Cleanliness of the Irish Soldier in the American Civil War

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIX (8) start of chapter

The fact is incontestable, that the extraordinary health enjoyed by the Irish who fought at either side was owing in a great degree to their remarkable attention to cleanliness. There are obvious reasons to explain why in the old country the constant practice of this homely virtue is not a striking characteristic of the race. Poverty is depressing in its influence, and somewhat neutralises that pride which manifests itself in outward appearance: and, besides, where, as is too often the case in Ireland, the grand battle of life is for a bare subsistence—just as much as keeps body and soul together—cleanliness is too apt to be lost sight of, or regarded as a luxury beyond the possession of the poor. But were one to draw a national inference from the habit of the Irish soldiers in the war, one might fairly assert that cleanliness was one of the marked and special peculiarities of the Irish race. So universal has been the testimony on this point, that doubt would be like wanton scepticism. Whether in barrack, in camp, or on the march, the Irish soldier maintained a reputation for personal cleanliness.

When the war commenced, and while the troops were yet in all the newness of their uniforms, others may have been smarter, or more dandified, than the Irish; but when the stern work commenced in earnest, and uniforms were faded from exposure and hardship, or torn by lead and steel, and when the dandy of the barrack-yard or the garrison town had degenerated into a confirmed sloven, the Irishman was at once neat and jaunty in his war-worn rags. Whatever the length of the day's march, or the severity of the fatigue, if the troops came to a river, or brook, or pond, or even the tiniest trickling rivulet, the Irishman was sure to be at the water, as if with the instinct of a duck. He plunged into the river to enjoy the grand refreshment of a swim, or if it were not deep enough to afford that healthful luxury, he washed himself thoroughly in its shallow stream; and even though his shirt were in ribands, as was too often the lot of the campaigner, it should at least be clean, if water could make it so. I was amused to hear a professor of Georgetown College, himself an Irishman, describe the comical terror of the authorities of that noble institution, when they were informed that the three wells which supplied the establishment were in danger of running dry, owing to the incessant ablutions of a famous Irish regiment—the 69th—quartered there previous to the battle of Bull Run. No cat that ever polished her fur into velvety softness was more careful of her coat than the Irish soldiers—Federal or Confederate—were of the cleanliness of their persons and their clothing, such as it was. In fact, the fiercer the conflict became, the more fully were the soldierly qualities of the Irish developed: and when repeated disasters and reverses produced their demoralising influences on others, the irrepressible buoyancy of the Celtic temperament sustained the spirit and invigorated the frame of the hardy Irishman. But, from first to last, cleanliness was one of their prominent characteristics. And this I state on the highest authority at both sides of the line.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

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