Memorials in Changing Times

Here in the U.S. we have focused much attention on Confederate memorials in the South. Some folks see them as offensive, while others see them as memorial to the fallen. The change in how these memorials are perceived comes with the dramatic political changes in the South. This phenomenon is new to the U.S. but it is not new in other countries. Ireland has dealt with the question of changing politics and permanent memorials for decades. Ireland achieved its independence in 1922. Yet, it suffered under 700 years of British rule and it inherited dozens of British memorials and statues.

The Irish Republic was in no hurry to remove the statues when independence first arrived. In Dublin, there were several such statues. One statue to the great Admiral Horatio Nelson endured until 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. It was blown up by unknown Dubliners that year. A monument to William, Prince of Orange, had also been blown up by unknown Irish in the 1930’s.

A statue of Queen Victoria, once centrally located in Dublin, was moved to storage in the late 1940’s. Later, it given to the City of Sidney, Australia. But, the figures which once surrounded Queen Victoria, figures representing the sacrifices of Irish soldiers in the Boer war remain. A statue to Prince Albert, the Queen’s husband, remains in Dublin today, tucked away in a corner of a public park. See Dublin Inquirer report here.

But, there are numerous British statues throughout Ireland that still remain. Francis Drake has a statue in County Cork. The Duke of Wellington has at least one monument, located in County Meath. The Duke was born in and grew up in Ireland. In his political life, he advocated Catholic emancipation, even though he himself was Protestant. St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the center of the Church of Ireland, holds numerous monuments to heroes of the British Empire, including two generals who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, and a Lord Lieutenant of Ireland or two. And, of course, there is a statue of a young Queen Victoria in Cork City, County Cork. It had been literally buried in a garden until 1995, when it was resurrected and cleaned up for display for University College Cork. The problem with disposing of much of this statuary is that most of it was crafted by the finest Irish scupltors of the day.

If you look closely, most public buildings in Dublin bear some marker, coat of arms, or emblem of the royal family or of the crown itself. Those sorts of markers are literally everywhere on any building constructed before 1923.

There is a triumphal arch in Dublin on Grafton Street to commemorate the service of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who fell in the Boer War of 1899-1902. Even today, some refer to it as the “traitor’s gate.” But, prior to 1916, many, perhaps most average Irish saw themselves as loyal British subjects. See History Ireland article about the Boer War arch here.

Some 200,000 Irish served in the British Army during World War I. Yet, hundreds of Irish served in the Boer forces during the same war. Those Irish were only too happy to serve in an army fighting the British. A few of them would later participate in and lead the Easter Rising of 1916. There is no arch commemorating their service supporting the Boer and against the British Empire.

Not to mention the many street names which mark some British Empire hero or two. One County Cork Councillor has campaigned on the plan to change those colonial era street names. Many residents objected, especially persons who live on those streets and did not wish to change their address.

On significant difference between Ireland and the Southern United States is that after independence, tens of thousands or Irish protestants left Ireland. The families of the persons who first erected and supported these pro-British monuments are much in the minority in Ireland. While in the U.S. South, numerous supporters of those Confederate monuments remain. But, the controversy is the same in both countries. Politics may change, but many of those memorials remain.

What did the United States do to Help with the Irish Famine?

The Famine in Ireland during the 1840’s was the worst disaster in Europe during the nineteenth century. A country of some 5 million lost 3 million people in just a few years. It is said 1 million died and 2 million emigrated. It was a scarring experience for all Irish. The Irish children of the 1840’s would grow to become the Irish soldiers, North and South, in 1861.

What did the United States do during the Famine? Private citizens donated huge amounts in the 1840’s. Some 118 ships left U.S. shores for the Irish nation. They carried some $545,145 worth of food stuffs. Doubtless, much of that was donated or generated by Irish immigrants then living in the U.S. What did the U.S. government do during the Famine?

It was not clear at the time that the U.S. government should help. Many Congressmen and Senators argued that it was unconstitutional for the country to use public funds for private relief. At least two bills to authorize the spending of public money to help Ireland died in committee. One Democrat senator, John Niles, a slavery opponent, opposed one bill, saying charity begins at home. The country should aid those within the U.S., not persons in far off lands. Another Congressman, Lewis Levin, an early Know Nothing party leader, always opposed Catholics. He argued one proposed bill was actually intended to feed “party vultures,” not Famine victims. He meant the bill was to help some politicians secure Irish votes in America, not feed the starving. The American (Know Nothing) party started in New York in 1843. The nativist sentiment in the United States was strong in the 1840’s. Rep. Levin wanted to increase the requirement to become a citizen from living in the U.S. from five years to 21 years.

The U.S. government eventually did allow that two U.S. war ships could be used to transport food to the victims of the Famine. Congress passed a bill making this possible. Remarkably, they felt it was constitutional to use government resources, so long as actual ownership of U.S. property was not transferred to private persons. One ship, the Jamestown, was quickly loaded in Boston and was in Cork within 15 days of departure.

But, the second ship, the Macedonian, languished in New York harbor until the Jamestown returned. The New Yorkers simply did not contribute the way Boston’s citizens contributed. That was probably because New York City was ground zero for the new American (Know Nothing) party. The nativist attacks on Irish immigrants in New York were severe. When the Jamestown returned, the Boston committee quickly collected enough donations to finish loading the ship. The captain of the Jamestown, George DeKay of New Jersey, spent $30,000 of his own money outfitting the Macedonian. This set back Capt. DeKay financially. He requested relief from Congress. Before the body could act, however, he died exhausted and penniless.

Timothy J. Sarbaugh, “Charity Begins at Home: The United States government and Irish Famine Relief 1845-1849,” History Ireland, Vol. 4, Issue 2, Spring, 1996.

The Irish Brigade

The New York 69th Regiment is justly famous as part of the Irish Brigade. The 69th was often in the thick of the fighting and suffered horrendous casualties. The South also had its Irish Brigade. The Louisiana 6th Regiment was largely recruited from New Orleans. It is fitting perhaps that the Regiment started in the Olive Branch Coffee House in New Orleans. William Monaghan, a native of Ireland, starting recruiting for an Irish Brigade. He must have had a sense of humor when he selected his first recruiting location. Mr. Monaghan was a notary in a city in which notaries drafted contracts and legal instruments. He was much better educated than the Famine Irish. Prior to the Civil War, New Orleans had by far the greatest number of Irish immigrants in the South. The New Orleans port was then the second largest in the country. The fare from Ireland to the U.S. was cheapest to New Orleans.

The Sixth Brigade was not completely Irish, but Irish constituted the largest number of enlistments by far. Of the ten companies in the Regiment, seven were form New Orleans. The first colonel of the Regiment was Isaac G. Seymour, a newspaper publisher and Ivy League graduate. He was originally from Connecticut. He opposed secession. But, when war looked likely, he stepped forward to do his duty. The Crescent City had many “immigrants” from states north of Virginia. The booming economy had attracted many “Yankee traders” during the two decades before the war.

The Louisiana Brigade was assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia. It included three regiments including the Sixth Regiment. Within weeks, Richard Taylor was assigned as the general of the Louisiana Brigade. Son of the former president, Zachary Taylor, Richard was a prominent sugar planter in Louisiana and a former member of the Know Nothing Party. Officially named the American Party, the Know Nothings seemingly grew overnight when the Whig party collapsed in the early 1850’s. The Know Nothing party quickly filled the gap with a virulent anti-immigrant fervor. The Know Nothings killed two Irishmen in New Orleans in 1854. Two years later, they brought in thugs from distant locales into New Orleans to suppress the Irish vote. They opposed all immigrants, but especially the Irish. There is no known evidence that Richard Taylor did not care for Irish, but he was active in the American party. That does suggest he agreed with the anti-immigrant fervor.

In December, 1861, Gen. Taylor executed two Irish soldiers, despite the plea of their commander. Executions were not unknown in either Army during the war, but they were not common either. These were the first executions in the Army of Northern Virginia. He was making an example of these two Irishmen and he said as much.

In May, 1862, the Louisiana Brigade was assigned to Gen. Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah River Valley. The Brigade did very well during the campaign , distinguishing themselves with a brilliant charge during the first Battle of Winchester. Gen. Jackson told Taylor his men had done very well. During the Valley Campaign, Stonewall Jackson was famously surrounded by three different Union armies. He succeeded only by ruthlessly marching his men far beyond the level of endurance for any sane man. In one long night march, so black that owls could not see their way, Gen. Taylor was marching with a smaller contingent of the Sixth Regiment. He was impressed with the tenacity of the Irish soldiers who never faltered, who often had to wheel around and fire at their Union antagonizers. The Irish and Taylor were executing one of the most difficult maneuver in warfare, a rearguard action as Union cavalry stuck to their heels. Gen. Taylor would later say about the Irish, “They were steady as clocks and chirpy as crickets, indulging in many a jest whenever the attentions of our friends in the rear slackened.”

The Irish themselves would say about the long rearguard action that night, “It was a fine night intirely for diversion.” The Federals would gallop up, discharge their muskets at the fleeing Irish, whereupon, wrote Taylor years later, the Irishmen answered, “Devil thank ‘em for that same.” Gen. Taylor would write in his book years later that his heart warmed to an Irishman ever since that night.

James P. Gammon, Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers (DeCapo Press 1998), p. IX, 41

Memorial to Hood’s Texas Brigade

There is a myth today that Confederate statues and memorials were intended more to commemorate white supremacy than lost loved ones. One can almost appreciate the myth, since so many of the memorials depict one Confederate general or another. But, in fairness, the statues were erected at a time when history was largely viewed as the history of “great men.” Prior to a few ground breaking books like Johnny Reb by Bell Irvin Wiley (LSU Press 1970), social histories were never done. The focus was always on the so-called great men, not the men who slogged through the mud or who bore the brunt of the decisions of the great men.

One of the few Confederate memorials to the average soldier is found in Austin, the memorial to Hood’s Texas Brigade. The memorial started around the turn of the twentieth century. As the veterans of the famed Hood’s Texas Brigade were aging, they talked about erecting a monument to their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their departed brothers. After exhaustive debates and years of fund raising, they agreed the memorial should feature an individual Confederate soldier and that it should make no reference to Jefferson Davis or the Confederate government. As former private, Joe Polley explained, it had to be about their sacrifices alone.

“If a medallion of [Jefferson] Davis appears on the monument at all, it is bound to have the central and most conspicuous place, and the men and women who when we are dead and gone look at it, will accept it as a monument to Davis and the cause he represented, and never give a thought to the brave men to whose memory alone it should be dedicated. “

The veterans of Hood’s Texas Brigade believed they were the best brigade in the Confederate army. They believed, with much justification, that they represented the best. For decades after the war, they collected their stories and history. Their goal as stated in 1872 was to “collect and perpetuate all incidents, anecdotes, history, and everything connected therewith.” By 1906, they were still working to finalize complete rosters of the original members of the brigade and their eventual fate. The memorial would represent the ultimate remembrance of their time together.

So, it was perhaps surprising that at the unveiling of the monument in 1910, the speakers spoke inaccurately about the role of Southerners throughout American history. According to the speakers, a Southerner had won the War of 1812, the Mexican War in 1846 and was the author of the Monroe Doctrine. The members of Hood’s Texas Brigade rarely engaged in such hyperbole.

Joe Polley was himself a person of some controversy. He did not care for excessive ceremony. In a time when virtually every white man supported the Democratic party, Joe flirted with the Republican party. He was a well-known contributor to the Confederate Veteran magazine. Yet, he was anything but an apologist for the Southern cause. No doubt, it helped that the Republican candidate for Texas governor was also a former Confederate veteran. But, Joe Polley supported the Republican in the next gubernatorial election. Joe, who had lost a foot at the Battle of Darbytown, was more practical than demagogic. The memorial to Hood’s Texas Brigade reflects that same spirit of honest remembrance.

Susanah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), pp. 272-274.

The Mercenary and the School Girls

The story of Roberdeau Wheat would seem to come from Hollywood, but it is a true story. He was the commander of a unit known as the Special Battalion during the Civil War. It was said he recruited many of the members himself. They were recruited from New Orleans docks, coffee houses (which sold anything but coffee), and, according to some stories, from the parish prison. The Special Battalion was largely Irish and German. They were so undisciplined and out of control, they were referred to as the Tigers. Eventually, the name “Tigers” was applied to the entire Louisiana Brigade. It was said Maj. Wheat was the only person who could control them. He controlled them with foul language, beatings and when necessary, with shootings.

“Robert” Wheat was born in Alexandria, Virginia to an Episcopal minister. The family moved to Nashville when he was 12. He graduated from the University of Nashville in 1845. He studied law and became a lawyer. As an adult, he stood 6’4” and weighed, according to various accounts, 240, 250 or 275 pounds. He was a large man when the average man stood 5’7 inches. His father considered him to be “wayward.” Yet, he was close to his mother.

He served as a lieutenant in the Mexican War and found he had a taste for war. After the Mexican War ended, he came to New Orleans, finished his law studies and was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1848. From New Orleans, he joined various filibustering expeditions in Cuba, Mexico and Nicaragua. Filibustering has a negative connotation, today. But, in its day, it was seen as an outgrowth of the Manifest Destiny so prevalent at the time.

He was serving with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Red Shirts in Italy when the U.S. Civil War broke out. He came back to New Orleans to serve his country. After raising men for filibustering expeditions, he knew how to raise a unit for the Confederate army. He raised a Battalion – about 500 men – most of whom were loyal to him personally.

The Special Battalion participated in the First Battle of Manassas where Wheat was shot in the lung. During the battle, a South Carolina unit accidentally fired on the Special Battalion. The Tigers deliberately took aim and fired back. As one South Carolina soldier would later say, “They were the worst men I ever saw.”

Maj. Wheat recovered from his wound. In December, 1861, two members of his Battalion were found guilty of violating an article of war and were sentenced to be shot. Maj. Wheat asked they be spared. His request was denied. As the two men were being executed, Maj. Wheat sat in his tent crying.

In 1862, he was serving under Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. He had a strange belief that he would be killed. He asked his men to bury him where he fell. And, indeed, at the Battle of Gaines Mill, he was killed.

Maj. Wheat, the great soldier and filibusterer, was also adored by one school girl in New Orleans. Robert Wheat was a family friend of the Solomon Solomon family in New Orleans. Solomon Solomon was a merchant in New Orleans and a friend of Wheat. Clara Solomon kept a diary. At the age of 17, she and her family visited Camp Moore, Louisiana, a camp near Baton Rouge used by the growing Confederate army. In early1861, before the Special Battalion would ship out to Virginia, she was thrilled to visit her hero. She was excited to see the “dear Major.” The Major was very busy and she was distressed at not seeing him, perhaps a little offended. Then on the grounds of the camp, she heard his booming voice, “Where are the Miss Solomons?” referring to Clara and her sister. She was thrilled. Throughout her diary, she mentions him, hoping he is safe. When he is killed, she is inconsolable. Referring to Maj. Wheat and a second unidentified soldier, she said, “Two young men cut down in the prime of their lives! Oh! Robert! That noble governing heart stilled forever!”

When she heard he had been wounded, she described him as genial, warm-hearted, jolly, generous, affectionate and universally beloved. She admired him. She and her sister, Alice, cried in unison upon hearing of his possibly mortal wound.

The Solomons were not wealthy. They were solidly middle class before the war. This mercenary and soldier had many honors in his brief life. But, we expect few honors meant as much to him as being a hero to two young Jewish, schoolgirls.

Phillip Thomas Tucker, Irish Confederates (Abilene, Texas: McWhiney Foundation, McMurray Univ. 2006), p. 30

James P. Gannon, Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers (DeCapo Press 1998), p. xiii.

My New Orleans,, accessed Oct. 12, 2018

Elliott Ashkenazi , ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1995), p. 22, 32, 433.