The Irish in the Civil War

Next Page →

By the beginning of the Civil War, the United States had a considerable Irish population, mainly centered in the cities. In 1860, a quarter of New York City’s population (204,000) was Irish-born, with 22 percent (57,000) Irish-born in Brooklyn, then an independent city. The two other leading cities with large numbers of Irish-born immigrants were Philadelphia (95,000-18%) and Boston (46,000-26%). The Midwestern cities with the largest number of Irish-born immigrants were: St. Louis (19%), Chicago (18%), Detroit (14%), and Cincinnati (12%). The Southern Irish-born population was estimated to be between 85,000-175,000 in 1861. The Irish were about 25 percent of the population of New Orleans (24,398) and Memphis (4,159).

The first Irish emigrant wave was the Ulster Protestant (Presbyterian) Irish who left Northern Ireland for the rural United States, motivated by economic and religious reasons. Around 250,000 arrived in the eighteenth century. The next wave was the Irish Catholics numbering almost a million who came to North America – mostly the United States – between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the beginning of the great potato famine in 1845. For them the reasons for emigrating were also to escape economic hardship and religious persecution. This rising Irish emigrant population triggered anti-Irish Nativist reactions, including occasional violence in eastern cities and in the 1840’s the birth of the Know Nothing party, dedicated to ridding the United States of Papist-led Roman Catholics. It enjoyed its greatest electoral successes in the mid-1850s in New England. Some of this sentiment continued while approximately 1.5 million Irish, mostly Catholic, came to the United States in a single decade (1845-1855) to flee the famine. On the other hand, many Americans came to the aid of the Irish suffering under British policies and from Irish landowners clearing many of their desperate tenant farmers who were unable to pay rent or sustain themselves due to the disease that destroyed their potato crops.

Despite the discrimination and poverty endured by these Irish immigrants, they began to gain political power in those cities where their numbers were high. They mostly joined the Democratic party. As the Abolitionist movement grew in the North, the Irish were not attracted to it for a number of reasons. Many distrusted its largely Protestant leadership and with most Irish immigrants employed in low-paying, unskilled jobs, they feared competition from freed slaves in the same economic class.

In the election of 1860, in the North, the Irish-born voters predictably supported the Democratic Party. However, after the South fired on Fort Sumter, many of these Irish Democrats volunteered to fight for the Union. It is estimated that about 145,000 Irish-Americans served in the Union’s armed forces. Of this number, more than 8,000 were from Ohio. In addition to patriotism, many joined for the pay (and later bounties paid to recruits). Others saw this as an opportunity to prepare for a future opportunity to fight to liberate the Irish homeland from British rule. What they were not fighting for was ending slavery.

It was estimated that about 40,000 Irish-Americans fought for the Confederacy. On the Southern side, Irish-Americans, including their Catholic bishops and priests, sympathized with the defense of the South against Northern aggression, although they also generally supported the institution of slavery. They also identified with the Democratic Party but experienced less discrimination than their Northern immigrant counterparts. Interestingly, “The Bonnie Blue Flag” was written by Irish-American minstrel Harry McCarthy, later a prisoner of war held at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. “Dixie” was written by Irish-American entertainer Daniel Decatur Emmett, born in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Leading Irish nationalist John Mitchel, the Young Ireland leader and escaped exile, moved to the South and became a noted defender of the Confederacy (breaking with his follower, Meagher). Two of his sons who served in the Confederate army were killed (one at the Bloody Angle in Pickett’s Charge) and the third was badly wounded.

Despite their lowly economic and social status, their political affiliation with the Democratic party (as opposed to Lincoln’s party in the North), and discrimination against them, Irish-Americans distinguished themselves in the Civil War. They enlisted (and re-enlisted) in great numbers and served with distinction on many battlefields on both sides, suffering heavy casualties in some of the bloodiest engagements. Seventy Irish-American Union soldiers received the Medal of Honor. They produced some of the outstanding generals, most notably Sheridan for the North and Cleburne for the South.