America's Civil War: Why the Irish Fought for the Union

America’s Civil War: Why the Irish Fought for the Union

By Richard F. Welch
10/3/2006 • HistoryNet

The Irish experience in the Civil War has probably received more attention — and celebration — than that of any other ethnic group. Mention of the Irish commonly conjures up images of the Irish Brigade’s doomed charge at Fredericksburg, of Father William Corby granting absolution before Gettysburg, or possibly the mourning wolfhound at the base of the Irish Brigade’s monument on the same battlefield. The reality of the Irish experience in the war was, as might be expected, more complex. The most politically active — and contentious — of the nation’s mid-19th-century immigrant groups, the Irish shared many of the experiences of the Northern soldier. Yet in some ways the Irish were different, not only from native-born soldiers, but from other immigrant groups as well.

Although a smattering of Irish Catholics had lived in America since the colonial period, there was no significant immigration to the United States until the catastrophe of the Potato Famine (1845-1853) set it in motion. The first non-Protestant group to arrive in large numbers, the Irish often faced both religious and ethnic prejudice from the then largely Anglo-Saxon population. Anti-Catholic, particularly anti–Irish Catholic, feelings led to the formation of the American or Know-Nothing Party, which enjoyed a brief period of influence in the early 1850s before the growing sectional dispute pushed the Catholic immigrant issue to the sidelines.

Growing Irish presence and political power in the nation’s cities worried elite Americans such as the Boston Brahmins, who accepted the British aristocracy’s view of the Irish as a superstitious, ignorant and volatile people who had to be kept under control, if not barred from the nation’s door. Certainly the masses of impoverished, uneducated Irish crowded into ethnic ghettoes, with customs and sometimes a language that seemed alien, colored the nativist response. Inveterate New York diarist George Templeton Strong exemplified the attitude of many wealthy old-stock Americans. Happening upon a group of Irish women chanting ‘the keen’ — the traditional form of Gaelic lament — after a number of their menfolk were killed in a construction accident, Strong wrote: ‘It was an uncanny sound to hear; quite new to me….Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.’

Irish political attitudes were strongly affected by the upsurge in nativism from 1840-1855, when convents were burned in Charlestown, Mass., and Philadelphia. The Know-Nothings even took over the Massachusetts state government in 1854, after which they passed a law forbidding the raising of militia units comprised mostly of men of foreign birth, a measure aimed at the Irish ‘Columbia Artillery.’ The newcomers were also aware that many of the old-stock social and commercial elite, while not Know-Nothings themselves, shared similar views. Though the fast unraveling Whig Party made little effort to attract Irish support, the newcomers were welcomed by the Democratic Party. By 1860, they were a major force in urban Democratic politics and were poised to take over many of the party’s urban organizations, a feat they achieved in the 1870s and 1880s.

When the Republican Party emerged after 1854 to challenge the Democrats, it found relatively few Irish adherents. The presence in the party of former Know-Nothings, plus the strain of abolitionism in its New England adherents, rendered the Republicans suspect in the eyes of most Irishmen. The Irish antagonism towards abolitionism stemmed from the group’s fragile economic position. Common Irish laborers found themselves in competition with free blacks in the North (and in New Orleans). The abolitionist demand for the end of slavery provoked almost hysterical fear of a flood of liberated slaves marching north and ousting the Irish from their jobs by accepting lower wages. Although the Republican platform of 1860 called only for no further expansion of slavery, many Irish suspected that the demand was only a first step.

Nevertheless, the firing on Fort Sumter and President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers evoked a sense of patriotism to the Union that was fanned by Irish newspapers and political and religious leaders. Patrick Donohue’s Boston Pilot, the ‘Irishman’s bible,’ enthusiastically supported the war to restore the Union. Archbishop John Joseph Hughes of New York, the ‘bishop and chief’ of the New York Irish whose influence was nationwide, also urged his flock to help suppress the rebellion. But early in the war he pointedly warned the Lincoln administration that if Irish-American soldiers had ‘to fight for the abolition of slavery, then, indeed, they will turn away in disgust from the discharge of what would otherwise be a patriotic duty.’

New York was home to the two most famous Irish names in the nation, Michael Corcoran and Thomas Francis Meagher. Corcoran, colonel of the 69th New York State Militia, had won fame, or condemnation, for refusing to present his regiment for review when the Prince of Wales visited the city in 1860. Relieved of command for disobedience, Corcoran was facing court-martial when the war necessitated his reassignment to the regiment. The 69th was one of the first volunteer units to reach Washington in the secession spring, and fought well at First Bull Run, where Corcoran was captured. The feisty commander refused to give his parole, and remained a prisoner in Richmond until exchanged over a year later, emerging as the first Irish hero of the struggle.

That left Meagher, whose conduct at Bull Run is still being debated, to take the lead in raising Irish troops for the new two- and three-year units authorized to replace the three-month volunteers. The ambitious Meagher, who played the Irish card to advance his own political interests, energetically began to organize what would become the Irish Brigade, patterned after the Irish brigades which fought for the Catholic powers of Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Meagher hoped the nascent brigade would become the nucleus of an Irish division. He won critical approval for the endeavor from Archbishop Hughes, even though the prelate voiced private misgivings. Ethnic regiments, Hughes confided to friends, were apt to fan ethnic divisiveness and lead to problems. But with Hughes’ public backing, Meagher soon persuaded New York’s governor, Edwin Morgan, to support the raising of Irish regiments that would be combined into a brigade. Meagher signed up 3,000 volunteers in New York, winning a brigadier generalcy for himself in the process. The Irish Brigade that emerged in November 1861 was organized around three New York units: a reconstituted 69th New York, which effectively formed the brigade’s core, was joined by the newly created 63rd and 88th regiments.

A number of support organizations soon emerged dedicated to maintaining the Irish regiments and their families. Women took active roles in such associations, involving themselves in matters ranging from support for the soldiers’ families to presentations of the distinctive green battle flags. The 63rd New York took to calling itself ‘Mrs. Meagher’s Own’ after she presented the unit with its first stand of colors. Maria Daly, wife of prominent jurist and social and political leader Charles P. Daly, headed a committee to acquire a green standard from Tiffany & Co. for the 69th New York. Later, when the butcher’s bill from Antietam and Fredericksburg came due, Mrs. Daly undertook to expand health care for wounded brigade members near the front and at home in New York.

Among the indirect casualties of the brigade’s battles was the large number of orphans and homeless children. The Catholic Protectory for Homeless and Wayward Children opened in May 1863 to provide for their needs. By the end of the year, it was caring for 1,000 youngsters. Likewise Catholic nuns, predominately Irish, served as military nurses at the front and in hospitals in New York.

Governor John J. Andrew of Massachusetts, lobbied by both New York’s Irish leaders and the Pilot‘s Donohue, agreed to the creation of three Irish regiments, the 9th, 28th and 29th Massachusetts. The latter two were quickly combined into one regiment, the 28th Massachusetts, which was attached to the Irish Brigade in December 1862 just before Fredericksburg. In Pennsylvania prominent businessman Dennis Heenan received permission to form a unit of Irish soldiers. Recruiting went slowly until Corcoran, finally exchanged in August 1862, visited Philadelphia, where his fiery speeches led to a spike in enlistments. Originally called the ‘Brian Boru United Irish Legion,’ the unit was officially designated the 116th Pennsylvania and rounded out the roster of regiments in the Irish Brigade.

Of the approximately 140,000 Irish-born soldiers in the Federal armies, about one-third came from New York. Ambitious Irish New Yorkers fanned out across the country, encouraging state governors to approve the Irish formations in other states while securing commands for themselves. Scattered Irish regiments were formed in the West, but the East provided the bulk of officially designated Irish units.

As the final elements fell into place for the fielding of the Irish Brigade, New York created another brigade of Irishmen. Promoted to brigadier while a prisoner, Corcoran had returned from Confederate captivity as the leading Irish hero, whose presumed importance was enough to rate him an invitation to dinner with Lincoln. Although the two were old friends and comrades in Irish nationalist causes, Corcoran had no intention of leaving Meagher in command of the largest Irish military organization. He was soon recruiting for the Corcoran Legion, also called the Irish Legion and sometimes known as the ‘Second Irish Brigade.’ The flow of volunteers was slower than anticipated, since the pool of potential enlistees was shrunken due to Meagher’s endeavors, and Irish skepticism about the war remained strong. Nevertheless, the magic of Corcoran’s name attracted enough men to create four additional Irish regiments, the 155th, 164th, 170th and 180th New York.

Although many regiments in the Federal army possessed an ethnic character in the sense of being made up primarily of soldiers from one national group, the Irish units were unique. No other ethnic group was allowed to create and field officially designated ethnic regiments as the Irish did. There were numerous regiments in the Union Army that were considered German, the other large immigrant group at the time. But they were German by membership, officers and sometimes language. They were not officially named German regiments, and no such thing as a ‘German Brigade’ or ‘Karl Schurtz legion’ existed. Nor did the German-dominated regiments carry flags emblazoned with the symbols of their ancestral homeland.

With the exception of the 116th Pennsylvania, which carried the state flag, the regiments in the Irish Brigade and Corcoran Legion carried the Irish green flag with gold harp, usually with a Gaelic battle cry added for effect. The special consideration extended to the Irish in creation of those units testified to their political power and the eagerness of political figures, from Lincoln down to state legislators, to channel Irish energies into support for the Union cause.

Recruiting appeals for the Irish regiments centered on several points. For openers, Irish leaders such as Meagher and Corcoran insisted that their men were natural born fighters, a claim repeated so often that both the Irish and non-Irish came to believe it. The image of the ‘fighting Irish’ became so embedded in Civil War tradition that 100 years after the conflict historian Bell Irvin Wiley, in his Life of Billy Yank, stated, ‘It is quite possible that their predominant urge was sheer love of combat.’ The Irish were also enjoined to fight for both the honor of the old country and the salvation of their new, adopted country. Such blandishments were not unusual, and recruiters among the other ethnic groups used similar arguments. German regiments, for example, included many former soldiers who believed their experience made them more formidable in combat than native-born Americans, let alone the Irish. This sense of ethnic rivalry sometimes encouraged enlistment as well. But the inducements aimed at the Irish contained two elements absent from those aimed at other Northerners. The first was religion. A major attraction for Irish volunteers was the guarantee of a Catholic chaplain. The second was a sense of Irish nationalism, whose analog was seldom if ever found among the other immigrant communities.

Many of the Irish leaders who raised regiments — such as Meagher, Corcoran and James Mulligan, who organized the Irish 23rd Illinois in Chicago — were members of the Fenian Brotherhood. The Fenians, a not-so-secret organization active in both the United States and Ireland, aimed to overthrow British control and establish an Irish republic. As far as Corcoran and many others were concerned, a major purpose of the Irish participation in the war was the acquisition of military skills and experience. When the war was over, Corcoran told a crowd in Philadelphia in 1862, ‘there will be thousands of Ireland’s noblest sons left to redeem their native land from the oppression of old England.’ Irish service in the war would also, the Fenian general insisted, leave the nation indebted to the Irish and allow for ‘the kind of politics we want.’

How much Fenianism spurred Irish enlistments is unknown, though it had its appeal to many. But in the end, for most enlistees the strongest motive dealt more with the needs of the Irish in America. In the words of soldier, journalist and Union propagandist Charles Halpine, the Irish recruit was motivated by ‘the thought that he was earning a title which no foul tongue or niggardly heart would dare to dispute, the full equality and fraternity of an American citizen.’

Despite the large numbers of enlistees flocking to the Irish regiments in 1861 and 1862, initially aided by high unemployment caused by the secession crisis, many Irish held back, concerned by what they saw as the rising influence of abolitionism in the Republican Party. Indeed, despite the wartime and historical fame of the Irish units, Irish Catholics, in relation to their percentage of the general population, were the most underrepresented of the various ethnic groups in the Federal armies. Those who did support the conflict were generally War Democrats committed to destroying the rebellion, but equally determined not to meddle with the ‘peculiar institution.’ The growing drumbeat calling for the liberation of the slaves was perceived as a threat to the tenuous economic and social status the Irish had struggled for in American society. The evolving situation caused many Irishmen to view their effort in the war with a sense of contingency. Corcoran, for example, publicly proclaimed that he supported the Lincoln administration ‘for the time being,’ implying that Irish support for the war was dependent on whether Irish interests were protected by the administration.

Unsurprisingly, relations between Yankee officers, especially New England abolitionists, and the Irish were often strained. John R. Winterbottom, a native officer, put aside his misgivings and sought a commission in the 155th New York, Corcoran’s Legion, as a means of securing officer’s rank. While serving on Corcoran’s staff, he privately disparaged the Irish enlisted men as ‘childlike, drunken and poorly educated.’ Some were even harsher. Robert Gould Shaw, who later led the black 54th Massachusetts, harbored a typical nativist disdain for the Irish that he made little attempt to conceal and which intensified as he made contact with Irish soldiers. He consistently distinguished the Irish from ‘American’ troops. In 1861 he wrote home that the ‘Irishmen seem sometimes utterly unable to learn or understand anything.’ Commenting favorably on the appearance of the 13th Massachusetts near Winchester, Va., in March 1862, Shaw decided that ‘with the Irish left out, the other New England regiments are of as good material as the thirteenth.’ When he began training his black troops in 1863, he contrasted them favorably to the Irish. Blacks, he wrote, ‘learn all the details of guard duty and camp service infinitely more readily than the Irish I have had under my command.’

That remark may have been a reflection of his own prejudices. On the other hand, it may have been true. More than a few commanders, including several Irish-born officers, described the process of instilling discipline and order in many of the Irish regiments as tough going. Irish-born Colonel Patrick Guiney, who took over the 9th Massachusetts after Malvern Hill in June 1862, was criticized for his tough discipline. ‘I made up my mind long ago,’ Guiney countered, ‘that Irish soldiers cannot be governed by a military dove with the rank of colonel. They need to be handled as severely as justice will permit when they do wrong.’

The blacks in the 54th Massachusetts knew they had something to prove, and adhered to strict discipline and military bearing. Irish troops were less inclined to behave well for superiors — particularly upper class, Anglo-Saxon officers. Additionally, Fenianism — or opposition to it — and the urban politics that were a major element of their civilian life often promoted discord in Irish units. Most Irish recruits came from large cities, where many had been gang members or members of the rivalry-ridden volunteer fire companies — the two often interchangeable. This experience led to a skeptical, sometimes combative attitude toward any authority but their own. This was especially true when the authorities involved were Yankee Brahmins whose anti-Irish attitudes were well attested and frequently on display, a factor that never occurred to officers like Shaw.

Alcohol consumption and drunkenness was a chronic problem among all Civil War regiments. Although it might be dismissed as negative stereotyping, there is evidence to suggest that it plagued the Irish units more than most. Such behavior may have been an extension of the soldiers’ civilian experience, where the saloon was often the center of Irish social and political life, and carousing with fellow workers was socially acceptable. Father Corby, chaplain to the Irish Brigade, admitted that alcohol was the special curse of the Irish. In January 1863, Irish-born Colonel James McIvor, commander of the 170th New York in Corcoran’s Legion, publicly posted an official letter requesting that no whiskey be sold to the junior officers of the regiment without the approval of a field grade officer. ‘For if you do,’ McIvor explained, ‘I assure you that before four weeks expire there will not be a line officer for duty in the Regt.’

The ‘creature’ negatively affected the careers of some of the leading Irish commanders. The Irish Brigade’s first commander had been dubbed ‘Meagher of the Sword’ for his bellicose pronouncements in Ireland. His behavior in the Civil War soon demonstrated that Meagher’s belligerence was confined largely to his mouth, with an overfondness for the bottle contributing to his poor performance. The brigade won high praise and admiration for its conduct at Antietam, where its members charged the Sunken Road, and at Fredericksburg, where the unit hopelessly stormed the bullet-swept slopes of Marye’s Heights. But it became clear that the Irish Brigade’s performance was due to the bravery of the rank and file and the command skills of Meagher’s lieutenants.

As the struggle raged at Antietam, Meagher was carried from the field on a stretcher, leaving command to Colonel John Burke. Meagher claimed that some sort of injury caused him to leave the battle, but accounts spread that he was drunk and fell from his horse. He was also missing in action at Fredericksburg. When the Irish Brigade made its famous charge its commander was not on the field. Meagher claimed that after ordering the brigade forward he was forced to go to the rear to find a horse because an ulcer in his knee made it impossible for him to continue. Others present accused him of skulking, and few in the Irish community stepped forward to defend him. Reports of the battle in the New York Irish-American emphasized the leadership of Major William H. Hogan of the 88th New York, whose men advanced closest to the stone wall, the farthest point Union soldiers reached that day.

Meagher stayed with the Irish Brigade through Chancellorsville, although a dark cloud had settled permanently on his reputation. When his request to take his regiments back to New York for rest and recruitment was denied, he resigned. Citing the heavy losses suffered by his men, he wrote the War Department: ‘I beg most respectfully to tender you…my resignation as Brigadier General commanding what was once known as the Irish Brigade. That Brigade no longer exists.’ The Lincoln administration found a place for him in a convalescent unit, but he was soon removed for drunkenness. Meagher kept his career alive by being the only prominent Irish-American to support Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, but by then his credibility within the Irish community was much diminished. Two years after the war, while serving as acting territorial governor of Wyoming, he tumbled from a steamer into the Missouri River and drowned. He had been drinking at the time.

Despite the impediment of serving under an alcohol-fogged blowhard, the Irish Brigade won renown in the 1862-63 Virginia campaign. The Corcoran Legion, however, was shunted off to the relative backwater of Suffolk, Va., where in April 1863 it was engaged in minor fighting against Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who was seeking supplies in the area. On April 12, Corcoran shot and killed Lt. Col. Edgar Kimball in a dispute over a countersign. Instead of being court-martialed, Corcoran was given command of a division, including his brigade, in the Washington defensive perimeter. On December 22, 1862, after spending the day socializing with Meagher, who had come to visit him, Corcoran shrugged off warnings and headed out in the dark on a horse with a reputation for being difficult. The beast threw Corcoran in a ditch and then managed to fall on top of him. He died from his injuries the next day. When the Corcoran Legion finally saw heavy fighting during Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland campaign, it did so without the man who had given it its name.

Meagher’s assertion that the Irish Brigade had virtually ceased to exist was only slightly exaggerated. The brigade had been decimated at Antietam and Fredericksburg. The 63rd and 69th New York suffered 60 percent casualties in the first battle alone. Of the 1,300 Irish Brigade troops present when Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside crossed the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, 545 were listed as killed, wounded or missing after the battle. The brigade never fully recovered from the slaughter. Six hundred Irish troops stepped into the Peach Orchard and Wheatfield at Gettysburg — no more than an understrength regiment; 300 remained fit for duty when Robert E. Lee withdrew from Pennsylvania. The high toll in men exacted by the 1862-63 battles depressed recruiting in New York. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, followed by the formation of black regiments, dampened Irish enthusiasm for the war even further. The Boston Pilot, which alternated between denouncing nativists and encouraging a siege mentality among its readers, sneered that blacks ‘are as fit to be soldiers of this country, as their abettors are to be its statesmen.’

Within a week of the Irish Brigade’s struggle at Gettysburg, New York exploded into the Draft Riots, the greatest urban uprising in American history. The mobs were heavily Irish — as were the police who tried to subdue them — and were incensed by the implementation of conscription laws that allowed a man to escape military service by paying $300 for a substitute. Few Irishmen had that kind of money. In contrast, members of the city’s social and commercial elite, often abolitionists or their sympathizers, could buy their way out of the war. The tension in Irish working-class neighborhoods was worsened by the Emancipation Proclamation, which added the extinction of slavery to the preservation of the Union as the North’s war aims. The Irish fear that cheap black labor would undercut whatever they had gained in America seemed to have been realized after blacks were hired as scab labor during a shipyard workers’ strike the previous June.

The riots made the Irish anathema in the eyes of New York’s Republican-abolitionist elite, who bent their efforts to creating the state’s first black regiment, the 25th New York Infantry. When the heavily depleted Irish Brigade finally returned to the city for a combination rest and recruitment leave on January 16, 1864, few non-Irish turned out to greet them. Nevertheless, the brigade’s officers, joined by Meagher, organized a banquet for the furloughed veterans during which the officers saluted the enlisted men. Observers were struck by the large number of black-garbed widows in attendance.

The contrast between the thin ranks that returned home and the robust regiments that had left for the war in the summer of 1862 still did not sway the sympathies of most old-stock New Yorkers. Republicans wanted nothing to do with the Irish, pro-Union or not, and Democrats as well. For the remainder of the war members of New York’s elite deliberately slighted the service of the Irish Brigade, Corcoran Legion and other Irish regiments fighting for the Union — and emancipation. For their part, the New York Irish (and the situation was similar in the other large cities) had become bitterly divided by the war, which, along with the conflict’s increasingly bloody character, impeded enlistment. The Irish-American remained strongly pro-war, while the Metropolitan Record took a ‘peace at almost any price’ stance. In the presidential elections of November 1864, the New York Irish vote went heavily for George B. McClellan.

When Grant stepped off against Lee in May 1864, the Irish Brigade, somewhat rebuilt during its furlough, was attached to the 1st Division of the II Corps. The division’s commander was Brig. Gen. Francis Channing Barlow, who had tutored Colonel Shaw before the war and married one of his sisters in 1867. Barlow, a pugnacious fighter and strict disciplinarian, was not popular among the Irish, although such sentiments were not unique to them. Nevertheless, the Irish Brigade lived up to its reputation, winning special notice for its performance at the Wilderness. The Corcoran Legion was finally dispatched to Grant at Spotsylvania, where it became part of the 2nd Division, II Corps. Upon its arrival, the Army of the Potomac boasted two distinguished Irish brigades in its service, not to mention the thousands of individual Irish soldiers who fought in the more typical Union outfits.

Both the Irish Brigade and the Corcoran Legion were ground up in the fighting from May to August 1864. In fact, the numbers in the Irish Brigade fell so low that it was consolidated with the 1st Division’s 3rd Brigade at Petersburg. The strained relations between the brigade and Barlow erupted into charges and countercharges at Second Deep Bottom on August 13, 1864, when the Brahmin-reared ‘Boy General’ criticized them by name. In the 1867 History of the Irish Brigade William O’Meagher claimed that Barlow had a ‘running feud’ with the Irish Brigade. Although O’Meagher conceded Barlow was a fearless soldier, he claimed he was unpopular throughout the division and especially so with the Irish Brigade, ‘to which he rarely omitted an opportunity of showing his dislike by many petty acts of tyranny and persecution….’

Some of the specifics in O’Meagher’s account may not have been accurate, but as evidence of friction between the Irish and their Yankee commander it was likely on target. Barlow was, in Grant’s words, ‘an excellent officer,’ but coming from a Boston abolitionist background it is likely that he, like Shaw, harbored strong prejudices against the Irish. In any event, Barlow collapsed from exhaustion immediately after the battle, and the division was taken over by Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles, whose relations with the remnants of the Irish Brigade were much better.

Francis Meagher may have been a bloviating fraud, but he was atypical of the Irish Brigade’s commanders. The casualty lists tell the story. Colonel Richard Byrne was killed at Cold Harbor, and Colonel Patrick Kelly at Petersburg. Irish-born Thomas Smyth, who commanded the brigade at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania before being transferred to the 2nd Division, fell at High Bridge on April 8, 1865. He had the dubious distinction of being the last Federal general killed in action. Colonel Matthew Murphy, commander of the Irish Legion, also fell in the last days of the war.

Though Irish popular opinion was divided, and enthusiasm for the war and enlistments fell after 1863, the legends of the fighting Irish were more than mere propaganda. Despite the flawed personalities who organized them and the political and urban divisions that divided them, the Irish Brigade, Corcoran Legion and other Irish regiments such as the 9th Massachusetts and 23rd Illinois carved out a reputation for steadfastness and bravery equal to the best native-born units in the war. Even old-stock officers not totally given over to anti-Irish sentiment by prejudice admitted their effectiveness. Theodore Lyman, Meade’s volunteer staff officer and a friend of Barlow, maintained, ‘The Paddies…will go in finely, and if well officered, stand to it through everything.’ And they stood through a lot. The three New York Irish regiments in the Irish Brigade were among a select list of 63 Federal units throughout the war that lost at least 50 percent of their men in a single engagement.

The influence of Fenianism, religion and ethnic separatism waned over the course of the war as the Irish units shared common experiences with their fellow soldiers. Yet they never entirely lost their identity — officers like Barlow and Shaw made that difficult anyway. Although the elite of New York and Boston belittled Irish efforts, they could not tarnish the luster that was earned at the Sunken Road, Marye’s Heights, the Peach Orchard and the Wilderness. Nor could they diminish the honor won by the thousands whose bones moldered in the battlefields of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. In June 1865, when the Irish Brigade returned to New York, only 700 men marched through the city in its ranks.

Like that of most Northerners, the Irish response to the call to arms was determined by their own experience and interests. Scarred by the nativist movement in the 1840s and 1850s and believing their tenuous position in American society was threatened by cheap black labor, many held aloof or opposed the war effort. As James McPherson succinctly put it, many Irish saw the war as ‘waged by Yankee Protestants for black freedom,’ and they disliked both the cause and those leading it.

But many other Irish embraced the war effort either as volunteers for the army or in the various civilian groups that supported them. Whatever the Boston Pilot might declare, or the draft rioters sully, the legacy of the Irish at war was embodied and epitomized by the few depleted remnants of once proud regiments that returned to Boston, New York and Chicago with their battle flags in tatters.

This article was written by Richard F. Welch and originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. Richard F. Welch is the author of The Boy General: The Life and Careers of Francis Channing Barlow.

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20 Responses to America’s Civil War: Why the Irish Fought for the Union

  1. Brian Logan says:

    I have heard a legend associated with the Irish Brigade, Father Colby and the University of Notre. I heard that Notre Dame became the “fighting irish” because of Father Colby’s association with the Brigade in the war and after the fact that after the war he became a president of the university.

  2. Proud Celt says:

    “Although a smattering of Irish Catholics had lived in America since the colonial period, there was no significant immigration to the United States until the catastrophe of the Potato Famine (1845-1853) set it in motion.”

    This unfortunately is an old chestnut, the results of New England Yankee historians of the turn of the century who feared all immigrants, that refuses to die. Remember that in all states prior to the revolution, even Maryland which was founded as a Catholic refuge, banned Catholicism so the number of Catholics in the colonies is difficult to measure. Immigrant ships from Ireland were required to stop in England first, on arriving in America they have been misidentified as “English”. Commodore John Barry, Colonel Stephen Moylan etc were Irish Catholics.

    Finally, why do we continue to segregate Irish Immigrants by religion anyway? We talk about German Immigrants without dividing them into Prussian Lutherans or Bavarian Catholics?

    • Sallie Parker says:

      Thank you for taking on this old “chestnut” a while back. The conventional black legend is that everything began with the Potato Famine, along with Know-Nothingism. In truth, what began during the 1840s and 1850s was the black legend itself. Before that time, one never heard of “Scotch-Irish” (the term had not been invented) or the equation of Irish Catholics with “foreign immigrants.”

      From 1830 onward there was a loud and inescapable propaganda war to define Catholicism as foreign and troublesome. The fact that most Americans had come out of Catholic backgrounds, not too many generations back, went down the Memory Hole of denial; as did the origins of Maryland and the fact that the first significant colonial British governor of New York was Lord Thomas Dongan.

      Even today one frequently reads that the 1863 New York “Draft Riots” were caused by “poor Irish Catholic immigrants” who cruelly hanged Negroes from lampposts because they feared competition in the “low-paid jobs they were forced to do” (as priests? firemen?). Those uprisings were neither disproportionately “Irish” nor “Catholic.” But this sort of characterization allows one to marginalize old political debates without looking at the facts.

  3. Proud Celt says:


    No, that is just a legend. The term “Fighting Irish” didn’t come into vogue until the 1920’s. Per Notre Dame: “”The term ‘Fighting Irish’ has been applied to Notre Dame teams for years. It first attached itself years ago when the school, comparatively unknown, sent its athletic teams away to play in another city …At that time the title ‘Fighting Irish’ held no glory or prestige … “

    • Patrick says:

      Sorry Celt, but you are incorrect. The name “Fighting Irish” came about from the Civil War. It evolved from “New York’s Fighting 69th” (part of the Irish Brigade). I know it true because my decedents fought for Col. Corcoran.

      And Notre Dame became most notorious, after their students defeated the KKK in the 1920s. Google “Notre Dame Vs the KKK”

  4. m cronin says:

    fight irish was use by the french king in the 1706
    for his war with the england

    • Patrick says:

      “The Wild Irish Geese”

      Irish people sent around the globe as slaves — which this article seems to ignore.

      By 1650, there were 300,000 Irish Catholic slaves in America alone, even more people than the English colonials had tending their farms.

      And they didn’t cost a dime…. but were taken.

  5. John Roark says:

    03/10/11 Commend the Author for a good general comprehensive treatment of this subject. Certainly, a broader coverage of the Irish immigrants participation in the Civil War (North and South) would be insightful but also allow more information to expand the understanding of the soldiers’ contributions, motivations, and culture.

    For example, mostly Irish Ohio Regts from Cincinnati; Illinois Regts from Chicago (23rd/24th); independent Companies like the “Jasper Greens” form Savannah, GA; the 2nd LA Regt form Baton Rouge; and 24th GA have well documented records.

    Many thousands of Irish immigrant soldiers also served in other non-Irish or mixed military units (North and South) like my ancestor who served with the 30th Mass Vol Inf Regt in the Gulf and Vicksburg campaigns (1862-2863) and the Veteran (Invalid) Reserve Corps.

    D-Dory Cap’n

  6. […] more of the Irish involved in the Civil War at “America’s Civil War: Why the Irish Fought for the Union” […]

  7. Patrick says:

    Mr. Welch, a decent article with some exception.

    “Although a smattering of Irish Catholics had lived in America since the colonial period, there was no significant immigration to the United States until the catastrophe of the Potato Famine (1845-1853) set it in motion.”

    You should correct this error, for it misleads The People. Google “England’s Irish Catholic Slaves” for a more accurate account. From the 1620s (when my lineage escaped Scotland for Country Cork, Ireland, in order to remain Catholic and survive) the English Monarcy had been invading Ireland. Their (my) people were taken and shipped about the world, in order to tend the King’s farms.

    So bad was the Irish – English War in 1640, that of 1.6 Million Irish residents, 600,000 were killed, with another 300,000 sent abroad as slaves.

    By 1650, there were more Irish Catholic slaves in America than there were English colonial farm owners.

    And I also take exception with your use of the phrase “Potato Famine” — unless famines are forced upon a population after ports are blocked by a foreign nation, who also seized the farm land.

    UK Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted to the King’s Genocide in Ireland during the mid 1800s, so it would be kind to be more accurate, and offer a correction to your “story.”

    Finally, though England may have stopped the King’s trade in the early 1800s relative African slaves, they sure didn’t end their Irish Catholic slave trade. They even figured out to breed the African Slaves with Irish females in order to sell their off-spring. Just ask Shaq O’Neal…

    “If we forget the lessons of the past, we are doomed to repeat them” and GOD knows no one wants a repeat of that type history.

    As it were, Catholics are the largest denomination, not only here in America, but in the World. Combined with other sects, and Christians are FAR more numerous than even the Muslims.

    Have a blessed New Year!

    PS Read

  8. Mary says:

    Thomas Francis Meagher was the Governor of Montana, more’s the pity for those folks.

  9. Virginia says:

    An interesting article with many good points but it is diminished by some major errors.

    –Most Irish were not gang members. Take some time to do research in primary sources, readily available online. Don’t take your ‘history’ from movies like Gangs of NY. This is really sloppy historiography.

    –Don’t judge Irish participation in the Civil War by just the few regiments named. Here’s a typical example. My great-grandfather from the Old First Ward in lower Manhattan, went off as a boy with the Irish Brigade. He was at Antietam and Fredericksburg. He did not continue with the Irish Brigade but joined up with the 13th NY Heavy Artillery in September 1863, fighting thru the end of the war with Irish and other nationalities. He contracted malaria and later died of it.

  10. […] I hope the pious liberals of Amherst take note of the many Irish names buried therein—many from young men just off the […]

  11. […] Why Immigrant Conscripts? 2015/02/24 America’s Civil War: Why the Irish Fought for the Union […]

  12. […] learned: America’s Civil War: Why the Irish Fought for the Union Share […]

  13. aliceblue says:

    Thank you for sharing this article. I know little more than the high school basics about the Civil War, but I have recently discovered that two ancestors came over from Ireland to fight on the Union Side. One returned, the other fell at Fredericksburg. The latter sent letters home that were published in his local paper so I very personal look at his experience but I’d like to know more about why he was here in the U.S. (one letter implies gaining experience to fight for Ireland’s independence). I’ll certainly be looking a the Civil War Times for articles like this!

    • Jonathan says:

      Yes, because your Catholic ancestors were the only Irish in this country, and as an actual fact, the only Irish anywhere on God’s green.

      And then there is General Patrick Cleburne, an Episcopalian and Confederate general. There is nothing more Union than having been known as “The Stonewall of the South”. Not to mention the countless other Irish Protestants who fought for the South and were just as Irish as the famine victims.

      I think it is safe, at this point, to regard myths about “all Irish” fighting for the Union, “all Irish” coming here after the famine, and just about anything else that speaks of an entire ethnic group as if it were a monolith, as ahistorical propaganda, for whatever intention.

      • aliceblue says:

        Not sure who stuck a shillelagh up your ass, but your reply has nothing to do with my comment. I specifically mentioned the two ancestors about whom I have specific information from letters and historical military records. I made no claims as to other family members, much less as to “all Irish.”

      • Jonathan says:

        Well then I apologize for having said to you what should’ve been made into a general comment and direct at the author of this piece.

        I made a mistake. There is no need to get vulgar.

  14. Jonathan says:

    “Why the Irish Fought for the Union”

    The Catholic famine refugees and their descendants are but a minority subset of Irish Americans who had gone, up until now, unchecked in their attempts to claim the sole property rights for Irish heritage. There are just three undeniable facts that will serve as more than an inconvenience to them: one, most Irish Americans are Protestant; two, these Protestants are not “Scotch-Irish” Presbyterians, as was previously assumed; and three, “conversions” can’t account for their numbers. Does HistoryNet deny the undeniable and claim that Catholics aren’t a minority subset of Irish Americans? The unveiled attempts begin at the beginning:

    “Although a smattering of Irish Catholics had lived in America since the colonial period, there was no significant immigration to the United States until the catastrophe of the Potato Famine (1845-1853) set it in motion.”

    Okay, but those are Catholics. Irish Protestants have been here since the early 18th Century, and their numbers were not insignificant. Do you deny this undeniable historical fact? The very title of this article suggests that Irish Catholics are synonymous with “Irish Americans”, but the very facts of reality say not even close. Then he dives into the victim culture that is vogue among these people:

    “Anti-Catholic, particularly anti–Irish Catholic, feelings led to the formation of the American or Know-Nothing Party, which enjoyed a brief period of influence in the early 1850s before the growing sectional dispute pushed the Catholic immigrant issue to the sidelines.”

    The Know-Nothing party had no influence or any notable significance in American politics. Also, the Know-Nothing Party was organized by merging a variety of different local Protestant societies which contained great numbers of Protestant Irish. One example was the Protestant Benevolent Association of New York which was organized by an Irish American named William Shannon. From the PBA got spun a variety of different copycat groups, such as the Junior American Protestant Association, and the United American Mechanics, later changed to Loyal Knights of America, with the latter having been comprised entirely of Protestant Irish. How “convenient” is it that the Protestant Irish side of the nativist coin is ignored, despite that a sophisticated understanding of 19th Century nativism invariably leads to the conclusion that the most stridently anti-“Irish” (anti-Catholic is more like it) were none other than Irish Protestants? Were these people not “Irish Americans”?

    A good starting point, if you’re serious about this subject, is a 2008 piece in The Irish Times, published by Brian Walker and titled, “Why Obama’s Offaly Roots Help Shatter Irish American Myths”

    Change the title of this article to “Why Irish Catholics Fought for the Union”. You have vast numbers of Irish Protestants not represented in this piece, and you are effectively denying them their Irish heritage, whether you recognize it or not. If you want to see what anti-Irish sentiment in the 21st Century looks like, look no further than Irish Catholics who casually and regularly deny the very existence of Irish Protestants — the most numerous subset of the Irish diaspora in America — and the role they played in building the republic. More than half of the Continental Army of the Revolutionary War was either from Ireland or had Irish ancestry (where’s the “HistoryNet” piece on this?).

    Would it even be possible to publish one article on Irish Protestants without Catholics being mentioned? Huguenot articles rarely mention French Catholics (and if they do it is for matters of historical context) despite the fact that French American Catholics vastly outnumber Protestants.

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