Irish Immigrants and American Civil War

Although the first Irish Immigrants came to America in the 1630s, the majority came in the 1840s-1860s, and would soon to be faced with the threat of a great civil war.(13)(14). Out of the 2.75 million soldiers who joined the civil war only about 6.9% (190,000 men) were Irish.(2)(4)(15). 150,000 of those Irish men joined the Union and 40,000 the Confederacy.(2)(4).

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Many Irish men joined the Union out of loyalty to their new home, hopes to end anti-Irish discrimination, and a scarcity of jobs.(1)(2). The Irish who joined the Confederacy on the other hand, joined for lack of jobs as well and more religious rights after the Know-Nothings, a political party focused on anti-immigration xenophobia, attacked their churches in the Union ranks.(1)(2). Though their numbers were small their contribution to both sides of the war was anything but. Irish immigrants, men and women, played a major role in the Civil War.

At the start of the War there were three all-Irish Union voluntary infantries, the 63rd, 88th, and 69th New York Infantry Regiment.(5). These three regiments would become the center of what would soon come to be known as the Irish Brigade.(5). During the spring of 1862 the Union Army officials included a non-Irish regiment in the Brigade so they could bring up its numbers before the Peninsula Campaign (the Union’s attempt to capture Richmond,Virginia).(5)(16). This regiment was the 29th Massachusetts.(5). Then Later on in October they added a fourth all Irish regiment, the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment from Philadelphia that joined just in time for the battle at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.(5) Only a month later Union officials replaced the 29th Massachusetts Regiment with the all Irish 28th Massachusetts.(5). Due to their bravery and strength, in almost all of the Army of the Potomac’s major battles the Irish Brigade was at the forefront of the Union charge.(5). Sadly, as you can imagine, this also caused them great losses.(5) In September 1862, about 60 percent of the soldiers in the 63rd and 69th New York regiments, almost 600 men in all, were killed during the Battle of Antietam.(5). At the Battle of Fredericksburg, only a few months later, out of the Brigades 1,200 soldiers left, 545 were wounded or killed.(5). “Irish blood and Irish bones cover that terrible field today, we are slaughtered like sheep.” a Irish Union soldier wrote.(5). Then, in July of 1863, came the Battle of Gettysburg.(5).

What remained of the Irish Brigade was thrown into support Sickles’ collapsing line on the afternoon of July 2 and fought courageously despite their little numbers.(17). Leading the entire army, American and Irish, was the newly appointed, Irish catholic, General George Meade (Meade).(18). Meade had taken office, just days before the battle, on June 28th, and said that when the messenger from Washington arrived he wasn’t sure if he had come to arrest him or promote him.(18). Meade’s promotion was unexpected and remarkable due to deep detestation the radical Republicans and Know-Nothings held towards him for being a Irish catholic.(18). Though many doubted Meade he proved them wrong and managed to earn a union victory that many say the north would have lost without.(18). Meades strategy during the battle was to position his army on higher ground so it would harder for the Confederacy to break through their line.

The straigie of Robert E. Lee (Lee), the general of the Confederacy, on the other hand was to attack at the center of the union line. During the first two days of the battle Lee and his army attacked the left and right flank of the union line and came out unsuccessful. Lee figured that because he had already tried the left and right flank and failed, the weakest point would be the center. Standing in front of Lee’s target, a copse of trees in the center of the union line, stood the 69th New York infantry regiment.(18).The battle began with a tremendous bombardment delivered by the confederates.(18). “The air [was] filling with the whirring, shrieking, hissing sounds of the solid shot and the bursting shell. [The men threw] themselves flat on the ground behind the low stone wall. [Artillery shot and shell] flew through the air high above us or [struck] the ground in front, ricocheting over us . . . [or smashing into] the wall, scattering the stones around.”- 69th infantry regiment veteran.

The confederate gunners were aiming high and ended shooting the majority of the balls right over the union army’s head, but the Union army artillery aficionados had prepared well and had forty-one pieces of artillery concealed by a small hill for protection.(18). Then came Pickett’s charge, 1,867 soldiers marching across the open field to the Union lines about three-quarters of a mile away.(18)(19). Their numbers were massively cut down by the Union cannons and soldiers, but still managed to march straight at the center of the Union line. The march to cross the field took them fifteen to twenty minutes. When the regiments of the Irish brigade witnessed the mass of confederate soldiers heading toward them all ran except the 69th New York. The 69th was positioned behind a wall and hidden from the confederate view so when the time was right and Pickett’s where just a few dozen yards from the wall the regiment jumped up and opened fire casing Pickett’s men to be thrown off guard. Thanks to the their bravery they were successful In holding back Pickett’s change and only one man was able to get through the union line.(18). After the battle at Gettysburg the 69th New York infantry regiment was nicknamed the “fighting 69th” and is by far one of the most well known Irish regiments.

In the 1860’s it was almost entirely unheard to have a women fighting alongside men, but not quite to uncommon for those women to disguise themselves as a men, especially if those women were Irish. Throughout the Civil War over 400 Irish women disguised themselves as men and fought in the war. Out those 400 women one of the most well known is Jenny Hodgers, also known as Pvt. Albert D. Cashier(Cashier). While the Union shelled the city tirelessly for weeks straight at the battle of Vicksburg, Cashier was captured and escaped by stealing a gun from a confederate guard and being chased on foot until she/he reached the Union lines. She/He served a entire enlistment and was remembered by his/her comrades as a brave fighter whose willingness to take on dangerous assignments and return without a scratch made him a hero. Even ill and seeking medical attention she still managed to keep her identity a secret.

After the war she retired as a man in Illinois but sadly broke her leg and had her secret revealed. She pleaded with her doctor not to expose her secret, allowing her to keep her pension, and he agreed. Cashier’s/Jenny’s leg never fully healed and he was placed in a rest home for male veterans. The staff was aware of Cashier’s secret and managed to keep it. Over time his mental and physical health had worsened greatly and he was almost declared insane by the state. The government ran an investigation to decide whether to charge him with defrauding the government in order to receive the perks of a war veteran or not, but luckily his comrades vouched for him and said that Man or woman, the bravery and dangerous mission is overshadowed the discontent.(11).

Another Irish women involved in war was the umbrella lady at White Oak Swamp Bridge. On the 39th of June, 1862 shells began to fall at an Irish brigade camp, one of soldiers present for this event was William Watt Hart (William) of the 104th Pennsylvania regiment. William stated that “An Irish camp woman, belonging to a New York regiment, made herself quite conspicuous during the action. She remained close to the side of her husband, and refused to retire to a place of security. She was full of pluck. Occasionally she would notice some fellow sneaking to the rear, when she would run after him, seize him by the nape of his neck and place him in the ranks again, calling him a “dirty, cowardly spalpeen,” and other choice epithets. The flying shells had no terrors for her. During the hottest of the cannonade, this courageous woman walked fearlessly about among the troops, encouraging them to stand up to their work. Her only weapon, offensive or defensive, was a large umbrella she carried under her arm. In one instance she shamed a commissioned officer into returning to his duty. She belonged to the Irish Brigade, and her stout person, full, red face and broad language betrayed her undoubted origin.”(12).

Irish immigrants, men and women, played a major role in the Civil War. After the war was over, many family members of union Irish soldiers who had died during the war were upset and accused the Union of taking advantage of them for being immigrants and putting them at the front of most battles. After the war many Irish were also upset about the increased rights for slaves. Most Irish didn’t own slaves but were not against slavery because they didn’t want the blacks to be taking up more job opportunities. After the war some Irish even killed African Americans to revolt.(5). The Irish brigade, especially the “fighting 69th”, were considered some of the bravest soldiers out on the field. Sadly their courageousness during the war caused for many casualties. At the end of the war, out of the 1,863 soldiers that the Irish brigade started with only 210 survived.(5)

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