Irishmen — Blue and Gray

Historians tell us that more than 150,000 Irishmen, most of whom were recent immigrants (and many of whom were not yet U.S. citizens), joined the Union Army during the Civil War.  Some of these young men joined out of loyalty to their new home, others hoped that such a conspicuous display of patriotism might put a stop to anti-Irish discrimination in America’s largest cities.  As the war dragged on, Irish casualties mounted, and Irish sympathy for the Union began to diminish.  By the end of the war, many Irish soldiers had abandoned the Northern cause altogether.  But between 1861 and 1863 soldiers who fought in the all-Irish units that made up the “Irish Brigade” were known for their courage and intrepidity in battle.

Note:  For a good read, check out my friend Tom’s blog, Irish Confederates.

The (Yankee) Irish Brigade

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, thousands of ethnic Irish New Yorkers enlisted in the Union Army.  Some joined ordinary (non-Irish) regiments, but others formed three all-Irish volunteer units: the 63rd New York Infantry Regiment (organized on Staten Island), and the 69th and 88th New York Infantry Regiments, organized in the Bronx. These units would form the core of what would come to be called the Irish Brigade.

Forming ethnic units was one way the U.S. Army hoped to increase and maintain the recruitment of men in adequate numbers to sustain the war effort — and it was one way for the Union Army to help win Irish support for its cause.  This support was not guaranteed, however.

Though most immigrants lived in the North, the Irish were sympathetic to the Confederacy’s struggle for independence from an overbearing government — because it reminded them of their fight to be free of British tyranny.  Unlike the Scots, however, Irish-Americans did not seem opposed to the issue of slavery — which according to some historians is explained by the fact that Irish labor preferred to keep blacks out of the paid labor market.

This “unsettled condition” forced Union officials to offer additional inducements to prospective Irish enlistees: enlistment bonuses, extra rations, family subsidies, Catholic chaplains, etc., in order to persuade the North’s largest immigrant population to join with them, rather than against them.

In February 1862, the U.S. Army advanced Captain Thomas Francis Meagher to Brigadier General and placed him in command of the Irish Brigade.  Meagher was Irish-born and active in the so-called “young Ireland” movement.  It was this activity that caused his exile to the British penal colony in Tasmania.  Meagher escaped from Australia in 1853 and found his way to the United States where he became a well-known nationalist Irish activist.

Meagher joined the U.S. Army in 1861.  It dawned on him that if he could raise an all-Irish brigade, Union Army officials would be inclined to appoint him as its commander.  He also wanted the Irish Brigade to draw attention to the cause of nationalism in Ireland.

In the spring of 1862, Union Army officials added a non-Irish regiment, the 29th Massachusetts Infantry, to the Irish Brigade in order to increase its strength before the Peninsula Campaign for the capture of Richmond, Virginia.  In October, the 116th Pennsylvania (an Irish regiment) joined the Brigade for the Battle of Harper’s Ferry.  In November, the Army swapped the non-Irish 29th for the Irish 28th Massachusetts.

Fearless fighters

The five-regiment Irish Brigade established a reputation for its toughness and courage under fire as part of the Army of the Potomac.  This was only possible, however, by suffering a disproportionate number of casualties (compared to non-Irish brigades).  At the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, about 60 percent of the soldiers in the 63rd and 69th New York regiments (around 600 total) were killed in action.

A few months later, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Brigade gave up 45% of its strength.  One Irish soldier wrote, “Irish blood and Irish bones cover that terrible field today.  We are slaughtered like sheep.”

In July 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg, the Irish Brigade gave up another 60%.  Today, one can view the monument to the Irish Brigade.  At the base of the statue lies the image of an Irish wolfhound — the symbol of steadfastness and honor.

The Draft Riot of 1863

Modern scholars claim that the Battle of Gettysburg was the Civil War’s turning point toward Union victory.  This is probably true.  But Gettysburg was also a turning point for the Irish Brigade.  By the summer of 1863, the tragically high numbers of casualties in the Brigade led many Irish soldiers and their families to believe that the Union Army was taking advantage of the Irishman’s willingness to fight by using them as cannon fodder.

The Irish were further infuriated by the National Conscription Act, passed in March 1863.  The new law made every unmarried man in the Union between the ages of 21 and 45 subject to a draft lottery — unless he could hire a replacement or pay a $300 fee.  As many working-class Irish people saw it, this was pure discrimination against the poor, who were being forced to fight to make rich men even richer.

At the same time, many Irish people were arguing that the reason for the war had shifted: it was no longer about preserving the Union, but about ending slavery — a cause that most Irish people in the U.S. emphatically did not support.

These tensions boiled over in New York City on 13 July — about a week after the Battle of Gettysburg.  It was a situation in which thousands of Irish immigrants took to the streets for five days of violent demonstrations against the draft law — and, more generally, against the black people, whom they blamed for the war.  Mobs of Irish tough’s assaulted any black person they saw on the street, they ransacked and burned homes in Negro neighborhoods, and looted stores owned by blacks and “sympathetic” whites.  Federal troops arrived in the city on July 16 to quell the disorder.  At least 120 people, mostly Negroes, died in the violence.

This outburst of racist violence marked the end of organized Irish participation in the Civil War, though individual Irishmen continued to serve as soldiers in the Union Army.  The Irish Brigade disbanded in 1864.

In the South

Although significantly fewer Irish lived in the American South, six Confederate general officers were Irish-born.  The highest ranking of these was General Patrick Cleburne.  Units such as the Charleston Irish Volunteers attracted young men from South Carolina.[1]  Irish Americans in Georgia were attracted to the 24th Georgia Volunteer Infantry under General Thomas R. R. Cobb, and the Irishmen in Tennessee sought out the 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment.  Irishmen in Missouri (Missouri Volunteer Militia and Missouri State Guard) followed Colonel Joseph Kelly (pictured right), who was the subject of a popular Confederate song, “Kelly’s Irish Brigade.”  For a historic note on the song (and a little more), see also The Wild Geese.

There appears little doubt of an “Irish Brigade” in the Union Army, but no evidence of a corollary in the Confederate forces.  Yes, there were Irishmen serving in predominantly Irish units, but not as a Brigade (consisting of three regiments) — and there is no doubt that Irish units in the south distinguished themselves at certain times and certain locations.

The title “Louisiana Tigers” was a nickname used for certain infantry forces from the State of Louisiana in the Confederate States Army.  The term was originally applied to a specific company raised by Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, but it was also used by a battalion, a brigade, and then to all Louisiana troops serving in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Some Civil War historians tell us that they were used as “shock troops” in certain encounters.  Company E of the Emerald Guard (33rd Virginia Infantry) of the Stonewall Brigade, composed of Irish volunteers may have been the first to use the famous “rebel yell” at the 1st Battle of Manassas.  The story of the Davis Guards is also quite interesting — it’s the story about a handful of Irish artillerists who handed Union forces the most one-sided defeat in U.S. history.

The story of the 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment offers an interesting contrast to the Union Army’s Irish Brigade.  This regiment was organized at Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River, in May 1861 under the leadership of CSA Colonel Adolphus Heiman.  In July, the regiment reported 720 armed men (flintlock muskets).  After the CSA accepted the regiment for service, some reorganization was necessary.  The company mustered from Giles County was designated Company I.

The regiment remained at Fort Henry in training until February 1862, when federal forces began an artillery assault that lasted for more than four hours.  There was no infantry assault, but before the fort raised the white flag of surrender, Colonel Heiman and Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman led the regiment out of Fort Henry to Fort Donelson.  The 12-mile journey required that the men wade through a number of frigid swollen streams while being pursued and harassed by federal troops.

After delivering the regiment to Fort Donelson, Tilghman and Heiman returned to Fort Henry where, because the fort was beginning to flood, both men surrendered to Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant.  Heiman was transferred as a prisoner of war to Boston, where he died from illness in November 1862.  Tilghman, later exchanged for Union General John Reynolds, was killed in battle a few months later.

General Grant moved onward to Fort Donelson where, on 16 February 1862, he defeated rebel forces under CSA Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner.  Confederate casualties numbered 13,846 (327 killed in action, 1,127 wounded, 12,392 missing in action and captured).  Subsequent to Buckner’s surrender, the 10th Tennessee became known as the “Bloody Tenth.”  After the surrender of Fort Donelson, the 10th Tennessee was broken up.  Senior officers were sent to one location, junior officers to another, and enlisted men to a third location — at Camp Douglas, Illinois.

In September 1862, the Union Army decided to exchange the enlisted prisoners at Camp Douglas for imprisoned union troops. The troops were moved to Vicksburg, exchanged, and then moved to Clinton, Mississippi.  Colonel Randall W. McGavock assumed command of the regiment in October 1862, however, with fewer men, it was necessary to consolidate units before placing them with General John Gregg’s brigade.

On 3 January 1863, the 10th Tennessee reported 349 effective.  In September, at the battle of Chickamauga, the regiment went into battle with 328 men.  Of those, 224 were either killed or wounded.  In December, the 10th reported an effective strength of 69 men.  By the time the 10th surrendered to Union forces in April 1865, the regiment had just under 100 men — every man remaining had been wounded more than once.


[1] South Carolina Irish Volunteers organized in Charleston in 1798.  Originally, the unit was part of the 28th Regiment of South Carolina Infantry Militia.  It was first employed during the War of 1812 as a security force and work detail supporting the construction of coastal defenses.  The company also served in the Seminole Wars, the Mexican-American War, and served as Company K, 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, CSA (Captain W. H. Ryan, Commanding).  SC Irish Volunteers also served along the Mexican border in 1916.  During World War I, the units served as the U.S. Army’s 105th Ammunition Train.   

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in CIVIL WAR, HISTORY, MILITARY. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Irishmen — Blue and Gray

  1. bunkerville says:

    Interesting piece of history.. thanks Mustang.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy says:

    There appears to be ample reason to believe that the Union Army did use the Irish regiments as “cannon fodder.” When casualty rates run from 45 to 60 percent in Irish ranks but much lower in non-Irish units, there’s cause to question what’s happening.

    None of that is to question the bravery of the Irish who served. Apparently, they fought with courage. But, as often is the case, that courage was not recognized or rewarded by those who sent the young Irish into battle.

    Well done once again, Amigo. This article has been enlightening.

    S/F 🇺🇸

    Liked by 1 person

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