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An Athy man with the Irish Brigade and its campaigns

James Durney

No unit in the Union Army in the American Civil War had a more colourful or distinctive history than the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac. Made up of thousands of Irish immigrants from New York, Boston and Philadelphia, it charged into battle under green flags and was served by Catholic chaplains. The brigade was created and led by the Irish revolutionary, Thomas Francis Meagher. The Irish Brigade was always found where the action was hottest: in the Bloody Lane at Antietam, before the stone wall at Fredericksburg, in the wheatfield at Gettysburg, and at the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania. It was said that ‘when anything absurd, forlorn, or desperate was to be attempted, the Irish Brigade was called upon’. The brigade suffered more than 4,000 casualties during the war despite the fact that it never put as many as 3,000 men in the field at any one time. The Irish were willing to fight so fiercely because they believed their sacrifices would benefit all Irish-Americans.
Statistics demonstrate that the brigade’s fighting reputation was well deserved. All five of its regiments (63rd, 69th, and 88th New York; 28th Massachusetts; and 116th Pennsylvania) were on William F. Fox’s list of the 300 Union regiments that sustained the heaviest losses in battle. And two of them, the 69th New York and the 28th Massachusetts, ranked among the top ten out of more than 2,000 Northern regiments in the number of combat deaths. During the war, two soldiers died of disease or accident for every one who died as a consequence of battle. For the Irish Brigade, however, this ratio was reversed: two died of battle wounds for every one who died of disease or accident.
David Power Conyngham was an Irish revolutionary, novelist, historian, newspaper editor, and war correspondent. For a time he served on General Meagher’s staff with the Irish Brigade, sharing their dangers and hardships in the field. After the war he wrote The Irish Brigade and its campaigns to ensure that the feats of Irish arms and the sacrifices of Irish-American patriotism would not be forgotten. Conyngham’s book contains the details of one Kildare native – Richard A. Kelly, of Athy.
The entry for Lieutenant Richard A. Kelly is in an appendix under ‘Sketches of the officers of the Sixty-ninth New York Volunteers,’ which reads:
Lieutenant R. A. Kelly was a native of Athy, Co. Kildare, Ireland, and was a splendid specimen of manhood, being, though only twenty-one years of age, fully six feet three inches in height. A soldier, almost by instinct, he accompanied the Sixty-ninth Regiment, under Colonel Corcoran, to Virginia at the outbreak of the rebellion, and at the first battle of Bull Run was wounded in the right hand. When the Irish Brigade was commenced, he at once joined its ranks, and served with his regiment all through the desperate struggles in which it has borne so distinguished a part. No braver man has given his life for the cause of the Union, or no better soldier fell on the bloody plain of Antietam.
However, no records exist of a Richard A. Kelly, born in Athy, in or around 1840, so it is quite impossible to verify Conyngham’s entry. To add to the confusion Conyngham’s book has another entry for a ‘Captain Richard A. Kelly, 69th New York,’ who was killed in action at Spotsylvania in May 1864, while Ancestry.co’s online records for American soldiers of the Civil War also has the same two entries, though the birthplace for both is given as ‘Ireland’ only, with no mention of Kildare.
Despite its limitations, The Irish Brigade and its campaigns remains, well over a century after its publication, the standard work on the subject and an indispensable source for anyone seeking to understand the experiences of the Irish in the American Civil War.

Athy native, Richard A. Kelly, fought and died with the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War

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