By Chip Burson
Why, pray tell, did they call it barren? Cloudless and just warming with the pent up energy of an oddly Spring-like November morning, this lovely bower walk hid all the history; every spilled drop of it.
They had been ordered down south, these boys from the cities. These were not the raw and ignorantly brave farm lads of Indiana or Ohio. No. These were the hard-edged, spit ‘n cut, knife totin’ alley cats of Irish ghettos in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Belligerent immigrants, newly minted Americans, conscripted or pressed to service from poverty, serving as proxy-warriors. Paid for by well-to-do cowards as their substitutes. This could give a man $300 to leave for his family. His life, by any calculation, might not be worth that anyway. To him that life didn’t amount to all that much, but his freedom did.
The idea of conscription tasted like the English boot in his Irish mouth, and that was enough to make him a pretty good killer; if not a good soldier. The only thing these men even agreed on was that this was “the rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight.” Their officers, mostly arts and science boys, who reckoned their charges a little below the Rebs, and just above the Negroes, had never been deeper South than Baltimore, if that far. But here they were, down below Atlanta and moving South behind Sherman; slouching toward Savannah. “That Man Sherman,” as the women called him, in less than a month would give that city to President Lincoln for a Christmas present.
There were Irish aplenty in the Southern forces, too. Whole lot of Irish were allowed to join the 10th Tennessee, and then there were The Sons of Erin; Kelly’s Irish Brigade from Missouri. The Louisiana Tigers were full of Irish. And these Southern boys all knew the Yankee Irish Brigade hollered, “faugh a ballagh!” Meaning, “Clear the way.” Pissed off those Reb Irish right down to the core. Echoes of British overlords telling a field hand to get to the side of the road so as not to spook his fancy horse.
The Irish in the 24th Georgia Volunteers followed General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb, who was killed at Fredericksburg in ‘62, and well-remembered down here. Many of his boys were in the fight for the training and experience, with a plan to return home to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and free Ireland from the British. The Yankee Irish Brigade threw themselves at the sunken road before Marye’s Heights, where their Southern kin manned the wall below, and to great slaughter. Cobb’s force reduced the Yankees from about 1600 down to 250 survivors. Reduced meaning gun-butchered, and that was that. Countrymen from the homeland slaughtering their own countrymen in the new land; brothers and cousins and one-time neighbors.
The remainder of the Scots-Irish Georgia McDuffie Rifles, proud volunteers back in ’61, were now returnees, paroled prisoners of war, and mostly old men. The rest of these determined rear action guerrillas were the walking wounded (missing arms, legs, or both), a few boys, some Negroes; and three women who constituted the cook, the quartermaster, and the medical corp. They had served since Shiloh, and were all but gone by Chickamauga. This bunch had mostly straggled back to the bowels of South Georgia, or been found unqualified to serve when it all started, and had never left home. The women and Negroes were recent volunteers, more or less. Everybody was armed and expecting to personally kill That Man Sherman, and then be hanged. Or at least, that story helped them sleep at night.
As those singing Irish came marching down the treed avenue, broader and less overgrown then, the McDuffies lay in wait along the fence lines and hedge rows. They weren’t much as soldiers, but the veteran survivors knew exactly what crossfire and surprise could do, regardless of the irregularity of the firepower. More shotguns and muskets than rifles, a few pistols, lot of knives, and some brick bats and assorted other hand missiles made up the armory. All this, and an overabundance of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it courage was arrayed to knock off That Man Sherman, and as many other Yankees as time, ammunition, and breath would allow.
And that’s what they did. All but the Sherman part. Po’ Man Henry, who was nicknamed ‘toe foot,’ slipped and fell backward through the hedgerow and out into the line of march, startling the Yankees, who took him to be a just a crazy old black man. So, they poked at him with bayonets and boot toes. The McDuffies lay low and quiet while the fun was being had until one of the wags put a rope around the old man’s neck; clearly planning to drag him a while. Silence was still being held when the fatal cry came from the back of the Yankee Irish ranks, “faugh a ballagh!”
The fence line and hedgerows exploded as one, the Rebel Yell went up like a high yodel from the Devil’s hound master, and they killed every damn one of them. Murdered, really. It happened so fast and loud that men dropped with weapons still on their shoulders. Yankees fired two, maybe three shots, but they were dead before they hit the ground. The dying Captain College Boy was alive just long enough to see the cook put a camp knife to the throat of his lieutenant, and his last breath left him as old John Terrapin, the wise and perpetually drunk Creek Indian mix, eased on over to see what it might be like to take some hair. McKenna, the youngest of the McDuffies, spit on the harp pinned to a Yankee’s tunic, and said, “See you in hell, and not the homeland.” And that was that, except for the stripping, boot fitting, and burying.
This morning, there’s a circle of mostly beet-faced, hungover, white dudes with bellies heading from fit toward fat. Relocated Yankees down from Atlanta for a weekend of Preserve Hunting, all arranged around a dove field mostly spraying each other with number eight shot and bad football jokes. Not exactly “Deliverance.”
Mrs. Agatha O’Reilly McIntyre and her daughter, the first local African American school superintendent in the county, enjoying a slow stroll up the Alley were just about mowed down by an already drunk Ohio transplant in a camouflage golf cart. Camouflage. Golf. Cart. They eased off to the edge of the road, as the mighty hunter bellowed, “Gotta go pee!
Clear the Way!”
Faugh a ballagh, indeed.
Photos by Deborah Fagan Carpenter