Francis Irsch

Francis Irsch

Esteemed member Elaine Harris contributes:

I was reading the following last night in Greg Coco's "On the Blood Stained Field II", Pg 35. With the recent discussion about the 11th Corps I was hoping someone might be able to elaborate on the following, and tell me what happened to Captain Irsch???

"The Eleventh Corps of the AOP did not have the best reputation in that army. In fact, after the Northern defeat at Chancellorsville two months before, their standing in the army was at a very low ebb indeed. And much has been written about the 11th's actions in the first day's fight at GB - how it was the first to retreat, uncovering the right flank of the 1st Corps, and so on. However, the following example of courage and spirit by a German officer of the 11th and how he won the MoH at GB, will go far to show that not all of that corps were "fleet of foot".

In 1863 Captain Francis Irsch commanded Co.D, 45th New York Infantry, part of the 3rd Division, (General Carl Schurz) of that ill-fated corps. Arriving on the field about eleven o'clock am in advance of the 11th Corps and after a double-quick march of several miles, part of the 45th was immediately ordered to relieve some of the cavalry units which were slowly retiring before General Heth's Confederate division. As he moved forward, Irsch came in contact with a force of Alabama sharpshooters and two Rebel batteries planted on Oak Hill. Finding cover, Irsch's unit waited for reinforcements. However, General Ewell, seeing the small number of Union soldiers, ordered two brigades to dash ahead and break the weak federal line, Captain Irsch discovered this movement and advised Dilger's battery, which immmediately opened a terrible fire on the Southerners. The 12th and 13th Massachusetts Infantry regiments, posted along Oak Ridge and the Mummasburg Road, added musket fire to the barrage. Soon after this, Irsch ordered a charge, which drove O'Neal's Alabama brigade back into the two Massachusetts regiments, causing the loss of a large part of 3 regiments of O'Neal's brigade. Another portion of this brigade fortified itself inside a nearby barn, which Irsch later stormed, capturing about 100 more prisoners.

When the retreat of the 1st and 11th Corps was finally ordered later in the day, the captain and his small battalion found themselves caught up in the throng of broken commands attempting, to reach the safety of Cemetry Hill, south of GB. Captain Irsch's men stayed together untill they reached Chambersburg Street where they took possesion of a block of houses and kept up an incessant fire on the victorious Confederates who were slowly but surely taking over the town and making prisoners of thousands of Union soldiers.

Soon, ther were no less than six hundred Federals barricaded in the block held by Irsch. Their stubborn defense here lasted several hours. About sundown, one source reported,

... the Confederates demanded the surrender of the gallant little band. Captain Irsch was permitted to leave the temporary defense under a flag of truce and satisfy himself that no succor was in sight and that further resistance was useless ... After a consultation with other officers, the men were ordered to destroy their arms and ammunition and surrender. Captain Irsch was sent to Libby Prison. He made one escape, was recaptured and sent back again....

For his bravery, skill, and daring intrepidity, Francis Irsch was awarded the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, his actions that day remain an almost unknown footnoe in the history of the battle."

-- Elaine
Covent Garden

Esteemed member benedict contributes:


Irsch's actions must be seen in the context of the battle raging around him. Robinson's division was already deployed to the Mummasburg Road (Baxter facing the McLean Farm along the Mburg Road) and Schurz's division was more or less facing Oak Hill. The XI and I Corps will never quite join at their flanks. Irsch is sent ahead from the Schimmelfennig/Van Amsberg brigade with a "cloud" of skirmishers (four companies using their "long range Remington rifles". Dilger's & Wheeler's batteries are ahead of the brigade but behind these skirmishers, firing at the CSA guns on Oak Ridge. Irsch is seen as a threat and Blackford is sent to support Doles against the 45th NYV's "cloud." There's an exchange of artillery fire which precedes OšNeal deploying in the McLean farm, using three regiments for attack, another for right flank guard, another in his rear. He's going to move south and sweep the east face of Oak Ridge/North Seminary Ridge but doesn't realize Baxter is waiting along the Mburg Road.

OšNealšs first attack is raked by Dilger, Wheeler, and 45th NYV firing from the Hagy Orchard into the left of the Sixth Alabama. The rest of O'Neal's attack meets stiff resistance at the Mburg Road. Dilger's OR statement clearly says he fired into gray units as they crossed his front from north to south. That was O'Neal. O'Neal retreats and rallies in the McLean Orchard.

OšNeal makes another attack while Iverson is getting into position for his attack, "up above" on the west side of Oak Ridge. Wheeler & Dilger plaster OšNeal and the 45th NYV is yet closer to the McLean farm, firing into rear of 6th Alabama. This again sends O'Neil's men back north to the McLean orchard. O'Neal leaves the area, going westerly over Oak Ridge, and Pagešs Battery limbers to rear. Irsch's skirmishers follow OšNealšs retreat, capture 80 Johnnies, and occupy the McLean farm. You can find a little 45th NYV advance marker in the McLean "driveway" that symbolizes this action.

Iverson attacks on the western side of Oak Ridge and Baxter's units meet him. Paul's brigade is deploying along the Mburg Road. At one point, some companies of the 45th NYV get up on Oak Ridge, above the McLean Farm, and fire west.

Irsch conducted a marvelously successful action while he was out ahead of the XI Corps. He then fell back with his brigade. The episode of street-fighting in the town was separate action that surely does indicate the captain's blood was up on July 1. The citation regarding his Medal of Honor cites both actions with no details -- the capture of prisoners and "holding part of the town."

Does this make better sense of the story? Irsch got his Medal, by the way, in May of 1892.

Ben Maryniak