Thomas Francis Meagher, an Irish rebel convicted of sedition by the British, escaped from an Australian penal colony in 1849, but never carried out his plans to return to his homeland and rid it of the British.
Instead, he organized a group of Irish immigrants from New York and Boston into the Irish Brigade, became a brigadier general in the U.S. Army and led his troops in the Civil War battle of Antietam.
Tomorrow, officials will dedicate a memorial at Antietam National Battlefield in Washington County to remember Meagher and the 113 Irish Brigade soldiers killed in the bloodiest day of the Civil War.
The 10-foot high memorial, made of Irish granite from County Wicklow, features a bronze sculpture of an Irish soldier lifting his group’s green flag from the arms of a fallen comrade. The other side has a bust of Meagher above a short biography.
“The Irish (were) very grateful for the opportunity, being able to come here to America” after fleeing the potato famine, said Jack O’Brien of Upper Marlboro, secretary of the Irish Brigade Monument Project.
“It was a place of refuge for the Irish in the 1850s, and so they more or less ended up in the Army when Lincoln called.”
The brigade served with distinction throughout the Civil War, O’Brien said. On Sept. 17, 1862, the Irishmen helped force Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia away from Sharpsburg and eventually back across the Potomac.
Of the estimated 5,000 men killed at Antietam, 113 came from the Irish Brigade. Most fell trying to wrest the path that came to be known as Bloody Lane from North Carolina soldiers.
Irish immigrants’ service in the Union Army improved their image in an era when politicians ran openly anti-Catholic campaigns, said O’Brien, himself the son of immigrants.
“The sacrifice of all the Irish in the Army actually turned a corner for the Irish, from being a despised minority to acceptance,” he said. “They won the respect of their country.”
Meagher’s men were honored with a plaque at the battleground erected before the turn of the century. But vandals destroyed the plaque in 1986, O’Brien said.
That spurred members of the Irish Cultural Society Foundation to action. After they restored the plaque, they set out to construct a more permanent memorial to the brigade.
First red tape and later faulty granite delayed this weekend’s moment, O’Brien said. Irish exporters deemed 12 automobile-sized chunks of rock unsuitable for the monument before approving one for use in the monument.
“It took years to go through, but we’re well satisfied with what we have,” O’Brien said. “It’s everything we hoped for.”
The monument, which cost about $150,000 from private donations, was placed near Bloody Lane last week.
Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, who is the chief Catholic chaplain of the armed forces, will administer a military Mass at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Retired Rear Adm. G. F. Rod Flannery and Maj. Gen. William F. Ward, the former chief of the Army Reserve, will speak at the monument’s dedication at noon.
About 50 Civil War re-enactors in full costume will attend the ceremony, O’Brien said.
O’Brien said he hopes the new memorial will generate strong emotions in visitors of all backgrounds.
“I hope they think about the enormous sacrifice of the Irish and all the soldiers that died there,” he said. “It brings home the absolute tragedy of the whole conflict. After all, Bloody Lane was covered as far as the eye could see by dead soldiers of the Confederacy, and both sides suffered tragedy.”