The Fighting Irish from Notre Dame are named for the Irish immigrants who joined the Union Army and fought in the Civil War. These men stepped off the ships in Boston or New York and were immediately handed a gun and a uniform. The Irish immigrants made up 15% of the Union Army. Many of them died at Gettysburg. Their priest lived and later went on to be President of Notre Dame. He named the college athletes for the men who lost their lives at the battle that proved a turning point of the Civil War.
At the battle of Kolb Hill, Confederate soldiers from Maryland fought Union soldiers from their own state. It’s fair to say that nobody was a real winner in this one.
In the bloody exchanges of the three days of fighting in July 1865, more than 9,000 men died and a further 42,000 were captured or wounded. The body of a confederate soldier last surfaced on the field in 1996, a present day reminder of the carnage of not so long ago. Thousands from both sides were buried in shallow graves all across the Pennsylvania pasture land. Many confederate soldiers were left to lie where they fell, bodies exposed on the battlefield for nine years. Eventually, many of those corpses were shipped home to the South, but it was not until 1928 that rebel soldiers were given plots in the national cemetery–the one that Lincoln so famously opened with the Gettysburg address.
Much of the language of the battle in still in common use today. We lead the charge, take the hill, hold our ground, and fly the flag, using these terms in talk of office politics and petty intrigue without thinking of what these strategies meant to–and cost–the soldiers of the civil war.
On our trip, hosted by the fabulous Sue Boardman from the Gettysburg Foundation, we learned to fall in to line, following the flag bearer and color guard. Men clamored to carry their colors, carrying out the general’s orders and providing direction for the battalions that followed behind. Of course they were targets–dead men walking. I remember saying to my boss in one of my cushy jobs ” I like to carry the flag–stand up for something of substance and an organization that matters to me” I meant it–but of course the risks of showing my colors were nothing compared to the dangers faced by those loyal to either the Union or the rebels in the Civil War. It is sobering to stand on the green sward at Gettysburg–a reminder to choose your battles, and your words, very carefully.