Irish Militias In New Orleans

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the port of New Orleans was the second busiest port in the country. It was the fourth busiest port in the world. The influx of Irish immigrants into the Crescent City was second only to that of New York. 20,000 immigrants entered New Orleans in 1855 alone. A very large percentage of those immigrants were from Ireland. Having come from a country deeply divided over religion, the Irish gravitated to the churches. They also joined groups. One of those groups was the militias.

The leading militias in New Orleans were closed to the Irish. So, the Irish quickly formed their own militias. The Montgomery Guards was the best known.  In the ante-bellum time, militias were as much a social organization as martial organization. The Montgomery Guards were first organized in the mid- 1830’s. Their first captain was Sean O’Callaghan. Richard Hagan was the first lieutenant, John Christie was the second lieutenant, and Nicholas Sinnott, Jr. was the third lieutenant. This militia honored Gen. Ricard Montgomery of the Revolutionary War. Gen. Montgomery, a native born Irishman, captured Montreal and lead the assault on Quebec. Gen. Montgomery was killed in that assault.

The Montgomery Guards were not working class. The cost of their uniforms was criticized as excessive. The cost alone limited membership. They held a magnificent military ball every year.

The Emmet Guards was the second most prominent Irish militia. They were organized in 1850. It was often compared unfavorably to the “expert and crack” Montgomery Guards. The Emmets looked good in their splendid uniforms, but were described as more dashing than military. That likely means they did not march well. They wore coats of a very bright green, pantaloons of bright blue, with a gold braid down the sides, a cape and plumes of green. This was another uniform which the average Irish immigrant could not afford. The members came from the Latin Creole part of town, known then as the First Municipality. The Emmet Guards also held a military ball each year. They combined the event with a fund-raiser for the Orphan Boys Asylum of the Third Municipality. The Third Municipality at the time was a working class section of New Orleans.

The Emmet Guards included some of the leading politicians in the city. Its first captain was Alderman McLaughlin. Its next captain was William J. Castell, a well known lawyer and notary in his day.

In addition to these two militias, there were some half dozen other Irish militias which existed more on paper than in reality. But, the Louisiana Greys did exist in reality and it did last for years. The Greys would join with the Emmet Guards for target practice and parades. One chief function for all the Irish militias was the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. In the 1850’s, St. Patrick’s Day started with Mass. Soon after Mass, the parades commenced and they would last for much of the day.

The Louisiana Greys were composed of members from the Second Municipality, an area that corresponds roughly with the area soon to be known as the Irish Channel. It was also the American section. The Greys were more middle class. The Greys established a special relief committee for victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1853 for residents of the Second Municipality. One of the early secretaries for the Greys was this author’s ancestor, George Price.

Other companies, the Irish Volunteers, the Hibernian Guards, the Irish Republican Volunteers, and the Mitchell Guards did not last long.

The Third Municipality never did develop its own militia company. The Montgomery Guards and the Emmet Guards would later become part of the First Louisiana Volunteers in the Civil War.

Laura D. Kelley, Erin’s Enterprise, Ph.d Dissertation 2004 (on file at Tulane Univ.), p. 50

Laura Kelly, The Irish in New Orleans (Lafayette: Univ. of L. at Lafayette Press 2014), p. 56.

Earl Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), pp. 112-116



The Winter of 1862-1863

The Confederate Army was chronically ill-equipped. It was still the second year of the war, yet the soldiers lacked basic necessities. After the Battle of Antietam and the invasion of Pennsylvania, William Monaghan assumed command of the Louisiana Sixth Regiment of Infantry. He was their fourth colonel. The Louisiana Sixth was known as the Irish Brigade, because it had so many Irish members. Out of a nominal strength of 664, by November, 1862, it had decreased to 289 soldiers ready for duty.

Many were barefoot or close to barefoot. They lacked shoes, blankets, coats and other clothing items. The boys, wrote one Louisiana soldier, were “shivering & huvering around their little chunk fires.” One soldier wrote that the entire army was basically shoeless. Capt. Ring, a company commander, wrote in a muster report that the health of his men was excellent, “conduct in the difficult engagements beyond all praise.” But, they were in want of blankets and shoes.

The winter of 1862-1863 in northern Virginia was particularly harsh. The men endured frequent, heavy snow falls. “Snow nearly knee deep, weather wet, cold and disagreeable,” wrote Capt. Michael O’Connor in his February muster report. Capt. O’Connor also complained about the slim rations for the men. Before the war, Capt. O’Connor was a store-keeper in New Orleans. Rations for the prior two weeks included one quarter pound of flour, one-quarter pound of bacon, three ounces of sugar, per man per day. This for men living outdoors and engaging in regular physical exercise. Yet, added the Captain, the men are in good health and in good spirits.

During the winter encampment, the Confederate and Union armies were separated by the Rappahannock River, some 100 yards wide. By mutual agreement, the opposing sentries did not shoot at each other, so long as the two armies remained static. Such was the winter of 1862-1863 in northern Virginia.

James Gannon, Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers (Iowa: Da Capo Press Press 1998), p. 144-148


Recruiting the Irish In New Orleans

Recruiting Irish soldiers was pretty simple in 1861 New Orleans. William Monaghan knew how to do it. He published an ad in the New Orleans Daily Picayune:

“The roll for the formation of Company B. Irish Brigade will be opened on Monday, the 29th ins[tant], at 10:00 o’clock A.M. at the Olive Branch Coffee House, corner Erato and Tchoupitoulas streets, the undersigned will be present every day and evening until the roll shall be filled up . . . prompt action is now expected of every Irishman in the present crisis.”

Daily Picayune, May 12, 1861. Capt. Monaghan’s choice may have been meant as humor, or perhaps it was simply good recruiting. The coffee house in those days served everything but coffee. They were drinking establishments, precursors to saloons. It has been said by some historians that many business deals were concluded at the nearest coffee house. Capt. Monaghan knew where to find his Irish recruits and where to close the deal.

Capt. Monaghan picked the right geographical location for the Irish dock workers and draymen. The corner of Erato and Tchoupitoulas was ground zero for the New Orleans docks. Capt. Monaghan knew where to find strong Irish men.

Before the war, Capt. Monaghan was a notary in the Crescent City. Notaries in early New Orleans operated under the civil law system. In the civil law system, notaries draft contracts and wills. They were educated and prominent. Capt. Monaghan would eventually become commander of the Sixth Louisiana Regiment, known as the South’s Irish Brigade.

The same day on which Monaghan’s ad appeared, a separate ad appeared in the same newspaper announcing that “Company A, Irish Brigade,” would drill that evening. The notice was signed by S.L. James, Captain. Capt. James would later be elected major of the Sixth Louisiana Brigade the next month.

Laura Kelly, The Irish in New Orleans (Lafayette: Univ. of L. at Lafayette Press 2014), p. 56.

James P. Gannon, Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers (Iowa: De Capo Press 1998), pp. ix, xii

When They Can’t Be Fired

It is an understatement to say that slavery was inhumane. But, when we read diaries or letters from our Southern ancestors, one cannot help but notice their complete ignorance about race. I know that is to be expected to some degree. Science was so new and raw in the 1860’s. Educated people truly believed some races were inferior in some scientific way.

We read diaries like Clara Solomon’s wonderful diary and we are just amazed at their ignorance. The Solomon family had one domestic slave, Lucy. The Solomons lived in New Orleans, which treated slaves much better than in the rural parishes. Clara is only 17 years old, so we expect she was reflecting the sentiments of her parents. Her father, Solomon Solomon was in Virginia. But, Clara talks several times in her diary about how duplicitous and dishonest Lucy was at times. Yet, Lucy was loyal. She stayed with the family even after emancipation.

In one passage, Clara talks about Lucy engaging in numerous unwarranted falsehoods. Clara is simply reflecting her mother’s angst, I am sure. But, it is clear the Solomons have no real leverage. In a modern employment relationship, an employer can deduct pay, issue written warnings, or demote a worker who engages in “unwarranted” falsehoods. But, slavery was nothing like a modern employment relationship. When you have taken someone’s complete liberty, what else is there?

In the slave narratives, we see the same effect. Essentially, these former slaves report that their masters had two courses of action for mis-behaving slaves: whipping or selling them. Which was worse? To whip a man or woman until s/he was bloody, or sell him or her away from his/her home? Both courses of action engage in some level of cruelty. See the slave narratives here.

What could the Solomons do other than complain about Lucy? The Solomons were a nice, middle class family. If they would not whip or sell, there was little else they could do.

Elliott Ashkenazi, ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1995, p. 144

Why Would the Irish Fight for the South?

The Irish immigrant enlisted in the Confederate army in droves. Throughout the South, they joined their American neighbors. Why would they bother? In the North, a non-citizen was not required to serve. In the South, non-citizens were not expected to enlist. Although, there was substantial pressure especially later in the war to enlist. So, if the Irish immigrant could avoid service, why bother?

Pat Cleburne, a native of County Cork, rose to Major General in the Confederate army before he was killed at the Battle of Franklin in 1864. He was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1828. He became a very popular division commander in an army with many well-respected division commanders. In May, 1861, in the earliest days of the war, he wrote to his brother regarding his opinion of the upcoming war:

                  “I believe the North is about to wage a brutal and unholy war on a people who   have done them no wrong, in violation of the government. They no longer acknowledge that all government derives its validity from the consent of the governed. They are about to invade our peaceful homes, destroy our property, and inaugurate a servile insurrection, murder our men and dishonor our women. We propose no invasion of the North, no attack on them, and only ask to be left alone. They cannot conquer us but would turn the wolf from their own door by letting this idle, brutal mob come here to be destroyed. . . . Our army is for protection. Lincoln’s to subjugate and enslave the whole Southern people and divide the property among his vulgar unprincipled mob.”

A lawyer in Arkansas, still on the edge of the frontier, Mr. Cleburne set forth the views of the average Southerner well. The remarkable thing, perhaps, is that so many immigrants came to the South and also felt that siege mentality so quickly. The thing about the ante-bellum South that most folks overlook is that defensiveness or siege mentality so many felt at the time. The South had been attacked by abolitionists for decades by 1861. They were defensive.

Maj-Gen. Cleburne reflects that defensiveness. But, he makes a salient point. The North invaded the South, not the reverse. His views that early in the war were prescient. See more about Maj-Gen Cleburne here.

Laura Kelly, The Irish in New Orleans (Lafayette: Univ. of L. at Lafayette Press 2014), p. 58.