Irish Green & Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh

Desperation inspired Irishman Peter Welsh to join the Army of the Potomac. While visiting Boston in 1862, Welsh had disappeared for days, falling victim to a drinking binge that exhausted his meager finances and destroyed his self-respect. When Welsh awakened from his alcoholic stupor, he was so overwhelmed by shame and so filled with self-loathing that he refused to return to his life in New York City, where he struggled to make a living as a carpenter. Without seeing or speaking to his wife, Margaret, he headed straight to the recruiting station and enlisted in the Union cause. Margaret never accepted her husband’s decision to fight for their adopted country. Throughout the hostilities, she challenged his reasons for going to war. Welsh’s response survives in a series of coarsely written letters that celebrate the Union as a beacon of Republicanism and as a meritocracy for all white Americans. His moving wartime correspondence can be found in Irish Green & Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, published by Fordham University Press.

Welsh’s initial motivation to enlist cannot be described as patriotic or particularly ideological. He was trying to save himself from a relentless disease that threatened to destroy his life. Once he was in the ranks, Welsh’s sense of self-worth was quickly restored. The physical and psychological demands of military life gave him the structure and resolve to conquer his illness. “I do not care for it (liquor) now like i used to,” he wrote shortly after the Battle of Fredericksburg, “My constitution is stronger and i feel none of that exausted feeling [which] always made me crave for something to stimulate me but i never feel so now.” His past behavior, however, still haunted him, and he confided to his wife that “i am well aware that i have caused you many a days weeks and months of unhappiness[.] God forgive me for it…but with Gods blessing when i return i will try to make amends for the past.”

In the case of Welsh, like so many other Civil War soldiers, the trials of combat and the criticisms of civilians forced enlisted men to become politically outspoken. Not all men could find a transcendent purpose in the face of war, but Welsh was able to see in the suffering of a dying comrade a legacy for future generations, even if Northern civilians went about their lives as though the war did not exist. “You say there is not a word about the poor felows who sacrifised their lives at fredericksburg no more then if they never lived,” he wrote his wife on February 22, 1863. But Welsh reminded her that those who died quietly on the home front were also forgotten. In a subsequent letter he asked: “Should those brav[e] lives be sacrafised in vain?” He added, “The heart of every true Irishman will answer no emphaticaly no. We who survive them have a double motive then to nerve us to action[.] We [the Irish] have the same national political and social interests at stake not only for ourselves but for coming generations and the oppressed of every nation for America was a comon asylum for all.”

It is true that a deep hatred of England animated Welsh’s devotion to the Union cause. He longed for the day that the United States would emerge as a world power, dethroning Great Britain from global dominance. Yet Welsh courageously broke with many Irish men and women who denounced the war as an abolitionist crusade for African-American equality. His bold political stance cannot be separated from his personal struggle against alcoholism. In the Army Welsh found the personal redemption that he had vainly sought before the war, and in saving himself, he experienced a political awakening that is both exceptional and inspiring. Welsh, however, was not able to right the wrongs that he had committed in his marriage. On May 12, 1864, at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, he received a wound in his left arm that would later hemorrhage and ultimately take his life. It is impossible to know what Margaret was thinking when she rushed to Washington, D.C., to be near her dying husband. But we do know that when she left the hospital, Margaret carried her husband’s personal effects—a blanket, two shirts, trousers, boots and a cap—and the knowledge that Peter Welsh went to his grave a spiritually rejuvenated man, believing that he gave his life to a higher cause.

 

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.