The American Civil War helped the Irish find acceptence

Week II

The role played by Irish emigrants in the American Civil War helped them find acceptance in a distrustful and suspicious country.

The role played by Irish emigrants in the American Civil War helped them find acceptance in a distrustful and suspicious country.

When Charles Dickens first visited the United States in January 1842, the popularity of his books was such that he was mobbed by adoring crowds, feted and dined as the major celebrity that he undoubtedly was, and was guest of honour at a famous Valentine’s Ball in New York attended by 3,000 of the city’s great and good.

At first he was delighted with everything he saw and everyone he met. But the longer he stayed, and the more he travelled around the country, the more he grew sour and critical. He soon tired of the people’s adoration, and he detested slavery, and the violence meted out to slaves.

Later in his American Notes,* he commented that Americans generally were serious, puritanical, and lacking in humour. He wondered why the ideals of liberty seemed to include the freedom to shoot or knife another American! He loathed the habit of spitting in public, and he was genuinely shocked at the standards of public health and cleanliness.

Visiting the Five Points district of Lower Manhattan, he described them as ‘reeking everywhere with dirt and filth.’ A neighbourhood filled with ‘hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder; and all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.’

Although many immigrant nationalities survived the best they could at the Five Points, four years after Dickens’ visit, the Irish poured into the area. More than one million people died in Ireland during the Great Famine, and in the few years following, another 1.5 million fled to the United States.

Kevin Kenny** describes the newly arrived Irish as mostly unskilled and willing to work for low wages. They were often used as substitute labour to break strikes. Native-born workers feared, as in Britain, that their own wages would decline as a result, and that gains made by organised labour would be undercut. Irish emigrants were deeply unpopular. Unable to make the adjustment to American life a ‘greatly disproportionate number of admissions to poorhouses, public hospitals, prisons and mental institutions were Irish. In New York City in 1859, 55 per cent of all people arrested were of Irish origin’.

‘ No Irish’

Equally disturbing to Americans was the religion of the Irish immigrant. Would Irish Catholic immigrants ultimately be loyal to the United States, or to the church in Rome? Why did they insist on their own schools, and what authority did the Pope, and the cardinals in Rome, have over them?

Both ministers and priests discouraged intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants. In addition the creation of a parochial schools system, and numerous colleges affiliated to the Catholic church tended to compound, rather than alleviate, the anti Catholic discrimination.

The vast majority of those that had arrived previously had been Protestants or Presbyterians and had quickly assimilated, probably because they had skills and some savings on which to start a new life. The vast majority of Irish Catholic immigrants at this time had no English, only spoke Irish which put them at a serious disadvantage getting work, and accommodation. They tended to seek refuge among their own kind, in areas like the Five Points District of Lower Manhatten, that Dickens described.

Yet despite discrimination, and lack of language skills, 4.5 million Irish streamed into America between 1820 and 1930. On passenger manifests the men claimed to be labourers; women said they were domestic servants. If they got a job relativity quickly they usually had to work long hours for minimal pay. Their cheap labour was needed by America’s expanding cities, for the construction of canals, roads, bridges, railroads as well as the mining and quarrying industries. In boom times when work was plentiful the Irish gained respect for being hard-working, but when times were bad, as it was in the mid-1850s, social unrest followed and resentment returned that the Irish, already low in the pecking order, were accused of taking jobs from Americans, suffered great discrimination. ‘No Irish need apply’ was a familiar comment in job advertisements.

American Civil War

A turning point in attitudes followed the American Civil War (1861 – 1865 ) when 180,000 Irish joined the Union army, while some 20,000 fought on the Confederate side.

Irish-Americans living in the Union states often formed their own regiments, notably the 69th New York State Volunteers and 90th Illinois Infantry Regiment. The 69th New York Volunteers flew a green flag with a golden harp on it, which was carried in addition to the normal regimental and national colours, making the 69th probably the only regiment to carry five colours into battle during the Civil War.

At the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, the brigade charged up Marye's Heights, suffering 41.4% casualties. During the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, the Irish Brigade held a Catholic Mass before facing Pickett's Charge.

The Irish Brigade was the subject of the original version of a song, "Kelly's Irish Brigade", after its commander, Patrick Kelly. This has caused a dispute, with those who attribute the song to a known Confederate song of the same name!

The 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, formed largely of Irish immigrants from the Boston area suffered the loss of 15 officers and 194 enlisted men in combat (as well as 3 officers and 66 enlisted men to disease ) throughout the war and were central to many of its bloodiest battles.Initially led by charismatic Colonel Thomas Cass ( born in County Laois ), who died in 1862 after receiving wounds at the Battle of Malvern Hill.

As well as notable involvements in a successful holding action at Big Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg, the regiment also held supporting roles in the disasters ofFredericksburg and Chancellorsville. The 28th Massachusetts also formed a largely Irish regiment during the war, carried a green flag bearing the golden harp (similarly to the 69th New York ).

Six Confederate generals were Irish-born, of whom Patrick Cleburne was the highest ranking. Units such as the Charleston Irish Volunteers attracted Irish-Americans in South Carolina while Irish Tennesseans could join the 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. A company of the Washington Blues regiment of the Missouri Volunteer Militia (later the Missouri State Guard ), commanded by Colonel Joseph Kelly, was the subject of a Confederate song, "Kelly's Irish Brigade". The Emerald Guard, of the Stonewall Brigade was composed of Irish immigrant volunteers, and it may have been first to make the infamous "rebel yell" at 1st Bull Run, attacking 14th New York guns on Henry Hill.

The Davis Guard, a company of mostly Irish-American men from the Houston and Galveston area, received the only physical medals awarded by the CSA, made from polished Mexican silver coins and hung from green ribbons to honour their Irish heritage.

Even at the war's end, the Irish presence was felt during the tragedy of Lincoln's assassination, as the man who organised the initial manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators (and would ultimately spearhead the capture of them all ) James O'Beirne (born in County Roscommon ) a Captain in the 37th New York Infantry, who had been seriously wounded in the lung at Chancellorsville, organised a huge countrywide hunt, and although not present for the final capture of Booth (an honour taken by Lafayette Baker ) his role was noted by then secretary for war Edward M Stanton.

The Irish as we know, once they found their feet in America, mainly by controlling the local Democratic party, managed to dominate several American cities, including New York, Boston, and Chicago. Some of this control led to the Tammany Hall type of corruption and the shenanigans of people like the legendary James Michael Curley, who was mayor of Boston for four terms, and governor of Massachusetts and who, famously, never refused to get a Galwayman a job.

Next week: I look forward to telling the story of the extraordinary James Curley, who hailed from the Oughterard area at a future date; but next week I will visit an Irish family at 97 Orchard Street, Lr East Side, in the Five Points district, that so horrified Dickens.


*Needless to say Americans were furious with his comments. The editor of the popular Courier and Enquirer , James W Webb, described Dickens as ‘a low-bred scullion, who for more than half his life lived in the stews of London.’

Dickens won their hearts again, however, when he returned in 1867, and charmed them with public readings from his novels.

** Taken from Irish Immigrants in the United States (Department of State ), by Kevin Kenny, professor of history, at Boston College, Massachusetts.

Question: Will the present Irish Government, remembering the struggle of Irish emigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, extend a more generous hand to the emigrants now seeking shelter in Europe today?


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