Irish Immigrants Mixed About Slavery

The Irish immigrants in the South wrote letters home. Some of those letters are maintained at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. The PRNI is a wonderful resource for folks tracing their family. It is also a wonderful source of ante-bellum records. One such letter at PRONI was written by William Elderry of Lynchburg, Virginia. He wrote to his family in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim. In a letter dated May 31, 1854, he sought to justify slavery by referring to the Bible:

“The Bible recognizes slavery. The institution existed among the Jews in the

day of our savior, did he who continually reproach sin ever say anything against


He mentioned the well-know Irish editor, then in the North, John Mitchel, and commented:

“Sometime ago I subscribed to The Citizen, a paper published and edited by

John Mitchell in New York. The first charge I see brought against him for his

truculent defence of slavery. How little they know of what they are talking of,

coming from New York and defending slavery is very much like going to Rome

and fighting with the Pope. He has, of course, made himself unpopular with

northern people in the United States.”

John Mitchel was likely the famous John Mitchel who was one of the United Irishmen in 1848. He was sentenced by the English courts to transportation. He was sent to Australia., escaped and came to the U.S. He landed at San Francisco and then New York City. During the Civil War, he edited a newspaper in Richmond, Virginia, supporting the South.

Yet, another Irishman in the South, R. Campbell of Georgia wrote a letter to John Campbell of Belfast on Jan. 10, 1860. It was published in the state’s Daily Chronicle and Sentinel newspaper and was signed a Georgia “Patriot.” He strongly condemned slavery, saying it was unconstitutional and against the laws of man. “No freeman, whatever be his color, can be sold into slavery by the power of any human tribunal.” The South at the time was quite defensive about this “peculiar institution.” It is remarkable that someone, especially an Irish immigrant, would speak openly against slavery and that such a letter would be published in a Georgia newspaper. Perhaps, speaking against slavery in ante-bellum South was not as difficult as we might think today.

Brett Irwin, “Irish Voices from the American Civil War,” History Ireland, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec, 2015), vol. 23.


The Texas Brigade Soldiered On

Conditions for the Confederate army worsened as the war dragged on. By 1863, the Texas Brigade was in Tennessee. It was common to see soldiers barefoot, men with no pants and some with no coat. Robert Campbell recorded that in late 1863, he had but one pair of pants with only one leg. Sgt. D.H. Hamilton kept the split sides of his shoes together by tying the pieces to his feet. He and some of friends learned to make rough shoes out of simple rawhide. Malachiah Reeves received rawhide shoes like this from home during winter and was thrilled. It was, he recorded, better than being barefoot. These “shoes” became known in camp as “Longstreet’s moccasins” – named for their Corps Commander, Gen. James Longstreet.

Yet, they fought on. In my time in the U.S. Army, no one would stay with that sort of support. Even in Iraq, where we received many packages and thoughts from home, one would wonder if home really supported us. If we had to rely on “Longstreet’s Moccasins,” we would surely have despaired of support from home. Yet, the December, 1863 Confederates soldiered on.

Or, did they? The Texas Brigade, until November, 1863, was immune from the desertion rates found in other Confederate units. Letters home and diaries reflected their sense of abandonment and rejection. The desertion rate did spike Between November, 1863 and March, 1864. According to Dr. Ural, during the entire war, Hood’s Texas Brigade suffered 6% desertion rate. 34% of these desertions occurred between November, 1863 and March, 1864.

To be fair, the homes in Texas were not as threatened by Yankee invaders as the folks in Virginia or Mississippi, or other Southern states. The Federal troops had not penetrated deep into Texas and had simply not burned and stolen as much in that distant state. The letters home reflect that relative lack of concern for the safety of their families. But, the Texas Brigade returned to Virginia in the Spring of 1864. Their support increased. The quality of their leadership vastly improved, as well. In time of war, those things do matter. And, some 300 soldiers returned from furlough, unauthorized leave and sick leave. Many of the returning soldiers had received wounds in prior battles and were returning for more. Yes, in the end, they did soldier on, even when all they had was “Longstreet moccasins.”

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), pp. 198-201.

There is No Sunday Here

So, what did the Irish think when they first arrived in the American South? Many were appalled that the American Catholics did not keep the Sabbath, at least not the way it was observed back home. One Irish immigrant wrote home that “there is no Sunday here.” He acknowledged that the churches were open and held Mass, but also open for business was the circus, the theater, the cockpits and the gaming houses. He added that more business was conducted on Sunday than on any other day.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 2001), p. 82.


Leadership In United States Armies

Way back when, back when I was a young Infantry Officer attending the Infantry Officer Basic Course in the 1980’s, we had a course called “Leadership.” How do you teach leadership to a group of some 40 lieutenants? The IOBC cadre used the case method, the same method you see in Business school or law school. We looked at a wide variety of stories and examples from real life about good and bad leaders. There was no one ultimate answer to how to be a good leader. But, the point the IOBC cadre drove home with us was that in regard to United States soldiers, the best approach was egalitarian or democratic. Authoritarian leaders did not do so well in U.S. military history. The truism we arrived at was that we, as Infantry leaders, should always expect to explain to the soldiers why a given order made sense. Don’t just tell them. Expect that you will also need to explain to your soldiers why they must follow a given plan or order. We in the U.S. have a different tradition, when compared to Europe and other places.

Some leaders failed the Texas Brigade long before they saw conflict. J.J. Archer, from Maryland, was appointed the first colonel of the Fifth Texas Infantry. He was not well-liked, partly because he was from Maryland – too close to “Yankeedom” said one soldier. But, the fact that he was not from Texas probably played a greater role. The lieutenant-colonel of the regiment faced even greater scrutiny. Frank Schaller, a German émigré, on paper had all the credentials. His grandfather and father served in the French army. He graduated from a military school in Germany and college in France. He served briefly in the Crimea. But, as one descendant explained, he was shy and lacked social skills. He was short, slim and high-strung. In early October, 1861, he rode into the Fifth Texas Infantry Regiment camp. He wore gold lace and stars on his uniform, a regiment that prided itself on officers with well-worn boots and appreciated one officer who rode into battle with a pistol in one hand and a frying pan in the other. Upon seeing the elegant officer, one soldier asked “What is it? Is it a man, fish, or bird?” The last the men saw of Lieut-Col. Schaller, he was riding out of camp on his horse, the mane sheared and the tail cut off. And, the men laughed heartily at their prank. So much for one appointed officer.

John Bell Hood understood how this worked. He might be appointed, but he still had to earn the respect of his men. Not the first, but one of the best commanders of “Hood’s Texas Brigade,” he knew instinctively to treat the citizen-soldiers as equals, or as near equals. The Texans were difficult. They complained about some commanders and found ways to force them out. Not so with John Bell Hood. Gen. Hood was from Kentucky originally, but he had lived many years in Texas. He was a West Point graduate. So, he was “regular Army” when compared to the Texas volunteers. The Confederate army could elect their company grade officers, but regimental and above officers were appointed by the central government. So, the Texas Brigade did not ask for him. But, they took to him right away.

How did Gen. Hood succeed where others failed? He would say later that he devoted the entire winter quarters to show he valued his men, both as soldiers and for their pre-war status. Many men were persons of standing in their home communities, but were now just another soldier. In his way, Gen. Hood recognized they had a place of significance before the war. He made a distinct effort to make the junior officers better junior officers. He said later he lost no opportunity to “arouse” their pride and to impress upon them that they would be the best soldiers. That goal of being the best appealed to the brash Texans. He urged them to police themselves, to look out for soldiers not doing their best and to take steps to fix the problem.

Gen. Hood mentioned that his predecessors did not take the time to explain the “why” of a given order. They would just issue the order and expect instant obedience. Hood, on the other hand, would take the time to explain. For example, he had a rule that lights had to be out by ten o’clock at night. He explained to the Texans that in keeping a light on, the soldier would not just keep himself awake, but all the others in his tent or cabin. An army must have its sleep if it was to do well the next morning. The general insisted that officers had to explain the reason for orders, not simply issue the order.

One of the Texans would write years later that Gen. Hood knew much better than other officer how to lead volunteers, as opposed to leading regular soldiers. Then Col. Hood was well versed in human nature, said Joe Polley. He knew full well that volunteers would not accept the sort of restrictions regular soldiers would tolerate. He knew not to draw the “full reins of true military discipline.”

I have to say that same approach certainly worked for me during my Army time. I spent almost all my time during a drill weekend talking or counseling with soldiers. A decent soldier always responds to respect and simple listening. I learned from IOBC and Ft. Benning. Col. Hood likely learned from simple trial and error and good instincts.

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade, (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), pp. 48-49, 79-80.