While the names of the great battles of the Civil War are still taught to schoolchildren, death came most often in small skirmishes, from accidents, or from disease. When tens of thousands of armed young men ranged through an area, people died.
Private William McCarter joined the Irish Brigade after its bloody attack on the Sunken Road at Antietam. In October 1862, he was stationed with the Brigade at Harpers Ferry in what became West Virginia when the Irish were called out to push back a small force of Confederates at nearby Charles Town. After a brief fight the Confederates withdrew and the Irish Brigade occupied the town. McCarter saw only a handful of dead or wounded Confederates in the captured village, but as he and several comrades patrolled the streets his attention was attracted to a well-maintained house where he saw civilians and soldiers alike entering. “These visitors came immediately out again with dull and saddened countenances and with…tearful eyes,” he wrote later in his memoirs.1
The door to the house had been smashed by a cannon ball from one of the Irish Brigade’s own artillery supports. McCarter recalled what he encountered when he followed the crowds inside:
Merciful heaven, what a sight met our eyes. God save me the pain of another such sight as long as I live. [There] paced a lady, apparently not over 30 years of age. She appeared to be in terrible grief, misery, and despair…. She would now and then burst out into heartrending fits of weeping…. .
McCarter asked an old man why the woman grieved. He answered that her only child had been watching the fighting from a window when a Union cannon ball had hit her. McCarter saw some Irish soldiers and women gathered around a pipe organ in the room. He went over to it and; “There on the top of the instrument laid a sweet little girl, some seven or eight years old, cold and stiff and dead.” McCarter and his friends gazed at the “dead yet still beautiful, innocent pale face” in “horror and dismay, unable,” he wrote, “to utter a word.”2
While McCarter, like most men of the era, was concerned to present a brave and “manly” aspect, he admitted in his memoirs that he broke down and cried “streams of hot water.” He asked his God why “must a mother see her own darling child in a moment turned into a mangled bleeding corpse…?”3
Harpers Ferry was the place that abolitionist John Brown had staged his attempted slave uprising three years before Private McCarter arrived. Charles Town was where he was hung for rebellion by the same slave-owners who now were themselves in rebellion against the United States government. While McCarter was saddened by the death he found in the town, he also was intrigued by the John Brown story. He sought out local African Americans to show him the place John Brown had been held captive and the spot where he was hanged.4
African American artist Jacob Lawrence’s depiction of the hanging of John Brown
During his time in this part of Virginia at the end of October and beginning of November 1862, McCarter says that with only one exception, he faced universal hostility from the white civilians. One woman told him to go back to his “whoring” mother which prompted him to break her windows in retaliation.5
As the Irish Brigade marched into nearby towns they were always met with abuse. Arriving in Warrenton, Virginia, McCarter recalled6:
As we filed up the main street of the town…we were greeted with hisses and groans from women… They yelled as we passed along “There goes the damned Abolitionists. Kill them.” [W]e were assailed by a shower of…stones, brickbats, …firewood, bottle, shoemaker hammers, and pieces of coal.
The Irish Brigade did get support from one segment of the community. As they marched out of Harpers Ferry, heading along bloody roads that would eventually lead to their near-destruction at Fredericksburg, the Brigade began to sing the song John Brown’s Body in honor of the abolitionist who had made the place famous. The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had only been issued a few weeks earlier and would not take effect until January 1, 1863, but local African Americans now knew that the Union troops brought freedom. McCarter writes that “when they heard their favorite song sung by Union soldiers as they marched along” the former slaves “waved handkerchiefs and cheered from the windows of their little houses. They poured their earnest and ever welcome blessings upon our heads. While they blessed “Uncle Sam’s boys,” McCarter also writes that they blessed old Father “Abe.”7
Few in the Irish Brigade had started the war favoring the end of slavery. Many never saw African Americans as the equal of whites. However, as they marched through the South the men of the Brigade found that often the only people who blessed their coming had black faces.
Pete Seeger sings “John Brown’s Body”
The song John Brown’s Body originally began as an inside joke in Boston’s Tiger Battallion in 1861 and was sung about a Scottish immigrant in the unit who had the same name as the dead abolitionist. It was picked up by other units who heard it being sung and took on additional lyrics which identified it with the anti-slavery activist.
John Brown’s Raid: A Short History
African American History of Harpers Ferry
1. My Life in the Irish Brigade by William McCarter pub. by De Capo Press (2003) Kindle Edition Kindle Location 623-626.
2. My Life in the Irish Brigade by William McCarter pub. by De Capo Press (2003) Kindle Edition Kindle Location 623-626.
3. My Life in the Irish Brigade by William McCarter pub. by De Capo Press (2003) Kindle Edition Kindle Location 623-626.
4. My Life in the Irish Brigade by William McCarter pub. by De Capo Press (2003) Kindle Edition Kindle Location 688-701.
5. My Life in the Irish Brigade by William McCarter pub. by De Capo Press (2003) Kindle Edition Kindle Location 717-720.
6. My Life in the Irish Brigade by William McCarter pub. by De Capo Press (2003) Kindle Edition Kindle Location 964-970.
7. My Life in the Irish Brigade by William McCarter pub. by De Capo Press (2003) Kindle Edition Kindle Location 872-881.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites