Monday, July 30, 2007

The Irish in the Civil War

Of the myriad nationalities that immigrated to the United States prior to the Civil War, the Irish were figured at the most prominent. The 1860 Census had counted 1,611,304 Irish-born immigrants living in the US, mostly in the Northeast, but many also moved inland, even into the South and West.

There was already a tradition of Irish in various armed forces around the world, such as Napoleon’s Grande Armee, several South American revolutionary armies, and even on both sides of the Mexican. It seemed that it was the only way the Irish were able to get any respect beyond the menial jobs that they were able to get. Of course, they were already facing anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic discrimination on top of their image as fighting drunkards who were not smart enough to do anything better.

There were already a good number if Irish soldiers in the Regular Army when the Civil War broke out. There were also many Irish who were in militia units around the country who formed the nucleus of many regiments, both Union and Confederate.

As the guns at Fort Sumter fell silent, US President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion in the South. As a result, thousands of Irish were flocking to the colors;

The 9th Connecticut Infantry was all Irish.

The 15th Maine was mostly made up of Irish.

Of the 62 regiments that Massachusetts formed, only two were predominately Irish, the 9th and 28th. The rest had some Irish in their ranks.

New Hampshire had one Irish regiment, the 10th, as well as one company of the 19th.

New York had the most Irish in service, with the 11th (1st Fire Zouaves) and the 20th State Militia full of Irish at the start. Following Irish regiments included the 37th (Irish Rifles), 63rd, 69th, 88th, 105th, 154th, 164th, 170th, 175th, and the 182nd New York.

Pennsylvania produced the 24th, 69th, and 116th Infantry Regiments out of its Irish population.

Vermont only had one company of the 13th made up of Irishmen.

Illinois had the 23rd Infantry, which was pared with a cavalry unit and a Wisconsin artillery battery, also made up of Irish.

Wisconsin also had the 11th and 17th Infantry with Irish in them.

Ohio’s Irish were represented in the 10th Infantry.
Indiana had the 35th and 61st with Irish in them.

And finally, the 27th Michigan has a lot of Irish immigrants in it.

These were just a slice of the Irish in the Union Army.

Many of the immigrants were met by recruitment officers as they were getting off the boat from Ireland. Others were recruited from the factories, wharves and farms throughout the North.

Many Irish nationalists had also enlisted in, or formed regiments for Federal service in the hopes that they would receive valuable combat experience in the case of an attempt to free Ireland from British control.

One such was Thomas Meagher, born on 3 August, 1823 in Waterford, Ireland. He was involved in Irish revolutionary activities which included the Rebellion of 1848. He was arrested and sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted to life at a penal colony in Tasmania. He escaped from there and made his way to California, and then to New York, where he became a US Citizen and a member of the Irish community there.

As the war started, he raised a company of the 69th New York and got his first taste of battle at First Bull Run (Manassas, VA). He was soon slated for leadership when his commander was captured there. During the winter of 1861-61, Meagher assembled the Irish Brigade, consisting of his 69th New York along with the 63rd and 88th New York, the 28th Massachusetts, and the 116th Pennsylvania.

Their battle honors were legendary:

At Seven Pines (1 June, 1862) the brigade smashed the flank on a Confederate advance near the Adams House, near the Chickahominy River.

At Gaines’ Mill (26 June, 1862) Meagher’s troops stop another Confederate assault, allowing the baggage trains to get away.

The brigade captured a Confederate battery near Meadow Station.

At Malvern Hill (1 July, 1862) the brigade supported Berdan’s Sharpshooters, who were acting as skirmishers.

At Antietam (Sharpsburg, MD, 17 September, 1862) the brigade was part of the assault on a Confederate line at a sunken road which became known as “Bloody Lane.”

At Fredericksburg (13 December, 1862) the Irish Brigade were sent up Marye’s Heights in the face of horrific cannon and musket fire.

At Chancellorsville (2 May, 1863) they rescued the guns of the 5th Maine Artillery when the gun crews were killed.

At this point, the brigade had dropped to under 500 men, about half a regiment. Meagher had asked to take his brigade home and recruit more regiments, which was refused. In response, Meagher resigned his commission on 8 May, 1863.

Colonel Patrick Kelly, from Kerry, Ireland, became the new commander of a brigade of 400.

At Gettysburg (Day Two, 2 July, 1863) the Irish Brigade was part of an attack on The Wheatfield, which resulted in the brigade’s further decimation, almost half of their remaining number.

The Irish Brigade was listed as “combat ineffective,” meaning that there were not enough troops to even maintain a defensive line. Even as such, they did take part in the Mine Run Campaign in late 1863.

In January, 1864, the remains of the Irish Brigade re-enlisted almost to a man and were sent home to recruit new members. St. Patrick’s Day, 1864, saw the reorganized brigade back in the field, in time for the Overland Campaign. They were now commanded by Colonel Thomas Smyth.

The new Irish Brigade first distinguished themselves at the Wilderness (6 May, 1864) during the savage fighting along the Brock Road.

At Spotsylvania, they were part of the assault on the Mule Shoe. After that battle, Colonel Richard Byrnes was given command of the brigade.

At Cold Harbor, as the Union assault was getting shredded, the Irish managed to penetrate a portion of the Confederate line. Byrnes was mortally wounded and Colonel Kelly took over command.

Kelly himself was killed on 16 June, 1864 during the assault on the Confederate lines at Petersburg.

The brigade itself was once again decimated to the point that the Irish Brigade was disbanded and incorporated with other brigades. However, that was not the end.

On 2 November, 1864, the Irish Brigade (Reorganized) was assembled under the command of Colonel Robert Nugent, one of the few surviving officers of the original Irish Brigade. That brigade would take part in the Siege of Petersburg as well as the Appomattox Campaign.

Smyth, at that point a Brigadier General, became the last general officer killed in the Civil War, occurring just before the Confederate surrender.
Colonel Nugent was the one who carried the first letter to Confederate General Robert E. Lee suggesting surrender.

The Irish Brigade marched in the Grand Review before heading home and finally disbanding on 30 June, 1865.

Meagher was brought back into Union service, serving in Major General William Sherman’s command. After again resigning his commission, he was appointed the territorial secretary of Montana Territory and served as Acting Governor. He died on 1 July, 1867 after falling off a riverboat on the Missouri River, supposedly drunk. The body was never found.

The other great Irish commander in Union service was Michael Corcoran. He was born on 21 September, 1827 in Carrowkeel, County Donegal and had trained to be a policeman. While a part of the Irish Constabulary, he joined a revolutionary organization called the Ribbonmen. Fleeing charges of treason, he went to New York, where he worked first in a tavern, then as a school inspector and finally in the post office. He also became part of the 69th New York Militia, enlisting as a private and soon becoming its colonel. When the Civil War broke out, the 69th New York Militia became the 69th New York Infantry. They were first sent to Washington, then onward to the brigade of William Sherman. At First Bull Run, Corcoran was wounded and captured, becoming a national hero for refusing to be exchanged for a Confederate prisoner.

Corcoran was eventually exchanged on 14 August, 1862, but his old command was headed by Meagher. Corcoran decided to raise a brigade of his own. This resulted in the 155th, 164th, 170th, and the 184th New York becoming Corcoran’s Legion. The Legion was assigned in the Suffolk, VA area and participated in the Suffolk Campaign of 1863 before being assigned to the Washington Defenses.

Corcoran was not able to do to much more; he was killed in 22 December, 1863 in an accident involving his horse.

There other Irishman of note in Federal service:

Major St. Clair Mulholland commanded the 116th Pennsylvania while holding a rear-guard action at Chancellorsville, earning a Medal of Honor for that action.

Father William Corby was the chaplain of the 88th New York, having come from a small Catholic boarding school that would become Notre Dame University. At Antietam, he rode up and down the Irish Brigade’s line of battle, granting solution to those who die bravely in battle. The brigade was headed for Bloody Lane. At Gettysburg, he granted mass absolution to those who would be headed for the Wheatfield. A passing general was moved by the event, none other that II Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock.

Major James Quinlan received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Savage Station, VA.

1st Lieutenant George W. Ford captured a Confederate flag at Saylor’s Creek (6 April, 1865), earning a Medal of Honor.

1st Lieutenant Louis Sacriste led the effort to save one of the 5th Maine Artillery’s cannon at Chancellorsville, earning his Medal of Honor.

Private Timothy Donoghue carried a wounded officer, while wounded himself, off Marye’s Heights, earning a Medal of Honor.

In all, 76 Irish-born soldiers won the Medal of Honor, of which six were in the Irish Brigade. This out of the 1196 awarded.

While Irish soldiers were making a name for themselves in the Union Army, there were others in whom fate sent them to Charleston, SC, rather than New York.

Confederate Irish units included:

1st Virginia Infantry Battalion (Provisional). This unit fought at Blackburn’s Ford, prior to First Manassas.

The 27th Virginia Infantry.

The 7th Alabama Infantry.

Company H of the 8th Alabama.

Companies I and F of the 6th Louisiana.

Companies A, D, and E of the 1st Georgia

A company of the 8th Georgia.

The 24th Georgia, which was involved at the Stone Wall on top of Marye’s Heights as the Union Irish Brigade approached.

Company F of the 7th Louisiana.

Company C of the 1st South Carolina Infantry Battalion

Company C of the 19th Battalion Virginia Artillery.

2nd, 10th, and 21st Tennessee.

154th Senior Tennessee Infantry

Company B of the 3rd Confederate Battalion, Engineer Corps.

Both Tennessee and Louisiana had the most Irish-born in Confederate service.

Commanders included:

Patrick Cleburne was born on 16 March, 1828 at Ovens, County Cork. He joined the British Army after failing medical school, serving for over three years when he bought his discharge and moved to Arkansas, becoming a druggist and then a lawyer. When the Civil War broke out, he sided with his fellow Arkansans and joined the Yell Rifles as a private. His military experience was noted as he was soon a Captain. He participated in the fighting at Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing, TN), Perryville, and Murfreesboro where he was promoted to Major General. He then fought at Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Ringgold Gap. He almost trashed his military career by suggesting that slaves could be armed in support of the Confederacy. He would not rise above division commander for that. Still, he still served throughout the defense of Atlanta and on with the Army of Tennessee’s advance into Tennessee. He was killed during the Battle of Franklin, 30 November, 1864, one of seven generals to fall.

Joseph Finegan was born on 17 November, 1814 at Clones, County Monaghan. Seeking his fortune, he immigrated to Florida in 1835 where he started a family and a lumber business at St. Augustine. At the time Florida seceded, Finegan was in the Legislature and had voted to leave the Union. He was soon made state director of military affairs. He was instrumental in forming regiments for Confederate service as well as state defense.
On 8 April, 1862, he was in Confederate service himself as a Brigadier General. His battle experiences included, St. John’s Bluff, Olustree, Cold Harbor, Globe Tavern, the siege lines of Petersburg, and finally Hatcher’s run before transferring back to Florida before the Confederate surrender. His last act as a Confederate general was to help Secretary of War John C. Breckenridge escape to Cuba. Finegan served in the Florida Senate before dying on 29 October, 1885.

The Civil War ended up cementing the Irish into the American experience, establishing respect for them at places such as Shiloh and Fredericksburg. After the war, their energies were used for more peaceful purposes as the Transcontinental Railroad was built.

Hi, Fred - we share an interest in the Civil War and apparently in the Irish role therein, based on your blog entry on the subject. I'm finishing up a book on Capt. John Lonergan, Commander of the "Irish Company" of the 13th Vermont, and thought I'd get in touch with you. My roots are in Texas, mostly McAllen, though I am sitting out a proper nor'easter here in the hills of northern Vermont where I now live. Bill
Thank you. I'm writing a book myself on general Civil War topics and I was fascinated by the Irish contriubution (among others). Of course,being in a family that came from the Waterford region helps.
Have a great day. FSP
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