Irish Immigrants in the American Civil War: Confederate and Union

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.

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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.

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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 and third generation, positively and negatively affected the city.

One interesting premise of O’Brien’s that he wrote with support of the Niehaus book and another book entitled The Irish in the South by David Gleeson was his contention that the New Orleans labor market was a microcosm of the entire South in relation to dangerous Irish labor. O’Brien writes of the higher paying semi-skilled labor that drew immigrants to the South, “Southern planters often hired Irish immigrants to do work considered too dangerous for slaves to do. Irish laborers were far more expendable than slaves and their lives considered cheaper. O’Brien contends that slaveholding Southerners could not afford to lose slaves in massive building projects; it was losing a very expensive slave investment in most cases. The Irish, like African slaves, were sub-human to a lot of them, but not owning the laborers meant their accidental deaths did little to affect the investors. Obviously there was not worker’s compensation at the time. If an Irish worker was killed or irreparably injured, there was always another boat full of new Irishmen to take his place.

Simply paying Irish immigrants a bit more than the average industrial worker in the North gave them good reason to move into Southern areas and take the hazardous jobs. This theory is feasible, but upon reading the two sources he was citing, I found no evidence that the two authors were trying to make a statement about tendencies of using Irish laborers over African slaves for dangerous work. Both texts did use examples of Irishmen getting paid a little more because of the hazardous jobs, but I think O’Brien’s theory of employing immigrants to protect slave investments was entirely his own.

Nonetheless, it is a theory that seems plausible to me. The Irish immigrants were also in direct competition, especially in the North, with African Americans for unskilled jobs. In the South, however, the institution of slavery and widespread racism (which was not unique to the south) helped to keep the Irish one notch above Africans socioeconomically. Although Irish immigrants in the US were generally looked down on, they were white, and many of the native citizens whose families had been in America for generations could still trace their ancestries back to Ireland.

Anyone who is Irish knows that our heritage is a source of pride amongst us. Established Americans who were 2nd, 3rd, or 4th generation Irish still had close ties with their home country across the pond. One should not be surprised, then, that Americans automatically put new arrivals from Ireland one notch above African slaves, even though black lineages had been there for 250 plus years. Needless to say, many Irish stood to lose a great deal with the abolition of slavery, both socially and financially.

In reference to the Confederate military defeat at the end of the war O’Brien writes, “The Irish in the South felt the sting of defeat more than other Southerners because the impact of slave emancipation hit them the hardest. They now hand to contend with their worst fear economically – direct competition from free African Americans for low-paying jobs. ” After the war, there would be many clashes between Irish and free blacks, as race relations between the two groups deteriorated. O’Brien includes a lot on the Irish cultural identity and how it lead to them joining the Rebel cause.

Irish immigrants brought over many things from Ireland: music, religion, cultural traditions, hard work, etc. The most important thing they brought, from a Confederate view, was fervent Patriotism, both for Ireland and for their new homeland. Irish patriotism invariably includes an extraordinary hatred for the British – something the grandfathers of Confederates who fought in the Revolutionary War could identify with. O’Brien adds, “Federal Missouri regiments were heavily German – the pro-Confederate Missourians called them “Hessians” – [and] Confederate Missouri regiments contained large numbers of Irish. This showed how the Irish tried to make a connection between their current situation and that of the American Revolution by equating their opponents with that of the German mercenaries fighting for the British in the American Revolution. A major contributing factor in the Irish diaspora to America was English tyranny and subjugation of Irish Catholics back home. Great Britain – the large, ruthless, powerful, industrialized custodian of Ireland -had gave Irishmen much reason to hate them. Ireland, especially in Southern Catholic Ireland, was largely an agrarian society and could not get ahead due to the oppression by its English overlords.

English aggression and economical exploitation was viewed as the cause of Irish poverty, and this had been going on for 800 years. New Irish immigrants, now free from the oppression of Britain, had a chance to “start over” in America and be left alone. Now, according to Rebel rhetoric, it was happening again, only this time the Federal government and industrial North were imposing their wills on Southern subjects instead of England. It is no wonder why a people who had fought against tyranny for so long against England would be quick to fight against the same type of tyranny in their new home.

This was a chance to give something back to their new homeland. One could pose the question, “Why fight for slavery when so many Irish had endured a form of it in their native country? ” To many Southerners, either new immigrants or families that had been there 200 years, the fight was to avoid what they viewed as a form of Northern enslavement. Phillip Thomas Tucker’s book God Help the Irish! History of the Irish Brigade is much like O’Brien’s book in its structure. The second through sixth chapters are military overviews of the North’s most ethnically and culturally distinct brigade in the Army of the Potomac – The Irish Brigade.

The first chapter titled “A Call to Arms” examines why the Irish would take to the battlefield in the name of Union. But in a more unique manner than O’Brien, Tucker discusses the many reasons why Northern Irish would not fight for the Union – a very important factor in understanding the mindset of Irish in the North. However, the many reasons why the Irish would fight for the North are covered too, and these reasons subsequently allowed Northern military victory. Northern manpower and resource advantages tipped the scales of war in the Union’s favor, and these advantages could not have been attained without the Irish. By the time Gen. Robert E. Lee and his battered Army of Northern Virginia were forced to surrender at Appomattox … an estimated one in three soldiers in the Army of the Potomac were of foreign birth – most significantly from Ireland. ” Tucker portrays all the factors of the how the Irish got to the frontlines of the American Civil War, and why the war could never have been a military success without them. Unlike in the South, the Northern call to arms came after the start of the war. Many Northerners did not take the threat of the Confederate Army seriously until their surprising victory at Bull Run.

Irishmen in the North to that point wouldn’t have dreamed of joining the Union cause. Tucker makes the same point as O’Brien when referring to the Irish interests in the North in his introduction. Though there were many more Irish on the Union side of the war, the actual percentages of overall Irish troops versus total Irish population were abundantly higher in the Confederacy. Furthermore, the majority of Irish in the Union Army were conscripted, while the Confederacy had mostly Irish volunteers.

The first American employment of national conscription led to the famous New York City draft riots in July of 1863; many of the participants were Irish laborers who did not want to compete with emancipated blacks for jobs. Tucker also points out that many Irish in the North were Democrats and viewed the war as aggressive invasion of an agrarian South, just like in the old country. Tucker supports this saying, “The bitter lessons of Great Britain’s autocratic rule of Ireland caused many Irish to perceive the struggle in America as an unjust and immoral war of conquest to bring wayward seceded states back into the Union by force.

As a result, many Irish in America sympathized with the infant Confederacy and its plight. They saw the Northern war effort as comparable to the centralized power and military might of a powerful Great Britain subjugating a culturally distinct, agrarian people in a rural land – Ireland” Religion contributed to Irish reluctance too – many Irish Catholics in the North wouldn’t fight for a powerful Protestant majority forcing its will on a minority. Obviously, these reasons were not enough to keep the Irish out of the war – the 69th New York State Militia developed the Irish Brigade led by Thomas Francis Meagher.

Meagher was a famous Irish Nationalist who was deported from Ireland to Tasmania after leading the unsuccessful Young Ireland revolt against England in 1848. His escape from Tasmania in 1852 brought him to an Irish neighborhood in New York City where he was quickly taken in – he was an Irish hero for his actions in the rebellion four years earlier. Before the war, Meagher supported the South with the exception of the slavery issue. Many of his friends ended up in the Confederate Army, but after the first shots at Fort Sumter, Meagher campaigned for Northern Irish to defend the Union.

His status as a national hero helped many Irishmen make up their minds about the war and join the Unionists. The Irish Brigade was momentous for two reasons: their ferocity and success on the battlefield, and proving Irish worth in America to many doubters. The Irish Brigade’s success can partially be attributed to the many immigrants who had battle experience in Ireland. Federals recruited soldiers in Ireland before they even came over to America knowing they had a propensity for war and an inclination to leave their bleak homeland.

This was especially true in the case of Meagher, who (like many leaders on both sides with the Mexican-American War) had experience with war already. The Irish Brigade was closely followed by northern media, so every victory or heroic story about Irishmen in battle quickly got back to the Irish neighborhoods on the home front. This resulted in a constant refueling of Irish regiments during the middle and late parts of the war – the crucial times of low morale and dwindling numbers for Confederate and Union armies alike. Irish regiments in the North were able to keep their Irish identities throughout the war.

It is much easier on a soldier to be surrounded by his own kind. The Irish Brigade was by far the most Catholic unit in the army – a fact that also fueled unit cohesion. Irish units could be reinforced in the North with more Irishmen through the waves of new immigrants arriving everyday on the docks of New York and Boston. In the South, mounting casualties of Irish units caused a loss of identity – a fact that couldn’t be remedied for the Northern Naval blockade of the South did not allow any more immigrants into their ports.

The Irish had something to prove in their new country, and the war gave them a good stage to do just that. Tucker opines, “While other brigades reflected the society of their region and state, the Irish Brigade, consisting of mostly Irish Catholic immigrants but some 2nd generation Irishmen as well, reflected not only the immigrant society of America, but also the culture, pride and heritage of an ancient Celtic land on the other side of the Atlantic. ” The Irish Brigade, sometimes referred to as one of the best units in military history, proved beyond a doubt that Irishmen were not inferior.

They suffered tremendously high casualties, but fearlessly ran into the breach time and again. This not only proved Irish worth, but also allowed them to, in a sense, do what they always yearned for – fight the British. A popular opinion among Irish Americans was that the British hated America, it’s greatness and rising power on the world stage, and its republican liberty. England likely wanted an opportunity to recognize the Confederacy and cut down on the United States of America’s power. The Irish saw the preservation of the Union as yet another way to stick it to the English.

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Irish Immigrants in the American Civil War: Confederate and Union. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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