Irish Brigade” of the Army of the Potomac was formed from the Irish ghettos of New York. Many of the leaders of the Irish Brigade were recent immigrants who fled persecution from the British Empire while fighting for self-determination in Ireland. It’s Colonel, Thomas Meagher, was an amazing individual. An Irish Republican, he was tried by the crown for sedition and sentenced to exile in Australia. He escaped from Australia and made his way to New York, where he became a prominent figure in the New York Irish community. When shots were fired at Fort Sumter, Meagher raised a regiment that joined the Army. Its most notable success came in the Battle of Antietam, where it pierced Robert E. Lee’s line at the Bloody Lane at a cost of 60% casualties. The Irish Brigade also suffered grievously at the Battle of Fredericksburg, two months after Antietam. After the war, Meagher became the governor of the Montana territory. Meagher’s story is a truly American story- an exile who comes to the U.S. in search of freedom, embraces its values and becomes a leading figure. Such a rise was impossible in the Old World and vividly illustrates Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” nearly as much as the Emancipation Proclamation does.
Germans also strongly embraced the civil war effort. Over 200,000 German-Americans fought for the Union. Like the Irish, many Germans were revolutionaries who fled the continent after the failed Revolutions of 1848. German-Americans believed in American democracy and fought to preserve it.
Another group that joined the war effort were Italians. Like the Irish and German, they were a new and largely unwelcome presence in America. Italians formed the Garibaldi Brigade named after the great Italian revolutionary unifier, who had offered his own services to Lincoln if only Lincoln would declare the war as an effort to abolish slavery. In 1861, Lincoln was not quite ready to do that.
The Civil War provided an opportunity for these groups to demonstrate their loyalty to and love for the Union. Yesterday’s heroes named Carl Schurz, Alexander Schimmelfennig, Patrick Kelly, Luigi Palma di Cesnola have given way to the Rodriguezs, Singhs, Mohammeds, and Nguyens that make up today’s brigades. Let us hope that their sacrifices cement their status as much as those who fought and died in the Peach Orchard, Burnside’s Bridge, the Slaughter Pen, the Hornet’s Nest, the Sunken Road and the Bloody Angle.
The Benach Ragland Brigade at the Bloody Lane!