Raise the Harp of Erin, Boys!
When Irish men and other residents of Boston and eastern Massachusetts enlisted in the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers during the fall and winter of 1861, they were told that they were enlisting in “The 2nd Irish Regiment of Massachusetts Irish Volunteers” (the First was the 9th Massachusetts Infantry). This new Irish regiment would join the Irish Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Meagher. The Irish Brigade had been formed by three New York regiments – the 69th New York, a pre-war militia unit with which Meagher and his Zouave company had fought at 1st Bull Run, and the newly raised 88th New York and 63rd New York — and was to include a regiment each from the Irish communities in Philadelphia and Boston.
In November 1861, as the New York regiments of the brigade prepared to leave to join the federal army, the Ladies of New York presented the regiments with their stand of colors – a national flag and a regimental color marking their place in the Irish Brigade. The national flags each had the name of the regiment embroidered on the center crimson stripe and had a silken fringe of saffron color. Globes surmounted by eagles topped the staffs.
The three regimental flags were a deep rich green, also fringed. In its center, each flag bore a richly embroidered golden harp and above the harp was a sun bursting out from below a bank of clouds. Below the harp was a wreath of shamrocks bent around the instrument There were also two scrolls – the one at the top of the flag featuring the name of the regiment – and the scroll at the bottom of the flag bearing a motto in Gaelic – “Riamh nár dhruid ó sbairn lann” (Who never treated from the clash of spears). The motto was taken from the poetry of the ancient Irish warrior-bard Oisin, specifically from ‘the Agallamh’, the poetic debate between Oisin and St Patrick. The staffs had silver-plated spear points.
The symbolism of a golden harp against a green field representing Ireland was first used in the standard carried in 1642 by Owen Roe O’Neill. A veteran of the Spanish army on the continent, O’Neill returned to Ireland to take part in the fighting that was both part of and apart from the civil war in England between parliament and King Charles I. A flag bearing a golden harp against a green background reportedly flew at the maintop of the ship that brought O’Neill and his supply of arms to Ireland. The arms were for the army of the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny – an army that Owen Roe O’Neill would raise, train, and command in its successful campaign in Ulster. Tragically, O’Neill would die in 1649 – attributed by many to poison but never proven.
The harp would be raised again during the rising of 1798 when it was carried in a number of variations, and again as part of Robert Emmett’s failed plot of 1803. By mid-century, though, it was already being overtaken by more modern symbolism. Thomas Meagher himself marched in the failed 1848 revolt under an Irish ‘tricolor’ of orange, white, and green brought from Paris. Afterwards, Irishmen would fight under many banners in many places, the harp and the tricolor recurring symbols of their cause, but a free Ireland would raise the tricolor as the national flag.
But to return to the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers – even 19th Century War Departments sometimes erred and the 28th was sent not to the Irish Brigade but to Hilton Head, South Carolina where they joined in various operations against Fort Pulaski and Confederate forces in the area. The regiment remained there until July 1862 when it was assigned to General Burnside’s corps of the Army of the Potomac. The regiment fought with this corps at 2nd Bull Run, Chantilly, South Mountain, and Antietam.
Finally, in November 1862, the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers joined the Irish Brigade in camp near Falmouth, Virginia – across the Rappahannock from the town of Fredericksburg. During the intervening period, Massachusetts had been well represented in the Irish Brigade by the 29th Massachusetts Volunteers – a predominantly ‘Yankee’ regiment welcomed as honorary Irishmen by the rest of the brigade after seeing them in action on the battlefield. General Meagher now presented the 28th Massachusetts with a green Irish flag similar to those carried by the New York regiments and like those made by Tiffany’s of New York City – a company whose flags number among the richest of all Civil War colors. The stave had silver furnishings and the lower three feet could be bent upwards by means of a hinge, which under normal use was covered by a plated metal sleeve. The flag itself was fully embroidered by hand. As a result, the lettering appears backwards on the reverse side. The flag also was bounded by a yellow silk fringe.
Meagher apparently ordered the flag made up at the same time as those of the three New York regiments as he knew that Massachusetts’ Governor Andrew was raising a regiment that would eventually join his brigade. Not knowing, of course, what that regiment’s number would be, the flag simply states “4th Regiment, Irish Brigade” on the top scroll.
This newly issued “Tiffany” flag would soon gain special significance for the Brigade. Shortly afterwards, Meagher sent the tattered and torn green Tiffany flags of the three New York units home so that replacements could be made for them. As a result, on December 13, 1862 as the Irish Brigade was ordered up the hill at Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg, only the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers still carried “the harp of Erin.” Meagher placed the regiment in the center of the line and the entire Irish Brigade closed ranks behind the golden harp and green banner of the Tiffany flag of the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers. They would follow this flag in a charge that would make the brigade legendary. Seen by many participants on both sides as the banner went up the slope again and again toward certain destruction at the hands of the rebels positioned strongly on the top, this distinctive green flag would symbolize the sacrifices that were so readily made by Irish-American patriots for their newly adopted country.
On December 26, 1862, the 28th Massachusetts sent home Capt. Charles Sanborn of Company K bearing their battle-torn 1st National colors and the Pilot flag. The state issued the regiment its 2nd National colors to replace the first set on January 20, 1863. This 2nd National color was larger and more regulation than the first, although the canton was a similar dark blue. Apparently, no new state color was issued, rather, once again the city of Boston sent a 2nd green Irish flag back with Capt. Sanborn. When Sanborn returned with the new flags in February, Peter Welsh (soon to named color bearer) remarked in a letter dated February 15, 1863 that “our captain has got back and brought a new green flag for the regiment.” It is not certain what this flag looked like but, it has been assumed that it was almost a carbon copy of the Pilot flag. However, there a surviving green flag in Massachusetts is identified as the “third Irish color carried by the regiment” but which does not bear much resemblance to the original Pilot flag Moreover, this “third” Irish color was reportedly presented in May, 1864 and not in 1863.
In any case, from early 1863 on, it is unclear exactly which of the green Irish regimental flags the 28th Massachusetts now carried. They had the fine Tiffany flag just given to them four months earlier by Gen. Meagher still in their possession along with a reported brand new remake of their former Pilot flag. However, one might reason that since the 28th Massachusetts had been raised originally to be a part of the Irish Brigade (a brigade which had won by this time considerable laurels and national media attention), they might have chosen to retain the Tiffany flag in preference over the Pilot flag replacement. This view is supported by previous practice– they had carried the Tiffany flag rather than the 1st Pilot flag at Fredericksburg just a few months before, so why not continue this tradition? In the absence of any other evidence, we might assume that the regiment carried the 2nd National colors and the Tiffany flag through the many engagements that were to follow that include Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Mine Run in 1863, and Wilderness, Po River, and Spotsylvania in 1864.
How you can help:
Eight of the nine regimental and national colors issued to the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers survive today. As its regimental banner, Company B, 28th Massachusetts Volunteers carries a replica of the Tiffany flag, bearing the golden harp of Ireland against a green field. If you saw the film “Gods and Generals” you saw this flag in the scenes depicting the Irish Brigade’s charge at Marye’s Heights. You also saw the company’s replica of the national colors as the first U.S. flag depicted during the film’s opening title sequence. The company’s Tiffany flag has also been present at numerous National Park Service educational events, living history and school programs, and major reenactments. The unit’s flag can also be seen annually when it again leads the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers and the Irish Brigade along the actual route through the town of Fredericksburg and up Marye’s Heights as we commemorate the men of the regiment and the brigade. Sadly, like the original, the company’s green banner is showing its age and we are preparing to replace it. Your contributions to our efforts to recreate a symbol of Irish-American patriotism and courage would be most appreciated and welcome.
The 28th Mass Co B is a 501 (c) (3)non-profit corporation.
All contributions are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed under the law.
A History of Irish Flags from earliest times. G.A. Hayes-McCoy. 1979, Academy Press, Dublin.
The Irish Brigade. Capt. D.P. Conyngham 1867. Reprint. Olde Soldier Books, Inc. Gaithersburg.
Campaigning with the Irish Brigade: Pvt. John Ryan, 28th Massachusetts. Ed Sandy Barnard. 2001, Terre Haute. AST Press.
Flags of the Civil War. Philip Katcher 2000. London. Osprey.
With thanks to Company K, 28th Massachusetts Volunteers.