Stephen Speilberg’s magnificent film Lincoln made it clear that the Northern States of America, the Union, had justice and right on its side, when it came to deal with the cotton-based slave states of the south. Washington had objected to their attempt to enlarge its slave industry further west. Southern states were enraged at this interference. In an appalling miscalculation some states began to leave to Union, set up their own Confederacy (eventually including 11 states ), and prepared to fight for its freedom to choose its own destiny.
After four years of war, Speilberg also showed us the desperation on behalf of the Confederacy as it sought honourable peace terms. Slave labour had allowed cotton to be produced at vastly reduced prices, resulting in world dominance of American cotton. Whatever about the morality of keeping slaves, the entire commerce and way of life in the south was geared to its cotton trade. Wipe that out, release the slaves, and the whole society faces collapse and ruin - which is exactly what happened.
Despite President Lincoln’s laudable aspirations, brilliantly expressed in his Gettysberg Address, November 19 1863, moral superiority and greed for southern wealth, drove this vicious crusade during the years 1861- 1865. It soon became a war of monstrous consequences.
It was said to have been the first ‘industrial war’ involving railroads, banks, ship yards, transportation and food supplies; the importance of telegraphs, weird looking ironclad and fast steamships were deployed for the first time. It was extensively photographed. Mass produced weapons, including mines, were used causing terrible wounds outside the capabilities of the medical expertise of the time. At least 617,000 people were killed; at least 500,000 survived severely wounded.
The Galway Line
The first year of the Civil War coincided with the mass arrival of Irish emigrants fleeing from the Great Famine. As Irish men streamed off the emigrant ships in New York and Boston, attractive offers were made, sometimes at the points of embarkation, to entice them into the Union army. At least 144,000 of them did so. Similarly, although in fewer numbers, approximately 40,000 joined the Confederates as their ships arrived along southern coasts.
Not surprisingly these great happenings, emigration and war, were big news at home. The Tuam Herald provided regular reports of the war detailing military exploits of some Irish immigrants, and the progress of the war.
There was lots to report. One of the weapons used by the more powerful Northern states was to blockade southern ports in an attempt to starve the south into submission. This involved the valiant Galway Line - a modest collection of steam ships which carried both passengers and mail between Galway and Boston, New York, and St John’s, Newfoundland. When it lost its valuable mail contract due to the war, its owners offered their ships for charter.
The PS Adriatic was leased by the British government to bring troops to Canada in case the war spilled over the US border.
The SS Circassian was leased by the Confederacy in the hope that it could evade the blockade. It was captured on its first attempt.
The PS Pacific, however, regarded as the fastest ship of the time, not only outran Union navy ships with ease, but successfully brought supplies into southern ports from Britain in exchange for cotton. It was never caught.
In another film, Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York (2002 ), we saw New Yorkers throwing rubbish and insults at the newly arrived Irish at the Five Points district in Lower Manhattan. The Irish were despised for being Catholic, dirty, disease ridden and job grabbing.
Yet by contrast, at least initially ** the southern states were more welcoming than the industrial north and eastern cities. Immigrants came in smaller numbers, were easily assimilated, and did not seem to have problems adapting to the slave culture of the time. In fact many Galway emigrants probably had a sympathetic attitude to the south arising from support for the Confederacy from some quarters at home. Sir William Gregory, the sitting member of parliament for Galway, personally invested some $4,000 in Confederate Government Bonds. Gregory was an inveterate gambler, and had lost several large sums gambling on horses. He was equally unlucky this time. By the war’s end Confederate Bonds were worthless.
You might imagine that William Gladstone, the future prime minister, would have had more sense. But he had also invested $2,000 in such bonds. The Limerick Clothing Company made the Confederate army uniforms. I hope it was paid in cash, and not in bonds.
Sir William Gregory’s future wife’s family, the Persses, who owned ships, and a number of businesses including a whiskey distillery at Nuns Island, were publicly supportive of the Confederacy. Another Irish politician with a love for the south, was Thomas Power O’Connor. While a student at Queen’s College, Galway, he campaigned for the Confederacy. He eventually married Elizabeth Paschal, a southern belle from Texas.
Fifteen years before the outbreak of the Civil War, two county Galway children Honora (10 years old ) and her brother Dick Dowling (nine ) arrived from the Tuam workhouse exhausted and alone in New Orleans after an arduous crossing of the Atlantic.
I will tell their remarkable story in the next few weeks.***
*The song When Johnny Comes Marching Home, which expressed people’s longing for the return of their friends and relatives who were fighting in the Civil War, was written by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore in 1863. Gilmore, from Ballygar, County Galway, emigrated to Boston 1848. The song became immensely popular with both sides during the war.
** This attitude was to change later when it was believed that the ‘huddled masses’ incubated fever arising from conditions on board ship, exacerbated by the crowded housing conditions when they arrived. Fever was a constant and dangerous scourge in the south.
*** I am taking this from a wonderfully produced and lavishly illustrated book Dick Dowling - Galway’s Hero of Confederate Texas by Tim Collins and Ann Caraway Ivins. Just published by Old Forge Books, on sale at Charlie Byrnes’ at €29.99.