The American Irish and the American Civil War

Seamus P. Metress, Ph.D - Professor of Anthropology

Paper delivered to the Toledo Civil War Roundtable October 9, 2003

The role of the American. Irish in the Civil War in general has been neglected by social historians.  In recent years the courage and fighting image of the American Irish soldiers has been reinterpreted and sometimes diminished by some historians usually bearing Anglo-American names.  American intellectuals continue to manifest anti-Irish ideologies oftentimes bordering on outright racism.

During the debate over slavery leading up to the Civil War, the American Irish tended to be antiabolitionist. The Irish who fled English oppression, starvation, cultural genocide and racism in Ireland did not exhibit much empathy for the condition of slaves. Many of the earliest Irish came to the Americas as slaves in the West Indies and more often indentured servants, who were badly mistreated by the Anglo-American ruling class.  Why given their similar history of oppression and racism did the American Irish in general oppose a movement to do away with a detestable institution such as slavery.

Most abolitionists were exclusively protestant and anti-catholic. The Irish felt the abolitionists worried about slaves but not the Irish worker, who was really a wage slave. Employers pitted the Irish against free Blacks in a competition for unskilled labor. Ethnic divisions were encouraged by employers, who used Blacks as strike breakers.  Anti-union abolitionists failed to see chattel slavery and wage slavery as a class issue, rather than one of individual rights and personal short comings. Such an attitude alienated them from the labor movement which was generally lead by Irish workers.  However to many New York Irish people, abolitionists served to profit from the end of slavery though a restructuring of economic power and expansion of the wage labor pool

Abolitionists also were supporters of prohibition which the Irish along with the Germans opposed.  Finally, it takes a reasonably contented person to show interest in the problems of others. The Irish were largely fighting to survive, so bread and butter issues, not idealism captured the attention of Irish working class. Racism and nativism serve to deflect anger away from the profit making bourgeois who were frightened by working class solidarity.  It is well to keep in mind that much of what we know about American-Irish views on slavery came from the observations of English travelers and politicians as such they had little regard for portraying the Irish fairly in historical context or the local variation among the American-Irish.

Why then did many of the American Irish choose to fight in the Civil War? Though may working class Irish were anti-abolitionist arid the war was not popular with them, a great many did choose to serve in the Union army. However, the reasons for joining were quite variable. S ome immigrants viewed the war as a chance to prove their loyalty to their adopted country many felt that their participation in the war would raise the status Of the Irish in American eyes.  Some Irish believed that the English supported the South in an effort to limit the power of America and this enough was good reason to fight to preserve the Union. The Irish felt that the preservation of the Union was necessary to preserve American power, which would assure them of freedom in the future.

Ethnic chauvinism played an important role as did ethnic rivalries. The Irish were supposed to be superior fighters and the Irish were out to prove it. The Irish did not want the Germans to out do them in support of the Union. The promise of Irish ethnic regiments certainly helped to recruit the American Irish to the cause of both the Union and the Confederacy.

Finally many Fenian leaders urged the Irish to join in order to acquire the military experience necessary to free Ireland from English rule.  Fenian circles were organized throughout the army structure. Finally, economic hard times caused by secession led to widespread, unemployment in the North.  So the Union Army was not only an alternative to hunger, but the enlistment bonus could be used to help the volunteer’s family.

What was the Nature of the Irish contribution to the Civil War? It is estimated that 170,000 native Irish plus Irish Americans (400,000) joined the Union Army.  An Irish Brigade was formed along with other Irish ethnic regiments and Irish officers such as Sheridan, Corcoran, Meagher, Carroll, Mahoney, Devin, Brady, Egan, Reynolds, Nugent, Bagley, Smyth, Byrnes and McGinnis were prominent. I rish priests and nuns served as chaplains and nurses in the field.  The American Irish proved their loyalty to the United States and its institutions with their blood.  It is well to note that at least 60,000 Irish did serve in the Confederate Army. Lee said the Irish soldier fought with a chivalrous devotion to the cause he espouses. He noted that the brilliant General Patrick Cleburne, an Irishman had inherited the intrepidity of his race.  In fact in a number of battles the American Irish fought each other face to face in the field.  At Gettysburg the Confederates might have won the battle on the first day when General Harry Hayes and his 6th Louisiana Tigers, an Irish unit, smashed through the union lines. Had they been allowed to continue their advances instead of being held back by General Ewell, Lee might have been victorious.

The American Irish were organized into many ethnic regiments and brigades. The Union army included less known Irish units such as the I9th and 23rd Illinois, Corcoran Legion, 48th Pennsylvania, l7th Wisconsin, 8th Missouri, 9th Connecticut, 9th Massachusetts, 15th Maine and 35th Indiana.   In the Confederate Army Irish units included the 24th Georgia, 10th Tennessee, 1st South Carolina, Ist and 6th Louisiana,  Ist Virginia, 15th Arkansas and the 8th Alabama. The most famous Irish unit was known as the Irish Brigade which was organized after the first Battle of Bull Run.

The predominantly Irish 69th New York State Militia was the second unit to leave New York City for the front and saw their first action at the first battle of Bull Run. The 69th was lead by Colonel Michael Corcoran, a local Irish hero who was about to be court-marshaled for refusing to parade his unit before the Prince of Wales. They fought bravely but absorbed heavy losses including the capture of General Corcoran in a losing cause.  A Confederate officer noted that they the 69th held their ground “like a rock in whirlpool rushing past them, the Irish fought like heroes".  The 69th returned to New York where General Thomas Meagher organized the Irish Brigade which was originally made up of the New York 69th, 63rd and 88th Volunteer Regiments. Later in 1862 after the Battle of Antietam the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania were added to the Brigade. The Irish Brigade wore a shamrock shoulder patch and a harp insignia on their cap and fought under a Green Flag.  The Flag carried mottos like “Who Never Retreat from the Clash of Spears” and “Faugh a Ballagh” (Clear the Way). It was a ferocious fighting unit that only lost one battle out of twenty-three.  In twenty-three battles the Brigade never lost its colors a feat not duplicated by any other unit. The Brigade distinguished itself at Fair Oaks, Gaine’s Mill, Allen’s farm, Malvern Hill Savage’s Station, White Oak Bridge, Chancellorsville, Bristoe’s Station and Glendale. It was said that Confederate General Hill exclaimed in the heat of battle “There are those dammed green flags again” The Brigade suffered heavily in the course of the war, absorbing 4,000 dead or wounded.

The first battle in the Irish Brigade storied history was at Fair Oaks, six miles east of Richmond, Virginia on May 31, 1862. Two Union charges had been stopped, so General Edwin Sumner rode up to the Brigade. Sumner hat in hand told the Irish Brigade that if they failed the battle would be lost. It is alleged that he addressed the Brigade after a short speech, saying “I’ll go my stars on you” as he pointed to his shoulder stars, “I want to see how Irishmen can fight and when you run, I’ll run too.” The charging Brigade moved into the woods and after a vicious fight won the day. It is said from that day onward General Sumner swore by the Brigade.

On September 17,1862 at the Battle of Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg in Maryland, the Irish Brigade led by General Thomas Meagher was ordered to try to clear four South Carolina regiments from protected positions on the Sunken Road, later know as "The Bloody Lane".  After a fierce fight they drove the southerners from the road on the bloodiest single day in U. S. military history. However, the Brigade absorbed 540 casualties.  After they ran out of ammunition and resorted to throwing rocks the Brigade was ordered to withdraw. The withdrawal was the most remarkable of any regiment under fire in Civil War history. Rather then the usual chaotic retreat, the Brigade carried out an orderly disciplined withdrawal that drew the praise of General Richardson as he called out to the 88th New York “Bravo 88th, I shall never forget you.” At the end of the day Confederate General Lee was forced to withdraw but General McClelland failed to pursue thus losing a chance to capture Richmond and possibly shorten the war.

The Brigade’s only defeat was at Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 13, 1862 when they stormed a virtually impenetrable Confederate position on Marye's Heights. The 9th Alabama Confederate regiment along with Cobbs mostly Irish Brigade of Georgians inflicted 545 casualties out of 1200 men on the Brigade. The men of Cobbs Irish were heard to say “What a pity here come Meagher's fellows.” The defeat was due to the incompetent strategy of union General Burnside not the bravery or leadership of the Irish volunteers. However, General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy was quoted as saying, “Never were men so brave.”

Confederate General Pickett said of their charge, “Your soldiers heart almost stood still as we watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their death. The brilliant assault on Marye's Heights of the Irish Brigade was beyond description.  Why, we forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer went up along our lines.” The Irish refused to fall back but stood their ground and traded shots with the Confederates at point blank range for two hours. However brave the Irish were on those bloody heights, back on the home front the Irish were not happy. For many New York grief was transformed into outrage as the Irish community questioned the use of Irish lives as cannon by nativist generals.  In January 1863 The Irish American a newspaper in New York charged the army with unjust discrimination.”

By the time of Gettysburg the original Brigade of three New York regiments had been reduced from 2,500 to 240, the later additions Massachusetts 2nd had 224 and the 116th Pennsylvania had only 66. The Brigade endured a long forced march under severe conditions to join the battle, marching 15-18 miles a day even covering 34 miles on June 29. The Brigade was led by Colonel Patrick Kelly, an Irish immigrant who replaced General Meagher. Meagher had resigned on May 8, 1863 in protest because he had been refused permission to recruit replacements for the Brigade. The Irish reached Gettysburg on July 2 and were immediately moved into the fray which was going badly for the Union Army. This small remnant of the once feared Irish Brigade was asked to mount a counterattack on rebel positions on high ground that threatened the whole union line. It is said that one of the most awe inspiring sights was that of Father Corby giving mass absolution to a bareheaded kneeling Irish Brigade on July 2, 1863.  Father Corby added as an afterward "The Catholic church refuses Christian burial to the soldier who turns his back upon the foe.” A statue of Father Corby was erected later at Gettysburg to commemorate the moment. Father Corby later became the president of the University of Notre Dame. Today at Notre Dame there is a replica of the Gettysburg Statue outside Corby Hall on the campus of the Fighting Irish.

At this point it would appear that only the Irish stood between the Confederates and victory. Kelly’s men charged into the open field with their green banners flying. It has been reported that Lt. Colonel Elbert Bland of the 7th South Carolina said “Is that not a magnificent sight,” as he observed the fearless charge of the Brigade. The Irish forced their way to within five yards from the Confederate line blasting away with 69 caliber smooth bore muskets.  Smooth bore muskets are devastating at close range and the Irish drove the confederates from the high ground in some of the toughest combat of the war. However even in victory, it soon became evident that union forces were now outflanked on both sides. The actions of the Brigade allowed the Union cause a little time to reply with more units. But the Irish suffered 50% casualties and the action ended the proud history of the Brigade in battle.

The way out of the trap passed through a wheat field.  It was here that the Brigade along with the rest of Caldwell's First Division took heavy losses.  It has been said that the Irish Brigade had to run a gauntlet of death in their retreat through the wheat field. It was a crushing blow for one of the greatest fighting units in American history. The tattered remnants reformed to fight another day. But on July 3 the expected action failed to materialize for the Irish Brigade, as the anticipated charge of Wilcox Brigade of Confederates never came.  G A. Townsend a British journalist noted, "When anything absurd, forlorn or desperate was to be attempted the Irish Brigade was called upon.”

However another Irish unit distinguished itself on July 3 as the Irish Brigade observed from their position; some distance from the apex of action.  A marker stands at the spot where the 69th Pennsylvania, known as the Philadelphia Irish Brigade took its stand on Cemetery Hill at the Bloody Angle on July 3. 1863.  O’Kane’s men repulsed two charges by Pickett's Brigade, the “Pride of the South,” that numbered 16,000 men. It was a vicious hand to hand fight on both sides.  But the Irish 69th Pennsylvania stood their ground against an equally courageous foe.  It is interesting to note that after the fight 8 Confederate colors were lying all over the ground. However, other regiments picked them up in front of the 69th and claiming that they fought at the wall. But the men of the 69th also known as the Philadelphia Irish Brigade knew better. Some Union soldiers were heard to say one word to the beaten confederates “Fredericksburg.”

The draft Riots of July 1863 have often been used to paint the American Irish as fulminant racists. However, the riots must be considered in full historical context in order to understand one of the most, violent urban insurrections in American history The Conscription Act of March 1863 allowed individuals to buy their way out of serving in the Union Army for $300. This affected the poor Irish and Germans hardest. many New York of the poor began to blame the abolitionists and African-Americans.

In the summer of 1863, black longshoremen were used to viciously break an Irish dock strike. The use of black strike breakers seem to confirm the threat of competition in the labor market that the Democratic Party and the news media had warned the Irish about. As such the Draft Act triggered emotions and suspicions that were already building.  On the docks tension was high and the Irish exploded and attacked a nearby black neighborhood on July 13, 1863. They marched into a black neighborhood chanting, “Down with the draft!” and "down with rich man’s war!” The poor took out their frustrations on a nearby poor group who were possibly worse off than the Irish. The riot lasted 4 days and was accompanied by burnings, widespread destruction, and death. But in the end 1300 Irish were killed. However, it was Irish fireman, police, and militia who risked their lives to save African- American’s. There are also accounts of ordinary Irish working people helping to beat back the attack in some black neighborhoods. The New York Post on July 17, 1863 noted it would be wrong to condemn all people of Irish birth ‘and parentage since many New York upheld the law.

Life in the Five Points slum near Mulberry and Worth St. (now Chinatown) from which the rioters came was said to be worse than the slums of Calcutta today, with 50,000 homeless. It is estimated that at least 20,000 of the homeless were children.  Irish children left orphaned by the riot were sent by New York welfare officials to live in the Midwest in a non-Irish social setting.

Some people have suggested that because New York city was a commercial center for slavery with all its cotton interest, some local elites encouraged the attack in order to discourage the Irish from joining the union cause. Mayor Fernando Wood and Governor Horatio Seymour of New York were both said to be Confederate sympathizers. It should be noted that the Anthracite regions of Northeast Pennsylvania had militant draft resistance requiring the use of Federal troops. In Schuylkill county German farmers objected to the draft, but it was the refusal of the miners in Cass Township that raised the full ire of the “Feds.” However, the Irish had been challenging the authority of mine operators at this time. Some researchers believed the army came into the county in order to protect the mine owners as well as enforcing the draft. Irish resistance was related to control of their own work conditions not racism. In Wisconsin, largely German Catholic farmers protested against the draft on November 10, 1862. Six companies of Federal troops were called out, however, no one linked this protest to racism, it seems that only the Irish in New York were accused of racism. The draft resistance riots occurred also in Toledo, Ohio, Evansville, Indiana, Boston, and Newark, New Jersey and the marble quarries of Vermont. This resistance came about without racial attacks, rather it was a class issue. To simplistically attribute this incident to anti black racism among the Irish is wrong. It is well to keep in mind that the Irish themselves were subjected to virulent racist attacks of both a physical and ideological by American nativists as well as some segments of the media.

After Gettysburg the Irish Brigade was a significant element in the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Farmville and Five Forks. The remnants of the Brigade pursued the retreating rebels all the way to the Appomattox Courthouse and surrender on April 8, 1965.

On May 12, 1864 at Spotsylvania the Irish Brigade as part of the First Division charged to the front when a rebel abatis was encountered. The Irish ripped through the man made thicket of cut down brush and frees and overwhelmed the Confederates under Major General Edward Johnson. The frenzied Irish charge of screaming soldiers firing their smooth bore muskets. and flashing the cold steel of their bayonets destroyed Johnson’s Division, capturing most of them including Johnson himself. A rebel counterattack carried out by rebel reserves was repulsed in hand to hand fighting that stretched into the night in a driving rain storm. But the Brigades casualties were high in this struggle for Spotsylvania “BIoody angle.”

On May 22, 1865 Colonel Nugent led the Irish Brigade, green Flags flying down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to the thunderous shouts and applause of thousands of civilians. On July 2, 1865 the Brigade arrived at the Battery Barracks in Manhattan and on July 4 the 700 survivors marched up Fifth Avenue in their last public display. The New York portion of Brigade marched to Irving Hall for a farewell speech from General Meagher. This was followed by Brevet Brigadier General Nugent calling the Brigade to attention for one more time and leading them on a march out of the hail into the mists of history. The Irish Brigade is considered by many New York to be the greatest fighting Brigade in America military history.  For those who would question this evaluation -- they might consider the comment of Confederate Colonel Edward Porter Alexander on the quality of the Union forces “His cavalry is numerous but can’t ride, and his infantry, except the Irish, can’t fight.

The Irish Regiments

in the Army & the Potomac

Irish Brigade Order of Battle at Gettysburg

Army of the Potomac

Major General George G. Meade commanding

Massachusetts 9th      The Irish Ninth

Massachusetts 28th    Irish Brigade

Pennsylvania 69th      Philadelphia Irish Brigade

Pennsylvania 116th    Irish Brigade

New York 37th            Irish Rifles

New York 69th            Original Irish Brigade

New York 63rd           Original Irish Brigade

New York 88th           Original Irish Brigade

New York 155th         Corcoran's Legion

New York 164th         Corcoran's Legion

New York 170th         Corcoran's Legion

New York 182nd        Corcoran's Legion

2nd Army Corps -             Major General Winfield Scott Hancock

                                             (Brigadier General John Gibbon)

1st Division -                      Brigadier General John C. Caldwell            

2nd Brigade -                     Colonel Patrick Kelly

   28th Massachusetts -     Colonel Richard Byrnes

   63rd New York -             Lt. Colonel Richard C. Bentley

           (2 companies)         (Captain Thomas Touhy)

      69th New York -          Captain Richard Moroney

           (2 companies)         (Lieutenant James I Smith)

     88th New York -           Captain Denis F. Burke

           (2 companies)

  116th Pennsylvania         Major St. Clair A. Mulholland

  Chaplain  (881h NY)        Rev. Father William Corby

Irish and Heavily Irish Units in the Civil War



New York 8th  (Jailbirds)

New York 69th

New York 37th  (Irish Rifles)

New York 42nd

New York 63rd

New York 80th  (Ulster Guard)

New York 88th  (Connaught Rangers)

New York 140th

New York 175th

New York 155th

New York 164th

New York 170th

New York 182nd

New York 105th (Co.GH,I)

New York 14 & l5th  (Artillery)

Pennsylvania 11th

Pennsylvania 241h

Pennsylvania 29

Pennsylvania 48th

Pennsylvania 69th

Pennsylvania 96th

Pennsylvania 116th

Massachusetts 9th  (Irish 9th)

Massachusetts 28th (Faugh a Ballagh)

Connecticut 9th

Ohio 40th

Ohio 10th,

Ohio (Hibernian Guards)

Wisconsin 17th (Irish Brigade

Minnesota  5th

Maine 15th

Montana  7th (Irish 7th)

Montana 8th (Fighting Irish Zouaves

Montana 30th (Shamrock Regiment)

Indiana 19th (Iron Brigade Co. K)

Indiana 35th (1st Irish of Indiana)

Illinois 19th (Irish Legion)

Illinois 23rd

Illinois 35th

Illinois 90th

Michigan 24th (Iron Brigade)

Michigan 28th

Vermont 13th (Emmet Guards)



Alabama 8th  (Mobile Emerald Guards)

Alabama 7th  (Co. K - Florence Guards)

Georgia  - Ist Georgia Volunteers  - (2 Co.)

Georgia  - 24th Georgia (Woffords Brigade)

                           Savanna Jasper Greens

                            Cobbs Brigade

                            Phillips Georgia 16th, 18th

Louisiana - Ist   New Orleans

                           Emmitt Guards

                           Montgomery Guards

                           Stephans Guards

Louisiana - 6th  Calhoun Guards (80%)

                           Company B (70%)

                           Wheat's Battalion

                           Company F (assumption)

Kentucky  -  Orphan Brigade

Missouri - 5th  Mo. Co. F “Fighting Irish”

                          Kelley’s Light Irish Artillery

                           Cockrells Brigade

Missouri - 1st  Mo. Regiment, Volunteer Militia

                          (Co. B, 0, E & F - Irish from St. Louis)

                           Captain William Wades Mo. Light Artillery

South Carolina - 1st  SC (Old Volunteers)

                                     Charleston, Emerald Light Infantry Co.

                                      Montgomery Guards, Connor’s Co.

Tennessee  - 10th Tennessee Infantry (Irish/Nashville)

Texas - Dowlings Brigade

             Davis Guards (Co. F 3 and 1st Texas Artillery)

Virginia -  1st  Va. Infantry

Virginia -  27th Va. Hibernian



Engagements by the Irish brigade

Songs of the Irish brigade


April 16 - May 4        Siege of Yorktown

May 31 - June 1         Battle of Fair Oaks

                                    (Seven Pines)

June 25 -J uly 1          Seven Days

June 27                      GaInes’ Mill

June 29                       Savage Station

June 29                      Peach Orchard

June 30,                      White Oak Swamp and Glendale

July 1                          Malvern Hill

July 3 - August 16,    Harrison's Landing

September 17           Antietam

December 12-15,     Fredericksburg



May 1-5,                     Chancellorsville

July 1 - 4                     Gettysburg

October 14,                Auburn and Bristoe Station

Nov. 26 - Dec.  2,       Mine Run



May 5-7,                     The Wilderness

May 8 -12,                  Spotsylvania

May 10,                       Po River

May 12 - 21               Spotsylvania Court House

May 23 - 26,              North Anna River

May 28 - 31,              Totopotomoy

June 1- 12,                 Cold Harbor 

June 16 - 18               Petersburg

June 22 - 23,              Jerusalem Plank Rd.,

                                    Weldon Railroad

Ju1y 27 - 28,              Deep Bottom

August 14 -18            Strawberry Plains,

                                     Deep Bottom

August 25,                   Ream’s Station

December 9 -10,         Hatcher's Run



February  5 - 7           Dabney’s Mills

                                     Hatcher’s Run

March 25                     Watkins’ House

March 29 - 31             Hatcher’s Run or Boydton Road

March 31                     White Oak Road

April 2,                         Sutherland Station

April 6,                         Sailor’s creek

April 7                          High Bridge and Farmville *

April 9,                         Appomattox  Cou House

May 23                         Grand Review, Washington DC

June 30,                        Mustered Out



We’ve never swerved from our old green flag,

Upborne o’er many a bloody plain;

Tis now a torn and tattered rag,

But we will bear it proudly oft again.

We will raise on high, this dear old flag,

From Liffey’s bank to Shannon’s stream,

‘Till victory o’er the pirate rag,

Upon our scared cause shall beam.


Hurrah! Hurrah! for our dear old flag.

Hurrah for our gallant leader, too;

Though ‘tis a torn tattered rag,

We would not change for a new.


We’ve borne it with the Stripes and Stars,

From Fair Oaks to Fredericks bloody plain;

and see, my boys, our wounds and scars,

Can tell how well we did the same.

Be sure, our chieftain, of his race,

Was ever foremost ‘mid the brave,

Where death met heroes face to face,

And gathered harvests for the grave.


We miss full many a comrade’s smile,

The grasp of many a friendly hand,

We mourn their loss, and grieve the while,

They had not died for fatherland.

But o’er their fresh and gory graves

We swear it now and evermore

To free green Erin, land of slaves,

And banish tyrants from her shore


Now we’re pledged to free this land,

 So long the exile’s resting place;

To crush for aye a traitorous band,

And wipe out treason’s deep disgrace.

Then let us pledge Columbia’s cause,

God prosper poor old Ireland, too!

We’ll trample all the tyrants laws:

Hurrah for old lands and the new!

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