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