The Irish in the American Civil War

John Francis Maguire

The Irish in the War—Irish faithful to either Side—Thomas Francis Meagher—Why the Irish joined distinct Organisations—Irish Chivalry—The Religious Influence—Not knowing what he preached on—Cleanliness of the Irish Soldier—Respect for the Laws of War—A Non-combatant defending his Castle—Defended with Brickbats—'Noblesse oblige'—Pat's little Game—Irish Devotedness—The Love of Fight—Testimonies to the Irish Soldier—The handsomest Thing of the War—Patrick Ronayne Cleburne—His Opinions—In Memoriam—After the War—The grandest of all Spectacles

FROM the very circumstances of their position, it was almost a matter of inevitable necessity that the Irish citizens of America should ally themselves with that political party which, with respect to the foreigner and the stranger, adopted the liberal and enlightened policy of Jefferson and Madison. The Irish, then, being Democrats, naturally sympathised with the prevailing sentiment of the Southern States, which was strongly Democratic. And yet, notwithstanding this sympathy, the result of a general concurrence of opinion with that of the South, the Irish of the Northern States not merely remained faithful to the flag of the Union, but were amongst the foremost and the most enthusiastic of those who rallied in its defence, and the most steadfast in their support of the Federal cause, from the moment that the first gun, fired in Charleston Harbour, echoed through the land, to the hour when Lee surrendered, and the war was at an end. Whatever their opinions or feelings as to the conduct of those who, justly or unjustly, were held responsible for bringing about or precipitating the contest, and deeply as they felt the injury which war was certain to inflict on the country of their adoption, the Irish-born citizens never wavered in their duty. None more bitterly deplored than they did the sad consequences of civil strife—a conflict which would bring into deadly collision kindred races even of their own people; but once the rupture was irrevocable, they calmly accepted their position. From the first moment to the last, they were animated by a high sense of duty, and an earnest feeling of patriotism. Fortunately for the honour and fame of the Irish, there was in their motives an utter absence of the baneful passions of hatred and revenge, or the least desire to crush or humiliate their opponents.

War with all its tremendous consequences they faced as a stern and terrible necessity; but they entered into it with a chivalrous and Christian spirit, which never deserted them throughout the prolonged struggle. They did not stop to argue or split hairs as to the constitutional rights alleged to be involved; they acted, as they felt, with the community amid whom they lived, and with whom their fortunes were identified. The feeling was the same at both sides of the line. The Irish in the South stood with the State to which, as they believed, they owed their first allegiance, and, as was the case in the North, they caught the spirit of the community of whom they formed part. They also were profoundly grieved at the necessity for war, and would have gladly avoided the calamity of an open rupture. Southern Irishmen have told me that they shed tears of bitter anguish when, in vindication of what they held to be the outraged independence of their State, which to them was the immediate home of their adoption, they first fired on the flag of that glorious country which had been an asylum to millions of their people. The Northern Irishman went into the war for the preservation of the Union—the Southern Irishman for the independence of his State. And each, in his own mind, was as thoroughly justified, both as to right and duty, principle and patriotism, as the other.

With the political or constitutional question involved at either side I have no business whatever; and were I competent to disentangle it from the maze into which conflicting opinions and subtle disquisitions have brought it, I should still, from a feeling of delicacy, decline dealing with a subject which may not, as yet, be freely handled without exciting anger and irritation. I have heard the undisguised sentiments of Irishmen at both bides of the line—every man of them loving America with a feeling of profound attachment; and I, who stand, as it were, on neutral ground, have as full faith in the patriotism and purity of motive of the Northern as the Southern, the Confederate as the Federal.

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

ebook: The Irish in America