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Irish Americans and the Civil War - History

Irish Americans and the Civil War - History


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The Irish were another major group of immigrants in the United States in the years preceding the Civil War. Unlike the Germans, the Irish were almost all Roman Catholic, and were almost all poor. The Irish came across a great deal of prejudice in the United States, based on real or imagined concerns. They were the largest group of Roman Catholics to enter the country within such a short period. This Catholicism was viewed as a threat to the Protestant majority. In addition, the fact that so many had come from poverty made them appear undesirable to the Americans, who valued financial and material progress and an optimism which they did not perceive in the Irish immigrants.

Irish immigrants had been coming to the United States since before the Revolutionary War. By the time of the Civil War, the Irish American community had made significant contributions to the United States. For example, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was Irish; and one of the Presidents of the United States, Andrew Jackson, had been the son of Irish immigrants.

In the 1840s, however, immigration from Ireland increased tremendously. Up to that point, Irish immigrants had come to the United States to escape the political and economic inequities caused by British power in Ireland, as well as to seek more economic opportunities. In the 1840s, however, Ireland was attacked by a massive potato famine, which influenced many of the Irish to immigrate to the United States simply for survival.

Between 1840 and 1860, almost two million Irish people came to the United States. Most of these immigrants settled in cities like Boston and New York. Since many were poor, they could not afford to purchase farmland, so they had to find employment in the cities. In addition, the organization of the religion to which most of them belonged, Roman Catholic Christianity, required that they remain close enough to each other to be able to attend church regularly. Many of the newer Irish immigrants worked in factories, mills and mines, and in construction gangs to build canals and railroads.

During the Civil War, the number and fervor of Irish Americans fighting for the Union helped ease their acceptance into American society. The issue of national unity was what inspired the Irish American community, rather than any widespread concern over slavery. According to the US Sanitary Commission report of 1869, 144,221 Irish-born soldiers and officers served in the Union forces. This was proportionately greater than their number in the general population. The largest number of officially-recorded Irish Americans came from New York (51,206), Pennsylvania (17, 418), Illinois (12,041), Massachusetts (10,007), Ohio (8,129), Missouri (4,362) and Wisconsin (3,621). Irish units fought to declare their American patriotism, while proudly proclaimed their Irish roots and displaying slogans and items to that effect. The "Irish Brigade," a collection of New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania regiments, was the most famous of these "Fighting Irish."

The most prominent Irish officer was probably Michael Corcoran. His father had been an officer in the British army, and young Corcoran emigrated to the United States in 1849. In 1859, he became colonel of the 69th New York Militia; but lost the position the next year, when he refused to parade the regiment before the Prince of Wales, who was visiting. He was spared a court-martial because the beginning of the Civil War made him an important asset to the US Army because of his ability to raise Irish volunteers. Corcoran became a hero at the First Battle of Bull Run, but was captured. Upon his release, he was commissioned a brigadier general and was invited to have dinner with President Lincoln. Corcoran continued his efforts to recruit Irish Americans for the Union, and raised the Corcoran Legion, which was also called the Irish Legion.

After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, however, the Civil War was increasingly perceived as a war against slavery, rather than a war for the Union. This made it unpopular among many in the Irish community, which was generally antipathetic toward abolition. In New York, in the summer of 1863, many Irish Americans were hostile to African Americans, some of whom had replaced Irish longshoremen on strike. When the draft drawing of that summer listed a majority of Irish men, many were angered. Some of the Irish Americans in New York, who were also resentful of the war policies which allowed the wealthy to get out of military service, protested against the draft. The protests led to rioting, one of the most severe domestic upheavals in American history. Casualties were estimated at anywhere from 300 to 1,200. Several African Americans were lynched, and the Colored Orphans Asylum was destroyed, although all the children were evacuated from the building. Ironically, many of the police officers trying to establish order were themselves Irish Americans, as were many of the people trying to rescue the children in the orphanage an help restore law and order. Draft riots took place in other cities in the North, but none other had the same ferocity as the New York riots.

By the end of the Civil War, however, the conspicuous service of thousands of Irish troops in defense of the Union helped establish Irish Americans more securely as Americans. They had the right to vote, and were able to obtain political power largely because of their high urban concentrations. While they still faced many derogatory stereotypes, and had to endure the prejudice and anti-Catholic sentiments of other Americans, the Irish were eventually assimilated into the mainstream of American culture.


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

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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Tracing the Irish in the American Civil War

Earlier this year I wrote about Irish involvement in the First World War and how, although the numbers of Irish involved are still contested, official estimates currently stand at 210,000 mobilised and 49,300 dead. There is another war in which Irish soldiers fought and died in similar numbers but which is forgotten by official Ireland: the American Civil War of 1861–5—all the more surprising considering how we have courted the American connexion.

Irish involvement on both sides of the American Civil War was one of the defining moments in the creation of Irish-American identity. The Irish experience of that war shaped the political consciousness of these men, in particular through various Fenian/IRB organisations like Clan na Gael. Between 1861 and 1865 c. 200,000 Irishmen fought in the American Civil War: 180,000 in the Union army and 20,000 in the Confederate army. An estimated 20% or 23,600 of the Union navy were Irish-born. We don’t yet have comparable figures for the smaller Confederate navy. The total number of the Irishmen who died in this conflict has been estimated at 30,000. All these figures are likely to be revised significantly upwards, as digitisation of the records facilitates data-mining. There are very few short cuts in research, but the digital revolution in on-line records has delivered the two main sources to start researching the Irish in the American Civil War.

Compiled Military Service Records (CMSR)
The CMSR are soldiers’ service records, collated after 1886 from contemporary documents. These are essentially abstracts of evidence taken from original documents, including enlistment, muster and pay rolls death notices hospital and prison registers and descriptive accounts/ service narratives. These records survive for soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy, for each regiment in which they served. There are more than double the number of records than there were soldiers, so scrutinise all matching records for duplicates. An index to the CMSR is available free on-line. It provides a basic index—name, rank, unit and state—by which you may identify individual service records on microfilm (https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1910717).

The [Civil War] Soldiers and Sailors (CWSS) database is currently under construction. On completion this will be a Civil War portal-site and will include records of battles and military units, burial records in the national cemeteries, prisoners and medals of honour (http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm).

Pension records
Civil War pension records for Union soldiers are also available on the subscription site Ancestry.com (http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=4654). As a rule of thumb, pension records contain the most genealogical evidence. These can include personal letters written or received by soldiers on active service, narratives of events in service, and documents of births, marriages and deaths submitted as evidence to support a pension application by a dependant (parents, widows or dependent children). Pension files for Confederate soldiers are held in the state archives (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia).

Fiona Fitzsimons is a director of Eneclann, a Trinity College campus company, and of findmypast Ireland.


17th to mid-19th century Edit

Half of the Irish immigrants to the United States in its colonial era (1607–1775) came from the Irish province of Ulster while the other half came from the other three provinces of Ireland (Leinster, Munster and Connacht). [14] In the 17th century, immigration from Ireland to the Thirteen Colonies was minimal, [15] [16] confined mostly to male indentured servants who were primarily Catholic [16] [17] and peaked with 8,000 prisoner-of-war penal transports to the Chesapeake Colonies from the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the 1650s (out of a total of approximately 10,000 Catholic immigrants from Ireland to the United States prior to the American Revolutionary War in 1775). [16] [18] [19] [20]

Indentured servitude in British America emerged in part due to the high cost of passage across the Atlantic Ocean, [21] [22] and as a consequence, which colonies indentured servants immigrated to depended upon which colonies their patrons chose to immigrate to. [23] While the Colony of Virginia passed laws prohibiting the free exercise of Catholicism during the colonial period, [24] the General Assembly of the Province of Maryland enacted laws in 1639 protecting freedom of religion (following the instructions of a 1632 letter from Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore to his brother Leonard Calvert, the 1st Proprietary-Governor of Maryland), and the Maryland General Assembly later passed the 1649 Maryland Toleration Act explicitly guaranteeing those rights for Catholics. [25]

Like the entire indentured servant population in the Chesapeake Colonies at the time, 40 to 50 percent died before completing their contracts. This was due in large part to the Tidewater region's highly malignant disease environment, with most not establishing families and dying childless because the population of the Chesapeake Colonies, like the Thirteen Colonies in the aggregate, was not sex-balanced until the 18th century because three-quarters of the immigrants to the Chesapeake Colonies were male (and in some periods, 4:1 or 6:1 male-to-female) and fewer than 1 percent were over the age of 35. As a consequence, the population only grew due to sustained immigration rather than natural increase, and many of those who survived their indentured servitude contracts left the region. [26] [27] [28]

In 1650, all five Catholic churches with regular services in the eight British American colonies were located in Maryland. [29] The 17th-century Maryland Catholic community had a high degree of social capital. Catholic-Protestant interdenominational marriage was not common, Catholic-Protestant intermarriages nearly always resulted in conversion to Catholicism by Protestant marital partners, and children who were born as the result of Catholic-Protestant intermarriages were nearly always raised as Catholics. [30] Additionally, 17th-century Maryland Catholics often stipulated in their wills that their children be disinherited if they renounced Catholicism. [31]

In contrast to 17th-century Maryland, the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut Colonies restricted suffrage to members of the established Puritan church, while the Province of Carolina did not restrict suffrage to members of the established Anglican church. The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations had no established church, while the former New Netherland colonies (New York, New Jersey, and Delaware) also had no established church under the Duke's Laws, and the Frame of Government in William Penn's 1682 land grant established free exercise of religion for all Christians in the Province of Pennsylvania. [32] [33]

Following the Glorious Revolution (1688–1689), Catholics were disenfranchised in Maryland, New York, Rhode Island, Carolina, and Virginia, [32] although in Maryland, suffrage was restored in 1702. [34] In 1692, the Maryland General Assembly established the Church of England as the official state church. [35] In 1698 and 1699, Maryland, Virginia, and Carolina passed laws specifically limiting immigration of Irish Catholic indentured servants. [36] In 1700, the estimated population of Maryland was 29,600, [37] about 2,500 of which were Catholic. [38]

In the 18th century, emigration from Ireland to the Thirteen Colonies shifted from being primarily Catholic to being primarily Protestant, and with the exception of the 1790s it would remain so until the mid-to-late 1830s, [39] [40] with Presbyterians constituting the absolute majority until 1835. [41] [42] These Protestant immigrants were principally descended from Scottish and English tenant farmer colonists and colonial administrators (often from the South/Lowlands of Scotland and the North of England) who had settled the Plantations of Ireland, the largest of which was the Plantation of Ulster, [43] [44] [45] and these Protestant immigrants primarily migrated as families rather than as individuals. [46]

In Ireland, they are referred to as the "Ulster Scots" and the "Anglo-Irish" respectively, and because the Protestant population in Ireland was and remains concentrated in Ulster and because after the partition of Ireland in the 20th century Protestants in Northern Ireland on census reports have largely since self-identified their national identity as "British" rather than "Irish" or "Northern Irish," Protestants in Ireland are collectively referred to as the "Ulster Protestants." [47]

Additionally, the Ulster Scots and Anglo-Irish intermarried to some degree, [48] and the Ulster Scots also intermarried with Huguenot refugees from the Kingdom of France following the 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau issued by Louis XIV, [49] [50] and some of the Anglo-Irish settlers were actually Welsh or Manx. [51] [52] They seldom intermarried with the Irish Catholic population in part because intermarriage between Protestants and Catholics was banned by the Penal Laws during the Protestant Ascendancy (1691–1778), [list 1] which rendered any children who were born to extralegal Catholic-Protestant intermarriages illegitimate and legally ineligible to inherit their parents' property under English law (while Presbyterian marriages were not even recognized by the state). [55]

In turn, the canon law of the Catholic Church also designated Catholic-Protestant intermarriages illegitimate until Pope Pius VI extended Pope Benedict XIV's matrimonial dispensation to Ireland in 1785 for the Tametsi decree of the Council of Trent (1563), [56] and Irish Catholics almost never converted to Protestant churches during the Reformation. [57] Catholic-Protestant intermarriage would remain rare in Ireland through the early 20th century. [58]

In 1704, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law which banned the Jesuits from proselytizing, baptizing children other than those with Catholic parents, and publicly conducting Catholic Mass. Two months after its passage, the General Assembly modified the legislation to allow Mass to be privately conducted for an 18-month period. In 1707, the General Assembly passed a law which permanently allowed Mass to be privately conducted. During this period, the General Assembly also began levying taxes on the passage of Irish Catholic indentured servants. In 1718, the General Assembly required a religious test for voting that resumed disenfranchisement of Catholics. [59]

However, lax enforcement of penal laws in Maryland (due to its population being overwhelmingly rural) enabled churches on Jesuit-operated farms and plantations to grow and become stable parishes. [60] In 1750, of the 30 Catholic churches with regular services in the Thirteen Colonies, 15 were located in Maryland, 11 in Pennsylvania, and 4 in the former New Netherland colonies. [61] By 1756, the number of Catholics in Maryland had increased to approximately 7,000, [62] which increased further to 20,000 by 1765. [60] In Pennsylvania, there were approximately 3,000 Catholics in 1756 and 6,000 by 1765 (the large majority of the Pennsylvania Catholic population was from Germany). [60] [62] [63]

From 1717 to 1775, though scholarly estimates vary, the most common approximation is that 250,000 immigrants from Ireland emigrated to the Thirteen Colonies. [list 2] By the beginning of the American Revolutionary War in 1775, approximately only 2 to 3 percent of the colonial labor force was composed of indentured servants, and of those arriving from Britain from 1773 to 1776, fewer than 5 percent were from Ireland (while 85 percent remained male and 72 percent went to the Southern Colonies). [73] Immigration during the war came to a standstill except by 5,000 German mercenaries from Hesse who remained in the country following the war. [40]

By the end of the war in 1783, there were approximately 24,000 to 25,000 Catholics in the United States (including 3,000 slaves) out of a total population of approximately 3 million (or less than 1 percent). [37] [18] [74] [75] The majority of the Catholic population in the United States during the colonial period came from England, Germany, and France, not Ireland, [18] despite failed academic efforts by Irish historiographers to demonstrate Irish Catholics as being more numerous in the colonial period than previous scholarship had indicated. [76] By 1790, approximately 400,000 people of Irish birth or ancestry lived in the United States (or greater than 10 percent of the total population of approximately 3.9 million). [14] [77] The U.S. Bureau of the Census estimates 2% of the United States population in 1776 was of native Irish heritage. [78] The Catholic population grew to approximately 50,000 by 1800 (or less than 1 percent of the total population of approximately 5.3 million) due to increased Catholic emigration from Ireland during the 1790s. [40] [75] [79] [80]

In the 18th-century Thirteen Colonies and the independent United States, while interethnic marriage among Catholics remained a dominant pattern, Catholic-Protestant intermarriage became more common (notably in the Shenandoah Valley where intermarriage among Ulster Protestants and the significant minority of Irish Catholics in particular was not uncommon or stigmatized), [81] and while fewer Catholic parents required that their children be disinherited in their wills if they renounced Catholicism, it remained more common among Catholic parents to do so if their children renounced their parents faith in proportion to the rest of the U.S. population. [74]

Despite this, many Irish Catholics that immigrated to the United States from 1770 to 1830 converted to Baptist and Methodist churches during the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840). [82] [83] In between the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783 and the War of 1812, 100,000 immigrants came from Ulster to the United States. [41] During the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802) and Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), there was a 22-year economic expansion in Ireland due to increased need for agricultural products for British soldiers and an expanding population in England. Following the conclusion of the War of the Seventh Coalition and Napoleon's exile to Saint Helena in 1815, there was a six-year international economic depression that led to plummeting grain prices and a cropland rent spike in Ireland. [41] [84]

From 1815 to 1845, 500,000 more immigrants came from Ulster to the United States, [41] [85] as part of a migration of approximately 1 million immigrants from Ireland from 1820 to 1845. [84] In 1820, following the Louisiana Purchase in 1804 and the Adams–Onís Treaty in 1819, the Catholic population of the United States had grown to 195,000 (or approximately 2 percent of the total population of approximately 9.6 million). [86] [87] By 1840, along with resumed immigration from Germany by the 1820s, [88] the Catholic population grew to 663,000 (or approximately 4 percent out of the total population of 17.1 million). [89] [90] Following the potato blight in late 1845 that initiated the Great Famine in Ireland, from 1846 to 1851, more than 1 million more Irish immigrated to the United States, 90 percent of whom were Catholic. [39] [91]

Many of the Famine immigrants to New York City required quarantine on Staten Island or Blackwell's Island and thousands died from typhoid fever or cholera for reasons directly or indirectly related to the Famine. [92] By 1850, following the Mexican–American War (1846–1848) that left a residual population of 80,000 Mexicans in the Southwestern United States, [93] and along with increasing immigration from Germany, [94] the Catholic population in the United States had grown to 1.6 million (or approximately 7 percent of the total population of approximately 23.2 million). [86] [95] Despite the small increase in Catholic-Protestant intermarriage following the American Revolutionary War, [74] Catholic-Protestant intermarriage remained uncommon in the United States in the 19th century. [96]

Historians have characterized the etymology of the term "Scotch-Irish" as obscure, [97] and the term itself as misleading and confusing to the extent that even its usage by authors in historic works of literature about the Scotch-Irish (such as The Mind of the South by W. J. Cash) is often incorrect. [98] [54] [99] Historians David Hackett Fischer and James G. Leyburn note that usage of the term is unique to North American English and it is rarely used by British historians, or in Scotland or Ireland. [100] [101] The first recorded usage of the term was by Elizabeth I of England in 1573 in reference to Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlanders who crossed the Irish Sea and intermarried with the Irish Catholic natives of Ireland. [97]

While Protestant immigrants from Ireland in the 18th century were more commonly identified as "Anglo-Irish," and while some preferred to self-identify as "Anglo-Irish," [100] usage of "Scotch-Irish" in reference to Ulster Scots who immigrated to the United States in the 18th century likely became common among Episcopalians and Quakers in Pennsylvania, and records show that usage of the term with this meaning was made as early as 1757 by the Anglo-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke. [102] [103]

However, multiple historians have noted that from the time of the American Revolutionary War until 1850, the term largely fell out of usage, because most Ulster Protestants self-identified as "Irish" until large waves of immigration by Irish Catholics both during and after the 1840s Great Famine in Ireland led those Ulster Protestants in America who lived in proximity to the new immigrants to change their self-identification from "Irish" to "Scotch-Irish," [list 3] while those Ulster Protestants who did not live in proximity to Irish Catholics continued to self-identify as "Irish," or as time went on, to start self-identifying as being of "American ancestry." [106]

While those historians note that renewed usage of "Scotch-Irish" after 1850 was motivated by anti-Catholic prejudices among Ulster Protestants, [104] [105] considering the historically low rates of intermarriage between Protestants and Catholics in both Ireland and the United States, [list 4] as well as the relative frequency of interethnic and interdenominational marriage amongst Protestants in Ulster, [list 5] and the fact that not all Protestant migrants from Ireland historically were Ulster Scots, [66] James G. Leyburn argued for retaining its usage for reasons of utility and preciseness, [107] while historian Wayland F. Dunaway also argued for retention for historical precedent and linguistic description. [108]

During the colonial period, Scots-Irish settled in the southern Appalachian backcountry and in the Carolina Piedmont. [109] They became the primary cultural group in these areas, and their descendants were in the vanguard of westward movement through Virginia into Tennessee and Kentucky, and thence into Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. By the 19th century, through intermarriage with settlers of English and German ancestry, the descendants of the Scots-Irish lost their identification with Ireland. "This generation of pioneers. was a generation of Americans, not of Englishmen or Germans or Scots-Irish." [110] The two groups had little initial interaction in America, as the 18th-century Ulster immigrants were predominantly Protestant and had become settled largely in upland regions of the American interior, while the huge wave of 19th-century Catholic immigrant families settled primarily in the Northeast and Midwest port cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Buffalo, or Chicago. However, beginning in the early 19th century, many Irish migrated individually to the interior for work on large-scale infrastructure projects such as canals and, later in the century, railroads. [111]

The Scots-Irish settled mainly in the colonial "back country" of the Appalachian Mountain region, and became the prominent ethnic strain in the culture that developed there. [112] The descendants of Scots-Irish settlers had a great influence on the later culture of the Southern United States in particular and the culture of the United States in general through such contributions as American folk music, country and western music, and stock car racing, which became popular throughout the country in the late 20th century. [113]

Irish immigrants of this period participated in significant numbers in the American Revolution, leading one British major general to testify at the House of Commons that "half the rebel Continental Army were from Ireland." [114] Irish Americans signed the foundational documents of the United States—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—and, beginning with Andrew Jackson, served as president.

Irish Catholics in the South Edit

In 1820 Irish-born John England became the first Catholic bishop in the mainly Protestant city of Charleston, South Carolina. During the 1820s and 1830s, Bishop England defended the Catholic minority against Protestant prejudices. In 1831 and 1835, he established free schools for free African American children. Inflamed by the propaganda of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a mob raided the Charleston post office in 1835 and the next day turned its attention to England's school. England led Charleston's "Irish Volunteers" to defend the school. Soon after this, however, all schools for "free blacks" were closed in Charleston, and England acquiesced. [115]

The Irish Catholics concentrated in a few medium-sized cities, where they were highly visible, especially in Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans. [116] [117] They often became precinct leaders in the Democratic Party Organizations, opposed abolition of slavery, and generally favored preserving the Union in 1860, when they voted for Stephen Douglas. [118]

After secession in 1861, the Irish Catholic community supported the Confederate States of America and 20,000 Irish Catholics served in the Confederate States Army. Gleason says:

Support for Irish Confederate soldiers from home was vital both for encouraging them to stay in the army and to highlight to native white southerners that the entire Irish community was behind the Confederacy. Civilian leaders of the Irish and the South did embrace the Confederate national project and most became advocates of a 'hard-war' policy. [119] [120]

Irish nationalist John Mitchel lived in Tennessee and Virginia during his exile from Ireland and was one of the Southern United States' most outspoken supporters during the American Civil War through his newspapers the Southern Citizen and the Richmond Enquirer. [121]

Although most began as unskilled laborers, Irish Catholics in the South achieved average or above average economic status by 1900. David T. Gleeson emphasizes how well they were accepted by society:

Native tolerance, however, was also a very important factor in Irish integration [into Southern society]. Upper-class southerners, therefore, did not object to the Irish, because Irish immigration never threatened to overwhelm their cities or states. The Irish were willing to take on potentially high-mortality occupations, thereby sparing valuable slave property. Some employers objected not only to the cost of Irish labor but also to the rowdiness of their foreign-born employees. Nevertheless, they recognized the importance of the Irish worker to the protection of slavery. The Catholicism practiced by Irish immigrants was of little concern to Southern natives. [122]

Mid-19th century and later Edit

Irish immigration to the United States (1820–1975) [14]
Period Number of
immigrants
Period Number of
immigrants
1820–1830 54,338 1911–1920 146,181
1831–1840 207,381 1921–1930 220,591
1841–1850 780,719 1931–1940 13,167
1851–1860 914,119 1941–1950 26,967
1861–1870 435,778 1951–1960 57,332
1871–1880 436,871 1961–1970 37,461
1881–1890 655,482 1971–1975 6,559
1891–1900 388,416
1901–1910 399,065
Total : 4,720,427

Between 1851 and 1920, 3.3 to 3.7 million Irish immigrated to the United States, [123] [14] including more than 90 percent of the more than 1 million Ulster Protestant emigrants out of Ireland from 1851 to 1900. [124] [91] Following the Great Famine (1845–1852), emigration from Ireland came primarily from Munster and Connacht, [124] while 28 percent of all immigrants from Ireland from 1851 to 1900 continued to come from Ulster. Ulster immigration continued to account for as much as 20 percent of all immigration from Ireland to the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, [91] and still accounted for 19 percent of all immigration from Ireland to the United States from 1900 to 1909 and 25 percent from 1910 to 1914. [125] The Catholic population in the United States grew to 3.1 million by 1860 (or approximately 10 percent of the total U.S. population of 31.4 million), [126] [127] to 6.3 million by 1880 (or approximately 13 percent of the total U.S. population of 50.2 million), [128] [129] and further to 19.8 million by 1920 (or approximately 19 percent of the total U.S. population of 106 million). [128] [130]

However, due to continued immigration from Germany, [94] and beginning in the 1880s, waves of immigration from Italy, Poland, and Canada (by French Canadians) as well as from Mexico from 1900 to 1920, [131] Irish Catholics never accounted for a majority of the Catholic population in the United States through 1920. [132] [133] In the 1920s, an additional 220,000 immigrants from Ireland came to the United States, [14] with emigration from Ulster falling off to 10,000 of 126,000 immigrants from Ireland (or less than 10 percent) between 1925 and 1930. [125] Following the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Great Depression, [134] [135] from 1930 to 1975, only 141,000 more immigrants came from Ireland to the United States. [14] Improving economic conditions during the Post–World War II economic expansion and the passage of the restrictive Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 contributed to the decline in mass immigration from Ireland. [135] Due to the early 1980s recession, 360,000 Irish emigrated out of the country, with the majority going to England and many to the United States (including approximately 40,000 to 150,000 on overstayed travel visas as undocumented aliens). [136]

Beginning in the 1970s, surveys of self-identified Irish Americans found that consistent majorities of Irish Americans also self-identified as being Protestant. [137] [138] While there was a greater total number of immigrants after immigration from Ireland transitioned to being primarily Catholic in the mid-to-late 1830s, [39] [46] [41] [42] fertility rates in the United States were lower from 1840 to 1970 after immigration from Ireland became primarily Catholic than they were from 1700 to 1840 when immigration was primarily Protestant. [139] [140] [141] Also, while Irish immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century had higher fertility rates than the U.S. population as a whole, they had lower fertility rates than German immigrants to the United States during the same time period and lower fertility rates than the contemporaneous population of Ireland, and subsequent generations had lower fertility rates than the emigrant generation. [142] This is due to the fact that despite coming from the rural regions of an agrarian society, Irish immigrants in the post-Famine migration generally immigrated to the urban areas of the United States because by 1850 the costs of moving to a rural area and establishing a farm was beyond the financial means of most Irish immigrants. [143] In the 1990s, the Irish economy began to boom again, and by the turn of the 21st century, immigration to Ireland from the United States began to consistently exceed immigration from Ireland to the United States. [144]

Irish immigration had greatly increased beginning in the 1830s due to the need for unskilled labor in canal building, lumbering, and construction works in the Northeast. [145] The large Erie Canal project was one such example where Irishmen were many of the laborers. Small but tight communities developed in growing cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.

From 1820 to 1860, 1,956,557 Irish arrived, 75% of these after the Great Irish Famine (or The Great Hunger, Irish: An Gorta Mór) of 1845–1852, struck. [146] According to a 2019 study, "the sons of farmers and illiterate men were more likely to emigrate than their literate and skilled counterparts. Emigration rates were highest in poorer farming communities with stronger migrant networks." [147]

Of the total Irish immigrants to the U.S. from 1820 to 1860, many died crossing the ocean due to disease and dismal conditions of what became known as coffin ships. [145]

Most Irish immigrants to the United States during this period favored large cities because they could create their own communities for support and protection in a new environment. [148] Cities with large numbers of Irish immigrants included Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, St. Paul, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

While many Irish did stay near large cities, countless others were part of westward expansion. They were enticed by tales of gold, and by the increasing opportunities for work and land. In 1854, the government opened Kansas Territory to settlers. [149] While many people in general moved to take advantage of the unsettled land, Irish were an important part. Many Irish men were physical laborers. In order to civilize [ clarification needed ] the west, many strong men were needed to build the towns and cities. Kansas City was one city that was built by Irish immigrants. [149] Much of its population today is of Irish descent. Another reason for Irish migration west was the expansion of railroads. Railway work was a common occupation among immigrant men because workers were in such high demand. Many Irish men followed the expansion of railroads, and ended up settling in places that they built in. [150] Since the Irish were a large part of those Americans moving west, much of their culture can still be found today.

Civil War through the early 20th century Edit

During the American Civil War, Irish Americans volunteered for the Union Army and at least 38 Union regiments had the word "Irish" in their titles. 144,221 Union soldiers were born in Ireland additionally, perhaps an equal number of Union soldiers were of Irish descent. [151] Many immigrant soldiers formed their own regiments, such as the Irish Brigade. [152] [153] [154] However, in proportion to the general population, the Irish were the most underrepresented immigrant group fighting for the Union. [155]

General John McCausland was a notable brigadier general in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War. He was the son of an Irish immigrant. [ citation needed ]

However, conscription was resisted by many Irish as an imposition. [153] [154] Two years into the war, the conscription law was passed in 1863, and major draft riots erupted in New York. It coincided with the efforts of the city's dominant political machine, Tammany Hall, to enroll Irish immigrants as citizens so they could vote in local elections. [156] Many such immigrants suddenly discovered they were now expected to fight for their new country. [157] The Irish, employed primarily as laborers, were usually unable to afford the $300 "commutation fee" to procure a replacement for service. [158] Many of the Irish viewed blacks as competition for scarce jobs, and as the reason why the Civil War was being fought. [159] African Americans who fell into the mob's hands were often beaten or killed. [160] [161] The Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, which provided shelter for hundreds of children, was attacked by a mob. It was seen as a "symbol of white charity to blacks and of black upward mobility," reasons enough for its destruction at the hands of a predominantly Irish mob which looked upon African Americans as direct social and economic competitors. [162] Fortunately, the largely Irish-American police force was able to secure the orphanage for enough time to allow orphans to escape. [160] [163]

In the Confederacy, many Irish were initially reluctant to support secession most of them voted for Stephen Douglas in the 1860 United States presidential election. [ original research? ] However, 30,000 Irish or Irish-descended men joined the Confederate Army. [155] Interestingly, Gleeson wrote that they had higher desertion rates than non-Irish, and sometimes switched sides, suggesting that their support for the Confederacy was tepid. [164] During the Reconstruction era, however, some Irish took a strong position in favor of white supremacy, and some played major roles in attacking blacks in riots in Memphis and New Orleans. [165] [166] [167]

In 1871, New York's Orange Riots broke out when Irish Protestants celebrated the British victory at the Battle of the Boyne by parading through Irish Catholic neighborhoods, taunting the residents who then responded with violence. Police Superintendent James J. Kelso, a Protestant, ordered the parade cancelled as a threat to public safety. Kelso was overruled by the governor, who ordered 5000 militia to protect the marchers. [168] The Catholics attacked but were stopped by the militia and police, who opened fire killing about 63 Catholics. [169]

Relations between the U.S. and Britain were chilly during the 1860s as Americans resented British and Canadian support for the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war American authorities looked the other way as Irish Catholic "Fenians" plotted and even attempted an invasion of Canada. [170] The Fenians proved a failure, [ clarification needed ] but Irish Catholic politicians (Who were a growing power in the Democratic Party) demanded more independence for Ireland and made anti-British rhetoric—called "twisting the lion's tail"—a staple of election campaign appeals to the Irish Catholic vote. [171]

A second wave of post-famine Irish immigration, resulting largely from a changing rural economy and the lure of high-paying jobs in America, continued from 1855 to 1921, when the Emergency Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 imposed a "quota system" that significantly limited immigration. [ citation needed ] These later immigrants mostly settled in industrial towns and cities of the Northeast and Midwest where Irish American neighborhoods had previously been established. [172] [173]

The Irish were having a huge impact on America as a whole. In 1910, there were more people in New York City of Irish ancestry than Dublin's whole population, and even today, many of these cities still retain a substantial Irish-American community. [174] Mill towns such as Lawrence, Lowell, and Pawtucket attracted many single Irish women as workers in particular. [ citation needed ] The anthracite Coal Region of northeastern Pennsylvania saw a massive influx of Irish during this time period abuses by owners eventually gave rise to resistance groups such as the Molly Maguires. [ citation needed ] The best urban economic opportunities for unskilled Irish women and men included "factory and millwork, domestic service, and the physical labor of public work projects." [175]

During the mid-1900s, Irish immigration to the United States began to decrease. During the years of 1941–1950 there were only 1,000,000 immigrants in total, and only 68,151 of them came from Ireland. [ citation needed ] These immigrants from Ireland were coming to the U.S. for the same reasons as those before them they came looking for jobs. [176]

Religion and society Edit

Religion has been important to the Irish American identity in America, and continues to play a major role in their communities. Surveys conducted since the 1970s have shown consistent majorities or pluralities of those who self-identify as being of Irish ancestry in the United States as also self-identifying as Protestants. [137] [138] The Protestants' ancestors arrived primarily in the colonial era, while Catholics are primarily descended from immigrants of the 19th century. Irish leaders have been prominent in the Catholic Church in the United States for over 150 years. The Irish have been leaders in the Presbyterian and Methodist traditions, as well. [177]

Surveys in the 1990s show that of Americans who identify themselves as "Irish", 51% said they were Protestant and 36% identified as Catholic. In the Southern United States, Protestants account for 73% of those claiming Irish origins, while Catholics account for 19%. In the Northern United States, 45% of those claiming Irish origin are Catholic, while 39% are Protestant. [177] Many African Americans and Native Americans claim Irish Protestant and Scots-Irish ancestry. [178] Although, native Irish names and surnames are pretty common among the African American people, who are mostly Protestant, this is due to the two communities intermarrying. These intermarriages took place mostly in the 19th century, as members of both communities were treated as second class citizens in the United States. [179] African Americans with Ulster Scots ancestry largely originated from Ulster Scots slave owners, just like their Scottish kin who owned 33% of all slaves in Jamaica [180]

Irish Catholic and Ulster Protestant relations Edit

Between 1607 and 1820, the majority of emigrants from Ireland to America were Protestants [181] who were described simply as "Irish". [182] The religious distinction became important after 1820, [183] when large numbers of Irish Catholics began to emigrate to the United States. Some of the descendants of the colonial Irish Protestant settlers from Ulster began thereafter to redefine themselves as "Scotch Irish", to stress their historic origins, and distanced themselves from Irish Catholics [184] others continued to call themselves Irish, especially in areas of the South which saw little Irish Catholic immigration. By 1830, Irish diaspora demographics had changed rapidly, with over 60% of all Irish settlers in the US being Catholics from rural areas of Ireland. [185]

Some Protestant Irish immigrants became active in explicitly anti-Catholic organizations such as the Orange Institution and the American Protective Association. However, participation in the Orange Institution was never as large in the United States as it was in Canada. [186] In the early nineteenth century, the post-Revolutionary republican spirit of the new United States attracted exiled United Irishmen such as Theobald Wolf Tone and others, with the presidency of Andrew Jackson exemplifying this attitude. [187] Most Protestant Irish immigrants in the first several decades of the nineteenth century were those who held to the republicanism of the 1790s, and who were unable to accept Orangeism. Loyalists and Orangemen made up a minority of Irish Protestant immigrants to the United States during this period. Most of the Irish loyalist emigration was bound for Upper Canada and the Canadian Maritime provinces, where Orange lodges were able to flourish under the British flag. [186]

By 1870, when there were about 930 Orange lodges in the Canadian province of Ontario, there were only 43 in the entire eastern United States. These few American lodges were founded by newly arriving Protestant Irish immigrants in coastal cities such as Philadelphia and New York. [188] These ventures were short-lived and of limited political and social impact, although there were specific instances of violence involving Orangemen between Catholic and Protestant Irish immigrants, such as the Orange Riots in New York City in 1824, 1870 and 1871. [189]

The first "Orange riot" on record was in 1824, in Abingdon Square, New York, resulting from a 12 July march. Several Orangemen were arrested and found guilty of inciting the riot. According to the State prosecutor in the court record, "the Orange celebration was until then unknown in the country." The immigrants involved were admonished: "In the United States the oppressed of all nations find an asylum, and all that is asked in return is that they become law-abiding citizens. Orangemen, Ribbonmen, and United Irishmen are alike unknown. They are all entitled to protection by the laws of the country." [190]

The later Orange Riots of 1870 and 1871 killed nearly 70 people, and were fought out between Irish Protestant and Catholic immigrants. After this the activities of the Orange Order were banned for a time, the Order dissolved, and most members joined Masonic orders. After 1871, there were no more riots between Irish Catholics and Protestants. [191]

America offered a new beginning, and ". most descendents of the Ulster Presbyterians of the eighteenth century and even many new Protestant Irish immigrants turned their backs on all associations with Ireland and melted into the American Protestant mainstream." [192]

Catholics Edit

Irish priests (especially Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Capuchins) came to the large cities of the East in the 1790s, and when new dioceses were erected in 1808 the first bishop of New York was an Irishman in recognition of the contribution of the early Irish clergy. [193]

Saint Patrick's Battalion (San Patricios) was a group of several hundred immigrant soldiers, the majority Irish, who deserted the U.S. Army during the Mexican–American War because of ill treatment or sympathetic leanings to fellow Mexican Catholics. They joined the Mexican army. [194]

In Boston between 1810 and 1840 there had been serious tensions between the bishop and the laity who wanted to control the local parishes. By 1845, the Catholic population in Boston had increased to 30,000 from around 5,000 in 1825, due to the influx of Irish immigrants. With the appointment of John B. Fitzpatrick as bishop in 1845, tensions subsided as the increasingly Irish Catholic community grew to support Fitzpatrick's assertion of the bishop's control of parish government. [195]

In New York, Archbishop John Hughes (1797–1864), an Irish immigrant himself, was deeply involved in "the Irish question"—Irish independence from British rule. Hughes supported Daniel O'Connell's Catholic emancipation movement in Ireland, but rejected such radical and violent societies as the Young Irelanders and the National Brotherhood. Hughes also disapproved of American Irish radical fringe groups, urging immigrants to assimilate themselves into American life while remaining patriotic to Ireland "only individually". [196] In Hughes's view, a large-scale movement to form Irish settlements in the western United States was too isolationist and ultimately detrimental to immigrants' success in the New World. [197]

In the 1840s, Hughes crusaded for public-funded Irish Schools modeled after the successful Irish public school system in Lowell, Massachusetts. Hughes denounced the Public School Society of New York as an extension of an Old-World struggle whose outcome was directed not by understanding of the basic problems but, rather, by mutual mistrust and violently inflamed emotions. For Irish Catholics, the motivation lay largely in memory of British oppression, while their antagonists were dominated by the English Protestant historic fear of papal interference in civil affairs. Because of the vehemence of this quarrel, the New York Legislature passed the Maclay Act in 1842, giving New York City an elective Board of Education empowered to build and supervise schools and distribute the education fund—but with the proviso that none of the money should go to schools which taught religion. Hughes responded by building an elaborate parochial school system that stretched to the college level, setting a policy followed in other large cities. Efforts to get city or state funding failed because of vehement Protestant opposition to a system that rivaled the public schools. [198]

In the west, Catholic Irish were having a large effect as well. The open west attracted many Irish immigrants. Many of these immigrants were Catholic. When they migrated west, they would form "little pockets" with other Irish immigrants. [149] Irish Catholic communities were made in "supportive, village style neighborhoods centered around a Catholic church and called 'parishes'". [149] These neighborhoods affected the overall lifestyle and atmosphere of the communities. Other ways religion played a part in these towns was the fact that many were started by Irish Catholic priests. Father Bernard Donnelly started "Town of Kansas" which would later become Kansas City. His influence over early stages Kansas City was great, and so the Catholic religion was spread to other settlers who arrived. [149] While not all settlers became Catholics, a great number of the early settlers were Catholic. In other western communities, Irish priests wanted to convert the Native Americans to Catholicism. [149] These Catholic Irish would contribute not only to the growth of Catholic population in America, but to the values and traditions in America.

Jesuits established a network of colleges in major cities, including Boston College, Fordham University in New York, and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Fordham was founded in 1841 and attracted students from other regions of the United States, and even South America and the Caribbean. At first exclusively a liberal arts institution, it built a science building in 1886, lending more legitimacy to science in the curriculum there. In addition, a three-year Bachelor of Science degree was created. [199] Boston College, by contrast, was established over twenty years later in 1863 to appeal to urban Irish Catholics. It offered a rather limited intellectual curriculum, however, with the priests at Boston College prioritizing spiritual and sacramental activities over intellectual pursuits. One consequence was that Harvard Law School would not admit Boston College graduates to its law school. Modern Jesuit leadership in American academia was not to become their hallmark across all institutions until the 20th century. [200]

The Irish became prominent in the leadership of the Catholic Church in the U.S. by the 1850s—by 1890 there were 7.3 million Catholics in the U.S. and growing, and most bishops were Irish. [201] As late as the 1970s, when Irish were 17% of American Catholics, they were 35% of the priests and 50% of the bishops, together with a similar proportion of presidents of Catholic colleges and hospitals. [202]

Protestants Edit

The Scots-Irish who settled in the back country of colonial America were largely Presbyterians. [203] The establishment of many settlements in the remote back-country put a strain on the ability of the Presbyterian Church to meet the new demand for qualified, college-educated clergy. [204] Religious groups such as the Baptists and Methodists did not require higher education of their ministers, so they could more readily supply ministers to meet the demand of the growing Scots-Irish settlements. [204] By about 1810, Baptist and Methodist churches were in the majority, and the descendants of the Scotch-Irish today remain predominantly Baptist or Methodist. [205] They were avid participants in the revivals taking place during the Great Awakening from the 1740s to the 1840s. [206] They take pride in their Irish heritage because they identify with the values ascribed to the Scotch-Irish who played a major role in the American Revolution and in the development of American culture. [177]

Presbyterians Edit

The first Presbyterian community in America was established in 1640 in Southampton, Long Island New York. [207] Francis Makemie, an Irish Presbyterian immigrant later established churches in Maryland and Virginia. [208] Makemie was born and raised near Ramelton, County Donegal, to Ulster Scots parents. He was educated in the University of Glasgow and set out to organize and initiate the construction of several Presbyterian Churches throughout Maryland and Virginia. By 1706, Makemie and his followers constructed a Presbyterian Church in Rehobeth, Maryland. [209] [210] In 1707, after traveling to New York to establish a presbytery, Francis Makemie was charged with preaching without a license by the English immigrant and Governor of New York, Edward Hyde. [211] Makemie won a vital victory for the fight of religious freedom for Scots-Irish immigrants when he was acquitted and gained recognition for having "stood up to Anglican authorities". Makemie became one of the wealthiest immigrants to colonial America, owning more than 5,000 acres and 33 slaves. [212] [213]

New Light Presbyterians founded the College of New Jersey, later renamed Princeton University, in 1746 in order to train ministers dedicated to their views. The college was the educational and religious capital of Scots-Irish America. [214] By 1808, loss of confidence in the college within the Presbyterian Church led to the establishment of the separate Princeton Theological Seminary, but deep Presbyterian influence at the college continued through the 1910s, as typified by university president Woodrow Wilson. [215]

Out on the frontier, the Scots-Irish Presbyterians of the Muskingum Valley in Ohio established Muskingum College at New Concord in 1837. It was led by two clergymen, Samuel Wilson and Benjamin Waddle, who served as trustees, president, and professors during the first few years. During the 1840s and 1850s the college survived the rapid turnover of very young presidents who used the post as a stepping stone in their clerical careers, and in the late 1850s it weathered a storm of student protest. Under the leadership of L. B. W. Shryock during the Civil War, Muskingum gradually evolved from a local and locally controlled institution to one serving the entire Muskingum Valley. It is still affiliated with the Presbyterian church. [216]

Brought up in a Scots-Irish Presbyterian home, Cyrus McCormick of Chicago developed a strong sense of devotion to the Presbyterian Church. Throughout his later life, he used the wealth gained through invention of the mechanical reaper to further the work of the church. His benefactions were responsible for the establishment in Chicago of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest (after his death renamed the McCormick Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church). He assisted the Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He also supported a series of religious publications, beginning with the Presbyterian Expositor in 1857 and ending with the Interior (later called The Continent), which his widow continued until her death. [217]

Methodists Edit

Irish immigrants were the first immigrant group to America to build and organize Methodist churches. Many of the early Irish immigrants who did so came from a German-Irish background. Barbara Heck, an Irish woman of German descent from County Limerick, Ireland, immigrated to America in 1760, with her husband, Paul. She is often considered to be the "Mother of American Methodism." [218] Heck guided and mentored her cousin, Philip Embury, who was also an "Irish Palatine" immigrant. [219] Heck and Embury constructed the John Street Methodist Church, which today is usually recognized as the oldest Methodist Church in the United States. [220] However, another church constructed by prominent Irish Methodist immigrant, Robert Strawbridge, may have preceded the John Street Methodist Church. [221]

Women Edit

The Irish people were the first of many to immigrate to the U.S. in mass waves, including large groups of single young women between the ages of 16 and 24. [222] Up until this point, free women who settled in the colonies mostly came after their husbands had already made the journey and could afford their trip, or were brought over to be married to an eligible colonist who paid for their journey. Many Irish fled their home country to escape unemployment and starvation during the Great Irish Famine. [223] The richest of the Irish resettled in England, where their skilled work was greatly accepted, but lower class Irish and women could find little work in Western Europe, leading them to cross the Atlantic in search of greater financial opportunities. [224]

Some Irish women resorted to prostitution in large cities such as Boston and New York City. They were often arrested for intoxication, public lewdness, and petty larceny. [225] Most of the single Irish women preferred service labor as a form of income. These women made a higher wage than most by serving the middle and high-class in their own homes as nannies, cooks and cleaners. The wages for domestic service were higher than that of factory workers and they lived in the attics of upscale mansions. By 1870, forty percent of Irish women worked as domestic servants in New York City, making them over fifty percent of the service industry at the time. [226]

Prejudices ran deep in the north and could be seen in newspaper cartoons depicting Irish men as hot-headed, violent drunkards. [227] The initial backlash the Irish received in America lead to their self-imposed seclusion, making assimilation into society a long and painful process. [223]

Language Edit

Down to the end of the 19th century a large number of Irish immigrants arrived speaking Irish as their first language. This continued to be the case with immigrants from certain counties even in the 20th century. The Irish language was first mentioned as being spoken in North America in the 17th century. Large numbers of Irish emigrated to America throughout the 18th century, bringing the language with them, and it was particularly strong in Pennsylvania. [228] It was also widely spoken in such places as New York City, where it proved a useful recruiting tool for Loyalists during the American Revolution. [229] [230]

Irish speakers continued to arrive in large numbers throughout the 19th century, particularly after the Famine. There was a certain amount of literacy in Irish, as shown by the many Irish-language manuscripts which immigrants brought with them. In 1881 An Gaodhal was founded, being the first newspaper in the world to be largely in Irish. It continued to be published into the 20th century, [231] and now has an online successor in An Gael, an international literary magazine. [232] A number of Irish immigrant newspapers in the 19th and 20th centuries had Irish language columns.

Irish immigrants fell into three linguistic categories: monolingual Irish speakers, bilingual speakers of both Irish and English, and monolingual English speakers. [233] Estimates indicate that there were around 400,000 Irish speakers in the United States in the 1890s, located primarily in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Yonkers. [234] The Irish-speaking population of New York reached its height in this period, when speakers of Irish numbered between 70,000 and 80,000. [235] This number declined during the early 20th century, dropping to 40,000 in 1939, 10,000 in 1979, and 5,000 in 1995. [236]

According to the 2000 census, the Irish language ranks 66th out of the 322 languages spoken today in the U.S., with over 25,000 speakers. New York state has the most Irish speakers of the 50 states, and Massachusetts the highest percentage. [237]

Daltaí na Gaeilge, a nonprofit Irish language advocacy group based in Elberon, New Jersey, estimated that about 30,000 people spoke the language in America as of 2006. This, the organization claimed, was a remarkable increase from only a few thousand at the time of the group's founding in 1981. [238]

Occupations Edit

Before 1800, significant numbers of Irish Protestant immigrants became farmers many headed to the frontier where land was cheap or free and it was easier to start a farm or herding operation. [239] Many Irish Protestants and Catholics alike were indentured servants, unable to pay their own passage or sentenced to servitude. [240]

After 1840, most Irish Catholic immigrants went directly to the cities, mill towns, and railroad or canal construction sites on the East Coast. In upstate New York, the Great Lakes area, the Midwest and the Far West, many became farmers or ranchers. In the East, male Irish laborers were hired by Irish contractors to work on canals, railroads, streets, sewers and other construction projects, particularly in New York state and New England. The Irish men also worked in these labor positions in the mid-west. They worked to construct towns where there had been none previously. Kansas City was one such town, and eventually became an important cattle town and railroad center. [149]

Labor positions weren't the only occupations for Irish, though. Some moved to New England mill towns, such as Holyoke, Lowell, Taunton, Brockton, Fall River, and Milford, Massachusetts, where owners of textile mills welcomed the new, low-wage workers. They took the jobs previously held by Yankee women known as Lowell girls. [241] [242] [243] A large percentage of Irish Catholic women took jobs as maids in hotels and private households. [116]

Large numbers of unemployed or very poor Irish Catholics lived in squalid conditions in the new city slums and tenements. [244]

Single, Irish immigrant women quickly assumed jobs in high demand but for very low pay. The majority of them worked in mills, factories, and private households and were considered the bottommost group in the female job hierarchy, alongside African American women. Workers considered mill work in cotton textiles and needle trades the least desirable because of the dangerous and unpleasant conditions. Factory work was primarily a worst-case scenario for widows or daughters of families already involved in the industry. [245]

Unlike many other immigrants, Irish women preferred domestic work because it was constantly in great demand among middle- and upper-class American households. [246] Although wages differed across the country, they were consistently higher than those of the other occupations available to Irish women and could often be negotiated because of the lack of competition. Also, the working conditions in well-off households were significantly better than those of factories or mills, and free room and board allowed domestic servants to save money or send it back to their families in Ireland. [247]

Despite some of the benefits of domestic work, Irish women's job requirements were difficult and demeaning. Subject to their employers around the clock, Irish women cooked, cleaned, babysat and more. Because most servants lived in the home where they worked, they were separated from their communities. Most of all, the American stigma on domestic work suggested that Irish women were failures who had "about the same intelligence as that of an old grey-headed negro." This quote illustrates how, in a period of extreme racism towards African Americans, society similarly viewed Irish immigrants as inferior beings. [248]

Although the Irish Catholics started very low on the social status scale, by 1900 they had jobs and earnings about equal on average to their neighbors. This was largely due to their ability to speak English when they arrived. The Irish were able to rise quickly within the working world, unlike non-English speaking immigrants. [249] Yet there were still many shanty and lower working class communities in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and other parts of the country. [250]

After 1945, the Catholic Irish consistently ranked at the top of the social hierarchy, thanks especially to their high rate of college attendance, and due to that many Irish American men have risen to higher socio-economic table. [251]

Local government Edit

In the 19th century, jobs in local government were distributed by politicians to their supporters, and with significant strength in city hall the Irish became candidates for positions in all departments, such as police departments, fire departments, public schools and other public services of major cities. In 1897 New York City was formed by consolidating its five boroughs. That created 20,000 new patronage jobs. New York invested heavily in large-scale public works. This produced thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in subways, street railways, waterworks, and port facilities. Over half the Irish men employed by the city worked in utilities. Across all ethnic groups In New York City, municipal employment grew from 54,000 workers in 1900 to 148,000 in 1930. [252] In New York City, Albany, and Jersey City, about one third of the Irish of the first and second generation had municipal jobs in 1900. [253]

Police Edit

By 1855, according to New York Police Commissioner George W. Matsell (1811–1877), [254] almost 17 percent of the police department's officers were Irish-born (compared to 28.2 percent of the city) in a report to the Board of Aldermen [255] of the NYPD's 1,149 men, Irish-born officers made up 304 of 431 foreign-born policemen. [116] In the 1860s more than half of those arrested in New York City were Irish born or of Irish descent but nearly half of the city's law enforcement officers were also Irish. By the turn of the 20th century, five out of six NYPD officers were Irish born or of Irish descent. As late as the 1960s, 42% of the NYPD were Irish Americans. [256]

Up to the 20th and early 21st century, Irish Catholics continue to be prominent in the law enforcement community, especially in the Northeastern United States. The Emerald Society, an Irish American fraternal organization, was founded in 1953 by the NYPD. [257] When the Boston chapter of the Emerald Society formed in 1973, half of the city's police officers became members.

Teachers Edit

Towards the end of the 19th century, schoolteaching became the most desirable occupation for the second generation of female Irish immigrants. Teaching was similar to domestic work for the first generation of Irish immigrants in that it was a popular job and one that relied on a woman's decision to remain unmarried. [258] The disproportionate number of Irish-American Catholic women who entered the job market as teachers in the late 19th century and early 20th century from Boston to San Francisco was a beneficial result of the Irish National school system. Irish schools prepared young single women to support themselves in a new country, which inspired them to instill the importance of education, college training, and a profession in their American-born daughters even more than in their sons. [259]

Evidence from schools in New York City illustrate the upward trend of Irish women as teachers: "as early as 1870, twenty percent of all schoolteachers were Irish women, and. by 1890 Irish females comprised two-thirds of those in the Sixth Ward schools." Irish women attained admirable reputations as schoolteachers, which enabled some to pursue professions of even higher stature. [259]

Nuns Edit

Upon arrival in the United States, many Irish women became Catholic nuns and participated in the many American sisterhoods, especially those in St. Louis in Missouri, St. Paul in Minnesota, and Troy in New York. Additionally, the women who settled in these communities were often sent back to Ireland to recruit. This kind of religious lifestyle appealed to Irish female immigrants because they outnumbered their male counterparts and the Irish cultural tendency to postpone marriage often promoted gender separation and celibacy. Furthermore, "the Catholic church, clergy, and women religious were highly respected in Ireland," making the sisterhoods particularly attractive to Irish immigrants. [260]

Nuns provided extensive support for Irish immigrants in large cities, especially in fields such as nursing and teaching but also through orphanages, widows' homes, and housing for young, single women in domestic work. [261] Although many Irish communities built parish schools run by nuns, the majority of Irish parents in large cities in the East enrolled their children in the public school system, where daughters or granddaughters of Irish immigrants had already established themselves as teachers. [262]


The Scotch-Irish

Millions of Americans have Scotch-Irish ancestors, for when this country gained its independence perhaps one out of every ten persons was Scotch-Irish. Few descendants among these millions, however, know much about their ancestors—about what the hyphenated name implies, where the original Scotch-Irishmen came from and why, or what part this vigorous folk played in early American history.

Millions of Americans have Scotch-Irish ancestors, for when this country gained its independence perhaps one out of every ten persons was Scotch-Irish. Few descendants among these millions, however, know much about their ancestors—about what the hyphenated name implies, where the original Scotch-Irishmen came from and why, or what part this vigorous folk played in early American history.

Because the thirteen original American colonies were English, with government in English hands and the population predominantly from England, the tendency of our history books has been to make us see colonial history as the product of transplanted Englishmen. Every American child learns about Jamestown, Pilgrims and Puritans, Tidewater planters, landed proprietors and gentry —all English but few schoolbooks make a child aware of the non-English “first Americans.” In quite recent years our attention has been insistently called to the blacks who made up one sixth of our first census in 1790 and the very names of German, Dutch, Portuguese Jewish, and French Huguenot elements tell us who these early Americans were. But who were the Scotch-Irish?

Next to the English they were the most numerous of all colonists, with settlements from Maine to Georgia. Some historians suggest that they were “archetypal” Americans, in the sense that their ideals and attitudes, limitations and prepossessions, virtues and vices, proved to be common national characteristics of nineteenth-century Americans. If such a claim has any validity, the people themselves deserve to be more than a vague name.

To English colonists who were their neighbors from 1717 to 1775 any idea that immigrants from northern Ireland might presage future American character would have been startling if not dismaying. Few of the settled colonists had kind words for the newcomers in those days. Pennsylvania received the largest numbers of them, and James Logan, secretary to the Penn family and an Irishman himself, lamented that “the settlement of five families of [Scotch-Irishmen] gives me more trouble than fifty of any other people.” When they continued to pour into the colony, Logan, fearing that the decent Quaker element might be submerged, fumed: “It is strange that they thus crowd where they are not wanted.” Cotton Mather in Massachusetts was more forthright he fulminated against their presence as one of “the formidable attempts of Satan and his Sons to Unsettle us.” On the eve of the Revolution a loyal English colonist declared the Scotch-Irish to be, with few exceptions, “the most God-provoking democrats on this side of Hell.”

Such initial hostility toward a wave of foreigners was to become commonplace during the next century, when America received some thirty million immigrants from Europe. By comparison with these late-comers, however, the Scotch-Irish were fortunate, since they experienced active hostility for only a brief time. Practically all of them pushed as quickly as possible to the cheap lands of the back country, where, out of sight, they no longer offended the sensibilities of English colonists by their “oddities.”

In many ways the Scotch-Irish pioneers were indeed an augury of Americans-to-be. They were probably the first settlers to identify themselves as Americans—not as Pennsylvanians or Virginians or citizens of some other colony, nor as Englishmen or Germans or any European nationality. Their daily experience of living on the outer fringe of settlement, of making small farms in the forests, of facing the danger of Indian attack and fighting back, called for qualities of self-reliance, ingenuity, and improvisation that Americans have ranked high as virtues. They were inaugurators of the heroic myth of the winning of the West that was to dominate our nineteenthcentury history. Their Presbyterian Church, with its tradition of formality in worship and its insistence upon an educated ministry, was the first denomination to make tentative, if reluctant, adjustments to the realities of frontier life. Social mixing and intermarriage with their neighbors, irrespective of national background, made any such qualifier as Scotch-Irish (or northern Irish or Ulsterman) disappear within a generation.

When the Revolutionary War came, Scotch-Irishmen were the most whole hearted supporters of the American cause in each of the thirteen colonies. If before 1775 they were still regarded as aliens and immigrants, their zeal as patriots and soldiers changed all that. At home and abroad they were credited with playing a vital part in the struggle for independence. A Hessian captain wrote in 1778, “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.” King George was reported to have characterized the Revolution as “a Presbyterian war,” and Horace Walpole told Parliament that “there is no use crying about it. Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.” A representative of Lord Dartmouth wrote from New York in 1776 that “Presbyterianism is really at the Bottom of this whole Conspiracy, has supplied it with Vigour, and will never rest, till something is decided upon it.” Such testimony to enthusiasm for the American cause was not given to any other group of immigrants.

Upon the conclusion of the war, when the great Ohio and Mississippi valleys were opened up and the rush westward began, sons and daughters of the original Scotch-Irishmen led the way across the mountains to the new frontiers. Theodore Roosevelt is not the only historian who suggests that the institutions, attitudes, and characteristics of these trans-Allegheny pioneers constituted the practical middle ground into which the diversities of easterners and southerners might merge into something new—American culture.

The hyphenated term “Scotch-Irish” is an Americanism, generally unknown in Scotland and Ireland and rarely used by British historians. In American usage it refers to people of Scottish descent who, having lived for a time in the north of Ireland, migrated in considerable numbers to the American colonies during the half century before the Revolutionary War. Perhaps 250,000 of them actually crossed the sea to America, and they bred rapidly their sons, like later arrivals from Ulster, constantly extended settlements westward to the Appalachians. The mountains then sent the flow of newcomers north and especially south from Pennsylvania until they constituted a dominant element in many colonies.

Only occasionally were these people then called Scotch-Irish the usual designation was simply “Irish.” “Scotch-Irish” is accurate, yet many Irish-American critics assert that it is an appellation born of snobbish pride and prejudice. They are not entirely wrong. During the years of immigration, from 1717 to 1775, none of the newcomers seem to have insisted upon the “Scotch” part of the name this insistence developed only among their descendants, and for interesting reasons.

As is well known, after the potato famines of 1845 and 1846 the Irish began to pour into the United States. These people were desperately poor they were Roman Catholics coming to a Protestant-dominated country they were mostly illiterate, often uncouth by American standards, and they were very visible in their concentration in Eastern cities. Prejudice against the “shanty Irish” was rampant for decades. In these very decades, antiquarian interest was quickening among Americans local historical societies burgeoned people looked for distinguished ancestors among their colonial forefathers. Descendants of the people from Ulster, whose grandparents had not objected to being called Irish, now preferred the hyphenated name Scotch-Irish—all the more enthusiastically because Sir Walter Scott had beguiled the nation with his romantic picture of Scots and of Scotland. A Scotch-Irish Society was founded, and its annual meetings, like its publications, boasted of notable ancestors and important contributions to the United States.∗

∗One typical list of distinguished Americans whose forebears were Scotch-Irish was published in 1920. It included the names (listed alphabetically) of Thomas Hart Benton, James G. Blaine, John C. Calhoun, John G. Carlisle, Andrew Carnegie, George Rogers Clark, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Greeley, Alexander Hamilton, Mark Hanna, Samuel Houston, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, John Paul Jones, George B. McClellan, William McKinley, Oliver Hazard Perry, John D. Rockefeller Edward Rutledge, Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, Matthew Thornton, Anthony Wayne, and Woodrow Wilson.

The ostentatious pride of these later Scotch-Irish, and their boasts of importance to America, aroused first the anger of many Irish-Americans and then their sarcastic wit. The newly invented hyphenated name was called a cant phrase, a shibboleth, a mongrel absurdity, a delusion and the Scotch-Irish Society was proclaimed “an organized humbug.” One Irish-American, in a waggish poem entitled “The Gathering of the Scotch-Irish Clans,” lampooned the false pretenses of Irishmen who would not admit their true origins:

There follows a succession of straight Irish names, and the satire ends:

(The members of the Scotch-Irish Society might have informed the satirist that one does not “quaff” haggis, a formidable pudding made with a sheep’s viscera.)

Yet for all the implicit snobbishness in the double name, it directs attention to geographical, historical, and cultural facts in the background of the Scotch-Irish people. The persistence of ancestral traits of character can be exaggerated and even given a mystical quality but there is no doubt that tradition, ancient “sets” of mind, religious convictions, limitations of outlook, and abiding prejudices gave the Scotch-Irish qualities of personality and character that affected their life in America.

The people who began to come to America in 1717 were not Scots, and certainly they were not Irish: already they were Scotch-Irish, even though this name was rarely given them. The hyphen bespeaks two centuries of historical events, many of them tragic (“dark and drublie” was the Scottish phrase), some of them heroic. The ancestors of these people had come, in the century after 1610, from the Lowlands of Scotland across the twentymile channel to the northern province of Ireland (Ulster) as a result of a political experiment undertaken by England. It was called the Plantation of Ulster, and it was simply one of England’s many attempts to solve “the Irish problem.”

For five centuries, ever since the time of Henry II (1133–89), England had tried to rule Ireland, but the Irish refused to become docile subjects. Their resistance was intensified into bitterness when England became Protestant and tried to extirpate the Roman Catholic religion in Ireland. Finally, in Queen Elizabeth’s closing years, Irish earls in the north, after a desperate struggle, were defeated and exiled, and the Crown confiscated all their lands. James I, who followed Elizabeth in 1603, proposed (at the suggestion of Edmund Spenser and others of his counsellors) to settle this region with loyal English and Scottish Protestants who, in return for cheap land, would keep the Irish under control. Since the king had been James VI of Scotland before succeeding to the English crown, he was successful in persuading thousands of his Scottish subjects to cross to Ulster and start a new life there under advantageous economic circumstances.

Only a vivid modern imagination can conceive the squalor, indeed the near savagery, of the northern Irish counties around 1600. Queen Elizabeth called the inhabitants “the wild Irish.” She and her advisers looked upon them much as Victorians did African natives and other “lesser breeds without the law.” These Irishmen had no cities, no education, no refinements they lived from hand to mouth at a primitive level (maintained, of course, by centuries of guerrilla fighting against the English). Their Catholic religion, a patriotic rallying point and a blessed solace, had acquired many elements of magic and superstition. Almost utter demoralization had ensued upon the defeat and exile of their leaders in the 1590’s.

The Scots who were invited (along with English Protestants) by King James to settle Ulster and subdue its natives were thus the first Scotch-Irishmen. They came from the Lowlands, that region nearest the English border and longest in contact with English ways, language, and ideas. They were not the romantic Highland figures of Scott’s novels. They were not clansmen who wore kilts and who marched, complete with dirk, sporran, brooch, and bonnet, to the skirling of bagpipes in the glens. On the contrary, they were farmers who eked out a bare living on thin soil as tenants of a laird. Three words best characterize them: they were poor, Presbyterian, and pertinacious.

Their farming methods were primitive. Crops were not rotated, and the yield was meager starvation was always imminent in the long winters, for both man and beast. King James’s offer of a new start in Ireland on larger farms whose land had lain fallow was, therefore, very appealing, all the more because lairds in the Lowlands had recently demanded higher rents and contracts that made farmers feel a loss of traditional rights and dignity.

The first Scotsmen to pioneer in Ulster succeeded well enough to allure other thousands of Lowlanders, and when, in mid-century, troubles arose with the English king and his church, the exodus increased. The new Ulstermen ran the gamut of character, as pioneers do. Their motives for migration—desire for a better living, escape from problems and debts—indicate ambition and initiative. Some of the adventurers proved to be shiftless others had qualities needing only opportunity to bring them to full flower. Most of the “planters” took their families with them, thus proclaiming their intention to stay and establish themselves. Socially, they were generally humble folk (aristocrats rarely migrate), but with tenacious qualities indispensable for pioneers.

They were Presbyterians to a man, and Scottish Presbyterianism was unique in its intensity, even in those religious days. The Reformation in Scotland, led by John Knox, had achieved immediate and almost universal success among Lowlanders. Their Calvinist “kirk” became the Church of Scotland, a nationalist symbol for the people, who supported it all the more loyally because of the initial struggle against “popery” and the subsequent resistance against royal efforts to make it Anglican. A notable aspect of the Reformation in Scotland was the enthusiastic commitment of the people to education, not only for ministers but also for laymen. It was as if a dormant ideal had suddenly and permanently come to flower. The highest aspiration of a Lowland family was that a son might attend a university and become a minister or dominie. The passion for education carried over to northern Ireland and to America, with far-reaching results in the colonies.

It is likely that the quality of the Lowlanders that made the king most hopeful of their success in the Ulster Plantation was their well-known stubbornness and dourness (“dour” and “durable” are linguistically related). He counted on these traits to hold them in Ulster even when things went badly, and to make them keep the “wild Irish” in tow, and his confidence proved justified. Had not an elder of the kirk besought the Lord that he might always be right, “for Thou knowest, Lord, that I am unco’ hard to turn”?

In the century between 1610 and 1717 perhaps as many as one hundred thousand Lowlanders came across from Scotland, and by the latter date there were some five Scots to every three Irishmen and one Englishman in Ulster. The English planters represented the Establishment: high civil officials, Anglican churchmen, businessmen, and the Army but the preponderant Scots set the tone of the new culture of northern Ireland. It is a culture that, as the recent troubles there have painfully shown, is still self-consciously different from that of the rest of the island.

The Ulster experience was a fitting preparation for pioneering in America. The farmers had constantly to be on guard against native Irish uprisings. Agricultural methods decidedly improved under English example. Feudalism, which still existed in Scotland, simply disappeared in Ulster, for farmers were no longer subject to an overlord or attached to one locality. The Presbyterian Church, with its members “straitly” watched over and disciplined by the session of each parish kirk, stiffened the moral fiber of the people, and with its own presbyteries, not subject to the Scottish Kirk, gave the members experience in self-government.

In one respect, however, the Scotch-Irish seemed to be deficient. The Renaissance did not reach Scotland until the eighteenth century, many years after the Lowlanders had left. From the moment of their arrival in northern Ireland comment was made by Englishmen on the apparently complete lack of aesthetic sensibility on the part of these Scots. As one observer remarked, if a Scotsman in Ulster “builds a cottage, it is a prison in miniature if he has a lawn, it is only grass the fence of his grounds is a stone wall, seldom a hedge. He has a sluggish imagination: it may be awakened by the gloomy or terrific, but seldom revels in the beautiful.” The same limitations apparently characterized the Scotch-Irish in America.

In the very decades when at last the Ulster Plantation seemed to be achieving its purpose, with the Irish subdued, Protestantism dominant, English rule secured, and prosperity imminent, the great migration to America got under way. As usually happens when thousands of people undertake so hazardous an enterprise as crossing an ocean to find a new home, there was both a push from the old country and a pull from the new.

Paradoxically, Ulster’s growing prosperity was one cause of the first wave of migration. A lucrative woolen and linen industry, developing since the logo’s, alarmed the English Parliament and led to the passage of a series of crippling protective acts whose results were resentment on the part of Ulstermen, economic depression, and recurrent unemployment. A second cause touched men personally and turned many thoughts to migration: this was the hated practice of rack-renting. The term referred to a landlord’s raising rent when a long lease on his land expired—and in the decade after 1710 hundreds of leases came up for renewal. To us, such a practice seems normal but Ulster farmers felt it to be a violation of tradition, a moral injury, because a tenant was treated impersonally. If the farmer could not or would not pay the higher rent, he had only two practical alternatives: a return to the poverty of Scotland, or migration to the New World.

Still other causes stimulated emigration. Six years in succession after 1714 brought dire drought, with depression in the flax industry and soaring costs of food. In 1716 sheep were afflicted with a destructive disease severe frosts throughout the decade discouraged farmers a smallpox epidemic scourged Ulster. In addition there was a goad from the Anglican religious establishment. Deserting the tolerant policy of William III, the High Church party, ascendant during the reign of Queen Anne (1702–14), secured the passage of a Test Act, requiring all officeholders in Ireland to take the sacrament according to prescriptions of the Church of England. Although aimed at Irish Catholics, the weight of this requirement fell heavily upon substantial Presbyterians who held magistracies and other civil posts. By extension, Presbyterian ministers could no longer perform legal marriages or even bury the dead, nor could “dissenters” teach school. This unwise law, though not everywhere rigidly enforced, caused resentment among the stubborn Scots, intensified by the fact that they had been loyal to the Crown and had proved a bulwark of defense against the rampageous Irish.

For all these reasons some five thousand Ulster Scots went to America in 1717 and 1718. After that initial migration, the pull of America began to exert more effect than the push from northern Ireland. Reports coming from the colonies were highly favorable, especially from Pennsylvania. Land was cheap and plentiful, authorities were well disposed, the soil was fertile beyond all imagination, and opportunities were boundless. Only two drawbacks loomed: the perils of an ocean crossing, and the expense of the passage. The former was very real in those days but optimism persuaded young people that the nightmare of several weeks on a tiny, overcrowded ship, with much illness, was rarely fatal and that grim memories would soon fade. As for passage money, the practice of indenture had long been a familiar device. Few who had made up their minds to go would be deterred by having to work for a master in America for a period of years to pay off their passage fee, for then came freedom and a new life in a country which, according to some, resembled paradise.

Five great waves brought a quarter million Ulster Scots to America, turned them into Scotch-Irish Americans, depressed the economy of Ulster, and depopulated parts of that province. The tides ebbed and flowed partly with conditions in Ulster, partly with upsurges of what was called migration fever. The chief waves were those of 1717–18, 1725–29, 1740–41, 1754–55, and 1771–75 and each benefited particular colonies. The first two helped fill up the back country of Pennsylvania and soon began spilling over into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The third further peopled the Shenandoah Valley and spread into the piedmont and upcountry of North Carolina. That colony and South Carolina drew most of the people in the fourth wave, while the final group, coming just before the Revolutionary War, spread out widely from New York to Georgia.

In each wave, other colonies also drew settlers. Because the Delaware River early proved the favorite entry way, the colonies of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland soon had many Ulstermen. Massachusetts reluctantly admitted a few but so disliked their uncongenial ways that later arrivals in Boston went on to New Hampshire or Maine.

Two facts about the migration are significant for American history. First, there was almost no further influx from northern Ireland after the Revolutionary War thus, there was no addition to the Scotch-Irish element from abroad nor any inducement to maintain sentimental ties or a “national” identity with a country ruled by England. Second, the concentration of ScotchIrishmen in the geographically central colonies of Pennsylvania and Virginia made a kind of reservoir from which the people spread north and south through all other colonies moreover, their farms just east of the Alleghenies were nearest the Great West when that vast territory opened up after 1783. Scotch-Irishmen were thus the vanguard of the trans-Allegheny pioneers.

It has already been observed that no other immigrants were so patriotically unanimous in support of the American cause as the Scotch-Irish. One group of patriotic settlers in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, drew up a set of resolutions on May 20, 1775, declaring the people of that county free and independent of the British Crown. This predominantly Scotch-Irish assemblage thus anticipated by more than a year the Declaration of Independence. The Revolutionary War might not have been won without Scotch-Irish fighting men.

With independence gained, the Scotch-Irish almost everywhere exerted a unifying, an American, influence, favoring a central government of truly united states. The very fact of their recent arrival in the country and their spread through all thirteen colonies had prevented the growth of strong ties to a particular colony and therefore of an insistent demand for states’ rights. In Pennsylvania and Virginia support by the Scotch-Irish may have been decisive in shaping state constitutions that were extraordinarily liberal for the times. In Pennsylvania power was wrested from the Philadelphia Quakers and given to the majority of the people, thanks to the combined efforts of Scotch-Irish, German, and non-Quaker English settlers in the western regions. In Virginia also, the ScotchIrish of the Shenandoah Valley strongly supported a constitution remarkable for its break with tradition—one that abolished quitrents, entails, primogeniture, and the slave trade, and guaranteed religious liberty. (It must be noted, however, that leadership for all these liberal measures came from Jefferson, Madison, and other Enerlish Virginians.)

Scotch-Irishmen struck a real blow for religious liberty in this country. In 1738 the royal governor of Virginia and the Tidewater planters actively sought to persuade newcomers to the Pennsylvania frontier to leave that crowded region and settle in the Shenandoah Valley. An ancestor of John C. Calhoun presented to Governor William Gooch a memorial drawn up by the Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia requiring religious toleration as a prerequisite for settlement. Gooch acceded to the demand, to the benefit of Virginia and of later American freedom.

From the first, Scotch-Irishmen took an active part in politics. They were elected to office in their communities, became effective lawyers, and in significantly large numbers served in legislatures, on high courts, and as governors—though hardly because their ancestors had come from Scotland and northern Ireland. With the election of Andrew Jackson as President, the descendants of the Scotch-Irish had attained the highest office in the land, and most of them had by then ceased to emphasize their ancestry.

In education and religion it may be asserted that many American ideals and standards derive from the happy agreement of two self-assured colonial groups, the Scotch-Irish and the New England Yankees. Alone, neither people might have been weighty enough or (in the case of the Yankees) unprovincial enough to have prevailed but their common Calvinism and earnestness gave America its first commitment to general education as well as its tendency to identify religion with upright moral character.

For both people, schools followed churches as the first institutions to be formed. The Word of God must be expounded by educated ministers, and colonists could not send their sons abroad for training. The connection between church and school, going back to the Reformation, was to remain close for descendants of both Presbyterians and Puritans until the present century. Ministers were schoolmasters as well as preachers. Curricula in ScotchIrish log schools on the frontier resembled those of the town schools in earlier New England, with training in the three R’s, the Bible, and the catechisms, while higher education was directed toward training for the ministry. The Puritans founded Harvard and Yale well before the Presbyterians established Princeton and HampdenSydney and Dickinson but from these first colleges came a host of others, whose students were not wholly ministerial. Until the Civil War the great majority of colleges in the country were founded by religious denominations and still remained under their control. (The state’s responsibility for higher education had not yet been widely claimed.) Of the 207 permanent colleges founded before 1861, well over half were established by Presbyterians and New Englanders and many of them were notable as “mothers” of still other colleges.

The distinctive religious influence of the Scotch-Irish and New Englanders was not in their common Calvinism, though certainly Calvinist theology has had its effect upon America: it was rather in persuading millions of Americans that religion and character are synonyms. In most other parts of the world religion is likely to mean ritual observance, adherence to a creed, customary pious acts, or some combination of these but when an American says that a person is deeply religious he is likely to mean first of all that he is upright and highly moral. Both Puritans and Scotch-Irish insisted upon rectitude of life and behavior, stubborn adherence to principle, scorn of compromise, and a stern severity that could be as hard upon others as upon self. Neither people could accept the idea that a man’s religious duty consisted only of acts performed on Sunday or of doctrinal orthodoxy. Since America quickly became pluralistic in religion, there could never have been agreement upon ritual, creed, or observances to unify us religiously but all Americans could agree on admirable character and high moral rectitude. What the Puritans and Scotch-Irish made of religion was immensely reinforced when the Baptist and Methodist movements, rising to ascendancy in the nineteenth century, taught the same ideas.

In certain ways the Presbyterian Church of the ScotchIrish was the first important denomination to become “Americanized” and broadly “American.” In log churches on a frontier, with a congregation of pioneer farmers, many formal traditions of the dignified Presbyterian Church quietly vanished—the Geneva gown and stock, the separate pulpit, the attendance of the minister by a beadle, the set prayers. Many of the colonial Presbyterian ministers experimented with unconventional, direct methods of evangelism, in order to speak clearly to a people losing interest in dignity for the sake of tradition. (The approval of the presbyteries for this informality was not won, however and because the dynamic Methodists and Baptists felt free to adopt resourceful methods of evangelism, they drew thousands of adherents among descendants of the Scotch-Irish.)

The Church of England was the established religion in six colonies and the Congregational faith in three others both, then, were identified with the upper-class English Establishment but the Presbyterian Church was nowhere official, elite, or English. Moreover, these other two dominant churches were regional, strong only in the Tidewater and in New England but the Presbyterian Church, like the Scotch-Irish people, was present in every colony. Its ministers were supported not by legally exacted tithes but by free contributions of members these ministers in their work moved freely from one region to another. The organization of the church was controlled by presbyteries that ranged from New York to the South. The “federal” structure of the church of the Scotch-Irish seemed congenial to American conditions and exerted a unifying influence in our early history.

If we of the twentieth century wish to admire the Scotch-Irish as representative prototypes of later Americans, we must ruefully note that their Ulster forefathers’ neglect of things aesthetic was carried over to the new country. European visitors and critics in the nineteenth century, indeed, considered all Americans deficient in such matters but we now know how wrong they were, for our museums are full of beautiful early American art and artifacts from New England, from the Tidewater, from German farmlands, and from many other regions and districts—but not from Scotch-Irish settlements. Nothing in the background of these people in either Scotland or northern Ireland had attracted them to painting, sculpture, architecure, music, and literature, and nothing in their way of life in the colonies apparently changed their attitude. They liked what was practical and seemed indifferent to whether it was beautiful. The lists of distinguished scions of the Scotch-Irish in nineteenth-century America include no names of artists and poets.

By 1800 the young United States was growing strong and self-confident, with a continent to win. Already the authority of the thirteen original states was losing its hold over the rising generation. If a farsighted historian Of the time had been inclined to identify representative types of inhabitants who would probably become the most characteristic Americans of the new century, he might well have named the restless frontiersman and the rising middle-class townsman. The former was rapidly winning the West, clearing the wilderness, exploiting America’s fabulous wealth, adding romance to the American myth the latter was establishing law and order, building industry, adding comfort to utility, and treasuring respectability and responsibility. If the same historian had sought to find the embodiment of each of his representative types, he could have pointed immediately to the descendants of the vigorous Scotch-Irish, now thoroughly American, with no further accretions from abroad. Most of them had even forgotten the adjective formerly applied to them. The daily life of being an American was too absorbing to permit adulation of one’s ancestors, even though these had been the admirable Scotch-Irish.

A professor of sociology at Washington and Lee University, Dr. Leyburn is the author of several books, including The ScotchIrish: A Social History , published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1962, from which this article is adapted.


Religion

Some early Catholic Irish immigrants converted to the pervasive Protestantism in America. However, the vast majority of subsequent Catholic immigrants, many holding their religion to be an intrinsic part of their Irish heritage as well as a safeguard against America's Anglo establishment, held steadfastly to their faith and, in so doing, helped Roman Catholicism grow into one of America's most powerful institutions. Since the late eighteenth century many aspects of American Catholicism have possessed a distinctly Irish character. A disproportionate number of Irish names may be found among America's past and present Catholic clergy. Scores of Irish laymen have been at the forefront of American Catholic affairs. The Irish have been particularly energetic supporters of the more concrete manifestations of their church and have established throughout America great numbers of Catholic schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, community centers, and orphanages, as well as churches, cathedrals, convents, and seminaries.

Until the mid-twentieth century, the life of Catholic Irish Americans revolved around their parish. Many children went to parochial schools, and the clergy organized such activities as sports, dances, and community services. There was little local politics without the participation of the priests. The clergy knew all the families in the community and there was great pressure to conform to the norms of the tightly knit parish. The parish priest, generally the best-educated individual of the congregation, was usually the dominant community leader. At a time when there were far fewer social workers, guidance counselors, and psychologists, parishioners flocked to their priest in times of trouble. Today the typical parish is less closed mainly due to the falling off in religious practice over the last decades of the twentieth century and the increased mainstreaming of parishioners. Nevertheless, there still remains a strong identification of many Catholic Irish with their parish.

The American Catholic church has undergone great changes since the 1960s, due largely to the innovations introduced by the Second Vatican Council. Some Catholic Irish Americans, wishing to preserve their inherited church practices, have been dismayed by the transformation. Some, alienated by the modernization of the liturgy, have been offended by what they consider a diminution of the mystery and venerability of church ritual with respect to the introduction of the vernacular, new hymns, and guitar playing at services. Some have attempted to preserve the traditional liturgy by joining conservative breakaway sects, and others have adopted different branches of Christianity.

Most Irish Americans have embraced the recent developments, however. The traditional Irish obedience to ecclesiastical authority is no longer certain as Rome asserts an uncompromising stance on many issues. Many Irish Catholics are now far more inclined to question doctrines and take issue with teachings on such subjects as abortion, contraception, divorce, priestly celibacy, and female priests. Certain members of the clergy have shown discontent priests, nuns, and brothers have been leaving their orders in large numbers and there has been a concurrent decline in Irish vocations to the religious life. The numbers of Irish receiving the sacraments and attending mass and other church services have substantially declined and many have abandoned puritan attitudes toward lifestyle issues, especially sex. Nevertheless, most Irish American Catholics are still faithful to many teachings of their church, and continue to identify as Catholics despite some disagreements with Vatican teachings.


Many Confederate Irish owned slaves during the American Civil War

A total of 16 Irish-born men reached the rank of either colonel or general in the Confederate forces during the American Civil War. What was these men’s relationship with and investment in slavery, if any?

The most famous slavery-related incident involving an Irish Confederate officer was Major-General Patrick Cleburne’s 1864 proposal to arm the slaves. Cleburne did not own any slaves, but in order to find out if this was true of the others I took to the 1860 census and slave schedules, hoping to find out a bit more about these men and any people who found themselves in bondage to them.

I decided to take this brief look at slave-holding among senior Irish-born Confederate officers as this month is both Black History Month in the United States and also marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee. Olustee was the biggest American Civil War battle fought in Florida, and resulted in a Confederate victory.

The commander of Rebel forces there was Brigadier-General Joseph Finegan of Clones, Co. Monaghan- Finegan had been a delegate at Florida’s secession convention and was a slave-owner. His victory at Olustee was blighted by the execution by Confederate soldiers of some of the wounded and captured African-American Union troops following the engagement.

The majority of Irish-born Confederates were not slave holders, and the same holds true for those who were Colonels and Generals. Of course, the fact that not all of them owned slaves provides no indication as to their personal views regarding slavery, but it is probable that all of them supported the institution.

Slavery was never regarded as a major moral issue by the majority of Irish in the United States, even among the large numbers who fought the war in Union blue. The list below looks at each Confederate officer in turn and also provides the details of those who were held in bondage by them.

William Montague Browne. Born in Dublin in 1823. Appointed Brigadier-General by Davis on 11th November 1864, nomination rejected by Confederate Congress on 18th February 1865. In 1860 worked as an editor and lived in Ward 2 of Washington D.C. No slaves identified. (1)

Patrick Cleburne. Born in Killumney, Co. Cork on 16th March 1828. Major-General in the Army of Tennessee, Killed in Action at Franklin, Tennessee on 30th November 1864. In 1860 lived in Helena, Arkansas where he was recorded as a lawyer. No slaves identified. (2)

Joseph Finegan. Born in Clones, Co. Monaghan on 17th November 1814. Commissioned Brigadier-General on 5th April 1862. VIctor of Olustee, commanded Florida brigade in Virginia in 1864-5. In 1860 he lived with his wife and four children in Fernandina, Nassau, Florida.

A planter, a total of 12 slaves were recorded with the family at their home, including 3 children. These were a 60-year-old black man, a 50-year-old black man, a 40-year-old black man, a 35-year-old black man, a 30-year-old black man, a 28-year-old black man, a 26-year-old black man, a 25-year-old black man, a 50-year-old black woman, a 13-year-old black girl, a 13-year-old black girl and an 8-year-old black girl. (3)

William Grace. Born in Ireland, c. 1830. Colonel 10th Tennessee Infantry, 12th May 1863. Mortally wounded at Jonesboro, Georgia in 1864, died 1st September 1864. In 1860 lived in Humphreys County, Tennessee where he was engaged in railroading. No slaves identified. (4)

James Hagan. Born in Co. Tyrone, 17th June 1822. Colonel 3rd Alabama Cavalry, 1st July 1862. Commanded brigade in 1864-5. Promoted to Brigadier-General in the final days of the war. In 1860 lived in Mobile, Alabama (Ward 4) with his wife and three sons and was recorded as a planter.

He had with him six slaves, three adults and three children. The adults were recorded as a 44-year-old black woman, a 38-year-old black woman and a 26-year-old mulatto woman. The children were described as a 12-year-old mulatto girl, a 10-year-old mulatto girl and a 5-year-old mulatto boy. James Hagan’s uncle was a planter and also owned slaves. (5)

Former slaves in Beaufort, South Carolina shortly after Emancipation (Library of Congress)
Former slaves in Beaufort, South Carolina shortly after Emancipation (Library of Congress)
Robert A Hart. Born in Ireland, c. 1837. Colonel 30th Arkansas Infantry, 12th November 1862. Mortally wounded at Helena, Arkansas, died in Memphis, Tennessee on 6th August 1863. In 1860 he lived in Memphis Ward 4 and worked as a bookkeeper. No slaves identified. (6)

Walter Paye Lane. Born in Co. Cork on 18th February 1817. Commissioned Brigadier-General on 17th March 1865. In 1860 lived at Beat 5, Harrison, Texas where he worked as a merchant. He does not appear to have owned slaves directly although his family in the same household did, including a woman and five children these were a 25-year-old mulatto woman, an 11-year-old black girl, a 9-year-old black boy, a 6-year-old mulatto girl, a 6-year-old mulatto girl and a 5-year-old mulatto boy. Another nearby slaveowner was also almost certainly a relative- they owned 26 slaves, including 18 children. (7)

James John MacMahon. Born in Annahilla, Co. Tyrone on 10th December 1825. Colonel 63rd Virginia Infantry, 24th May 1862. In 1860 he was a Presbyterian Minister in Marion County, Virginia. No slaves identified. (8)

Michael Magevney Jr. Born in Co. Fermanagh, 1835. Colonel 154th Tennessee Infantry, 30th August 1862. In 1860 lived in Ward 5 of Memphis, Tennessee and worked as a bookkeeper. No slaves identified. (9)

Robert McMillan. Born in Co. Antrim on 7th January 1805. Colonel 24th Georgia Infantry, 30th August 1861. In 1860 lived in Habersham, Georgia with his wife Ruth Ann and six children. Worked as an Attorney at Law. He owned 12 slaves, made up of five adults and seven children.

These included a 50-year-old mulatto man, a 45-year-old old black woman, a 32-year-old black woman, a 30-year-old mulatto woman, a 21-year-old mulatto man, a 13-year-old mulatto girl, an 8-year-old black girl, a 6 year-old mulatto boy, a 5-year-old mulatto girl, a 4-year-old mulatto boy, a 3 year-old mulatto boy and a 2 year-old mulatto boy. (10)

William Monaghan. Born in Ireland in 1817. Colonel 6th Louisiana Infantry, c. 7th November 1862. Killed in Action 25th August 1864, Sherpherdstown, Western Virginia. In 1860 lived in Ward 1 of New Orleans, Louisiana where he was recorded as a laborer. No slaves identified. (11)

Patrick Theodore Moore. Born in Galway on 22nd September 1821. Promoted Brigadier-General on 20th September 1864. In 1860 he lived in Ward 2 of Richmond, Virginia with his wife and four children where he was a merchant. They owned 5 slaves- a black woman recorded at an unlikely 115-years-old, a 58-year-old black woman, a 38-year-old black woman, a 21-year-old black woman and an 18-year-old black woman. (12)

John G. O’Neil. Born in Co. Kerry in February 1841. Colonel 10th Tennessee Infantry, 27th September 1864. In 1860 lived in District 7 of Humphreys County, Tennessee and worked as a farmer. No slaves identified. (13)

Frank P. Powers. Born in Ireland c. 1836. Led 14th Arkansas Infantry, May 1862, organized Power’s Regiment of Cavalry in 1864. Not identified in 1860 census but according to Allardice (1987: 312) was a laborer, and so is unlikely to have owned slaves. Recorded as a violent opponent of reconstruction. (14)

Henry B. Strong. Born in Ireland c. 1827. Colonel 6th Louisiana Infantry 27th June 1862. Killed in Action Antietam, 17th September 1862. In 1860 worked as a coffee maker in Ward 3 of New Orleans, Louisiana. No slaves identified. (15)

Jack Thorington. Born in Co. Armagh on 3rd August 1810. Colonel of Hilliard’s Legion, 1st December 1862. Lived in District 1 of Montgomery, Alabama with his wife and four children, where he worked as a lawyer.

Owned 33 slaves, including 21 children. These were a 60-year-old black man, a 50-year-old black man, a 45-year-old black man, a 38-year-old black woman, a 35-year-old black woman, a 34-year-old black woman, a 30-year-old black man, a 26-year-old black man, a 26-year-old black woman, a 26-year-old black woman, a 21-year-old black woman, a 19-year-old black man, a 12-year-old black boy, a 12-year-old black girl, an 11-year-old black girl, a 10-year-old black girl, an 8-year-old black girl, a 7-year-old black girl, a 7-year-old black girl, a 7-year-old black girl, a 6-year-old black boy, a 6-year-old black boy, a 5-year-old black girl, a 4-year-old black girl, a 4-year-old black boy, a 4-year-old black girl, a 3-year-old black girl, a 3-year-old black girl, a 3-year-old black boy, a 2-year-old black girl, a 2-year-old black boy and a 1-year-old black girl. (16)

Of the sixteen men, the 1860 Census and Slave Schedules suggests six of them had direct links to slaves- five as owners and one with large slave ownership in his immediate family. This is perhaps not surprising given that at least two of the men had direct links to plantations.

Unfortunately we have precious little detail regarding the lives of the 68 slaves recorded directly with their Irish masters in the 1860 census, nor do we know how many of them survived to enjoy emancipation. It should be remembered that looking at the slave ownership of these high ranking Irish Confederate officers is a somewhat arbitrary demarcation and does not reveal a great-deal about the wider Irish attitude to slavery in the South. However it does serve as an important reminder that when the opportunity for slave ownership existed, many Irish were willing to grasp it.


Seemingly everything possible has already been written about the climactic battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—three nightmarish days of intense combat in early July 1863—that determined America’s destiny.

Consequently, for people craving something new beyond the standard narrative so often repeated throughout the past, they were sorely disappointed by the new Gettysburg titles released for the 150th anniversary.

In fact, this unfortunate situation that has fully revealed the overall sterility of the Gettysburg field of study has resulted in the writing of this book to fill this significant void in the historical record. It tells the story of the Irish and their key roles at the battle of Gettysburg and the overall Civil War.

This important chapter about the vital contributions of the most uniquely ethnic and obscure fighting men, especially in the ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia, has not been previously revealed in full, even in books about the most written-about and decisive confrontation in Civil War—and American—history. Therefore, this analysis of the importance of the Irish role at Gettysburg represents one of the final frontiers of Gettysburg historiography.

Because of their longtime absence from the historical record, the contributions of these young Irish men and boys at the decisive Battle of Gettysburg will be explored. The unforgettable story of a large number of Irish Confederates who played leading roles in the most climactic moment of the battle, “Pickett’s Charge,” on the hot afternoon of July 3, 1863, needs to be told.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee

These young men and boys from Ireland, especially the most recent immigrants, were literally caught between two worlds—the ancient homeland and the New World—when they stoically advanced across the open fields in the ranks of Lee’s greatest offensive effort. The Irish on both sides included soldiers who still spoke the Irish language.

Large numbers of Irish on the Confederacy side marched to their deaths during the audacious bid including Pickett’s Charge to pierce the right-center of the Army of the Potomac at a weak point of the Cemetery Ridge defensive line. Before the most famous attack of the Civil War, Irish Confederates played leading roles in equally determined assaults on the second day at both ends of Major General George Gordon Meade’s lengthy defensive line centered on the expanse of Cemetery Ridge: East Cemetery Hill on the north, where large numbers of Louisiana Irish Rebels charged the heights with the war cry “We are the Louisiana Tigers!” and in the all-important showdown for possession of strategic Little Round Top, where Irish soldiers of the Alabama Brigade and the Texas Brigade performed magnificently in determined assaults on the line’s southern end.

Ironically, the Irish soldiers were often the butt of jokes and racial stereotypes among the non-Irish, providing a source of soldiery humor across the South. Even the famous diarist Mary Chesnut, who had her own Irish servants, wrote how she saw the Irish nurse of the President Jefferson Davis family “weeping and wailing as only an Irish woman can.”

Sadly for the historical record, these Irish Confederates have left us with relatively few letters, diaries or memoirs in private collections and archives around the United States, an unfortunate development that has doomed these Sons of Erin and their notable battlefield achievements to obscurity, especially in relation to the Battle of Gettysburg.

In fact, no aspect of Gettysburg historiography has been more overlooked than ethnic studies that have revealed new insights into the overall American experience. This has been an ironic development because of the important roles of Irish Confederates during the three days at Gettysburg, providing additional evidence of an especially rich field of study.

By 1861, the largest immigrant group in the South was the native Irish (Catholics) and Scotch-Irish (Protestants). Contrary to the stereotype that the South consisted of a homogenous Anglo-Saxon society transferred from England, the South was overflowing with hardworking and devout Emerald Isle immigrants.

Confederate prisoners at Gettysburg. Photo: Public Domain

By 1860, the South was a multicultural and multiethnic nation that mocked the postwar stereotype of the homogeneous Anglo-Saxon (or Aryan) population that allegedly represented Anglo-Saxon purity—one of the greatest and most enduring Lost Cause myths of the Old South. As the largest immigrant group in the South in 1860, the Irish people and their vibrant culture added the most colorful component of what was a true heterogeneous mix, which mirrored the demographic realities of the South’s population and, in turn, Confederate armies, including the Army of Northern Virginia.

Unfortunately, the romance of Lost Cause myths has greatly obscured the South’s ethnic realities and complexities, especially the disproportionate Irish wartime contributions in a great silencing of the historical record. Offering a comforting psychological explanation and moral justification in order for the vanquished Southern people to minimize their humiliating defeat and subjugation, these persistent racial myths were developed by an active group of postwar southern writers, ex-Confederate leaders, and historians to explain their disastrous defeat and to regain the moral high ground lost by slavery’s defense.

Fortunately for the Confederacy in terms of its war-waging capabilities— in a parallel that had been seen in the thirteen colonies just before the American Revolution—the South possessed a vast Irish manpower pool by 1860. Tens of thousands of immigrant Irish had flooded into the South, especially major urban areas (most of all New Orleans) because of the exodus created by the Great Potato Famine of 1845–1849. Known as the An Gorta Mor—ancient Gaelic for “The Great Hunger.

Unlike in major northeastern cities, the much easier assimilation of Irish immigrants into the overall mainstream of a more open and tolerant Southern society—the unity of whiteness in a slave society enhanced equality for whites —ensured a deep loyalty, including Democratic Party adherence, to their adopted homeland and a widespread wearing of the gray.

Most revealing, during the 1850s, ugly anti-Irish riots swept through the ethnic slums and ghettoes of New York City, Philadelphia and Boston and even targeted Catholic churches, while the Irish were accepted as full-fledged citizens in Richmond, Mobile and Charleston. Clearly, this was a significant difference not lost on tens of thousands of Sons of Erin across the South with their adopted homeland’s call to arms in April 1861, after the firing on Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.

Therefore, the majority of the Irish people found that the South, not the North, was the true land of liberty, offering greater social and economic opportunities and easier access into the overall mainstream of everyday life. Indeed, since before the nation’s founding in the fiery forge of a people’s revolution, the South and its people—not only in the cities but also in the rural areas and in the western frontier regions (as far west as the plains of west Texas)—were fully receptive to the Irish refugees from hard economic times, famines and British oppression.

In total, an estimated forty thousand Irishmen fought for the Confederacy. During the climax of the bloody showdown at Gettysburg, large numbers of Ireland-born Confederates marched forth in lengthy formations that flowed with mechanical-like precision over the open fields during Pickett’s Charge.

Battle of Gettysburg painting by Thure de Thulstrup

Fighting against centralized authority had become a way of life to generations of Irish, and the Civil War was only the latest chapter of what had become almost a cultural tradition to the Sons of Erin. The ancestors of many Irish Catholics of the Army of Northern Virginia (ironically, like the blue-uniformed men of the Irish Brigade) had been liberty-loving rebels who had risen up against English invaders centuries before on the ancient homeland.

Consequently, during Lee’s assault on the afternoon of July 3, these Sons of Erin were still proud of carrying on the distinguished revolutionary heritage of Irish rebels that extended back far beyond America’s own revolutionary heritage.

During what was actually only their most recent revolution against the domination of centralized authority (now located in Washington, D.C., and not London, but still a faraway power that represented arbitrary rule) and a dissimilar opponent, Irish Confederate companies of numerous regiments attacked over the open fields of Gettysburg with colorful battle flags of green emblazoned with ancient patriotic slogans while unleashing Irish war cries that had been heard on Ireland’s most famous battlefields in a storied past.

In regard to explaining the common motivations of the Irish soldier that were atypical compared to other Southern soldiers, no Confederates at Gettysburg fought, in general, less for slavery than the Irish. After all, the vast majority of these Irish immigrants in gray and butternut were relatively poor and primarily menial workers of the lower class—the former peasantry of the so-called old country. These tough men had mostly been common laborers who had worked on the docks, railroads, levees and small farms of the South.

Consequently, relatively few Irish (more the case of Catholics than Protestants—the Scotch-Irish—especially the Great Famine Catholics) in the South owned slaves by 1860. In fact, by inclination, the Irish, especially Catholics, in general were the least likely to be slave owners, in part because they had hailed from a long-oppressed minority and were more empathetic than Anglo-Saxons, who possessed a long history as conquerors.

Confederate soldiers illustration. Photo: Wiki

In truth, these Irish also fought from a sense of sincere gratitude to a Southern society that had accepted them and treated them more fairly than Northern society. Consequently, they were infused with a vibrant new nationalism of a kind experienced by their Irish ancestors in battling the English invaders over the centuries. Because the South had so thoroughly accepted Irish (Catholics and Protestants) for generations and given ample economic opportunities for them to advance up the social ladder unlike in northeastern cities, this path of upward mobility helped to open up many leadership positions in Confederate armies. Most of all, a vibrant sense of Irish nationalism evolved smoothly into the overall mainstream of Southern nationalism by 1861, because the two revolutionary struggles of the common people were seen as largely one and the same, despite existing on opposite sides of the Atlantic and separated by thousands of miles—a righteous, if holy, struggle for self-determination (“home rule”) by the common people.

And no enduring idea from the pages of history and a misty Celtic past was more foremost in the hearts and minds of hundreds of these brave Sons of Erin than that Ireland’s centuries-long struggle against the oppression of Great Britain was the same as the Confederacy’s struggle for self-determination.


Thomas A. Smyth

Smyth was born in Ballyhooly, County Cork on December 25, 1832. He was the son of a poor farmer, and he decided to make a new life for himself in American in 1854. The Irishman settled in Philadelphia, and labored as a wood carver and a carriage and coach maker.

Smyth was an adventurous young man, and he signed on as a mercenary for General William Walker&rsquos expedition to Central America to search for fortune. The brash young adventurer traveled with Walker&rsquos men through Nicaragua. He returned to Philadelphia three years later, married, moved to Delaware, and continued to work as a carriage maker.

In Delaware, Smyth helped establish an Irish militia known as the National Guards. When the Civil War erupted, Smyth enlisted with an all-Irish unit, the 24th Pennsylvania Infantry. He rose to the rank of Captain fighting alongside his countrymen in the early part of the Civil War. In late 1861, Smyth was commissioned as a major with the 1st Delaware Infantry.

Smyth fought in many bloody battles, including Antietam, Chancellorsville, and he was wounded at Gettysburg. He was promoted to Brigadier General during the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia in October 1864. For the next six months, Smyth commanded the 2nd Division of the Gibraltar Brigade, an infantry brigade in the Army of the Potomac. On April 7, 1865, General Thomas A. Smyth was shot by a sniper through the mouth near Farmville, Virginia. The bullet left Smyth paralyzed, and he was brought to a nearby tavern. He died two days later, on April 9, the same day General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union forces.


The Irish Brigade In the Civil War

No brigade in the Civil War was more distinguished by its ethnic character than the colorful, hard-fighting Irish Brigade.

Repeatedly hurled into the hottest part of the fighting, these units, consisting mainly of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, played key roles during some of the most decisive battles of the war.

Originally the Irish Brigade consisted of three regiments from New York City, the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York. Later, the 116th Pennsylvania from Philadelphia and the 28th Massachusetts from Boston joined.

They were united under the command of Thomas Francis Meagher, who had been sentenced to death for his part in the failed Young Irelanders Rising of 1848. His sentence reduced to exile, Meagher was transported to Tasmania where he was able to arrange for his escape to America in 1852.

At the start of the Civil War Meagher raised a company of infantrymen and joined the 69th New York State Militia at Bull Run Creek in Northern Virginia.

This first major battle of the Civil War, in the summer of 1861, was an abysmal defeat for the Union troops. The 69th acquitted themselves well but sustained very heavy losses, and when their leader, Colonel Corcoran, was captured, the unit was mustered out of service. However, many of its members later joined the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry and helped form the foundation of the Irish Brigade.

Like Meagher, many of the officers and soldiers of the Brigade were followers of the Fenian, Movement, whose goal was to liberate Ireland from the shackles of the British colonists.

Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher, Commander of the Irish Brigade.

Sadly, many of the battles in the Civil War pitted them against their fellow Irishmen who had immigrated to the South and were soldiers in the Confederate Army.

One of the stories in the book The History of the Irish Brigade goes as follows:

At Malvern Hill, Virginia, the Brigade covered the army’s withdrawal after the slaughter. However, the company commander of the Confederates directed the firing of his men with such daring that the Brigade was pinned down.

Sergeant Driscoll, one of the best shots in the Brigade, raised his rifle and took aim. The rebel officer fell and the Confederates broke away.

“Driscoll, see if that officer is dead – he was a brave fellow,” said the Irish captain.

Sergeant Driscoll complied, but as he turned the officer over he saw that it was his own son who had moved to the South before the war.

Ordered to charge a few minutes later, Driscoll rushed on in frantic grief, calling on his men to follow. He was shot down a few minutes later. His men buried father and son in one grave, set up a rough cross and went on with the fighting.

The Irish Brigade’s reputation for hard-fighting became legend during 1862 as they took part in the blood-bath of the Seven Days, and at Fair Oaks, Gaines’ Mill, Savage Station, and the above mentioned Malvern Hill, where a Confederate general was heard to remark “Here comes that damned green flag again.”

The Brigade suffered heavy losses at each encounter and there was more to come. The Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, was the bloodiest single day in American history. During twelve hours on September 17, 1862 some 26,050 Americans fell on the fields of battle. In the very center of this storm stood the men of the Irish Brigade.

Antietam creek runs north to south and into the Potomac River just north of Harpers Ferry, Virginia. On that afternoon it marked the point at which Confederate General Robert E. Lee planned to invade the Union. As he pulled his scattered army together, the Union Army of the Potomac attacked at dawn at the northern end of the battlefield.

By late morning the combatants on that end of the field lay exhausted or dead and the fighting shifted to the center. Finally, towards the end of the day the battle shifted to the south. It was against the center of Lee’s lines that Colonel Meagher led the original three regiments of the Irish Brigade at a little after 10:30 in the morning.

The Irish Brigade marched steadily forward behind their three fluttering green silk banners, distinguished by gold Irish harps and the fighting mottos of “Faugh A Ballagh” translated as Clear the Way, and “Who Never Retreat from the Clash of Spears.”

Equipped solely with smoothbore muskets at a time when most of the rest of both armies had rifles (which allow for longer-range fire) Meagher’s plan was to close in and then blast away at a range at which even the smoothbores could not miss.

Their approach carded them up a long slow rise towards a crest in the middle of a farmer’s field. As the Irish crested the ridge they were met with a fierce blast of musketry. The shattering fire came from a line of Confederate infantry partially protected in a slightly sunken road just beyond the crest of the rise. Rather than fall back or retreat, the Irish stood their ground and traded shot after shot at point-blank range with the Alabamans to their front.

Accounts from survivors talk of the battle rage that came upon some men to the degree that when they ran out of bullets they began throwing rocks at the enemy that were dealing the Brigade such punishment. At the end of the fighting on this part of the line, almost two hours later, the Irish Brigade marched away leaving some 550 men dead upon the field.

The sunken farm path where their opponents lay stacked in heaps has been known ever since as “Bloody Lane.”

Antietam so damaged the Brigade that two more regiments, the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania, also mostly Irish, joined the Brigade before the next engagement, just three months later.

On December 13, 1862, the Union Army once again attacked the Confederates. This time Lee was not scrambling to reassemble his far-flung divisions, he was dug-in and waiting for the Union assault.

The Army of the Potomac, under the dubious command of General Ambrose Burnside, obliged Lee with a series of frontal assaults against the southern fortifications on a ridge just south of Fredericksburg known as Marye’s Heights.

The Confederates had placed artillery all along the heights. At the base of the hill, in yet another semi-sunken road, stood resolute Confederate infantry.

Officers of the 69th New York Militia.

To approach this formidable position the Union infantry had to cross some 600 yards of open fields.

In defiance of common military sense and some might say a sense of decency, General Burnside hurled no less than six major and eleven minor attacks against the impregnable Confederate emplacements, all of them dismal failures.

After standing under arms all morning, the Irish Brigade was addressed by Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher. In eloquent words, he reminded his soldiers that they were Irish, and that every eye in the Union would be on them to see how they upheld their fighting Irish tradition.

The flags of the three New York regiments had been so fiddled in previous battles that they had been sent to New York City for repair. To be sure that the enemy knew that it was the Irish Brigade, Meagher ordered sprigs of evergreen to be placed in the caps of both officers and men, himself setting the example.

The Irish marched forward under a single green banner, that of the 28th Massachusetts, which had recently been presented to it.

They moved out into Hanover Street and under intense fire reached a canal that was supposed to have been bridged the men plunged into the ice-cold water to cross. The rising slope of Marye’s Heights lay ahead. The Irishmen rushed up the hill with wild cheers. General Meagher had led the Brigade to the field but did not join the charge because of an injured leg. The five infantry regiments advanced with the green flag of the 28th Massachusetts in the center flying and flapping in the breeze.

They had not gone far when they were struck by heavy artillery. Shells burst in front, in the rear, above and in the ranks. Holes opened in their fine, but the Irishmen pressed forward. The Union wounded littering the ground cheered them on.

The stone wall was defended in part, by Confederate General Thomas R.R. Cobb’s Georgia Brigade, many of whom were Irish immigrants. As the Irish Brigade closed on its position, these Confederates recognized the green flag of the 18th Massachusetts and the symbolic sprigs of green in the caps of their opponents.

“Oh, God, what a pity! Here come Meagher’s fellows” was the cry in the Confederate ranks. Nevertheless, the Rebels kept up the relentless fire. Captain John Donovan, in the 69th New York, called the combined cannon and rifle fire “murderous” as gaps opened in his unit’s ranks. Still the Brigade pressed on, men dropping in twos, threes, and in larger groups.

Private William McCleland, of the 88th New York Infantry, later wrote, “Our men were mowed down like grass before the scythe of the reaper…The men lay piled up in all directions. And still they forged ahead.”

A strange sound was heard above the screams of the wounded and the exploding artillery shells. The Rebels were cheering the bravery of the Brigade. General George Pickett, best known for his charge at Gettysburg, wrote after the battle to his fiancee, “Your soldier’s heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their death. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. Why, my darling, we forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”

President John F. Kennedy presenting the 69th New York’s restored second color to the Irish people in June, 1963.

Finally, some thirty yards from the Confederate line, the command to lie down and fire passed through the surviving men. They had advanced further than any other Union unit that day, and further than any would. Thus none could relieve them and only the cover of darkness saved those that lived.

As the sun dropped below the horizon it cast eerie shadows across a carpet of blue – the bodies of some 9,000 Union soldiers. And lying the closest to the entrenched Confederate positions were long lines of Irishmen with green sprigs of boxwood in their hats.

The 28th Massachusetts lost 158 of the 416 men who followed their colors up the bloody slope that winter day. The death toll fell with equal weight among all five regiments of the Brigade. Overall they suffered a total of 535 casualties, or two-thirds the strength that they carried into the fight.

General Edwin Sumner, commander of the II Corps, riding along the lines the next morning as the units were reforming, rebuked a man of the 28th Massachusetts for not being in company formation with his comrades. The Irish private looked up at the general and replied, “This is all my company, sir.”

Nearly one year of unremitting fighting had decimated the ranks. The three original regiments had numbered close to 2,500 men when they left New York City in 1861. On the eve of the Gettysburg campaign the combined strength of the three regiments was 240 men. The 28th Massachusetts, that had transferred to the Irish Brigade in November, 1862, counted only 224 men. Disease and casualties had reduced the 116th Pennsylvania, a mixture of Irish immigrants and native-born Germans, to 66 men. In all, the Irish Brigade mustered 530 men present for action on July 2, 1863.

The Irish brigade had lost its commanding officer and founder just two months earlier.

Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher had repeatedly petitioned headquarters for permission to recruit replacements for the Irish Brigade. He resigned his commission in protest on May 8, 1863, after the Brigade lost one hundred more men at the Battle of Charncellorsville, May 1-5.

Irish Brigade officers in camp at Fredericksburg.

Colonel Patrick Kelly took command of the dispirited Irish Brigade after General Meagher’s resignation. Kelly had been a farmer in County Galway, before he emigrated to America in 1849.

The march to Gettysburg was one of the longest and most severe ordeals that the soldiers of the Irish Brigade had faced. On some days the men marched 15 miles and on others 18 on June 29, a distance of 34 miles was covered. Along the way they passed grim reminders of the battles they had fought. Private William A. Smith, 116th Pennsylvania, wrote his parents: “I came over the battle fields of Bull Run and Antietam and seen the brains of the dead on the field that was not half-buffed.”

On the morning of July 2, Kelly’s men filed off towards Gettysburg and, shortly, reached the Union defensive line at Cemetery Ridge near Plum Run.

The first day of the battle had gone poorly for the Union side, with three of their corps badly torn up and thrown back against the town. The second day opened with the Union soldiers hanging on to the high ground to the south and east of the town. Regiment after regiment was fed into the fight piece-meal as they arrived in the area, yet still the Confederates threatened to break through and turn the battle, and potentially the war, in their favor.

Into this chaotic swirling mass of men, material and munitions strode the remnants of the proud Irish Brigade. They were to counterattack across an open wheat field. No other units were available, all being already committed or thrown back in retreat. Only the Irish stood between the Confederates and victory.

Knowing that they would be going in alone, the Brigade knew the odds were against them. Their chaplain, Father William Corby, had them kneel and issued a mass absolution, just a few hundred yards from the enemy. Then the Irish attacked.

Kelly’s men swept rapidly through the waist-high wheat in two ranks, with their green regimental flags flying and their weapons at “right shoulder shift.” Lieutenant Colonel Elbert Bland of the 7th South Carolina remarked, “Is that not a magnificent sight?” to his commanding officer as he watched the Irish Brigade closing on his position.

The attack succeeded. It bought the Union army a few desperate minutes to bring in yet more units, but the cost was the heart and the soul of the Irish Brigade. After suffering, once again, close to 50 percent casualties, the “Irish Brigade” would never be the same. Although replacements and supplemental regiments would refill the ranks, the uniquely Irish nature of the Brigade died there on the wheat field at Gettysburg.

By the end of the war more than 4,000 men of the Irish Brigade had been killed or wounded on the battlefield more men than ever belonged to the Brigade at any one time. With their blood and courage they carved a reputation for valor so deeply into the heart of their adopted nation that there would never again be a question as to whether the Irish had the right to call themselves “Americans.” ♦


Watch the video: The US Civil War and the Great Famine (June 2022).


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