Why the Irish joined distinct Organisations

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIX (4) start of chapter

The Irish citizens did not enter the army at either side as a matter of calculation and prudence, but as a matter of duty, and from an impulse of patriotism. Yet if they had acted on deliberation, they could not have done more wisely than they did. 'Foreigners and aliens' they would indeed have proved themselves to be, had they stood coldly aloof, or shown themselves insensible to the cause which stirred the heart of the nation to its depths, and, as it were in a moment, made gallant soldiers of peaceful civilians. They vindicated their citizenship not alone by their services, but by their sympathies; and in their terrible sacrifices—on every bloody field and in every desperate assault—in every danger, toil, and suffering—they made manifest their value to the State, no less by their devotion than their valour.

From every State; from every city, town, and village; from the forest and the prairie, the hill and the plain; from the workshop, the factory, and the foundry; from the counter and the desk; from the steam-boat, the wharf, and the river bank—wherever the Irish were, or whatever their occupation, they obeyed the summons of their adopted country, and rushed to the defence of its banner. They either formed organisations of their own, or they fell into the ranks with their fellow-citizens of other nationalities. But special organisations, distinctive and national, had for them peculiar attractions; and once the green flag was unfurled, it acted with magnetic influence drawing to it the hardy children of Erin. There were in both armies, companies, regiments, brigades, exclusively Irish; but whether there was a special organisation or not, there was scarcely a regiment in either service which did not contain a smaller or a greater number of Irish citizens. I cannot venture to particularise or enumerate. The attempt would be idle, if not invidious. But I have spoken to gallant men who led them in action, and were with them amid all the trials and vicissitudes of a soldier's life; and whether they fought under a distinct organisation, or without distinction of national badge or banner, there was only one opinion expressed of their fighting qualities, and their amazing powers of endurance—and that equally in South as in North, in North as well as South. Why the Irish were attracted by distinct organisations was well explained by General Meagher. It was prior to the formation of his famous Brigade that he used the words I am about to quote; but when once the war was in full swing, and the hard work had really commenced, the chief inducement of the Irishman to join either company, regiment, or brigade, was the reputation it had earned, and the glory it had achieved. In the course of his oration on McManus, he referred to the desire even then expressed by the Irish citizen to join a purely Irish regiment or brigade, and said:—

'It is a pardonable prejudice, for the Irishman never fights so well as when he has an Irishman for his comrade. An Irishman going into the field in this cause, has this as the strongest impulse and his richest reward, that his conduct in the field will reflect honour on the old land he will see no more. He therefore wishes that if he falls, it will be into the arms of one of the same nativity, that all may hear that he died in a manner worthy of the cause in which he fell, and the country which gave him birth. This is the explanation why Irishmen desire to be togetherin the fight for the Stars and Stripes, and I am sure there is not a native-born citizen here who will not confess that it is a pardonable, a generous, and a useful prejudice.'

This tendency of the Irish to join distinct organisations, whether of regiment or brigade, imposed on them more of hard work, more of risk and danger, than fell to the ordinary lot of the soldier. It seemed as if they themselves should do more than others, to sustain the reputation which they had often, in times when civil war was undreamt of, claimed for their race—a reputation that others had freely admitted to be established beyond question. Not only had the Irishman to maintain the honour of his regiment, but he had also to maintain the honour of his country; for if he fought as an American citizen, he also fought as an Irish exile. We have thus, independently altogether of the natural love of fight that seems inherent in the Irish blood, the explanation of the desperate courage displayed on every occasion in which they were engaged, in whatever operation of war, whether as assailants or defenders, steadily resisting or daringly attacking. The character which they soon acquired for courage and devotion, endurance as well as dash, added to their fame; but it was likewise the cause of many a wife being made a widow, many a child an orphan, many a home desolate—of mourning and sorrow at both sides of the Atlantic. When the General had work to do which should be done, he required soldiers on whom he could rely; and whatever other soldiers were selected, there was sure to be an Irish regiment among the rest. And though Irishmen may possibly, at the time, have grumbled at not being given enough to do, they must now, as they calmly recur to the past, admit that they had, to say the very least, their full share of the fight as of the hardship, of the sacrifice as of the glory.

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