Civil War Top 100

The Irish Experience in the Civil War

ehind the their surprisingly strong pro-Union sentiment, the Irish were motivated to enlist by four key factors:

  • Obligation to Their Adopted Land. Many Irish leaders, even though they had opposed Lincoln and his party before the war, felt compelled to defend the constitutional integrity of the country that had provided them asylum from tyranny and persecution at home. The New York Irish-American called on its readers "by the sacred memories of the past, by your remembrance of the succor extended to your suffering brethren, by the future hope of your native land here taking root... to be true to the land of your adoption in this crisis." The Boston Pilot, well aware of prejudice against the Irish and staunchly anti-Republican in the 1850s, nonetheless urged its Irish-Catholic readers in 1861 to "Stand by the Union; fight for the Union; die by the Union." Whatever hardships they had enountered in America, the Irish felt they had a debt to repay and their allegiance to the government in its hour of need was one way to make good on it.

  • Acceptance in American Society. Many Irish felt that participation in the war offered an opportunity to overcome nativist suspicions. They might prove that "although the Celts be hyphenated Americans in name, they were one hundred percent Americans in deed." The Boston Pilot looked toward the day when future generations of Irish could proudly say that "we too are Americans, and our fathers bled and died to establish this country." They may have been overly optimistic when they believed that Irish valor on the battlefield would erase generations of ingrained prejudice, but in 1861, as the government sought to rally every group in society around the flag, anything seemed possible.

  • The Promise of a Free Ireland. Perceived British support for the Confederacy naturally increased Irish support for the North, many believing that the break-up of the United States would only enhance England as a world power. Many of the Irish were also convinced that if a war for the liberation of Ireland were ever to be launched, America would be its logical base of operations and the Civil War could provide valuable military experience for the men who would obtain their homeland's freedom. Wrote one Irish-American poet: "When concord and peace to this land are restored, and the union's established forever, brave sons of Hibernia, oh, sheathe not the sword, you will then have union to sever."

  • Escape from Poverty. Economic dislocation caused by the secession crisis hit the working classes hardest. Unemployed Irish laborers and domestic servants often found enlistment in the Union army to be the only alternative to starvation. These economic pressures would ease as the war went on, but financial incentives to serve in the military, later enhanced by the government with large enlistment bonuses, would always have their greatest impact on impoverished Northerners like the Irish.

Eventual Disillusionment with the War

While the Irish had many reasons to support the Union cause, their enthusiasm did not last. With the war entering its second year in 1863, it became very difficult for ethnic Irish units to attract new recruits, and most Irish community leaders had turned against the war.

By then, Washington's purposes had come to include emancipation of slaves, a goal that Irish-Americans could not support with the same zeal they had mustered in defense of the Union. Nor did it appear that the war would enhance opportunities for the liberation of Ireland, since so many Irishmen would have fought for that cause had spilled their blood in an American war instead.

The Boston Pilot lamented in 1863: "We did not cause this war, [but] vast numbers of our people have perished in it." The newspaper declared that "the Irish spirit for the war is dead!... Our fighters are dead." The New York draft riots of the same year brought to a boil the simmering Irish resentment at sacrificing life and limb to help free black slaves. While some Irish-Americans would continue to enlist for service in the Union army, neither their numbers nor their spirit would match the early days of the war.

There was nothing intrinsic about Irish support for the Northern cause. Those who settled in the South had no trouble accepting the Confederacy's rationale for war. In many ways, in fact, it was probably more natural for them. As a mostly rural people, the Irish could readily defend the Southern way of life. They also saw secession from the Union as analogous to Ireland's longing for freedom from British rule. It didn't hurt that in the Confederacy, a cult of white supremacy and continued black slavery would keep the Irish from slipping to the lowest rung on the social ladder.

Nor did the Irish who remained in the old country show any strong allegiance to the Northern cause. Public opinion in Ireland was overwhelmingly against Lincoln's attempt to preserve the Union by force. The Irish back home abhorred the bloodshed, were hostile toward Protestant abolitionists, resented Northern recruiting efforts in Ireland, and were horrified at the idea of Irishmen fighting Irishmen on American battlefields. All of these factors conspired to turn most inhabitants of Ireland against the war in general, and the Union cause in particular.

One of the few exceptions to this rule was the sympathy some of the more extreme Irish nationalists felt for the Union, although they were clearly more interested in the fate of Ireland than in the young republic across the ocean. They thrilled to the exploits of Irish soldiers in the American Civil War, believing that the reputation of all Irishmen benefited from the courage demonstrated by such units as the Irish Brigade.

"It has restored the somewhat tarnished military prestige of our race," declared a Fenian-published newspaper, The Irish People. "It has restored the Irish people's weakened confidence in the courage of their hearts and the might of their arms."

The nationalists also had hopes that in tangible ways, the war in America might ultimately lead to the liberation of Ireland. A victorious North could supply arms and experienced Irish warriors to throw off the British yoke. Like their countrymen in America, however, the nationalists' hope faded as they watched their best fighters die on American rather than Irish battlefields.

Adapted in part from Lawrence F. Kohl's introduction to The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by D.P. Conyngham, originally published in 1867 and now reprinted in a fascimile edition by Fordham University Press.

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