Testimonies to the Irish Soldier in the American Civil War

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIX (16) start of chapter

A general who commanded a Southern brigade, in which half—that is 5,000 out of the 10,000 who from time to time recruited its ranks as volunteers—were Irish, thus spoke of them to me:—

'If to-morrow I wanted to win a reputation, I would have Irish soldiers in preference to any others; and I tell you why. First, they have more dash, more élan than any other troops that I know of; then they are more cheerful and enduring—nothing can depress them. Next, they are more cleanly. The Irishman never failed to wash himself and his clothes. Not only were they cheerful, but they were submissive to discipline when once broken in—and where they had good officers that was easily done; but once they had confidence in their officers, their attachment to them was unbounded. And confidence was established the moment they saw their general in the fight with them. Afterwards they would say—"You keep back, General—tell us where to go, and we'll be sure to go; but we don't want you to be killed; for, faith, we don't know what would become of us then." They required strict discipline: but they always admitted the justice of their punishment when they believed their commander was impartial; and they never were sullen, or bore malice. There was one great element of strength in these men—they were volunteers, every man of them. Many could have been excused on the ground of their not being American citizens, as not more than one-third of them had a right to vote at the time; but they joined of their own free will—no Irishman was conscripted. I repeat, if I had to take from one to 10,000 men to make a reputation with, I'd take the same men as I had in the war—Irishmen from the city, the levees, the river, the railroads, the canals, or from ditching and fencing on the plantations. They make the finest soldiers that ever shouldered a musket.' And this was the testimony of one of the fiercest fighters of the war.

Another officer of rank says what he thinks of the Irish:—

'My opinion of the Irish is partial. I commanded many of them, and I can appreciate their value. None were more gallant, or none more faithful to our cause; and it was owing to there being so many of them at the other side that we failed. Those I commanded were some of the best soldiers I ever saw; but I think they are better when they are by themselves, in companies or regiments. Good soldiers indeed! they worked, and fought, and starved, just as required of them. The feeling of the South is of the warmest character to them. If the war started afresh, I'd raise an entirely Irish regiment, in preference to any other. They would be more under discipline, and could be controlled better than a mixed regiment. I admit that when they are in the camp, and there is nothing for them to do, they may get into mischief; but in the field they are thoroughly reliable.'

Here is the testimony of one who knew the Irish well. It is a chaplain who speaks: and though he saw them in battle, he knew more of them when the fight was over:—

'Commanders prefer them, not only for their bravery, but their cheerfulness, and for their cleanliness and neatness as soldiers. When others would be resting, the Irishmen would be washing their clothes, and would then play games in their buff till they were dried. They were true soldiers—tigers in battle, lambs after. It was beautiful to witness their conduct to the enemy; they were kind as women to them, assisting the wounded, dividing their rations with them—losing every feeling of anger and hostility.'

Testimonies without number might be quoted; but one from a soldier whose fame is European, may well stand in the place of many. It is General Beauregard who thus gravely records his deliberate and weighty judgment of the Irish: 'Relative to the soldierly qualities of the Irish who 'took a part in our late war, I beg to state, that they displayed the sturdy and manly courage of the English, combined with the impetuous and buoyant character of the French. They required, at times, only discipline, which is always attained under good officers, to be equal to the best soldiers of any country. They always exhibited on the field of battle great gallantry, and during the operations of a campaign showed much patience and fortitude. They joined the Confederate ranks at the first call of the country for volunteers, and remained to the last, devoted and true to the cause they had zealously espoused. They were found to be always the worthy companions of the gallant Confederate soldiers with whom they fought, side by side, during over four years of an internecine struggle.'

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