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Sunday, July 24, 2011

"Clear The Way" Irish Americans in the Civil War

There is no ethnic immigrant group more closely identified with the Civil War than the Irish Americans. More than 150,000 enlisted in the Union Army.
A large portion of the South was settled by Scottish-Irish immigrants earlier in the country’s history, but by the start of the war southern white populations were primarily native born. The practice of recognizing ethnic heritage was less important.
In the North, the centers of Irish immigration and settlement were New York and Boston. By the 1860 census over 1½ million Americans claimed to have been born in Ireland, most living in these northern cities. Life was difficult for Irish immigrants as they were frequently discriminated against. Out of hated and distrust of their Catholic heritage, the Irish were relegated to the lowest levels of employment, housing, and services.
As free black populations grew in northern cities and new immigrants from Europe arrived, the Irish found new competition for the few available jobs. Riots in New York City erupted in 1863. They were called the “Draft Riots” because many of the Irish objected to being drafted into an army that would be freeing even more blacks, who were seen as economic competitors. In spite of this, Irish Americans displayed extreme heroism on the battlefields of the Civil War.
Time and space do not allow a complete review of all Irish American individuals and groups participating in the war, so we have decided to focus on one - The “Irish Brigade”
One of the most famous military organizations in the war was the “Irish Brigade.” It was legendary for its gallantry in combat. The Federal Government was reluctant to organize ethnically-based brigades as it was counter to the idea of “Union.” But in the case of the Irish Brigade it served two purposes. It indirectly warned Britain (who was leaning toward supporting the Confederacy) that there could be repercussions in Ireland if Britain intervened in the American Civil War; and it solidified Irish support in the North with its large Catholic minority. The Irish Brigade also had its own paid Catholic chaplains which implied some social acceptance for Irish Catholics. The chaplains were known to give prior absolution for the sins of their men before an attack was begun.
The Irish Brigade lost over 4,000 men killed and wounded. This was more soldiers than ever belonged to the brigade at any one time. In its four year service in the Army of the Potomac, the brigade was comprised of three New York regiments, one from Massachusetts (Boston), and one from Pennsylvania (Philadelphia). Along with the U.S. Flag, each regiment of the Irish Brigade carried the green Irish Flag with the Gold Harp emblem into battle. Their famous war cry was “faugh a ballagh” meaning “Clear the Way.”
It was led into battle by Thomas Francis Meagher, a vocal advocate of Irish independence from Britain, who was tried and sentenced to death by the British in the Irish Rebellion of 1848. He escaped before being punished and came to America.
At the Battle of Antietam (1862), the Brigade had a 60% casualty rate at the “Bloody Lane.” At the Battle of Fredericksburg three months later, its fighting strength was reduced from more than 1,600 to 256 men by the devastating charges against Marye’s Heights. 
In a sad twist of fate, the Confederate Army had a predominately Irish regiment manning the top of the Marye’s Heights - Cobb’s Georgia Irish Regiment. These two Irish units, North and South, had many men from the same villages back in Ireland as well as common members in the Irish Brotherhood. They squared off against each other in bloody combat. This terrible event was emotionally depicted in the film “Gods and Generals.”
Even though continuing to serve with honor, and recruiting new men from New York and Boston, the Irish Brigade continued to be reduced in numbers by death and injury. But it remained intact until the war’s end. Eventually conditions did improve for the masses of Irish Americans in the large cities of the East Coast, and anti-Irish sentiment slowly disappeared.

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