Southern Support for the Irish

Early in the Famine, Southern cities offered aid to the starving Irish. Natchez, Mississippi, a busy river port, had a thriving Irish population. The Natchez Mississippi Free Trader first reported on the Famine on Feb. 17, 1847. The newspaper called on its readers to provide aid for the “starving Irish.” Natchez citizens met on Feb. 20 at the Mansion House hotel and agreed to set up a committee to collect money. Leading citizens proclaimed that the free land of America was watered by the blood of Ireland’s sons. One Samuel Cartwright denied the Irish were against “our Southern institutions” (i.e., slavery). He called on the city to contribute, so as to pay a debt owed to Ireland. A local planter, John B. Nevitt, agreed.

Within a few weeks, what had been a Natchez committee became a regional committee across several counties. By March 17, the committee had raised $1,300 for the Irish. That amount included several donations by Protestant churches.

The folks in Jackson, Mississippi followed soon after with their own collection efforts. They raised $444.50 which they sent to New Orleans. The Jackson committee expected another $100 within a week from Vicksburg and Woodville.

Sergeant S. Prentis, a leading politician in Mississippi and a Whig, took up the cause. In New Orleans, the “Whig Orator of the Old South” made one of his greatest speeches in calling on Americans to aid the Emerald Isle.

This support would continue until the Famine Irish started arriving on America’s shores. At that point, the worst stereotypes of the Irish began to predominate.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 102- 104.

The Irish Voting Block

The early Irish hooked themselves to the Democratic party. The alternative was the Whig party. But, American Whigs were not a real option. They generally held nativist sentiment. And, of course, back home in Ireland, the Whigs were the landlords. Later, during the Famine, the Whig party was the British party that took little to no action in response to the famine. So, when the Irish arrived in the US, the Democrats welcomed the Irish immigrants. Unlike the German immigrants, the Irish spoke English. They could negotiate the electoral process.

Only naturalized citizens could vote. The Irish were willing to become naturalized, so they could vote. And, the Irish voters tended to vote in a bloc. They understood how to navigate the democratic system. In the old country, the rural Irish had a strong tradition of organizing quietly, secretly. In the 1840’s, an immigrant could become a naturalized citizen after residing in the U.S. for a number of years. Theirs was a minority bloc, but it was one that could tip an election. In 1853, they helped the Democrats elect the mayor in New Orleans. A few Irish candidates were elected across the South, but mostly it was the Irish voting bloc that made a difference. The Irish workers then often received public jobs and contracts.

So, in some ways, the Irish in the South fared better than their brothers and sisters in the North. Joe Gleeson was an ex-policeman in Charleston. He invited his father in the North to come down to Charleston, instead of “perishing” in the North. Joe assured his father that he, Joe could return to his job as policeman after his father assumes Joe’s current job. Joe could get a job as a policeman “any time,” he assured his father.

Perhaps because of the Democratic party support for slavery, the Native American Association (not American Indian) found little support in the South. In Boston and Philadelphia, the nativists openly attacked the Irish community. No such large scale attacks occurred in the South. In 1844, anti-Irish riots lasted three days in Philadelphia before the militia was called in to restore order. Evangelical preachers had claimed, incorrectly, that the Irish were seeking to ban the Bible from public schools. St. Augustine’s Catholic Church was burned to the ground. No such large scale attacks occurred in Southern cities.

See more about the anti-Irish riots of 1844 here.

A Young Jefferson Davis was newly elected Democratic Congressman from Mississippi in 1845. Assuming office, he promptly castigated the nativists in Congress for their “sordid character [and] arrogant assumptions.” He argued that instead of restricting naturalization, laws should be passed making naturalization easier. And, in general, many Southern newspapers were sympathetic to Ireland’s cause.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 100-102.

Robert E. Lee Finances

Robert E. Lee had to live down many aspects of his father. One area was surely finances. Light Horse Harry Lee ended up in debtor’s prison and was universally regarded as a wastrel. The son, Robert, did indeed do better than the father in regard to his finances. As an Army officer, his salary was not great, but it was sufficient. In 1841, he was paid $1,817 for the year. At the time, that was a good salary, but far from wealthy.

Robert did inherit some slaves from his mother. But, as an Army officer, running a farm or plantation, even if he could afford one, was out of the question. He sold his slaves. He probably rented out a few of the enslaved persons. Still the income to be derived from these “assets” was quite limited.

What he did do was live frugally and invest well. When he was posted near Arlington, he  could live at home. But, generally, he was posted in places with no military quarters. He rented a room in Brooklyn, New York for $300 per year. In the 1830’s, he bought stock in two Virginia banks. After the Panic of 1837, he diversified. He invested in canal and railroad bonds. He purchased state bonds from Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky. He relied on investment advice from a friend in St. Louis. By 1846, his portfolio amounted to $38,750, which yielded about $2,000 in income per year. He owned or had a claim to a small piece of land. But, compared to his father, he had done very well with minimal inheritance. Seventeen years after graduating from West Point, he had sizeable assets.

By the end of 1861, many of Robert’s investments were in Northern city, state and railroad bonds. He wrote to his son, Custis that he would likely be a pauper by the end of the war. He knew his investments in northern institutions would surely be forfeit. And, he likely knew his investments in Southern assets would surely depreciate substantially.

And, he knew his wife would likely lose her ancestral home at Arlington. And, indeed, now we know that the former Arlington plantation is now the Arlington cemetery. Robert wrote her telling her Arlington was probably lost. Even by January, 1862, Arlington was occupied by Federal troops.

Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 108-109, 214-215.

The Irish Strike Back in New Orleans

In the 1858 city elections, the Irish combined with the French Creoles. Also joined by some former American party members, the three groups formed a “Vigilance Committee” of almost 50 people. They posted bills printed by John Maginnis, the Irish newspaper publisher of the True Delta. The bill informed New Orleanians that “After years of disorder, outrage, and unchecked assassination,” the committee was unwilling to “bow down in unresisting submission to a set of ruffians, or to abandon the city in which their business, their social sympathies and their affections cluster.” The committee recruited 500 men, mostly Irish, for the armed wing of the committee. They took over the state arsenal, obtained muskets and artillery pieces. They took over municipal buildings. They occupied Jackson Square in the heart of the French Creole section. They marched about the city in a show of strength.

The Know Nothings responded by forming their own armed vigilantes. The Know Nothings gathered in Lafayette Square in the American section of the city. It seemed certain that civil war would erupt. But, only three Irishmen and one German were injured, when they were fired upon by their own men when they returned to Jackson Square from a mission uptown. Cooler heads prevailed. The American party mayor, Gerald Stith, kept control of his group. The 1858 elections passed without excessive violence. The relative calm helped heal some of the ethnic divisions for the Irish. This election marked the end of violence by the nativists.

See more about the Vigilance Committee here.

In the 1860 election, the American party ran a stevedore, John T. Monroe who sought working class and Irish support. Soon the U.S. Civil War started and the Irish became a reliable partner in the war effort.

Earl Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), pp. 95-96.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 118-119.

Know Nothing Violence in the South

In the 1856 Presidential election, the Know Nothings nominated Millard Fillmore for President and Andrew Jackson Donelson, nephew to former Pres. Andrew Jackson. The ticket failed miserably. They won just one state, Maryland. From that election, the Know Nothings started to decline. Most Southerners voted for the Democrat, James J. Buchanan.

But, at the city level, the Know Nothings were winning mayoral elections in Richmond, Memphis, Mobile and New Orleans. In Mobile, a traditional Whig city, the Know Nothings embraced the anti-Catholic plank. But, in New Orleans, with a long tradition of Catholicism, they minimized the anti-Catholic fervor. Indeed, in New Orleans, many of the leading Know Nothings were French Creoles, ostensibly Catholic, but native born for generations.

In Mobile, some ruffians attacked a Jesuit priest who was returning from Spring Hill College, a Jesuit college, to Mobile. The Priest barely escaped with his life. The Sisters of Charity operated a hospital, as they did in many cities. The Mobile Know Nothings accused the sisters of advocating “sectarian principles” at the hospital by removing Protestant bibles and preventing Protestant ministers from praying with the sick. When the city council appointed new commissioners to the hospital, the sisters all resigned. The council also passed new ordinances appointing electoral inspectors who would regulate the foreign vote.

In New Orleans, with the largest Irish population, could be found the most virulent anti-Irish fervor. In March, 1854, persons opposed to French Creole and Irish influence formed an “Independent party.” In a largely Catholic City, the Independents accepted Catholicism, but focused on immigrants. Independent thugs clashed with City officials, and policemen, many of whom were Irish. Bloody fights would erupt when the Independents would challenge a vote. At one precinct in the Creole First Municipality (roughly equivalent to today’s French Quarter), they attacked several policemen, including the police chief, Stephen O’Leary. Chief O’Leary survived. But, two Irish policemen were killed.

In the First Municipality, of the 150 policemen, 98 were Irish born.

The Old Irish And the New

In New Orleans, there developed a distinction between the old Irish immigrants and the new. The newspaper publisher, J.C. Prendergast, was critical of the new immigrant. He saw in them a backward, extremely poor representative of the Emerald Isle. J.C. Prendergast was one of the “old” Irish immigrants. He lived in the working class area known as the Third Municipality district.

Orestes Brownson, the New England intellectual and writer, visited New Orleans in the 1850’s. He wrote several articles about the city. He generally praised the Irish immigrants. But, he described the poor Irish immigrants as hanging loosely on the skirts of the Irish as “a miserable rabble, unlike anything which the country has ever known of native growth – a noisy, drinking and brawling rabble.” The good Irish, said the writer, would support a radical, such as John Mitchel, if the radical was Irish. The Irish, he said, would not conceal their vices, but make them public.

Yet, some observers found the Irish to be hard-working and happy. They worked for the lowest wages, yet remained generally happy. That showed they lacked concern for material disadvantages, it was claimed. They were seen as dirty. The only water they valued was Holy Water.

Critics knew the Irish were susceptible to national flattery. Politicians, wrote Mr. Brownson, knew to appeal to Irish voters by praising Ireland. A related concern was the tendency of the Irish to find a national connection to any public person. Any person of public prominence had some Irish connection in Irish eyes, further exposing them to ridicule.

Shoot an Irishman

In the September, 1854 election, the violence was even worse. The Independents kept up a chatter all Summer. So, the Irish formed bands of patrols, seeking to protect St. Patrick’s Church and the nearby St. Mary’s Street market. Riots erupted which lasted ten days. The Independents saw themselves as “Regulators.” They would march about and shoot up Irish coffee houses (which actually sold everything but coffee). Their motto was “Shoot yourself an Irishman.”

In the 1854 election, the Know Nothings gained every city office, except the mayor’s office and three judicial posts. In response to this overwhelming victory, thousands then flocked to the now open banner of Know Nothingism.

Violent clashes broke out between the Irish and Know Nothings in the working class Third Municipality district. By the November, 1854 election, the Irish vote had been curtailed. In the 1855 election, the Know Nothings took control of the city council. After the 1854 and 1855 elections, the Know Nothings acquired control of the police force in New Orleans.

Landslide for the Know Nothings

In the June, 1856 election, the Know Nothings won in a landslide. Pro-American party newspapers crowed that the Irish were afraid to vote. “Thugging” became the order of the day. Know Nothings would attack without provocation. Even prominent citizens would be attacked. Dennis Corcoran, an Irish born journalist, was attacked as he left the St. Charles hotel. Fr. Mullon, the widely respected pastor at St. Patrick’s wrote a friend in Maryland that the health of the city was good, except it is an “abandoned” city. Know Nothings, nightly assassinations, blasphemous representations at theaters, all constituted the reality, said the Irish born priest.

In this way, the nativists came to dominate the police force and the “street scarpers.” Losing these public jobs was a blow to the Irish community. The Irish were also forced out of public schools and replaced by native teachers. In some districts, Irish children comprised half the enrollment. Parents complained their children were taunted as “Paddies” by the new teachers.

But, the worm would soon turn.  

Earl Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), pp. 89-94

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 113-115.