Irish Americans in the American Civil War

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Irish-Americans served on both sides of the American Civil War 1861-1865 as officers, volunteers and draftees. Immigration due to the Irish Great Famine 1845 - 1852 had provided many thousands of men as potential recruits although issues of race, religion, pacifism and personal allegiance created some resistance to service.

Pre-1861 Irish immigration[edit]

Although Irish immigration to the United States has taken place since colonial times (Six Declaration of Independence signers were of Irish descent and Andrew Jackson was partially Irish),[1] worsening conditions (under British rule) in Ireland-especially the Great Famine-caused many Irish to emigrate in the mid-19th century.

An Irish immigrant, having suffered through an arduous overseas journey,[1] would have been thrust into a difficult and unfamiliar situation, as many were poor and unused to American customs.

Soon, however, the number of Irish-Americans in some cities grew so great that immigrant Patrick Murphy stated "New York is a grand handsome city. But you would hardly know you had left Ireland."[1] American customs, once utterly foreign to the immigrants, became blended with traditional ones, forming a distinct Irish-American culture.

The American Civil War[edit]

Most Irish-Americans had settled in the northern, American states [1] and were thus called up to serve when the southern states seceded and formed the Confederacy in 1861.

Many Irish-Americans on both sides formed their own units which embraced Irish customs such as Catholic masses and priests.

The first two casualties of the Civil War were Irish, as well.[2]

The 1863 draft riots[edit]

On March 3, 1863, Congress passed the Enrollment Act which required single men age 20 to 45 and married men up to age 35 to register for the draft. This act angered many northern whites, mainly Irish immigrants who had accepted U.S. citizenship, not realising that citizenship also made immigrants liable for the draft. Fuel was added to the fire of their anger when black men, mostly freed slaves, were excluded from this same draft. The Irish feared that newly freed slaves from the South would migrate to the North and create further competition in the labor market. Many Irish saw this as a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight" since the policies of substitution and commutation were controversial practices which allowed drafted citizens to opt out of service by either furnishing a suitable substitute to take the place of those drafted, or pay $300 each. Both of these provisions were created with the intention of softening the effect of the draft on pacifiers, the anti-draft movement and the propertied classes. The result however was general public resentment which then turned to fury.

A few days after the Enrollment Act was passed, in March 6, 1863, the Detroit Race Riot of 1863 erupted in Detroit, Michigan, as Irish rioted for days over the draft as well as targeting black workers. Four months later, on July 13–16, as the first draft being held in New York City, the mostly Irish working class of the city started the 1863 New York City draft riots. Stores were looted and offices of newspapers which supported the Union were ransacked and burned to the ground. The rioters then targeted black people as many rioters saw the American Civil War as a war to free the slaves and thus blamed them for the draft, as well as the war. Many black people were caught by the mob, stabbed, and lynched as a result. When the riots started, the New York State Militia were absent because they had been sent to assist regular Union troops repelling General Lee's Confederate Army in Pennsylvania, thus leaving the New York City Police Department as the only serious force available to put down the riot.

The city police were unable to halt a crowd which was ten times more numerous and the rioting continued. Two days after the riot started, word came that the draft had been suspended. Federal troops returning from the Battle of Gettysburg were sent to the city to quell the riot and peace was finally restored in the streets of New York City more than a day later. More than 1121 people are thought to have died in the draft riots in New York City which makes this the most deadly civil insurrection in American history.

Irish service to the Union[edit]

The Northern states remained loyal to the United States government, which was led by President Abraham Lincoln. Irish-Americans living in the Union states often formed their own regiments, notably the 69th New York State Volunteers. The Volunteers flew a green flag with a golden harp on it, symbolizing Ireland.[1] The green flag was carried in addition to the normal regimental and national colours, making the 69th probably the only regiment to carry five colors into battle during the American Civil War.

Seven Union generals were Irish-born while an estimated 150,000 Irish-Americans fought for the Union during the war. At the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, the Union Irish Brigade charged up Marye's Heights, suffering 41.4% casualties.[3] During the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, the Irish Brigade held a Catholic mass before facing Pickett's Charge.

Irish-Americans in Confederate service[edit]

Although significantly fewer Irish lived in the Confederate States of America,[2] six Confederate generals were Irish-born. Units such as the Charleston Irish Volunteers[4] attracted Confederate Irish-Americans in South Carolina, the 24th Georgia Volunteer Infantry followed General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb, while Irish Tennesseans could join the 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. The 5th Missouri Infantry, commanded by Colonel Joseph Kelly, was called "the Sons of Erin.", or Kelly's Irish Brigade. Although this unit was only a regiment, it is sometimes dubbed "The Confederate Irish Brigade."[5] The Louisiana Tigers, first raised by Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, had a large number of Irish American members.

See also[edit]

References[edit]