Irish Chivalry in the American Civil War

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIX (5) start of chapter

The Irish displayed a still nobler quality than courage, though theirs was of the most exalted nature; they displayed magnanimity, generosity—Christian chivalry. From one end of the South to the other, even where the feeling was yet sore, and the wound of defeat still rankled in the breast, there was no anger against the Irish soldiers of the Union. Whenever the feeble or the defenceless required a protector, or woman a champion, or an endangered church a defender, the protector, the champion, and the defender were to be found in the Irishman, who fought for a principle, not for vengeance or desolation. The evil deeds, the nameless horrors, perpetrated in the fury of passion and in the licence of victory—whatever these were, they are not laid at the door of the Irish. On the contrary, from every quarter are to be heard praises of the Irish for their forbearance, their gallantry, and their chivalry—than which no word more fitly represents their bearing at a time when wanton outrages and the most horrible cruelties were too frequently excused or palliated on the absolving plea of stern necessity.

I could fill many pages with incidents illustrative of this noble conduct, did space admit of my doing so. I met, in New Orleans, with a dignitary of the Episcopalian Church, who made the conduct of the Irish in the Northern army the subject of warm eulogium; and in his own words, afterwards written at my request, I shall allow him to tell in what manner the chivalrous Irishman won the respect of the people against whom he fought, but whom he did not hate, and would not willingly humiliate.

It was a cause of real grief to the Southern people when they beheld the Irish nation, in the midst of their great struggle for independence, furnishing soldiers to fight a people who were engaged in a deadly contest for the same boon, and who had never given them cause of offence. This feeling was, however, softened in the progress of the war, when they discovered the generous sympathy yet lurking in the breasts of these misguided men, and which was never invoked in vain. In every assault made upon a defenceless household the Irish soldier was among the first to interpose for the defence of the helpless, to shield them from insult and wrong.

In the march of Sheridan's cavalry through Albemarle county, Virginia, the house of a worthy clergyman was about to be entered by a rude and tumultuous band, when an Irishman rushed forward to protect the family, assumed the place of sentinel and guard, drove the invaders from the threshold, dragged from his hidden retreat, under the portico, a burglar who was breaking into the cellar, and with sword in hand defied any one to violate the sanctity of that home. None dared to resist him, until a company of stragglers following upon the heels of the main body advanced in force, and demanded to know his authority for tarrying there when the troops had left. 'To defend this house from thieves and burglars,' was his reply. Brandishing their weapons, they attempted to drive him from the place, when he looked them quietly in the face and asked, 'How tall are you when you are fat?' The imperturbable coolness of the Irishman was too much for them, and they left him to enjoy the satisfaction of his heroism, and the grateful attentions of the family he had so nobly defended. His mission did not end there, but taking from his knapsack his ration of coffee and sugar, which had not been consumed, he insisted that the good minister and his family should accept it for their own use. The nature of this man's service was the more appreciated when the adjacent plantation was soon after consumed by fire. The husband and father died suddenly from the shock, and the widow and children were left homeless and foodless in the negro cabin, to lament that no Irish soldier was there to shield them from the cruel wrath of their countrymen.

Again, upon the visit of Sherman's army to Mecklenburg co. after the surrender, the estate of Mr. S.,(57) the brother of the minister referred to, fell a prey to the same species of violence. His mansion, one of the most magnificent in the State, was despoiled. His wife, being ill, was confined to her chamber, when it was suddenly threatened by an excited group of soldiers maddened with liquor. In vain did the physician who was in attendance remonstrate with the ruffians, who insisted upon forcing the door in search of plunder. At this moment an Irish soldier came to the rescue, took his place as sentinel at the door, hurled back the crowd, and remained there for several hours, the faithful guardian of that sick chamber, until the house was freed from its invaders. Every nook and corner was searched, everything plundered that could be taken away, every apartment rifled save that sheltered under the aegis of the brave-hearted Irish soldier.

The 9th Connecticut, an exclusively Irish regiment, was quartered in New Orleans during its occupation by the force under General Butler. Its officers maintained the chivalrous character of the Irish soldier, who fought for a principle, not for plunder or oppression. They remained in their marquees, and would not take possession of the houses of the wealthy citizens, which, according to the laws of war, they might have done. 'We came to fight men,' said they, 'not to rob women.' They soon won the confidence and respect of the inhabitants.

A soldier of this regiment was placed as sentinel before one of the finest houses in the town, which General Butler intended for his head-quarters; and his orders were that he should allow nothing to be taken out—nothing to pass through that door. The sentinel was suddenly disturbed in his monotonous pacing to and fro before the door of the mansion by the appearance of a smart young girl, who, with an air half timid and half coaxing, said—'Sir, I suppose you will permit me to take these few toys in my apron? surely General Butler has no children who require such things as these?'

'Young woman!' replied the sentry, in a sternly abrupt tone, that quite awed his petitioner, 'my orders are peremptory—not a toy, or thing of any kind, can pass this door while I am here. But, miss,' added the inflexible guardian, in quite a different tone, 'if there is such a thing as another door, or a back window, you may take away as many toys as you can find, or whatever else you wish—I have no orders against it; and the more you take the better I'll be pleased, God knows.' The palpable hint was adopted, and it is to be hoped that something more than the toys was saved to the owners of the mansion.

Even 'Billy Wilson's Zouaves,' a few of whom were admitted to be of the class known to police definition as 'dangerous,' sustained the honourable fame of the Irish soldier, though coming to the South as 'invaders.' These lambs consisted almost exclusively of Irish and the descendants of Irish, and had the reputation of being amongst the roughest of the population of New York. 'They were a hard lot—many a hard case among them lads,' said an Irishman, describing them. Still, such was their good conduct in the South, especially in Louisiana, that the planters regarded them rather as protectors than enemies. A creole lady from Téche county in that State lately wrote to her nephew, who had been on General Dick Taylor's staff, requesting him to hunt up Colonel Wilson, and thank him in her name and his, and to assure him of their continued remembrance of his kindness, and the generous conduct of his men.

I myself heard from the lips of Southerners praises of the gallantry and generosity of these terrible fighters.

The First Division of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac was marching, in November 1862, through Lowdon Valley, passing the house of General Ashby, a Confederate officer who had been recently killed. The Irish Brigade was at the head of the column. Orders had been given that property should be respected, that nothing should be touched. As the Brigade was passing the house, a number of chickens, scared by the unusual display, fluttered right into the ranks, and between the feet of the men. The hungry Irishmen looked at each other with a comical expression, as the foolish birds appeared to rush into the very jaws of danger—or the opening of the havresac; and many a poor fellow mentally speculated on the value of each of the flutterers in a stew. The sense of the humorous was speedily dispelled. In the piazza, down on her knees, her hands tossed wildly above her head, was an old woman, thin, stern, white-haired; and as the Brigade were passing she poured—literally shrieked out—curses on all those who fought for the 'murderers of her son.' To Irishmen the curse of the widow or the childless carries with it an awful sound and a terrible import. With averted eyes the gallant men of the Brigade marched past the white-haired mother who, frantic in her bereavement, knew not what she said.

Very frequently the most injurious accounts of the Irish heralded their arrival in a locality; but it invariably happened, wherever they were quartered, that those who regarded their coming with apprehension deplored their departure as a calamity; and numerous instances might be told of communities memorialising the authorities for their continued stay—the people justly considering them as their best protectors amid the insecurity and licence of the moment.

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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