thomas meagher

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The Irish Brigade,

During the American Civil War, there were a handful of units on both sides that gained a reputation as being elite units, among the bravest, toughest, and fiercest of the army.  The Iron Brigade for example, has a reputation as the best unit of the whole Civil War. Another unit to earn such a distinction was the Irish Brigade, consisting of Irish immigrants and composed of the 69th, 88th, and 63rd New York Volunteer Regiments.  The Irish Brigade was commanded by Brigadier Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, who was born in Ireland but had to flee to America because he was a participant in the failed Revolution of 1848 against the British.

The courage and tenacity of the Irish Brigade began at the Battle of Bull Run AKA Manasas when it was one of the few units that didn’t break and run when the Confederates gained the upper hand.  Holding firm, the Irish Brigade formed an effective rear guard, holding off the entire Army of Virginia while the Army of the Potomac fled in panic, thus averting a major military disaster for the Union.  Throughout the rest of the war, the Irish Brigade was often employed as elite shock troops, either forming the spearhead of Union assaults or being employed in desperate rear guard actions as the Union Army retreated.  The big problem with being an elite unit is that elite units suffer disproportionate casualties.  The Irish Brigade was no exception.  Originally the Irish Brigade originally consisted of around 2,000 - 2,500 men.  When the unit was disbanded, it had less than 600 men. 

Much of the Irish Brigade’s woes stemmed from the fact that they were armed with Model 1842 Springfield muskets which were smoothbores.  Gen. Meagher insisted on the smoothbore muskets because then they could be loaded with buck and ball unlike a rifled musket.  Instead of a single bullet, the musket was loaded with a .69 caliber ball and 4 to 8 pieces of .30 caliber buckshot, thus turning the musket in a shotgun.  The problem with this was that their muskets had limited range, no more than 50 - 100 yards.  When advancing against enemies armed with rifled muskets, which had a range of several hundred yards, the brigade would suffer horrific casualties.  However, once in range, a volley from the Brigade would be devastating.  Due to the casualties and loss of manpower, the Irish Brigade was disbanded in June of 1864, them men reassigned to other units.

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The Springfield Model 1842,

The Springfield Model 1842 percussion musket had a lot of firsts for the US military.  It was the first American percussion lock military arm, and it was the first US military arm to completely utilize interchangeable machine made parts. However, while the Model 1842 was also a notable last in American arms history, being the last smoothbore musket produced in the United States and the last .69 caliber musket in the US. 

With an overall length of 58 inches and a weight of ten pounds, the Springfield Model 1848 was produced to bring the US Army into the age of the percussion lock. It was primarily used in the Mexican War from 1846 to 1848. Later it was common with both the Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War. While the M1842 was a leap in technology for American military arms, it was also notable for being the last of an old technology going back to the 16th century; the smoothbore military arm. Until the invention of the conical minie ball, most military firearms were smoothbore. Rifled arms were difficult to produce, and slow to fire due to it being difficult to load. For a bullet to be accurate it must tightly fit into the bore in order to make contact with the rifling, typically done with a tight fitting patch. This meant that the user would have to cram the ball against the rifling in order to load. For the common infantryman in combat, it was much simpler to just use a smoothbore with an under caliber ball, regardless of the decreased accuracy and range. Rifles were relegated to specialized troops such as sharpshooters, skirmishers, and light infantry.

The Model 1842 may have been a smoothbore, but the designers at the Springfield Armory were looking ahead into the future when they created the M1842. One of it’s features was a thicker than normal barrel. This was in expectation that someone would invent a fast loading bullet that could be used in rifles, and thus the M1842 would need to be rebored and rifled in the future. Indeed, this was the case as tens of thousands of M1842′s were converted to rifled muskets for the American Civil War. Originally the M1842 lacked a rear sight, which was common with smoothbore muskets, however, sights were typically added a part of the conversion process.

While many M1842′s were converted into rifled muskets, many others were not. Such smoothbore muskets were common in the Confederate Army because the South lacked the industry and technical know-how in order to convert them. Some units in Union Army used them as well. One notable example was 69th New York Infantry (Irish Brigade), who were armed with them because it’s commander, Brig. Gen. Thomas Meagher, chose the weapon for the brigade, to be loaded with buck and ball cartridges which he believed to be more effective in combat. While the buck and ball cartridge was devastating from the M1842 at short range volleys, the Irish Brigade suffered terrible casualties from being armed with a short range weapon.

The Springfield Model 1842 began production in 1844, and ended with the adoption of the Springfield Model 1855 rifled musket. Around 275,000 were manufactured.