Immigrants that paid for citizenship in 'Buckets of Blood'

Phil Briggs
July 11, 2018 - 8:12 am

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Watch the news today and you can't escape the debates over immigration.

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But, when we hear about service members who are not citizens, many wonder, "How can illegal immigrants serve in our military?"

History proves that soldiers without citizenship are nothing new and nowhere is that history clearer than Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, MD. 

On a hot July afternoon, we met United States Park Ranger, Mike Gamble. He showed us how the path to citizenship for thousands of immigrants in the 1860's traversed one of the bloodiest battles in US military history—The Sunken Road and The Irish Brigade

Looking down the Sunken Road, where Confederate soldiers from Alabama open fired on the advancing soldiers from Maryland's 5th, killing 450-500 within the first hour of battle.

The National Park Service describes it as, "a dirt farm lane which was used primarily by farmers to bypass Sharpsburg and had been worn down over the years by rain and wagon traffic." 

But on September 17, 1862, it earned the name "Bloody Lane," and for Irish immigrants (many of whom had only recently arrived in the country) it would be their burial ground.

Gamble explained that approximately 2,400 Confederate soldiers from Alabama and North Carolina hunkered down on the road, with guns and cannons aimed at the fields and woods just beyond an embankment. 

That morning, Union troops (which significantly outnumbered the rebels) slowly emerged from the corn fields and advanced toward their position.

"As the Union troops from the 5th Maryland Infantry Regiment emerged from the corn fields their bodies were silhouetted by the blue sky behind them and they were perfect targets,” said Gamble. “The Alabama Confederates fired into their flanks and within five minutes 450 to 500 Union soldiers were killed or wounded right there, those that survived quickly retreated and held position behind the ridge."

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Above: Plaques at Antietam show photographs taken of The Sunken Road, immediately after the battle.  Bodies of Confederate soldiers still laying on the ground. 

After other divisions failed to push the Confederates back, Gamble said ominously, "That's when Union General Israel Richardson`s division moved in with the Irish Brigade." 

The Irish soldiers charged across a plowed field, a few hundred yards down the road from the Marylanders failed advance.

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"As they come and meet their destiny with North Carolinians on the sunken road, they have to climb over fences. When they finally get within range, they fire five volleys, but there was no place to hide. There was no taking cover behind a ridge, these men were out in the open ... and the North Carolina Confederates couldn't miss. They used 'buck and ball' ammunition- it's like a shotgun slug, but a .69 ca bullet plus two .33 ca buckshot.  It just  tore gaps into the ranks of these Irish soldiers. They would start the day with over 1050 soldiers from the 69th, 88th and 63rd New York Regiments.  By the end of the battle they would have over 50 percent casualties ... that's over 500 men killed or wounded." Gamble said.

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Though they would eventually receive support from other Union regiments and drive the Confederates back, the question remains, wouldn't these brave Irish soldiers be considered illegal immigrants by today's standards? 

"Well let's consider the Irish Brigade" said Gamble. "At the time, New York and the other states were levied a number, and they had to find ways to put that many men into service. There was no draft." He explained how as each state was required to produce thousands of soldiers, so fighting for either the Union or Confederacy was an easy decision for desperate and poor Irish immigrants.  "Immigrants saw they could make tweleve to fifteen dollars a month. It doesn't sound like much today, but back then it was something to send back home." 

Gamble said there was another motivation too, "They wanted to show they were worthy of being a citizen of the United States of America. They were willing to shed blood or even sacrifice their live ... which they surely did. Between Antietam and Fredericksburg, the Irish Brigade shed blood in buckets full."

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Above: Clockwise from the top; The Battlefield- The Sunken Road on the left, opposite the field where hundreds of charging Irish soldiers died; Close up of the bronze sculptures on the memorial; The Irish Brigade Memorial; The Aftermath- Confederate soldiers killed still on The Sunken Road. 

So, as we view this battle in the modern era, is there something to learn about the way we look at immigration?

Gamble looked across the plowed fields baking in the July sun and said, "When you look at the Civil War, you're seeing all sorts of groups that shed blood. You had Irish, German, Hispanic and Native Americans fighting in the Civil War."

Gamble noted, "It was a different time. When we think of immigrats in the mid 19th Century, some were fleeing severe injustice, whether it be Eastern Europe, Germany, or even the Irish, who may have actually starved to death if they stayed.  So, they saw this as the land of opportunity, a grand experiment in democracy ... and they wanted to be part of it. But, the also wanted to prove themselves worthy of being citizens ...and many of them died for that chance." 

As we walked away from the battlefield, I couldn't help but think that all parties, citizens and immigrants alike, should know this chapter of American history.    

Briggs

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