Historic America

Civil War Ballads: Song for the Irish Brigade

Like “Kelly’s Irish Brigade,” David Kincaid recorded this song honoring Irish-American volunteers in the Confederate Army for his album The Irish-American’s Song (2006). The fourth stanza appears to specifically refer to troops who fought under Colonel Edward A. O’Neal in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Oh, not now for songs of a nation’s wrongs,
not the groans of starving labor;
Let the rifle ring and the bullet sing
to the clash of the flashing sabre!
There are Irish ranks on the tented banks
of Columbia’s guarded ocean;
And an iron clank from flank to flank
tells of armed men in motion.

And frank souls there clear true and bare
To all, as the steel beside them,
Can love or hate withe the strength of Fate,
Till the grave of the valiant hide them.
Each seems to be mailed Ard Righ,
whose sword’s avenging glory
Must light the fight and smite for Right,
Like Brian’s in olden story!

With pale affright and panic flight
Shall dastard Yankees base and hollow,
Hear a Celtic race, from their battle place,
Charge to the shout of “Faugh-a-ballaugh!”
By the sould above, by the land we love
Her tears bleeding patience
The sledge is wrought that shall smash to naught
The brazen liar of nations.

The Irish green shall again be seen
as our Irish fathers bore it,
A burning wind from the South behind,
and the Yankee rout before it!
O’Neal’s red hand shall purge the land-
Rain a fire on men and cattle,
Till the Lincoln snakes in their own cold lakes
Plunge from the blaze of battle.

Colonel Edward A. O’Neal

The knaves that rest on Columbia’s breast,
and the voice of true men stifle;
we’ll exorcise from the rescued prize-
Our talisman, the rifle;
For a tyrant’s life a bowie knife!-
Of Union knot dissolvers,
The best we ken are stalwart men,
Columbiads and revolvers!

Whoe’er shall march by triumphal arch
Whoe’er may swell the slaughter,
Our drums shall roll from the Capitol
O’er Potomac’s fateful water!
Rise, bleeding ghosts, to the Lord of Hosts
For judgement final and solemn;
Your fanatic horde to the edge of the sword
Is doomed line, square, and column!

Nearly 200,000 Irish immigrants fought in the American Civil War, but only 20,000 for the Confederacy. Colonel Edward A. O’Neal, mentioned in the fourth stanza, first commanded the 9th Alabama Infantry Regiment, then the 26th Alabama Infantry Regiment, then a brigade in Major General Robert E. Rodes’ division at the Battle of Gettysburg. His father, Edward O’Neal, was an Irish immigrant, but I’ve been unable to find any other Irish connection. The 26th Alabama was recruited from all over Alabama.

At the Battle of Boonesborough, Maryland, July 8, 1863, Colonel O’Neal, alongside Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, was fighting a rearguard action to cover the Army of Northern Virginia’s retreat from Gettysburg. Major General Rodes sent a courier to see whether O’Neal needed reinforcements. O’Neal replied, “Tell General Rodes that I’ll hold my position till hell freezes over.”

Because so many members of his family fought in the Civil War, they became known as “The Fighting O’Neals.” Edward A. O’Neal was later elected governor of Alabama.

The song mentions the Gaelic phrase, “Faugh-a-ballaugh!”, which means “clear the way!” It was the motto of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, but also of the 7th Missouri Infantry, another Union unit made up of Irish-American volunteers. It was also used by Company I, 8th Alabama Infantry Regiment on their colours, a green flag that also said “Erin-go bragh” (Ireland forever). The 8th Alabama, however, served in Wilcox’s Brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg.

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