Irish Immigrants in the American Civil War: Confederate and Union

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Corey Jean UW-Madison, 2010

Faugh A Ballagh :
Irish Immigrants in the American Civil War

Understanding an immigrant’s willingness to fight for a country he has only called home for only part of his life is easier to comprehend when you ask, “What cause is he willing to die for?” In the case of the American Civil War, the Irish immigrant’s “cause” depended completely on perspective. While two books, God Help the Irish! History of the Irish Brigade by Phillip Thomas Tucker and Irish Americans in the Confederate Army by Sean Michael O’Brien are comprehensive in their military statistics, both authors also aim to explain social, political, and cultural aspects of Irish American’s alacrity to take arms against their American and Irish brethren. The opposing mantras of both Union Irish and Confederate Irish leading up to the war can be classified as simply understandable. Both books illustrate why an Irishman would fight for his side when considering three main factors: Irish historical conflict with Britain, labor situations for the Irish in America, and Irish emphasis on patriotism and social values in their new homelands. In most cases, the Irish in the North and South were having the same experiences through discriminations against Irish, living and laboring in poverty, and teetering relations with Natives. What is so interesting is how the exact same circumstances give birth to immigrant opinions in such contrast that they lead to Irishmen killing each other in the name of nations that don’t even wholly accept their presence. The most repetitive theme in both books though, was how Irish on both sides could tie fighting the American Civil War to fighting England.

For most people, mentioning Irish in the American Civil War immediately causes people to think of the Irish Brigade or the New York city draft riots in which the Irish played such a large part. The often forgotten Irish efforts toward the Confederate Army is the subject brought back to light in O’Brien’s Irish Americans in the Confederate Army. As I mentioned before, the book does a good job reviewing military performances of Irish regiments in the Confederate army. Part II through

Part V of the book break down the Irish contributions to the Army of Northern Virginia, Army of Tennessee, Irish in Coastal Strongholds, and Irish in the Mississippi and Trans-Mississippi campaigns. It is part one, however, that sets the stage in of the Irish experience in the South. This is socially the most important aspect in understanding how and why these newly arrived immigrants became fervent Confederates.

First, O’Brien details phenomena of this era that were occurring in both the North and the South, choosing, of course, to concentrate on the South. Two distinct waves of Irish immigration had occurred earlier in the century. Between 1815 and 1845, over one million Irish had come to America in search of employment. The ample amount of jobs available to poor, unskilled immigrants can be attributed to the many canal and railroad projects occurring in this era. Northern industry had many more projects like this than the South, but there were still plenty throughout the southern states. While Irish immigration is usually historically paired with large cities of the Northeast like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, many Irish immigrants flocked to both rural and urban settings in the South. Large cities like St. Louis, Memphis, Richmond, Atlanta, and Louisville began to see Irish neighborhoods (usually quite impoverished) being carved out in the first half of the century. New Orleans and Savannah became major depots for Irish labor in the 1840s, and New Orleans was second only to New York in its Irish population. Many of O’Brien’s examples and statistics come from the situation in the city of New Orleans, and he cites Earl F. Niehaus’s book The Irish in New Orleans - 1800-1860 often to give the reader an idea of how the Irish, both immigrants and second...
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