February 26th, 2009
Boston, like New York and Philadelphia, had a large Irish immigrant population in the nineteenth century. The region’s ethnic makeup is reflected in the regiments that formed in response to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The 28th Massachusetts, officially designated the Second Irish Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, formed in Boston on September 24, 1861. As a sign of their heritage, the group also went by the unofficial name of the “Faugh-a-ballagh” Regiment, which is Irish Gaelic for “clear the way.” The 28th saw combat in many of the most significant battles of the war, including Antietam, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. They eventually joined with three predominantly Irish regiments from New York to form the Irish Brigade.
Throughout the war, the 28th Massachusetts continued to display pride in their Irish ancestry. While most regiments in the Civil War carried a state flag and a national flag, the 28th Massachusetts took pride in their Irish flags as well. One of these flags has become known as the Tiffany flag. Made by Tiffany’s of New York in 1862, the hand-stitched silk flag is green with a harp in the center below a grouping of clouds. Clover dot the bottom of the image. Because the commanding general did not know which regiment would be chosen to round out his brigade at the time he commissioned the flag, The scroll at the top of the flag reads simply, “ 4th Reg’t., Irish Brigade.” At one time a second scroll at the bottom of the flag bore the Gaelic motto, “Riamh Nar Dhruid O Sbairn Lann” which means “Who never retreated from the clash of spears.” The line is taken from a poem by the ancient Irish poet Oisin.
Green has long been a color used as a symbol of Ireland. It represents not only the lush landscape, but also revolution and Irish nationalism. The harp first appeared on an Irish flag in 1642, when a man by the name of Owen O’Neill flew such a flag from his ship upon bringing arms to the Irish to assist them in a conflict with the English. The harp, symbolizing Ireland’s long history of music and its connection to Irish mythology, has remained a relevant Irish icon, today appearing on the back of the Irish Euro coins.
Interestingly, the Battle of Fredericksburg was the first conflict for the Tiffany flag. The three New York regiments of the Irish Brigade had sent for replacement flags, and so the 28th Massachusetts was the only regiment to carry a green flag that day. The sight of the flag being continuously marched up Marye’s Heights would become deeply symbolic of the Irish-American relationship with their new country. Perhaps inevitably, however, most of the Tiffany flag did not survive the war. The remaining pieces have been set against a replacement green backdrop; the difference in color can be seen upon close viewing. The regiment presented the flag to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts upon the end of the war, and it currently resides in the Massachusetts State House (information gleaned from this e-mail), though an active group of reenactors continues to use a replica flag throughout the year, including here in Fredericksburg.