Irish Americans in the Civil War - A Research Paper on History

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Carnegie Mellon University
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Research paper
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Despite the unfavorable attitudes held against Irish Americans at the time, they played a vital part in the American Civil War. The history of the war and eventual preservation of the Union cannot be complete without highlighting the contribution that was made by Americans of Irish descent. Irish Americans role in the Civil War is a complicated story. This is the case in the sense that a section of the Irish Americans supported seceding states whereas a majority fought on the side of the federal forces (Carroll 355).The story of their contribution is further complicated when the factors for their entry into the war are examined against the events that had happened in Ireland before the American Civil War. This paper will explore the motivations for entry of Irish Americans in the Civil War and their actual contribution to both sides of the political struggle. To demonstrate this, individual roles and major battles involving people of Irish descent will be used as illustrations.

While there had been massive immigration of Europeans to the US way back before the outbreak of the American Civil War, the Potato Famine of the 1845-47 in Ireland contributed significantly to the presence of people of Irish origin in America. During the famine, thousands of people died, and many more moved out of Ireland, culminating in a loss amounting to 30% of the population (Hernon 5). Those who migrated to the United States formed a significant portion of the American society at the time of the Civil War.

The continued British occupation provoked a series of revolts that sought to dismantle centuries-old British rule in Ireland. According to Hernon, the outbreak of famine between 1845 and 1847 galvanized the resolve of the Irish people to fight against the British whom they blamed for not only mismanaging the entire food problem but also being the cause of the crisis (5-7).One such fight was the Battle of Ballingarry. During the battle, young Irish fighters launched an audacious attack against the British but failed to achieve their objective. Some of the prominent leaders of the battle such as John O Mahony escaped to the United States where they advanced their revolutionary activities (Mitchell 240-44).In 1858, Mahony and James Stephens (lived in Ireland )formed the Fenian Movement(FM), a secret organization that dedicated its efforts toward Irish liberation (Hernon 3; Mitchell 240).As Ural and Bruce post, the participation of people of Irish descent in the American Civil War was closely linked to the quest for Irish independence from British occupation (1-2). However, the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 changed the activities of the FM altogether.

According to Mitchell and Hernon, the outbreak of the Civil War brought new expectations on Irish Americans. They were called upon to participate in saving the country that had hosted them alongside getting greater influence on political affairs in the US.As such, a majority of Irish men felt an obligation not only to pay back the generosity of Americans but also exploit the opportunity to integrate with American culture(239;5-7). On the flipside, the arrival of Irish created tensions with Anglo-Saxon Americans. This resulted in a narrative which portrayed Irish arrivals as unpatriotic and attempts were made by Nativist states to limit the rights of Irish immigrants (Blum 103).Anti-Irish sentiments also stemmed from the result of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. For instance, during the war, tens of thousands of Irish Americans fought against the United States after heeding the call of General Santa Anna to defend the Catholic Church(Horn). This actions cast doubts on their loyalty to the United States .In supporting the Union, the Irishmen sought to redeem their damaged image by showing greater commitment to work for the US as their new country and also dispel anti-Irish sentiments that were rife at the time. In other words, they sought to affirm their commitment to American values and true American citizenship (Blum 103-04).Indeed, after the war, leaders voiced their support for recognition of Irish Americans for their contribution to Union victory. For example, in July 1865, Massachusetts congressman George Boutwell supported this cause when he remarked that the Union victory was delivered by whites and blacks born in the US and, Irish and Germans, among other European races(Blum 103).

A lot of stories of abounded about the FM and other nationalist activities in Ireland. These narrations gave accounts of gallant Irish brigades in the form of romanticized poems and ballads in several battles in Ireland and Europe (Mitchell 240-45; Hernon 8).This information motivated young men to join the civil war. Notably, in 1860, the Battalion of St. Patrick, composed of about one thousand men, fought gallantly (albeit futilely) in the papal armies in Europe. In the minds of young Irish men, such sacrifices were worth making for the pope and the cause of nationality of the people of Ireland. Such gallant accounts galvanized the resolve Irish immigrants to fight for their new nationality (Hernon 8).These actions complicated the objective of the FM as it became more of an American story than Irish. As Mitchell notes, the Fenian Movement in the 1860s did not lie in Mahonys dream of an Irish revolution but instead created new pressure groups in US politics (244).As a result, the involvement of the Irish in US politics increased the desire to participate in American affairs, and this included volunteering to fight in the Civil War.

At the onset of the Civil War, people from Ireland represented the largest group of immigrants in the United States (Hernon 11).These numbers generated serious economic interests, and this somewhat influenced the side they took in the political conflict. Economic factors explain the decision of some Irish groups to side with the Confederate states. High rates of poverty among the Irish proved to be a challenging experience for many Irish living both in the North and Southern States. More specifically, the Irish feared that abortion of slavery would result in reduced wages due to the potential influx of freed slaves into the labor market. They feared that this outcome would be detrimental to their already fragile economic condition. Others owned plantations, and therefore engaged directly in slavery (Gillissen 189-99; Ireland History).

Irish Americans Role during the War

Irish Americans participated in the Civil War as volunteers, officers and draftees (Blum 103). These individuals formed various units that supported the Union, and the Confederacy states. At least 150,000 Irish men directly participated in the Civil War on the side of the Union. They dominated at least 20 regiments that fought for the preservation of the Union (Jones; Hernon 11) .On the other side of the divide, an estimated 40,000 Irish-born soldiers (Hernon 11) fought for the seceding states.

Some of the best-known Irish units of the American Civil War included the New York 69th Regiment (which formed the nucleus of the Irish Brigade) under Colonel Michael Corcoran and the 88th Regiment that was under the command of General Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher (Carroll 355; Hernon 11).Other military units included the Ohio 10th Regiment; the Massachusetts "Irish Ninth; the Indiana 35th Regiment; the Pennsylvania 24th Regiment; Wisconsin 17th Regiment; Missouri 7th Regiment; and Wisconsin 17th Regiment. On the Confederate state's side, the Irish contingent included the 5th Confederate Regiment, under the command of General Patrick Cleburne of Arkansas; the Emmet Guards of Richmond; the 6th Louisiana Irish Volunteers; Louisiana Irish Tartans; Emerald Guards of the 8th Alabama Regiment, and Tennessee Regiment (Hernon 11-12; Carroll 355).

At individual level, Irish Americans demonstrated exceptional levels of military prowess. Brigadier General James Shields, who had served as general in the US-Mexican war, was an important figure in the war especially his contribution to the defeat of Stonewall Jackson in a battle fought near Winchester, Virginia (Hernon 12). Others included Colonel Michael Corcoran and Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher who commanded the New York Irish Brigade. Meagher (renowned as Meagher of the Sword) was an illustrious military man and a hero of the unsuccessful Rebellion of Ireland in 1848 that sought to end centuries of military occupation of Ireland (Hernon; Carroll 355). This revolutionary background enabled Meagher to perform a vital role in leading major assaults on the Confederate forces. The mentioned individuals played a crucial part in Chancellorsville, Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Antietam and Gettysburg battles. These battles defined the course of the war and constituted an integral part of American history (Carroll 355).

On the side of the seceding states, the most famous Irishman was Patrick Ronayne Cleburne,-an iconic figure who had risen to the rank of major general in the Confederacy Army(Hernon 12). Other notable Irish figures on the Confederate side included John Mitchel and his three sons Captain John Mitchel, Private Willie Mitchel, and James Mitchel. Private was killed near Gettysburg while James lost his right arm while participating in a battle near Richmond. Captain John Mitchel was felled while in command of Fort Sumter in July 1864(Hernon 12; Curran 292). Another prominent Irish American was John Dooley who was seriously wounded during the Picketts Charge at Gettysburg and later captured by the Union forces in 1863 (Carroll 355).

General Thomas Francis Meagher and the Irish Brigade

Born in Ireland, Thomas F. Meagher became an active member of a group of young people who demanded for the departure of British from the country. After the failure of the 1848 uprising, Meagher was banished from Ireland and sent to Tasmania, Australia. He subsequently moved to the US where lectured on Irish independence (Jones).

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Meagher had a strong conviction to fight on the side of the Union because such actions resonated well with the quest for Irish independence. Through Meaghers influence, an Irish Brigade was formed, with Meagher as the commanding leader (Jones). His influence on the Irish forces would later turn out to be an essential element in the Unions cause.

The 63rd, 88th and the 69th New York regiments formed the nucleus of the Irish Brigade that fought on the side of the Union forces alongside the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania regiments whose composition was predominantly Irish in the form of Irish immigrants and people of Irish descent (Warren 193).These regiments held a lot of reverence to the Irish flag and carried it whenever they left for war (Jones). This was a demonstration of the determination of the Irish soldiers to affirm the Irish identity and their contribution to liberation even though it mattered little to Irelands independence because the war was fought thousands of miles away from home.

The first combat assignment of the Irish Brigade was carried in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. During the campaign, the brigade was deployed to participate in General George McClellans advance on Richmond in March 1862.However, it was during the Seven Days Campaign that the reputation of the military prowess of the Irish Brigade became to the limelight. For example, at the Battle of Malvern Hill, the brigade engaged in a bloody hand-to-hand military confrontation with the Louisiana Tigers, a majority of whom were also Irish immigrants (Jones).

Meagher also offered a considerable inspiration on the Irish Brigade at the Battle Antietam. Under the leadership of Meagher, the Irish Brigade launched an audacious assault on the infamous Bloody Lane. Meagher first advanced to the top of a hill overlooking a brigade of North Carolinians and then triggered the battle wit...

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