Life in nineteenth century Ireland was challenging at best. The Irish faced death, on an almost daily bases. An anonymous poet wrote of this dreadful time in Ireland saying, “God sent a course upon the land because her sons were slaves; The rich earth brought forth rottenness, and gardens became graves; The green crops withered in the field, all blackened by the curse, And Wedding gay and dance gave way to coffin and hearse.” (1) In order to survive the Irish had to become accustomed to this dreadful way of life.
After emigrating from Ireland the Irish would be faced with the notion of death during the Civil War. Death would be common place during the four year conflict 750,000 men would die. (2) By comparison in five years 1,500,000 Irishmen and women would perish in the famine in Ireland. (3) In looking at these numbers one can only imagine that an Irish soldier who fled Ireland due to the famine had an overwhelming and powerful understanding of life and death upon entering Civil War service. This is not to say that the Irish took death lightly. However, they did become desensitized to it, thus making them more comfortable with the idea of dying.
The Irish’s ability to be at peace with the idea of death transformed itself into battlefield heroics. This idea can be seen in the actions of Brevet Brigadier General Thomas Smyth. Smyth immigrated to the United States at age twenty during the height of the famine, during the Civil War Smyth enlisted as a major in the 1st Delaware Infantry. He had gallant actions and a tendency to lead from the front with a disregard for his own life and safety. Captain Conyngham said this about him, “With the coolness and judgment of the scientific officer he combined a bravery almost amounting to rashness. He generally rode in front of his own picket lines along the outer posts, to make sure that all was right.” (4)
It was these qualities that gained him a promotion to the commander of his regiment. It was in this capacity that then Colonel Smyth found himself at Gettysburg, where on the third day of the battle he was severely wounded. The wound did not keep Smyth out of action for long though, as he returned to action with the rank of Brigadier General. Smyth again led from the front; however, this would be his undoing as he was shot in the neck while leading his men near Farmville, Virginia. (5) One can only surmise that Smyth’s fearlessness came from a different understanding of what it means to die, an understanding learned by seeing so much death as a youth back in Ireland.
The Irish in America whether being born in Ireland or in the United States always had a piece of the old country with them in their hearts and minds. The Irish had to develop coping mechanisms in order to survive their everyday struggles. Their coping skills came directly from their culture. Three of the most notorious traits the Irish are known for are their humor, drinking and love of a good fight. These characteristics served the Irish participants in the American Civil War well as they faced new hardships in their life as soldiers.
Irish humor can cover a rage from sarcastic wit to bawdy and over the top. This is as true today, as it was during the American Civil War. The Irish are known for using their humor to defuse tense emotional situations. One such occasion during the war was when the Irish of the 13th Louisiana were marching off amongst a sea of crying mothers and sweethearts. One of the men remarked, “I wish I had a gurl to cry for me but the devil a wun cares I go or stay.” Another member of the regiment was heard to reply, “I’m glad I’ve no wun. If I get kilt me people will never know what become of me, and I’ll only have a monument in the Company books, Killed in battle, Mike Morrisy and that’s not my thrue name, at that.” (6) After this statement the members of the 13th Louisiana, within earshot, must have had a good laugh and their tensions and anxieties relived, even if but for a mere moment.
The Irish units were also notorious for their hijinks, which were merely a way to cope with stress of battle. One example of this was when the town of Gettysburg turned out to defy the rebel occupation. An Irishmen named John Donnally of the 8th Alabama “Emerald Guard” looked into the crowed and saw a dapper gentleman, with a fine hat, standing along the route. Donnally broke ranks and snuck up behind the gentleman and placed his bullet riddled cap upon the dandy’s head, taking the expensive hat for himself. This resulted in tremendous laughter from them men of the 8th Alabama, as well as other confederates on the march. (7) This was another stressful and possibly volatile situation defused by Irish wit. These shenanigans were not just contained to off the battlefield. During the Battle of Murfreesboro an Irish Confederate soldier lay wounded on the field. He was searching for help to the rear, when he spotted a federal soldier running in that direction. The Confederate soldier took the yank hostage and rode him back to the rear whistling The Girl I left Behind Me, a popular cavalry tune of the era. (8) This episode shows just how the Irish used humor to stay calm while under fire, an attribute that would serve them well throughout the conflict.
Having men with an Irish sense of humor could also be a nice distraction from the long days. Captain Conyngham writes about Andrew Lawler, an officer in the 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, during one of their long forced marches. Conyngham says, “He was beloved by all; possessed of an ardent, hopeful temperament which no hardship; however sever could dampen, he was the life of the bivouac; while his rollicking humor and endless jokes often shortened the weary march.” (9) As anyone who was in the armed forces would know, having a man like that to lessen ones burden also helps keep a mass of men moving. The Irish regiments during the American Civil War were full of such men.
Drinking by itself is not a healthy way to deal with stress. However, the Irish have developed it into an art form full of music, good cheer, and lively conversation. This can be seen by the Saint Patrick’s Day Celebration the Irish soldiers had in 1863. The festivities consisted of athletic competitions, that including a steeple chase with the finest horses in the Brigade, and a liquor requisition that consisted of “eight buckets of champagne, ten gallons of rum, and twenty two of whisky,”. (10) This break was well earned, as the Irish Brigade was previously involved in some of the hardest fighting the Army of the Potomac had engaged in. This celebration also gave the men a bonding experience, bringing them together in a way that many other regiments did not have. This experience may also have been the difference in the Brigades performance at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Although it was a Confederate victory, it could have been a much bigger blow to the Union. Conyngham writes of the Brigades actions while defending a Federal battery, saying, “Here the remnant of the Irish Brigade for it numbered only about five hundred and twenty men going into action did good service to the Union; for had the rebels seized the battery and turned it upon our army a regular panic might have ensued, for at the same time several regiments on the right and left were giving way.” (11) From this quote one can gather that the Irish Brigade fought as a tenacious unit, brought together through war as well as uniquely Irish celebrations off the battlefield.
It is also known that the Irish love a good fight. This can be seen in the fact that a half million Irishmen left their homeland between 1585 and 1818 to fight for France and Spain, these men are known as the “Wild Geese.” (12) Therefore, when the American Civil War broke out, it naturally attracted Irishmen to sign up and enter the row. This fighting spirit transferred to the battlefield as well. An illustration of this can be seen in an account regarding Corporal Jack T. McBride of the 45th Mississippi. During an attack of his position he was slashed in the face by a federal officers sword. Without missing a step, McBride attacked the Yankee and threw him to the ground, pounding upon his head until he had to be physically removed and shackled by other Union officers. McBride taunted every Union soldier he encountered on his was to prison camp. He even challenged a Yankee officer to a boxing match, McBride got knocked out as a result of this challenge. However, throughout this one can see that his fighting Irish spirit never wavered. (13) The essence of the fighting Irish can also be seen during the Battle of Antietam. “The green flag was completely riddled, and it appeared certain death to anyone to bear it, for eight color-bearers had already fallen. The last had fallen, and the Irish green lay trailing in the dust. Meagher cried out ‘Boys, raise the colors, and follow me!’ Captain James McGee, of the Sixty-ninth, rushed forward, and crying, ‘I’ll follow you!’ seized the flag. As he raised it, a bullet cut the standard in two in his hand; and, as he again stooped down, another bullet tore through his cap. Still, he jumped up, waved the flag, shook it at the rebels, and cheered on the troops, almost miraculously escaping.” (14) This charge was successful, as it drove the Confederates back and forced them to retire from the field. The steadfast Irish pugnaciousness had won the day once more.
The American Civil War was a turning point in the history of the Irish American. Their devotion, bravery and sacrifices, both north and south, gave a new dignity and admiration to America’s Irish population. Not only did the Irish became widely accepted and well-respected, they also became a vital part of America. A journalist of the period is quoted as saying, “There are several kinds of power working at the fabric of the American republic water power, steam power and Irish power, the last works hardest of all.” (15) As for why the Irish made such fierce and bold fighters this is due to the four factors mentioned in this work: religion, acceptance, Irish Nationalism, and the Irish culture. It is the combination of all four that set the Irish apart, making them a superior fighting force that any army would be pleased to have on their side. A Confederate commander of an Irish regiment, when asked what ethnic group of soldiers he preferred, said:
“I would have Irish soldiers in preference to any others; and I tell you why. First, they have more dash, more élan than any other troops that I know of; then they are more cheerful and enduring nothing can depress them. Next, they are more cleanly. The Irishman never failed to wash himself and his clothes. Not only were they cheerful, but they were submissive to discipline when once broken in and where they had good officers that was easily done; but once they had confidence in their officers, their attachment to them was unbounded. And confidence was established the moment they saw their general in the fight with them…. They required strict discipline: but they always admitted the justice of their punishment when they believed their commander was impartial; and they never were sullen, or bore malice. There was one great element of strength in these men—they were volunteers, every man of them. Many could have been excused on the ground of their not being American citizens, as not more than one-third of them had a right to vote at the time; but they joined of their own free will—no Irishman was conscripted. I repeat, if I had to take from one to 10,000 men to make a reputation with, I’d take the same men as I had in the war—Irishmen from the city, the levees, the river, the railroads, the canals, or from ditching and fencing on the plantations. They make the finest soldiers that ever shouldered a musket.’ And this was the testimony of one of the fiercest fighters of the war.” (15)
This quote sums up the Irish service in the American Civil War; the general would choose the Irish to fight for the Confederates due to the combination of the four attributes discussed in this work. The Irish fought in every engagement during the American Civil War. Their valor was matched by none and their deeds are still legendary to this day.
1) O’Riordan, Tomás. Ireland, 1815-70 : Emancipation, Famine and Religion. (Dublin ;Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 2011.) 58
2) Gugliotta, Gary. New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll. April 2, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/civil-war-toll-up-by-20-percent-in-new-estimate.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (accessed November 24, 2013).
3) O’Riordan, Tomás. Ireland, 1815-70 : Emancipation, Famine and Religion 61
4) Conyngham, The Irish Brigade and It’s Campaigns. 542
5) Collins. Famine to Freedom The Irish in the American Civil War. 211
6) O’Brian. The Irish Americans In the Confederate Army. 28
8) Ibid, 29
9) Conyngham, The Irish Brigade and It’s Campaigns. 588
10) Ibid, 373
11) Ibid, 400
12) McLaughlin, Mark. The Wild Geese : The Irish brigades of France and Spain. (Oxford, UK : Osprey Publishing, 1980.) 3
13) O’Brian. The Irish Americans In the Confederate Army. 27
14) Conyngham, The Irish Brigade and It’s Campaigns. 305-306
15) O’Brian. The Irish Americans In the Confederate Army. 3