History of the 88th New York State Volunteers
The Irish in the Civil War

Civil War regiments were often recruited and organized along ethnic lines, and one of the most famous fighting units in the Union Army was the Irish Brigade. At its peak, the brigade was composed of four regiments, New York’s 63rd, 69th, and 88th and the Massachusetts 28th Regiment. Many of the brigade soldiers were Irish immigrants from New York City, particularly the Lower East Side.

Part of the recruiting appeal for Irish immigrants in America was the concept that military training received in the Union Army could eventually be used fighting the British to liberate Ireland.

Controversy Leads to Recruitment

The original commander of the Irish Brigade was Colonel Michael Corcoran, who became famous when, out of Irish pride, he refused to have the 69th Regiment of the New York State militia parade in honor of the visiting Prince of Wales. A court-martial to try Corcoran was dropped in 1861 when the US government realized his potential value in recruiting Irish soldiers into the Union Army.

The original recruiting posters for what became the Irish Brigade often refer to “Corcoran’s Irish Legion.” At least one such poster defiantly proclaimed, “Irishmen, you are now training to meet your English enemies.”

History of the 88th NY State Volunteers

Formed in the fall of 1861 and recruited in New York and New Jersey from communities of Irish immigrants, the 88th New York became one of the better known regiments of the Civil War. The unit was started as the 2nd and 4th Regiments of the famed Irish Brigade. The two regimental commanders reached an agreement and in November of 1861 the two regiments were combined under the command of Colonel Baker of the 2nd Regiment with Colonel Meagher of the 4th Regiment taking command of the famous Brigade.

The unit was as fortunate in its manpower as it was in its officers. More than 70% of the men had served in the British army or the British India Army prior to their enlistment in the 88th. This gave them experience and a high level of professionalism on the battlefield. The language of the regiment was Gaelic and the men maintained many of the traditions of their native Ireland throughout their service.

When New York required that the Irish Brigade take part in the universal numbering system, the unit took the number of Britain’s 88th Connaught Rangers. Many of the men of the regiment had received their initial training with this famous unit and decided to bring the number to the U.S. Army.

The Regiment served with the 2nd Brigade (Irish) of 1st Division / II Corps of the Army of the Potomac. They served through the war and fought in every battle that involved the Army of the Potomac.


1861

In December, the regiment left Fort Schuyler for Virginia with 880 officers and men. They were part of a Federal force that now numbered almost 661,000 men, of whom more than half were from the four states of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.


1862

In September, the 88th fought at Antietam where the action was described as “heavy and bitter.” General Meagher and his aides and two chaplains, Fathers Corby and Ouellet rode to the front of the formations as the men advanced. Father Corby from his position in the Brigade front blessed the men and gave a “conditional absolution,” a special blessing for those “in danger of immanent death.” The men advanced steadily as their ranks were thinned by the fire of Confederate volleys.
Corby reported that within 30 minutes there were 506 brigade casualties on the field. General Meagher had his horse shot from under him and was carried dazed from the field. The report of General McClellan said “The Irish Brigade sustained its well-earned reputation.

After suffering terribly in officers and men, and strewing the ground with enemies as they drove them back, their ammunition nearly expended, and their commander, General Meagher, disabled… this brigade was ordered to give place to General Caldwell’s brigade. The lines were passed by the Irish Brigade breaking by company to the rear, and General Caldwell’s company to the front, as steady as on drill.”

In December, the 88th achieved what many consider to be their finest hour. In front of the stone wall at Fredericksburg, Virginia. In an attack that was delayed and, in all likelihood, should never have taken place, the 88th advanced toward Marye’s Heights.
Thomas Gawley, with French’s Division in the first charge, described their advance thusly: “The Irish Brigade comes out of the city in glorious style…in the thickest of the fight where the grim and thankless butchery of war is done. Every man has a sprig of green in his cap and a laughing, half-murderous look in his eye. They pass just to our left, poor, glorious fellows, shaking good-bye to us with their hats!

They reach a point within a stone’s throw of the wall. No farther. They try to go beyond, but are slaughtered. Nothing could advance further and live. They lie down doggedly, determined to hold the ground they have already taken. There, away out in the fields to the front and left of us, we see them for an hour or so, lying in line close to that terrible stone wall.”

Some of their most touching tributes came from the “enemy.” General Pickett wrote to his wife that his “heart was wrung by the dauntless gallantry of the Irish attack on Marye’s Heights.” The correspondent of the London Times, not a Union supporter by any means, wrote, “Never at Fontenoy, Albuera, or at Waterloo was more undaunted courage displayed by the sons of Erin than during those six frantic dashes which they directed against the almost impregnable position of their foe. . . .the bodies which lie in dense masses within forty yards of the muzzles of Colonel Walton’s guns are the best evidence what manner of men they were who pressed on to death with the dauntlessness of a race which has gained glory on a thousand battlefields, and never more richly deserved it than at the foot of Marye’s Heights on the 13th day of December, 1862.”

Nearest to the stone wall was the body of Major William Horgan who, despite numerous wounds and a shattered jaw that kept him from calling out orders, had rallied his men by raising the hilt of his sword and kept moving forward until he finally fell dead only 20 paces from his goal.


1863

At the time of their reenlistment, only 74 men of the Regiment remained. The rest had become casualties of war.


1864

In January the few survivors received permission to return home, where they gained recruits to raise the Regiment to a strength of 440 men and by February of 1864 the Regiment had rejoined the Brigade in Virginia.


1865

When mustered out of service at the end of the war, the unit again showed the price it had paid, as it numbered only 96 men. Their green war colors had appeared on every battlefield on which the Army of the Potomac had fought. The members of the 88th NYSV, known as the “Wolves of the Army of the Potomac,” had earned their place in history.