Episode 2: The Last Full Measure

At the battle of Antietam the Irish Brigade lost more than half their men but win the respect of friend and foe alike for the valor they showed in battle but the scars of battle are showing as Brigadier General Francis Meagher is overcome by the body count. Into the breach steps Fr William Corby the “Fighting Priest”

Early morning New York.March 17th, 2010.The 69th New York infantry regiment, the last surviving regiment of the Irish Brigade, leads the St. Patrick’s day parade. They wear boxwood on their tunics to honour their long dead American civil war comrades. It is a tradition begun at Fredericksburg in December 1862 when Thomas Francis Meagher unable to find shamrock, a traditional emblem of Ireland, hands each man a sprig of boxwood to remind them of their homeland.

Two men step into the limelight after the terrible losses of the brigade at Antietam the brigade chaplain Fr William Corby and Lt. James McKay Rorty who leads a daring escape from a confederate prison.

General Meagher is wounded at Antietam when his horse is shot from under him. Meagher slowly recovers from his physical wounds. but he is in emotional turmoil, struggling to cope with the losses his brigade has suffered
After eight months of constant fighting Meagher expects his troops to be relieved but it was not to be. In December 1862, exhausted and decimated, the Irish Brigade is ordered to the town of Fredericksburg Virginia. Meagher intends to lead his men into battle but his wounds prevent him doing so and he can only watch the coming disaster from the sideline. Of the 1300 men of the brigade who enter the battle field less than 500 return. The “Fighting Priest” William Corby is everywhere on the field of battle giving comfort to the dead and dying and urging the living on to do their duty. James McKay Rorty is valiant throughout the battle before he is wounded by a sniper.

Meagher distraught at the losses suffered goes above the chain of command and appeals directly to President Lincoln to take his brigade out of the line after they have endured 18 months of constant battle. His request is refused and he resigns his command in disgust.

With Meagher gone and so many officers killed and wounded the Brigade’s chaplain Fr. William Corby becomes a guiding figure for the men. On the battlefield he was courageous under fire, and off it, he was a friend and confident to the soldiers. He would become one of the most famous non combatants of the war.

The last great battle of the American civil war, Gettysburg, will further test the Irish Brigade. Now promoted to the rank of Captain James McKay Rorty a brilliant strategist with a great military career ahead of him begs his commanding officer to let him take to the battle field and he is put in command of a artillery unit. Fr Corby once again is on horseback riding along the line giving absolution to the brigade …. And to the confederate troops they oppose.

“I watched as the men plunged into the dense smoke of battle, perhaps in less then half an hour their eyes would open to see into the ocean of eternity.”

Fr William Corby

Capt James McKay Rorty placed in command of a Union battery finds himself at the centre of the firestorm. For two hours shells rain down on them. One by one his cannons are knocked out of action. His soldiers cut down. With only one gun surviving Rorty mans the cannon. He is about to die as are more than half the remaining brigade.

The monument to the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg, commemorates the men who died here. It is a testament to the 88th, 69th and 63rd New York Irish regiments that fought in the Brigade. On it is a plaque in the memory of James McKay Rorty an Irish Hero who had given the last full measure of devotion for his adopted homeland. 

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