Green Flags: “There was a certain magic in the light of this old symbol”

Flag of the 9th Massachusetts. (no known restrictions)

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and for years I’ve had a historical love for the green flags carried by Irish American soldiers of Civil War. I think it started when I was about nine and discovered my first book of Mort Kunstler paintings. The artwork Raise the Colors and Follow Me thrilled me, even as I tried to understand the reality of the falling men in the lower part of the painting. I wondered who those men where and if they had little girls at home. I remember the ecstatic moment when I found a book about the famed Irish Brigade on the children’s library shelves and my disappointment that it didn’t have more stories about the men. Arching over my thoughts on the subjected reigned the quote from the caption of that painting, “…many men dying for a country which they had not yet had time to know.”[i]

The famed green flags of the Union Irish regiments marked the forward positions that these units took on many battlefields, winning the respect of native-born citizens, including some who had been prejudiced against the new immigrants in earlier years. Aside from a battlefield symbol and national pride emblem, the green flags became a statement and a powerful argument for rights, citizenship, and end of prejudices.

The 9th Massachusetts Infantry – known as “the Fighting 9th” – served in the both the III and V Corps of the Army of the Potomac, moving corps in May 1862. The regiment mustered in during 1861 and its battle record includes the Peninsula Campaign, Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, Malvern Hill, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Bristoe Campaign, Rappahannock Station, Mine Run Campaign, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor. The unit mustered out on June 21, 1864. The 9th lost eighteen officers and two hundred sixty men. Many of the soldiers had been born in Ireland and had immigrated to the United States.

Patrick R. Guiney [photograph reproduced in the book of his letters]

Colonel Patrick Guiney commanded the unit from July 1862 until the Battle of Wilderness in May 1864. Born in Parkstown, County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1835, six-year-old Guiney immigrated to Maine with his father. He studied law, gained familiarity with the army’s manual of arms, joined the Republican Party, and, in 1859, got married.

When the Civil War began, Guiney decided to enlist as a private, refusing an officer appointment from Massachusetts’s governor since he wished to set an example. He promoted up through the ranks, taking over as commander when the regiment’s first colonel died in summer 1862.

In his collection of letters, Colonel Guiney mentioned the regiment’s green flags several times. His first mention, in the summer of 1861, starts the theme of old homeland and new country: “My company hereafter is to be the “Color company” of the Regiment. So the stars and stripes and the green flag of Ireland will fling their shadows over me in the Battle field, if I should ever see any.”[ii]

Guiney saw plenty of battles – around thirty – in the coming months. By 1862, he noted the fear the Confederates felt when they saw green flags across the battlefields and the consternation felt by Irishmen fighting for the South. To his wife, Guiney wrote: “We understand from some deserters that there are some Irish troops inside the batteries and that the sight of our Green flag has made some commotion among them.”[iii] The colonel kept tabs and friendships with men and officers in the famed Union Irish Brigade but made sure his own unit held a sterling reputation for courage.

Detail of a recruiting poster for the 9th Massachusetts highlights the ideal of fighting under the flags of Ireland and the United States.

The importance of the Fighting 9th’s green flag and United States banner had been well-established by October 1862, and the officers heard reports that a new flag was on its way from Massachusetts. On October 2, Guiney wrote, “ ‘The Green Flag’ has not arrived yet. The man who was to bring it on is somewhere in Alexandria. No doubt he will be here soon.”[iv] Twenty days later – after an impressive ceremony – the colonel wrote a personal letter to Governor John A. Andrews of Massachusetts, touching on battlefield topics and thoughts on citizenship and civil rights.

Your Excellency,

On behalf of my command I have the honor to present to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts the Irish flag which was originally given to us in June 1861, by our friends and more especially by the personal friends of my gallant predecessor, Colonel Cass. The regiment has borne this flag in ten engagements. Sometimes when all else looked vague and battle-fortune seemed to be against us, there was a certain magic in the light of this old symbol of our enslaved but hopeful Ireland, that made the Ninth fight superhumanly hard. The memories which cluster around these shreds are very dear to us. We need not ask Your Excellency to hold them sacredly.

Along with the tender of this flag to the state, I beg leave to offer Your Excellency personally the warmest thanks of myself and command for your generous efforts to expunge from the Constitution of Massachusetts that provision which would make political distinction between us and our brothers in hope, conviction, disaster, and victory.[v]

Governor Andrews had taken a liberal view for his era and moved forward support of the Catholic faith which helped to make civic and educational opportunities more available to recent immigrants. In previous decades, exclusion of Catholics and the ideas of nativism and Know-Nothingism had often barred Irish immigrants from jobs, community activities, and government action.

The Fighting 9th actually accepted a third Irish flag. In Guiney’s letter from May 13, 1863, following the Battle of Chancellorsville: “General Meagher and staff were over here in all their splendor last evening, and presented us with a most magnificently embroidered Green flag. We now have three Green flags.”[vi]

Officers of the 9th in 1861 – most had immigrated to the United States. [no known restrictions]

In the post-war years, Guiney pointed to the green flags as he entered the political arena to fight courtroom corruption and advocate for Irish Catholics in Boston. “Go up to the State House and you will find the torn and faded banners of the Ninth Regiment, and so long as they remain there no man will ever be heard to say that the Irish people living in Massachusetts are enemies of the republic.”[vii]

Through Guiney’s written words, a clearer image of the deep symbolism and evolving meaning of these flags appears. The banners may have started as a tradition and source of connection to their original homeland, but through the marches and battles, these Irish American soldiers found their flags taking on new meanings as they fought for a new homeland and the full rights of respect and unhindered citizenship.

My childhood curious about the green flags and the men who fought under them has been partially answered by Colonel Guiney. Best of all, I discovered his story. Through the letters to his beloved wife “Jennie,” we find the colonel as a lonely husband, loving father, strong leader, and caring commander. Almost every letter ends with a greeting to his toddler-age daughter, nicknamed “Loolie.” He wrote frequently and revealed the depth of his relationships in simple, charming words. Patrick Guiney survived the war, enduring a horrible injury to his left eye and an operation which may have saved his life; he returned to his family and lived until 1877.

A gap in the colonel’s correspondence occurs over St. Patrick’s Day 1864, and from Loolie’s later memories, we know that the Guiney Family spent time reunited in the regiment’s camp during that period. Loolie cut the tent ropes and cavorted around, causing lovable mischief like a little leprechaun. Patrick finally had the treasured moments with Jennie that he had longed for in so many letters.[viii] The officers and soldiers welcomed the Guiney ladies along with other officers’ wives and children, hosting a holiday celebration. And somewhere in that military camp, the green flag crowned the scene, perhaps catching the breeze and snapping a promise of hope.

Sources:

[i] Kunstler, Mort and James McPherson. Images of the Civil War. (1992). New Jersey: The Easton Press, 82-83.

[ii] Guiney, Patrick. Edited by Christian G. Samito. Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney (1998). New York: Fordham University Press, 49.

[iii] Ibid., 91. Letter August 1862.

[iv] Ibid., Letter October 2, 1862

[v] Ibid, 143-144.

[vi] Ibid., 191. Letter May 13, 1863.

[vii] Ibid., 252.

[viii] Ibid., Recorded reminiscence by Loolie.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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