So, how was it for Irish immigrants who joined the Union army? It was difficult for some of them to join the Union army because it was ultimately controlled by former members of the Know Nothing party and Protestants. We find some clues about Irish sentiment from a letter written in 1863. Christopher Byrne was younger brother to one famous Irishman, “Blind” Patrick Byrne, said to have been the last of the great Irish harpers.
A Horde of Fanatics
Christopher expressed pride in his brother’s fame. He expressed regret that their family was now scattered all over the world. Christopher joined the Union army, but had his regrets. Writing from Minnesota, he described the state of Northern politics. He described the Union leadership as a “Horde of Fanatics” – likely referring to the ardent abolitionists – who would rather “rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” “When they are not interfering with the rights of foreigners or proscribing Religious Denominations, they are Speech Making in favour of Abolition.” Here, Christopher is clearly referring to what was then overt discrimination against immigrants and especially against Irish Catholic immigrants. The abolitionists often based their views on religion. Of course, now we know the abolitionists chose the moral side of the issue. But, it appears the abolitionists also reminded at least one Irish immigrant of the evangelical Protestants in Ireland.
Cristtopher discusses slavery several times in the letter. Yet, he never addresses the morality of slavery. Instead, he insists the Northern U.S. had no business in meddling in the business of the South. He adds, writing in 1863, that the North can prevail in the war only if it guarantees the South’s autonomy in the matter of slavery.
He rose to Sergeant by the end of the war. Yet, he admits in the letter he enlisted only because “the excitement of the time and the misrule of the administration has forced me and thousands like me into it.”
He describes the civil war in 1863 as one for which “Magnitude has no parallel on record.” Coming from an Irishman in 1863, that does suggest a great rebellion indeed.
See “Irishman’s Diary about the American Civil War”in the Irish Times, Sept. 6, 2017 here.