The Passengers of the Ship, Challenger

Some unspecified number of passengers – men, women and children – from the ship Challenger shivered on the New Orleans levee from Saturday afternoon through Sunday night when J.C. Prendergast happened upon them. They were the tenants of the Viscount Clifden, of County Kilkenny. He paid for their passage to New Orleans. He told them food would be proved on the voyage. So, the passengers spent their meager funds on clothing, not on food. They starved during the two month voyage. Steerage passengers are supposed to provide their own food. The good Lord – Lord Clifden was one of the better landlords – was wrong about the food.

But for some humane New Orleanians, they would have continued to starve upon their arrival in the new world. Edward White provided them with seven dollars worth of bread, which they consumed ravenously. “Notorious” women from the ball rooms came to aid the young women of the Challenger early Sunday morning. Such was the arrival of more Irish immigrants. Most tried to arrive before winter. These immigrants did not.

New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Feb. 26, 1849, p. 2, col. 1

Know Nothing Violence in New Orleans

Political violence, unfortunately, is not new in America. In the 1850’s, political violence was far too common.

Know Nothings

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.

New Orleans

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.

Irish v. Irish

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.

Violence Increases

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 New Orleans 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.

Know Nothings Win

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.

Irish Immigrants 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. The two principal immigrants groups in the 1850’s was the Germans and the Irish.

The Germans would often pass through New Orleans onto greener pastures. But, the Irish tended to stay in New Orleans. One historian commented that by 1850, 20% of the New Orleans population was Irish. The next largest immigrant group was the Germans, who comprised 10% of the City.

In the 1840’s and 1850’s New Orleans was a booming city. It was said by one visitor that in 1842-1843, 2,000 rigged ships had called at the port that year. Another visitor noted that 1500 flat boats and keel boats would float down the Mississippi every year.

In a boomtown, the Irish found work digging canals. In a bayou and swamp area, there was always need for new canals. The Irish also came to dominate more lucrative areas. They became a large part of the screwmen work force. The screwmen were those workers who screwed down the cotton bales, making them tighter and tighter, so as to take up as little space as possible on the ships and boats. It was considered skilled labor in the 1850’s and it paid well. The screwmen formed the first labor union in 1847. Many officers of the Screwman’s Benevolent Organization had Irish names.

Another lucrative job was the drayman. The draymen hauled goods from the wharves to the city proper. It was a job formerly held by the Negroes. But, the Irish quickly came to dominate the drayman trade. In that time “Negroes” included freed men and hired out slaves. The Irish drayman with his flashing whip and cursing tongue soon became a mark of the City.

The Irish also supplanted the Negro hack driver. With the need for sharp dress and polite manners, one would think the Irish started with a disadvantage. But, again by the 1850’s, the Irish dominated the hack business, as well. Visitors to the city would comment on the reckless driving and the outrageous Irish rogues of the cabmen.

The Irish even replaced the native Negroes as waiters. The manager of the prestigious St. Charles Hotel told one English visitor that the Irish excelled partly because they were so gallant with ladies. The Irish displayed great imagination at in praising feminine visitors.

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

Earl Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), pp. 46, 48-50.

Irish Immigrants in New Orleans

How many Irish immigrants were there in the South before the war? Precise figures are elusive. But, there are hints. The Irish were generally referred in the immigration records as having come from Great Britain. Arrivals generally peaked in the Spring or Fall, so as to avoid the Summer heat.  In the last quarter of 1845, there were 813 arrivals from Great Britain in the port of New Orleans. In late 1846, there were 1,519 arrivals from Britain in New Orleans. In the last quarter of 1847, known as “Black ‘47” – the worst year of the famine in Ireland, there were 3,621 arrivals from Great Britain. During the normally slow summer time, there were 5,856 arrivals from Great Britain in New Orleans.

In 1849, there were 7,272 passengers disembarking at New Orleans. By 1850, New Orleans was second only to New York for Irish arrivals.

In the 1840’s, Liverpool was the center of the cotton trade in Europe. On the return trip to America, the cotton ships would bring immigrants. The cheapest fare to the US was to New Orleans. So, it is not surprising that by 1850, there were some 24,000 Irish immigrants in Louisiana and some 28,000 by 1860. New Orleans had some 116,000 people in 1850 and 168,000 in 1860.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 26-27

The Know Nothing Party Represented the Worst of Protestantism for the Irish Immigrant

The Know Nothing movement was a major concern for the Irish immigrant in 1850’s America. That party combined the worst of the Irish experience with the Protestant faith. In 1850’s America, a large percentage of the immigrant population came to the United States within the prior 10 years. This population was scarred deeply by the Famine. These were early PTSD victims. They had seen hundreds of their neighbors, family and friends die a slow death due to starvation. In the midst of the greatest social calamity in Europe at the time, many landlords made it worse. Some of the English and Anglo-Irish landlords offered help, but only if the Irish Catholic would convert. After two centuries of religion based warfare and discrimination, that request resonated deeply with the Irish Catholics.

Since the 1690’s, the Irish parliament and the English and Anglo-Irish landlords had tried to curtail Catholics. The parliament issued new laws every few years restricting the Catholic faith. The Penal laws, as they are known, affected everything from the quality of a horse a Catholic could own to whether a Catholic could own land. Forget he right to vote. The Parliament issued bounties for priests and bishops. Mass was held in secret. Families were beaten and tied to trees and left to die if they refused to disclose the location of outdoor, secretive Masses. Even today, one can find throughout the countryside “Mass rocks” or hills where Mass was said outdoors in secret locations during the Penal times. The experience of the 1700’s when the Catholic faith was largely outlawed, endures to this day. See Cromwellian Settlement by John Prendergast here.

During the Penal times, if an English man took cattle from an Irish man, or if an English man beat the daughter of an Irish man, the Irish man could not seek remedy in court. He had no remedy. Britian’s overarching political goal was to eventually take land and property from every Irish person and give it to an English or Anglo-Irish person.

The Penal laws started after William of Orange defeated the Jacobite forces in 1691. The Penal laws followed just a few decades after the Cromwellian settlement of the 1650’s. Cromwell had defeated the Irish rebels in 1649. The “New Model Army” was a Puritan army. Oliver Cromwell was Puritan. The government that enforced the settlement of the 1650’s was Puritan. The Puritans hated Roman Catholicism. The Puritans were convinced that Catholics represented the devil incarnate. With the Cromwellian settlement of the 1650’s, many of the leading Catholic Irish families were forced to leave the country and were deprived of their land. The suffering was great and relentless. The Puritans showed little mercy.

So, it is not surprise that upon encountering the Know Nothing movement of the 1850’s. many Irish in the U.S. expected the worst. It was as if the Puritans of the 1650’s and the landlords of the 1840’s had combined into one relentless political party. As one émigré wrote back home to Ireland, if the nativist feeling continued as it was, “an Irishman will not get to live in this country.” By staying in Ireland, he warned, people would at least “be protected from murderers.” That is a strong statement from an immigrant. It was rare indeed for an immigrant to the U.S. to write back home and warn others not to follow him. So, it is not surprising that in 1861, the Irish immigrant will view the former Know Nothings, now Republicans with some suspicion.

David Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of N.C. Press 2001), p. 108.

Irish Immigrants Supported the Democrats

Throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s, the Irish immigrants in the South (and North) supported the Democratic party. The support was almost universal. Emblematic of that support was the newspaper editor, Doctor James Hagan of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Dr. Hagan was from Ireland and he fully embraced the anti-Whig fervor of the Democratic party. In an age when newspaper editors often used over-the-top language, Hagan stood out for his personal attacks on Whigs. He believed Whigism represented anti-nativism. Certainly, many Whig politicians of the day were opposed to immigrants.

Hagan and John C. Calhoun, the famous slavery senator, founded the Vicksburg Sentinel newspaper. In person, Hagan was mannerly and friendly. But, with a pen in his hand, his rhetoric was bitter toward the Whigs. One of the Democratic issues of the day in the 1840’s was a national bank. Democrats opposed the creation of a national bank. In Mississippi, the governor, Alexander McNutt withdrew the charter for the Union bank of Mississippi, due to corruption. For years, the issue raged regarding whether to pay on the bank’s bonds. McNutt opposed payment of the bonds. Dr. Hagan supported him.

In 1841, Hagan approached the editor of the Vicksburg Daily Whig, a Whig newspaper, at a Vicksburg street corner. Edmund Flagg was the editor of the Daily Whig. Flagg believed Hagan was armed and intended to kill him. The Irish editor denied the accusation, but took offense. He challenged Flagg to a duel. Hagan wounded Flagg in the ensuing duel. He wrote soon afterward that, “you should feel little compunction in visiting on the head of the degraded puppy the utmost of our wrath.” Mr. Hagan felt no sympathy for his wounded foe.

A year later, Dr. Hagan went after another well-known Whig politician, Seargeant S. Prentiss, a nationally renowned orator from Mississippi. He described the Whig politico as a “blackguard,” a “rowdy,” and as a “cowardly braggart.” The new Democratic governor in Mississippi, Tilghman Tucker, then almost got into a duel with Prentiss when Prentiss refused to disassociate himself from Hagan’s remarks.

Mr. Hagan regularly attacked the Whigs for holding nativist views. He encouraged immigrants to become naturalized as soon as possible. During the nineteenth century, immigrants to the U.S. were not required to become citizens. In time, his invective caught up with the fiery Irish immigrant. The son of one of his victims, D.W. Adams, physically attacked Dr. Hagan on a Vicksburg street in 1843. They wrestled. Hagan had the young man by the throat. Adams drew his pistol and shot the editor. Hagan died instantly. Tried later, the young Adams was acquitted. The Vicksburg community collected money to erect a monument in Hagan’s honor. But, there is no record of the monument ever being built.

Both parties, the Whigs and the Democrats supported slavery in varying degrees. The Whig party would fold quickly in 1854, to be replaced by the new American (Know Nothing) party. And, still, both parties would support slavery in varying degrees. The Democratic party was supported throughout the South, up to and including 1861. The working man did generally support the Democrats. While the planter class universally supported the Whigs all across the South.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 2001), pp. 97-98.


Irish Immigrants Mixed About Slavery

The Irish immigrants in the South wrote letters home. Some of those letters are maintained at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. The PRNI is a wonderful resource for folks tracing their family. It is also a wonderful source of ante-bellum records. One such letter at PRONI was written by William Elderry of Lynchburg, Virginia. He wrote to his family in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim. In a letter dated May 31, 1854, he sought to justify slavery by referring to the Bible:

“The Bible recognizes slavery. The institution existed among the Jews in the

day of our savior, did he who continually reproach sin ever say anything against


He mentioned the well-know Irish editor, then in the North, John Mitchel, and commented:

“Sometime ago I subscribed to The Citizen, a paper published and edited by

John Mitchell in New York. The first charge I see brought against him for his

truculent defence of slavery. How little they know of what they are talking of,

coming from New York and defending slavery is very much like going to Rome

and fighting with the Pope. He has, of course, made himself unpopular with

northern people in the United States.”

John Mitchel was likely the famous John Mitchel who was one of the United Irishmen in 1848. He was sentenced by the English courts to transportation. He was sent to Australia., escaped and came to the U.S. He landed at San Francisco and then New York City. During the Civil War, he edited a newspaper in Richmond, Virginia, supporting the South.

Yet, another Irishman in the South, R. Campbell of Georgia wrote a letter to John Campbell of Belfast on Jan. 10, 1860. It was published in the state’s Daily Chronicle and Sentinel newspaper and was signed a Georgia “Patriot.” He strongly condemned slavery, saying it was unconstitutional and against the laws of man. “No freeman, whatever be his color, can be sold into slavery by the power of any human tribunal.” The South at the time was quite defensive about this “peculiar institution.” It is remarkable that someone, especially an Irish immigrant, would speak openly against slavery and that such a letter would be published in a Georgia newspaper. Perhaps, speaking against slavery in ante-bellum South was not as difficult as we might think today.

Brett Irwin, “Irish Voices from the American Civil War,” History Ireland, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec, 2015), vol. 23.