The Irish & the American Civil War - Confederate Army

"You dare not call us invaders,´tis but state rights and liberties we ask; And Missouri, we ever will defend her, no matter how hard be the task. Then let true Irishmen assemble; let the voice of Missouri be obeyed; And northern fanatics may tremble when they meet with Kelly´s Irish Brigade"
Lyrics from 'Kelly's Irish Brigade'

Few know that Irish immigrants played an equally important role in the Southern Confederacy. The vast majority of immigrants from Ireland landed at the east coast cities of Boston and New York where they, by and large, settled. During the war, Irish immigration to the South ceased, because the ports were blockaded so it was inevitable that the Union army would have almost four times as many Irishmen in their ranks than serving with the Confederate states. However, over 40,000 Irish fought for the Southern cause and were the largest immigrant group in that army, making up about 10% of all Confederate combatants.

The Confederate Irish were far more fervent in support of their side’s cause because they could identify in America with the desire for self-determination at home and the right to separate from what was viewed as a repressive government. They had little concern about slavery. The Irish in America were working class, and they competed for jobs with free blacks. Consequently, the Irish in both armies tended to support the pro-slavery Democratic Party. However, the Southern Irish encountered less animosity and much more religious tolerance than did their Northern brethren. For example, there was no Southern equivalent of the anti-draft riots that occurred in the large Northern cities where the Irish were concentrated.

The Union’s Irish Brigade, which was perhaps 80% Irish, was unique. No effort was made to consolidate Confederate Irish into large units. For the most part, they were scattered throughout the South’s regionally raised regiments, though many company-sized units, and several battalions, were formed from Irish volunteers--the Emmet Guards of Mobile, Alabama; the Southern Celts and St. Mary’s Volunteers of the 13th Louisiana; the Irish Volunteers of the 5th Georgia; the Louisiana Tigers or "Irish Tartars"; the O’Connell Guards of the 17th Virginia; the Emerald Guards of the 9th Louisiana; the Sarsfield Rangers of the 7th Louisiana and the Tenth Tennessee, popularly known as the "Bloody Tinth" - to name just a few of the more than 45 distinctly Irish companies.

Many of these units carried variations of the emerald flag with golden harp so favored by Irish military groups everywhere, but company flags were not carried into battle. Since the Irish units were part of geographical regiments, their company flags were never as prominent as the well-known banner of the North’s Irish Brigade, which flew at such well-known battles as Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg.

Scattered as they were among dozens of regiments, Irish units probably fought in every major Civil War battle. In one of the earlier fights--called Bull Run in the North and First Manassas in the South--the 1st Virginia regiment, commanded by Galway-born Colonel Patrick Moore, defended strategic Blackburn’s Ford. The regiment’s Montgomery Guards was an Irish unit and it fought effectively as skirmishers. At one point, Col. Moore led a charge against the Yankees shouting, “Faugh a Ballagh!”—perhaps the first Irish battle cry heard in the war. General Thomas Jackson earned the sobriquet “Stonewall” at that engagement, primarily because his troops held so well at the ford. The Montgomery Guards and the 1st Virginia later were to suffer 120 casualties out of 155 men in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.

"When old Virginia took the field and wanted men to rally on. She took three hundred Irishmen and formed her first battalion."

Lyrics from 'The Irish Battalion'

In a way, Irish troops of the 1st Virginia regiment created the Stonewall Jackson legend by their stand at Blackburn’s Ford— but a similarly named Irish unit ended it. The 1st Virginia Battalion, also called the Irish Battalion, became the provost guard for the Army of Northern Virginia. During the winter of 1862-63 an Irish guard of that battalion failed to recognize General Jackson returning to his bivouac late at night—and shot him.

On the Confederate side the most famous Irishman was Cork-born, Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne commanding the Fifth Confederate Regiment and the Emerald Guards of the Eighth Alabama Regiment . Robert E. Lee called him "a meteor shining from a clouded sky" and Jefferson Davis characterized him as the "Stonewall Jackson of the West."

Battle of Chickamauga

During the Battle of Chickamauga, as his division moved forward in a dense cedar grove, Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne and his staff pressed forward to personally distribute ammunition to his men. Shown above is the painting of Cleburne and the 2nd Tennessee Infantry.

General Cleburne leading his troops at the Battle of Franklin, November 30,1864.

At the battle of Franklin in 1864, the General's horse was shot out from under him and after a remount suffered the same fate, he continued to lead his men on foot. Last seen charging into thick smoke, his body was recovered the next day where he had been killed.

"If this cause, that is dear to my heart, is doomed to fail, I pray heaven may let me fall with it, while my face is toward the enemy and my arm battling for that which I know is right."
Major General Patrick R. Cleburne (left) before his fatal wound at the battle of Franklin, Tennessee.

Also in the service of the Confederacy was the Irish revolutionary of 1848, John Mitchel (right), who during the war was at first editor of the Richmond Enquirer and later leader writer for the Richmond Examiner. Mitchel was also a corre­spondent to the Irish press who gave encouragement to the nationalist friends of the South. As a spokesman for the cause of the South, he was the first to claim that slavery and abolition were not the cause of the conflict but simply used as a pretense. He equated the Confederacy with Ireland, as both were agricultural economies tied into an unjust union. Three sons of John Mitchel fought with the Rebels - the eldest, Captain John Mitchel, Jr., was killed while in command of Fort Sumter on July 20, 1864. Another, Private Willie Mitchel, was killed in Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. The third, James, lost his right arm in a battle near Richmond.

Another famous, or infamous, Southern officer was Brigadier General John McCausland, who was born in Missouri of Irish parents. Nicknamed “Tiger John,” McCausland was a “never-surrender” leader who fought his way out of many tight spots. He was best known in the North for a July 1864 raid on Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (illustrated above), which he looted and burned when a ransom demand for $500,000 was not paid. McCausland refused to submit even after the war ended and left the USA to travel in Europe and Mexico. McCausland lived until 1927.

Today, more than 140 years after the Civil War ended, there is little difference between the Irish of the two areas, but since “history is recorded by the victors,” little is heard about the Irish contribution to the South’s cause, and even less has been written. That said, the prevailing attitude in Ireland among citizens that had no personal connection to the America Civil War is probably best summed up by an Irish newspaper of that time;

"What mattered it to us was not whether puritanical North or slave-holding South, carried off the laurels of victory. .. . It was of no moment to us whether the stars and stripes of the Union or the palmetto ensign of the Confederates waved over a triumphant host. Our concern was with another flag—the sunburst of Erin, under whose folds were marshalled the truest, loyalest, and bravest hearts on either side...In our opinion adhesion on the part of Irish-Americans to North or South is a mere question of locality. . ."
Tipperary Advocate, August 10, 1861

*Paintings by Don Troiani