We All Want to be a Little Irish Because of the Civil War

The Irish Brigade Attacks at Fredericksburg
The Irish Brigade Attacks at Fredericksburg

St. Patrick’s Day is the one day of the year everyone wants to be Irish. I can’t blame them. My Polish last name, Mackowski, belies the Cawley and Dempsey in me, so few people realize I’m Irish—but it’s there aplenty, and I’m proud of it.

It’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, American’s weren’t so eager to embrace their inner Irish—whether it be honorary or actual. Prejudice against the Irish, and Irish Catholics in particular, was so bad that an entire political party sprang up against them (Know-Nothings, anyone?).

The Civil War changed all that, though.

Irish at GettysburgWhat buff hasn’t heard the tales of the Irish Brigade at Antietam, which broke the Confederate line at the Sunken Road but decimated their ranks in doing so? Or of that second, unbroken Sunken Road, fortified by the Stone Wall, at Fredericksburg, where the Irishmen got closer than any other unit? Who hasn’t admired the sad Irish wolfhound under the Gaelic cross in Gettysburg’s Wheatfield?

Each of these episodes diminished the strength of the Irish Brigade, but in doing so, they opened the way for replacements to intermingle with the survivors, simultaneously demystifying and humanizing the Irishmen. Those veterans would go home and tell tales of the Irishmen who were very much like they themselves were. The personal loyalty forged on battlefields did much to overcome larger prejudices.

Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher

Another key factor was the tireless efforts of Brig. Gen. Thomas Meagher (pronounced “Mahrr”). Meagher, an Irish ex-patriot and revolutionary agitator against the British, started the war as a captain by raising a company of Irishmen for the 69th New York State Militia. That unit would eventually lead to the foundation of the brigade: the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York, and later, the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania.

The brigade lost some 600 men at Antietam. At Fredericksburg, it lost 545 of its 1,200 remaining men. By Gettysburg, they were down to 530, and they lost 320. I’ve seen several sources say the brigade lost as many as 4,000 men over the course of its life.

Following Gettysburg, the army sent Meagher on leave so he could do more recruiting. He missed much of the fall of 1863, although he came back to visit the army in late November only to nearly get captured during the fight at Robinson’s Tavern in the Mine Run Campaign (Confederates mistook him for a journalist and opted not to chase him).

Meagher’s recruiting efforts helped replenish the ranks, but more importantly, he served as a massive one-man P.R. machine. He worked tirelessly to spread the word of the brigade’s valor on the battlefield. Such stories demonstrated that the Irish were just as brave, just as hard-working, and just as patriotic as any other Americans. On the battlefield, Meagher argued and newspapers confirmed, the Irish had earned their place.

I don’t mean to over-romanticize my Gaelic ancestors, who were indeed victims of oppressive prejudice but who, in turn, demonstrated prejudice of their own. As the second-lowest rung on the social ladder, they had no interest in emancipation, which would suddenly flood the labor market with millions of competitors for the low-wage jobs the Irish filled. If society was prejudiced against the Irish, the Irish were prejudiced against blacks. The Irish were also involved in the New York draft riots of 1863, protesting the disproportionate impact draft laws were having on recent immigrants.

That’s all a lot to think about on this St. Patrick’s Day, which is usually reserved for green beer and good cheer. It’s also a good day for walking the battlefield, which serves as a good reminder of the humanity of these sons of Erin, in all its complexity.

Irish Brigade MonumentFor me, that means Fredericksburg. (My colleague, Kevin Pawlak, posted a great Irish Brigade walk at Antietam here.) At the city dock, a monument set into the ground—to keep it from being razed by occasional flooding—commemorates the spot at the middle pontoon landing where the Irish Brigade began its march into combat on December 13, 1862. Each year as part of the National Park Service’s commemoration of the battle, historian Frank O’Reilly leads a public tour that traces these steps.

As the brigade advanced up Hanover Street, a member of the 8th Ohio, Thomas Francis Galwey, watched them pass. In his memoir, The Valiant Hours, Galwey noted the withering fire that had pinned him and so many of his fellows from advancing.

There is one exception, the Irish Brigade, which comes out of the city in glorious style, their green sunbursts waving, as they have waved on many a bloody battlefield before, in the thickest of the fight where the grim and thankless butchery of war is done. Every man has a sprig of green in his cap, and a half-laughing, half-murderous look in his eye. They pass just to our left, poor fellows, poor glorious fellows, shaking goodbye to us with their hats! They reach a point within stone’s throw of the stone wall. No farther. They try to go beyond but are slaughtered. Nothing could advance farther and live. They lie down doggedly, determined to hold the ground they have already taken. There, away out in the fields to the front and left of us, we watched them for an hour, lying in line close to that terrible stone wall.

Today, I shall raise a toast to those sons of Erin who, on those long-ago battlefields, did so much to not only save America but change American attitudes—so much so that, every year on this day, we all want to be a little Irish.

8 Responses to We All Want to be a Little Irish Because of the Civil War

  1. For those of you interested in Meagher, Timothy Eagan’ s terrific biography, THE IMMORTAL IRISHMAN, is a must read. Eagan’s treatment if Meagher is balanced and his prose magnificent.

  2. Just returned from a tour The Irish at Gettysburg.The monument dedicated to the 63rd 69th and 88th is made of green marble and was created by a Confederate veteran who was paid $4.500 which was three times the amount allotted for most of the other monuments

  3. And raise our glasses in a toast to Major General Patrick Cleburne and the Irish lads that fought for their adopted country, the Confederate States of America.

  4. Some years ago we took a week-long trip to Ireland and came across an interesting Civil War connection.

    Driving South from Dublin, through the lovely and haunting Wicklow Mountains, we stopped for a pub lunch in a small place called the Meeting of the Waters. The inside was decorated like an Irish version of Applebee’s: mementoes from Irish sports and Irish history, more of the latter than most American restaurants would have. On the steps to the basement WCs was an 8 ½ X 11 (actually it was probably an A2) framed message, penned grandly in a colorful calligraphy.

    I must explain that the Irish still live and remember their history is a manner foreign to Americans, except, perhaps, for lovers of the Lost Cause. To them, Drogheda and the Boyne and the Ninety-eight [1798], and the Great Famine, are as real as the Easter Rising and the Troubles. English penal codes prevented Catholics from attending Irish universities until 1829 – and then the Church of England banned them from Dublin’s Trinity College until 1970! In England, Euros coexist with pounds but in Ireland, even in the tourist areas, Sterling is not welcome.

    As an avowed Anglophile, descended from English, Scots and Scots-Irish, I am saddened by the distain towards the Irish. In 1983, we took our kids to Europe and spent one night above Dover in a B&B owned by a retired English sergeant major, a charming chap. During the course of the evening’s conversation he looked at our very blonde daughter, and asked if we were Irish. Of course, as Americans, we are proud of Irish-heritage and so we acknowledged that my great grandfather was born in County Cavan. The conversation went on and by-and-by our host mentioned that his daughter had married an Irishman, in the exact tone that a white Southerner of the 1950s (and later) would have used about a daughter marrying a black. The sergeant major remarked that his son-in-law was a producer for the BBC! But still he was Irish.

    Any way, that is introduction to this page framed on the wall. It stated that after an aborted revolution in 1848, a half-dozen young men were arrested (their names were given), tried and convicted of treason. The judge asked if they had anything to say before he passed judgment and one man stood up.

    “May it please the court,” he said. “We are young men and this is our first offense. We promise your honor, that if mercy is extended, next time we will be better organized, fight better and be harder to catch.” The judge was aghast: in a fury, he sentenced them to be hanged, and then be drawn and quartered. But an international outcry arose and Queen Victoria remitted the sentences to transportation for life to Australia.

    In 1871, word came that one of the rebels had just been elected prime minster of Australia and the papers tracked down the others: a prime minister of Newfoundland, a governor of Montana, and the others prominent in politics in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. As I read it, I thought of how sad it was that England could not get over its religious and ethnic and social prejudices to make these men welcome in Westminster: men with those talents would have made a positive impact on the future of Great Britain. Before I got too comfortable I remembered that we elected our first African-American president 150 years after slavery and saw the first woman get a major party nomination, as well as only the second women to be the vice-presidential candidate of a major party, the latter three unsuccessful, a generation after a woman occupied 10 Downing Street.

    Oh, the Civil War connection: the young man who stood up to the judge was the future not governor but Territorial Secretary of Montana, Thomas Francis Meagher. We better remember him as the man who raised and commanded the Army of the Potomac’s Irish Brigade.

    We stopped that night in New Ross, where there is a reconstruction of an immigrant ship of the 1840s, crowded and deadly, according to the tour guide. But, compared to a slaver, comfortable and spacious. Nearby is the reconstruction of the small hovel from which John Kennedy’s great-grandfather immigrated to Boston. The next day we drove into Waterford, to tour the factory where the lovely crystal is manufactured. We have, over the years, collected a number of Waterford pieces. Unfortunately, Waterford is a casualty of the economy and has closed.

    We drove downtown for dinner and started wandering around, and there, on a island in the middle of the main street, is a fine equestrian statue of Thomas Meagher: according to the plaque on it, he was a native of Waterford. The statue was dedicated in 1963 by President Kennedy, when he toured the island, and at the same time he presented the flag of the Irish brigade to Ireland and it is reputed to hang in Leinster House, the capital building of the Republic.

    After arriving home, I did some checking and the speech as well as the alleged deeds of the convicts are not true – sad how history is not as exciting as the legends. One point of fact, by the way, it that Meagher was responsible for the Irish flag, a vertical tricolor of green, white and orange, green for Gaelic, orange for Ulster and white for peace between them.

  5. In the summer of 1945, my Presbyterian aunt married an Irish Catholic B-17 pilot. I was always told one of her grandmothers volunteered to stay home from the wedding and take care of baby me. But when they celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary, I mention this to Aunt Mary and she told us the real reason her grandmother refused to attended her granddaughter’s wedding was because the granddaughter was marrying an Irish Catholic.

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