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.

Some Irish Immigrants Tolerated Slavery

So, what did the Irish immigrants to the Southern U.S. think about slavery? We know from numerous sources that many Irish laborers saw themselves as competing against slaves and free African-Americans. Most immigrants were not “fire-eaters” – that is, they were not ardent secessionists. Some wealthier Irish did purchase slaves. This author’s own Irish immigrant ancestor owned a slave for a few years. Even the well-respected Father Mullon in New Orleans owned two slaves. Father Mullon was pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in New Orleans and helped face down the Know Nothings. He was said to be a friend to Jews and Protestants in a time when that was a rare quality.

Some immigrants wrote home about slavery. At about the same time that the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, was publicly criticizing the “peculiar institution,” Irish in the Southern U.S. were distancing themselves him. Maria McLaughlin wrote to her Irish brother in Savannah, Georgia criticizing him for questioning Daniel O’Connell’s right to criticize slavery. Maria believed the Great Liberator was right to question the “enemies of liberty.” But, her brother worked as a clerk for men involved in the slave and cotton business.

William McElderry and his brother, Robert, Irish immigrants and now living in the South defended their new home against criticisms by their sister back In Ireland. They insisted the black slaves were contented. William added that the slaves were well dressed and often have money of their own. William said he had seen some slaves who had been whipped, but, he assured his sister, they “deserved it.”

Moses Paul, also writing home to his sister in Ireland, took offense at his sister’s charge that they were “savages” for owning slaves. Mr. Paul admitted many Southerners owned slaves, so they could earn money. But, he insisted the slaves were contented and lived better than the poor back in Ireland. He did point out that unlike the Irish landlord, no slave owner would ever deliberately starve his slaves.

Dennis Corcoran, a New Orleans newspaper man, wrote Daniel O’Connell on behalf of the New Orleans Repeal Association that any attempt to subvert slavery now, as the abolitionists contemplate, would start a civil war. Mr. Corcoran argued that Mr. O’Connell’s advocacy against slavery was hurting the Irish immigrants. He pointed out that the Louisiana Native American Association (a society that advocated more stringent requirements for naturalization and which opposed immigrants) used O’Connell’s advocacy to attack all New Orleans Irish immigrants. The newspaperman pointed out that the slave-owning Southerners had accepted Irish immigrants and that acceptance should not be jeopardized.

Daniel O’Connell accepted funds from the Southern Repeal Associations. But, many Irish in the South abandoned O’Connell’s Repeal Association because of his opposition to slavery. The Charleston Repeal Association closed due to O’Connell’s advocacy.

It is ironic that the Irish, often accused of being racially inferior, would themselves see the black man as racially inferior. But, such was the tenor of the times.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of N.C. Press 2001), pp. 121, 122, 126, 129, 130

Union and Confederate Soldiers Were Motivated (Mostly) by Patriotism

Many folks are fussing about why the Confederate soldiers served. As a veteran, I find it hard to believe they would endure sickness, poor equipment and starvation simply for material gain. As harsh as it is to say, slaves represented material possession, an investment. The popular perception among some folks today is that most or all Confederate soldiers served to protect their economy or “way of life.” Surely, protecting economic interests motivated some Southerners. But, how many would endure wearing rags for shoes in winter merely to protect economic investment or a “way of life”?

In For Cause and Comrade, by James McPherson (New York: Oxford Univ. Press 1997), Dr. McPherson looked at the motivations of both the Union and Confederate soldiers. We cannot survey soldiers from 150 years ago. But, Dr. McPherson did the next best thing. He looked at personal letters and diaries of both Union and Confederate soldiers to ask the fundamental question, what motivated them to join, and then to stay in military service during very harsh circumstances.

Dr. McPherson reviewed the personal letters and diaries of some 400 Confederate soldiers. He looked at the contemporary correspondence and diaries of some 647 Union soldiers and 429 Confederate soldiers. In his career, he explains that having looked at perhaps 25,000 such records, he believed this was a representative sample. For Cause, p. viii. Dr. McPherson is a well known Civil War historian.

As a combat veteran I can attest that the willingness to endure hardship and danger is not an easy choice. As Dr. McPherson mentions, once the choice is first made, the typical combat soldier is forced to re-examine his choice at least two more times, once after his first battle and then again when he re-enlists. So, the average Confederate soldier had to choose to risk his life and the lives of his family (because life in a rural society without the men was extremely hard) twice, when he first enlisted and after his first combat. Re-enlisting was not an option for most Southern soldiers. Most Confederate soldiers enlisted for the duration of the war.

According to Dr. McPherson’s study, 57% of Confederate soldiers espoused patriotic sentiment for serving. That is, their service was motivated by a sense of patriotism. For Cause, p. 102. Compare that to 61% of Union soldiers who mentioned a sense of patriotism as motivation for their service. Ibid.

Some 20% of Confederate service members espoused slavery as motivation for their service. For Cause, p. 110. Opinion among Union soldiers changed over time. Through the Spring of 1863, 36% expressed sentiment favoring emancipation as a motive for the war. While, 16% expressed the opposite feeling, that the war should not seek emancipation as an end-state. For Cause and Comrade, p. 123. Dr. McPherson posits that likely, if all soldiers had been polled at the time, about one-half would have favored emancipation as a war aim, while 25% would have opposed and 25% had no opinion. In any event, those sentiments changed in 1863.

In the Northern U.S., the peace Democrats (known as “Copperheads”), started to publicly target the Emancipation Proclamation. That caused some soldiers to express sentiments opposing the Northern peace Democrats. And, soldiers began to see emancipation as another weapon against the Confederacy. The Union soldiers started seeing emancipation as something that caused harm to the Southern cause. For Cause and Comrade, p. 125. Too, some white Union soldiers noticed the obvious, if a Negro soldier could stop a bullet that might otherwise be aimed at white Northerner, then that would be a good thing.

In Rebel Yell, by S.C. Gwynne (New York: Scribner 2014), he describes the motivations of the Confederate soldiers as they fought to “repel the Northern aggressors from their homeland” Rebel Yell, at p. 30 (emphasis in the original). Mr. Gwynne also describes that as the simple motive for Gen. Thomas Jackson when he enlisted in the Virginia militia and later the Confederate army, to repel the Northern aggressor.

Many Southerners fought to avoid enslavement by the North. They believed the North sought to subjugate the South in some way. For Cause, p. 21. Many enlisted to defend their home from the invading Yankees. For Cause, at p. 22.

John Mitchel, the Irish rebel and editor for a time of two Richmond newspapers during the war, insisted the North was seeking to subjugate the South as Great Britain had subjugated Ireland. The Republicans, after all, were the heirs of the remnants of the Know Nothing Party. Most Irish suspected the Republican party of harboring anti-Irish and anti-immigrant sentiment at the time.

On May 18, 1865, one 1LT A.R. Mumford went to the home of my ancestor’s aunt in New Orleans. He went to the John Agar home. John’s wife was Theresa, sister to Anastasia Price. Anastasia was the mother of George Price Crane. Anastasia was married to Martin Creane/Crane and later married Cyrus Chism.

Entertained by the ladies, likely including Anastasia, the lieutenant spoke the words all veterans would like to utter when s/he first returns home, “we could not have received a warmer reception. . . . The New Orleans ladies shall long be remembered for their devoted patriotism.” My great-great-grandfather likely met his future wife that day. The lieutenant on his first day back home did not discuss slavery or economic gains and losses. He discussed patriotism. His thoughts were recorded in his diary, not in some polemic destined for a newspaper. One assumes he spoke his true thoughts to his private diary.

We cannot discount the myth of the “Lost Cause.” Certainly, many Southerners whined about the loss of the Civil war in ways that were not productive. But, just as certain, many soldiers served simply because they saw it as their duty.

Irish Life in Ante-Bellum New Orleans

We know the Irish immigrants endured harassment and worse in New Orleans during the 1850’s. The Know Nothings achieved a great deal of influence in New Orleans during the ante-bellum years. In 1854, the American Party (aka Know Nothing party) killed two Irish men during harassment. The harassment was intended to suppress the Irish vote. The Irish generally supported the Democratic party. As the Whig party faded away, the American party succeeded to much of its ideology, but more so. In the 1854 election, the Know Nothing party gained control of City Hall. They forced out the Irish members of the police force. In 1856, violence erupted again and again, the American party candidate won City Hall.

But, how did the “average” New Orleanian feel toward the Irish? My family was part of the Irish community. No horror stories were passed down. But, does that mean some Irish avoided the bias? In her diary, Clara Solomon makes passing references to Irish New Orleanians. Her family was Middle class or upper middle class. Her father was Solomon Solomon, a merchant. The family also happened to be Jewish.

Mr. Solomon did not much care for the Irish. Yet, the family employed an Irish domestic, Ellen Deegan. They also had a domestic slave, Lucy. The family generally seemed fond of Ellen. Clara would complain when Ellen could not come to work, which occurred with some frequency.

When Mary, an Irish domestic for the Nathan family quit, Clara commented that her “thousand and one” aunts, uncles, and cousins desired her services at home. Clara was annoyed. She commented that Irish families tended to be large. She said the problem with Irish domestics was they tended to have “such a quantity of relations.” The Nathan family and the Solomon family lived close to each other and often visited with each other. Clara said she would miss Mary. Mary was an “estimable” girl, said the 17 year old.

Clara was engaging in some stereotyping. But, her comment actually rings true with my New Orleans, Irish ancestors. Four Price sisters all Irish, all married and all had children. It is remarkable that the four couples and their children did everything together. Two first cousins served in the same artillery regiment during the war. After the Civil War, if one cousin participated in some charity fund-raiser, there would always be another one or two other cousins also helping with the same fund-raiser.

The four families generally attended the same churches and the same schools. They always sponsored each other’s children in baptism. They even lived close to each other. Two sisters lived next door to each other. It was truly a community within a larger community.

In 1861, Solomon Solomon lost his temper, or almost so with the milk man. He was, said Clara, easily provoked when it came to Irishmen. The milk man gave Mr. Solomon too much change for a dollar. The father told him to leave. The Irish milk man said he would leave when he felt like it (emphasis Clara’s). As Clara said, that was impertinent. It was the Solomon house, not some public square. But, we can imagine how any Irish immigrant would feel when a landowner gets bossy. Most Irishmen would indeed push back. Mr. Solomon then ran inside the house. Clara thought he was going after his pistol. But, no, it was only to get his fire poker. Clara did not explain how this resolved itself, but she joins in. She said if she knew he was going after his poker, and not his pistol, she would have helped him. And, that was life for Irishmen in ante-bellum New Orleans.

Elliott Ashkenazi, ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1995), p. 53, 287.

There is No Sunday Here

So, what did the Irish think when they first arrived in the American South? Many were appalled that the American Catholics did not keep the Sabbath, at least not the way it was observed back home. One Irish immigrant wrote home that “there is no Sunday here.” He acknowledged that the churches were open and held Mass, but also open for business was the circus, the theater, the cockpits and the gaming houses. He added that more business was conducted on Sunday than on any other day.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 2001), p. 82.


Retribution for the Rebels

The victors were extreme in their desire to punish the losing side in a protracted civil war. They were determined to seize land from the losers and award it to soldiers who served in the victorious army. One moderate voice, Vincent Gookin, however, cautioned moderation. Total revenge would harm the economy. Mr. Gookin argued that allowances should be made for those who simply followed the leaders and the higher-born who helped start the civil war. No, this was not Reconstruction in the United States. It was the days and months after the end of the rebellion in Ireland that ended in 1653. The Irish Gaelic and old English forces fought for their freedom. They had been oppressed by the English for decades prior to 1641. The uprising started about the same time in several locales throughout Ireland.

There were always tension between the Irish Catholics and the Protestants. But, those tensions rose to fever pitch when the Puritans seized control of the Parliament and executed King Charles I in 1649. Vincent Gookin was a prominent Protestant in Ireland who fled to England during the long war. When the wars ended, he returned to Ireland and preached a more moderate punishment of the Irish Catholics and Old English Catholics. The Puritan radicals wanted to force all the Irish Catholics out of eastern Ireland into Connaught, the western most province. Mr. Gookin lived in Ireland. Most of the Puritans lived in England. The Puritans relied on stereotypes of the worst sort about the Catholics, convinced they were evil marauders.

As the wars wound down in Ireland, the Tories fought effectively throughout the island. “Tory” derived from the Irish word, toraigh, meaning to hunt or pursue. Bands of former soldiers roamed the countryside making war generally on the Parliament forces and sometimes on Protestant civilians. The Tories operated in large numbers, regiments of 1500 soldiers or more. Lacking artillery or siege craft, they could not assault large garrisons or towns. But, they were exceedingly effective. The Puritan response to the Tories was often collective punishment. The commanders would order entire populations into specific corralled areas in a county. Anyone (meaning any civilian) found outside of those reservations was to be “taken, slain and destroyed.” Echoing tactics which would be used in the Boer war in the 1890’s, the Puritan commanders would make war on the Catholic civilians.

Or, the Parliament forces would fine the residents of a barony for failing to warn the Protestant commanders about a Tory raid or attack.

The Puritan commanders imposed passage requirements. To enter or leave a town required a pass from the local Parliament force commander. During Reconstruction in the United States, Union commanders also imposed similar travel restrictions. The Puritans dictated that anyone found without a pass would be given no quarter. The wars of the 1640’s and 1650’s were vicious and brutal. Both sides committed atrocities. The rules of war were well developed by then in the Continental wars. But, in Ireland, both sides, especially the Parliament forces disregarded the fundamental principles of a rule based war. Oliver Cromwell to this day is reviled in Ireland for massacring defenseless towns after they surrendered to him.

Drogheda was the first such town he massacred. Cromwell was a skilled colonel of cavalry during the English civil war. By the time he entered the Irish version of the civil war in 1649, he was the trusted, mostly unbeatable army commander of the Puritan forces. He was also a true believer. He was convinced that the Papists, as he referred to the Catholics, were the devil incarnate. In the 1650’s, in the European wars, it was accepted that if a garrison surrendered without an agreement, the defenders could be executed. The decision to execute was up to the local commander. It was also a recognized principle of war that unarmed civilians would not be killed. But, In Ireland, those rules were often ignored. Gen. Cromwell believed he was acting for God when Drogheda surrendered without an agreement. The force defending Drogheda was an Irish Catholic regiment who were fighting in the name of King Charles I. Many of the leaders of the defenders escaped from the town before the Parliament forces could enter. The entire town was not killed. But, hundreds of non-combatant Irish Catholic residents of the town were killed by Cromwell’s men. Numerous Protestant residents were also killed.

A few weeks later, Cromwell did the same thing at Wexford town, killing after the surrender, all the men, women, children of the town “to a very few.” After Drogheda and Wexford, many towns would surrender, but they would always secure an agreement first. But, Gen. Cromwell had made it clear this Irish war would end soon, and it would end bloody. The last royalist army to surrender was in October, 1652 at Limerick city. This was the last “publicly entertained” army in the field. The Tories, however, continued.

The Tories operated throughout the otherwise Parliament controlled areas near Dublin. The last Tory unit of any size surrendered in October, 1653. Galway town secured an agreement for surrender. But, after the wars had ended the Parliament would disregard that agreement and seize the property held by Catholics, forcing many residents out into the country side. In 1660, when Puritans would lose their power and King Charles II would assume the throne, the English government would still seek retribution on the Tories and all soldiers who operated secretly or not “publicly entertained.”

When Oliver Cromwell left the island in late 1649, much of the hard work had been done. The ”Great Protector” had vanquished the largest armies in the field. And, the bitterness among Irish Catholics ran deep. In 1997, Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, paid a call to the new British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. But, Mr. Aherns stopped as soon as he entered the office. He saw a large painting of Oliver Cromwell on the wall of Mr. Cook’s office. The Irish prime minister refused to enter that office while thatpainting hung on the wall.

That is how most civil wars end. The bitterness and anger ran deep and wide. The United States civil war was different. Yes, the Radical Republicans wanted revenge. They believed the Southern fire-eaters had started the war. As with the Irish civil war, there were Republican moderates who simply wanted to bring the country back together. Andrew Johnson was largely impeached because he advocated a moderate course for Reconstruction. The Irish soldiers on both sides, Union and Confederate, knew their history. They all recalled Oliver Cromwell and his atrocities.

To this day, Oliver Cromwell is easily the most reviled name in Irish history. We are fortunate that our civil war truly did end when the last Confederate army surrendered. Oliver died in 1658. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Soon after his death, the Puritans lost power. Oliver’s body was dug up, tried for treason, and executed, even though he had long been dead. Even in England, many hated the man. For more about Oliver Cromwell from the Irish perspective, see this piece.

Michael O’Siochru, God’s Executioner (London: Bloomsbury House 2008), pp. 1, 195-200, 210-211, 240-241.