National and regimental flags represented prized symbols of honor and tradition for any Civil War military unit, Union or Confederate. However, knowledge about many of those military flags is limited, poorly documented or dependent on word-of-mouth histories or inaccurate museum notations.
Officially, according to regulations, regular Army units were authorized just three flags: two national flags and a state flag. The first U.S. flag was a huge 36-by-20-foot heavy-bunting flag intended to fly on a pole over camp or garrison. The Stars and Stripes that units carried into battle were 6-by-6 on a 19-foot staff.
According to Army regulations in 1861, “The second, or regimental color, to be blue, with the arms of the United States embroidered in silk on the center. The name of the regiment on a scroll, underneath the eagle.”Because largely ethnic units, such as Irish, German or Italian, usually were state volunteers, they freely deviated from these federal rules. Some carried no blue flag. Some of the Irish carried the Stars and Stripes, the blue New York flag and a green regimental flag. Other flags might be used as guidons at the end of regimental lines.
Among the most recognizable regimental flags were the green silk flags of the Irish Brigade. At least three regiments of the Irish Brigade officially carried green flags: the 63rd Regiment, New York Volunteers; the 69th Regiment, New York Volunteers; and the 88th Regiment, New York Volunteers.A final 10th Regiment, New York Volunteers, was partially organized and then folded into the existing Irish units.As casualties among the Irish mounted in 1862, the 29th Massachusetts Regiment was added to the brigade, but this unit was not Irish. The 29th was replaced by the 28th Massachusetts, and then the 116th Pennsylvania joined the Irish Brigade. These units were almost entirely composed of Irishmen.
Confusion sometimes exists concerning the very names of these units, as accounts often refer to the 63rd Volunteer Infantry or the 69th Militia. As if that weren’t enough, the first Irish unit formed, the 63rd, is called the 3rd Irish (Independent) Regiment.The 69th is called the 1st Irish Regiment, and the 37th New York Irish Rifles is called the 2nd Irish Regiment.To further add to the confusion, the 23rd Illinois Volunteers is sometimes referred to as the “Irish Brigade of the West.”As flags were damaged beyond repair in battle or otherwise replaced, the lineage of the flags is denoted by a number, such as “the first Irish colors” for the first green flag carried by the unit.Most is known about the green flags of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Volunteers. The 28th Massachusetts apparently also carried a green flag, but the 116th Pennsylvania did not. The green regimental colors were rich in symbolism.
Most featured the Brian Boru harp, the symbol of the only king of a united Ireland, who died in battle in 1014. The sunburst often is above the harp, a symbol of hope and good times common among the American Fenians.
Shamrocks appear on several flags, in reference to the green hills of Ireland and its Catholic heritage. Many flags have patriotic Irish mottos such as “Riamh Nar Druid O Spairn Iann’” – “Who never retreated from the clash of lances.”Many of the green flags were presented to the regiments by wealthy donors. The most costly and ornate green flags, meant for presentation and ceremonies but not battle, were made by Tiffany Co.
How important can these flags be?
During the war, their value was inestimable. Brevet Brig. Gen. Ezra Carman, 13th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, recalls this scene at Antietam: “The ranks of [Thomas] Meagher’s [Irish] Brigade had been greatly thinned. The 69th New York had nearly melted away but a few [troopers] were left, huddling about its two colors, when one of the enemy shouted from the Sunken Road: ‘Bring them colors in here,’ upon which the two color bearers instantly advanced a few steps, shook their colors in the very face of the enemy and replied: ‘Come and take them you damned rebels.'”Capt. D.P. Conyngham wrote about “the green flag” at Antietam. “[It] was completely riddled, and it appeared certain death to anyone to bear it, for eight color bearers had already fallen.”The flags of the Irish Brigade, like other brigade banners, made the units recognizable and represented the bravery of the men who fought beneath them. At Fredericksburg, Confederate Gen. George Pickett marveled at the bravery of the Irish.
“The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. … We forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”After Fredericksburg, though, some of the Irish feared they had lost their colors and shamed the brigade.
2nd Irish Color, 69th NYSV
Conyngham wrote: “Next day the color-sergeant was found sitting up against a tree, dead, and his hands clasped upon his chest, as if protecting something. Near him was the staff of the missing flag. When removing the body, the men found the flag wrapped around it, with a bullet hole right through it and his heart.”
Anyone with interest in the Irish Brigade will appreciate the historical memoirs and letters used, the carefully documented illustrations and the detailed endnotes and references in a recent book about the green flags: “Blue for the Union and Green for Ireland: The Civil War Flags of the 63rd New York Volunteers, Irish Brigade,” written by Peter J. Lysy and published by the Archives of the University of Notre Dame.
John E. Carey is descended from members of the Irish Brigade. He is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.