Book Review: Irish American Civil War Songs: Identity, Loyalty, and Nationhood

Between 1801 and 1921, over eight million people emigrated from Ireland to North America. This phenomenon is known as the Irish Diaspora. As a result, over 10% of Americans in 2020 can claim Irish ancestry. In 1861-1865, over 200,000 of them fought in the American Civil War. Fought and sang, apparently, because the legacy of Irish music bodes large in the early history of American music. “Paddy’s Lament,” tells the story:

Well, me’self and a hundred more

To America sailed o’er

Our fortunes to be making

We were thinkin’

When we got to Yankee land

They put guns into our hands

Saying “Paddy, you must go

And fight for Lincoln.” [1]

Author Catherine V. Bateson, an associate lecturer in American history at the University of Kent, gives readers an in-depth look at songs that defined the contribution of the Irish to the Union and, to a lesser extent, the Confederacy in her new book Irish American Civil War Songs.

Irish emigrants seem much different than others who came to live permanently in America. This is profoundly reflected in their music. Rather than holding on to an identity that was purely Irish, they embraced the idea of being “Irish American.” They proclaimed their devotion to America (mainly Union) and demonstrated their willingness to stand behind their words with their fists, guns, etc. Bateson illustrated this phenomenon by including examples of songbooks, individual lyrics, and well-considered reasoning in her latest publication. The volume is nicely illustrated with examples of broadsides, songsters, and formal publications of Irish songs proclaiming such loyalty.

The songs are broken into similar parts: broadsides (which share news of battles, deaths, and victories), camp songs (which begin with lyrics that ask listeners to “gather ‘round,” “lend an ear,” “hear the tale,” etc.), and mournful compositions (asking to be remembered by loved ones, especially mothers and sweethearts). The experiences of one Irish soldier easily stand in for the broader communal Irish experience commemorated by the lyrics. Songs that celebrate “The Irish Brigade” do not always refer to the 69th New York but to many ethnically Irish groups from states other than New York.

One interesting detail is the switching of the results of First Bull Run. In Union-based Civil War Irish music, the battle of First Manassas is not seen as a defeat for Irish units. It was the first battle of the war, and their reputation as brave, resilient fighters is carefully curated. Retreat is not defeat! Instead, it shows the strength and coordination of ethnically Irish units. Many songs refer to First Bull Run, which inspired even more Irishmen to join the Union army in 1863. Another type of song that encouraged enlistment is referred to as the “No Irish Need Apply” pushback. Specifically aimed toward the nativist resistance to the Irish emigrants, these songs encouraged the Irish to do the opposite—apply to fight for the Union! This is noted, as an aside, as it also relates to WWI. “If we did it then, we can do it again!” emphasizes the acceptance of America as the home for many displaced Irish.

What was the difference between Confederate Irish songs and those of the Union? Both certainly concerned “my sweetheart (or mother) waiting for me at home.” Confederate songs, however, also worked to create feelings for Southern Nationalism rather than the ready acceptance of Union enthusiasm. Unlike emigrants in other parts of the United States, the Irish in the South had to fit into a regional culture as well as American culture in general. Irish families lived in the southern states but were outnumbered in their participation in the Civil War. Of the over 200,000 Irishmen who fought, 30,000-40,000 fought for the Confederacy.

Bateson has thoroughly interpreted Irish lyrics and explained the multiple usage of specific Irish tunes. She has shown how the importance of Fenian sentiments was woven into songs calling for freedom from oppression in general, and she has enhanced a reader’s understanding of the place Irish music has in the development of American music, from very early vaudeville to today’s obsession with Irish pub music. America is a land of emigrants, after all. Perhaps the relatives of that 10% of us who claim Irish blood have contributed more than 10% to American culture overall.

Oh! Long may our flag wave in Union together.

And the harp of green Erin still kiss the same breeze

And brave ev’ry storm, that beclouds the fair weather,

Till our harp, like the Stars, floats o’er river and seas. [2]


Irish American Civil War Songs: Identity, Loyalty, and Nationhood

By Catherine V. Bateson

Louisiana State University Press, 2022, $45.00 hardcover

Reviewed by Meg Groeling




[2] Irish Civil War Songs, 132.

12 Responses to Book Review: Irish American Civil War Songs: Identity, Loyalty, and Nationhood

  1. We Southerners are proud of the Irishmen who fought with us, and then after the war joined with us to build the great nation that saved the free world one century later.

    Based on Meg’s figures, it looks as if the proportions of Irish who fought for both sides roughly resembles the populations of both sides. 170,000 Irish Union soldiers VS 30,000 Irish Confederate soldiers; 22 million Northern residents VS 4.5 million white Southerners. (Always normalize your data!)

    If you’re looking for an Irish song geared toward Confederate listeners, I wholeheartedly recommend “Kelly’s Irish Brigade” by David Kincaid.

  2. Don’t forget that the very violent New York draft riots of 1863 were led by racist Irish immigrants. Not all were humanitarian idealists!

  3. Goodman, you miss the point that the class fears were as great as the racial ones among the immigrant community. They had in large part just escaped the horrors of the Famine, were residing in vile, unfamiliar urban conditions, and had the integrity of their family structures shattered. So easy, judgemental phrases from the mouths of well fed, secure individuals in 2023 should be avoided.

    1. Indeed. Those military age Irish immigrants of 1861 were children during the Great Famine. That experience colored everything they did or thought. Which generally meant distrust of “fanatical” Protestants, Whigs, etc.

  4. My great grandfather, Andrew Tow, served the Union at Vicksburg and other battles. Eyewitnessing war up close made him become a Quaker pacifist after the war. But the Quakers, always progressive in politics, were very conservative on social issues: no dancing, no cards, and no music or singing! His daughter, my grandmother, who loved her dad, also told me that while he observed these restrictions, he carved out an exception for his old Army songs—which he continued to sing lustily for the rest of his life! They were so deeply ingrained in his soul that he just couldn’t give them up.
    My Grandmother later married a Lutheran, so the Quakers kicked her out—and she happily played cards the rest of her life!

  5. Hmmm–my computer isn’t letting me respond to individuals, but the Draft Riots of ’63 is a very interesting time. Many Irish families were hanging on by a thread, and that thread was always in danger of unraveling. If the breadwinner was drafted, then the family was imperiled. If black folks came North en masse, the jobs the emigrants did–rarely skilled labor–might be given to the formerly enslaved rather than kept safe within the district. Was it any wonder than Irish gangs and Tammany politics held such sway? It was a matter of survival. This topic is always of interest to me.

  6. I am not an American or Irish but I like those many songs linked to the Civil War. I have my own playlist of Civil War songs as well my list of Civil war movies and series with almost 500 films. of course, I still need to search, find and see many of them yet.

  7. Being half Irish on my Mother’s side, I am proud of that heritage. I have always felt, however, that the way the Irish were treated globally upon arrival in this country was horrible. Yet, I look back on my Irish ancestry from my mother’s side and see how hard they worked as coppersmiths, policemen, firemen over the generations up to mine. They carved out a place for themselves in our country and contributed mightily to our culture despite overwhelming hardships. That is called guts and fortitude, something sadly lacking in many today who don’t want to work and want everything given to them for free.

  8. I often find it funny that I’ll be listening to some traditional Irish folk songs (because I’m cool like that) and the melody sounds oddly familiar. Then, I’ll catch myself singing Union war songs on top of these Irish diddies and the timing is perfect. Makes me wonder which came first! Catherine is a wonderful historian and her contributions to the Civil War historiography is a breath of fresh air.

  9. Catherine is certainly all that and more. Those of us with more than a little Irish should never forget it. I couldn’t write this review without including some song lyrics!

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!