Immigrants lived in much of the United States at the start of the Civil War, but their numbers were not evenly distributed. Roughly 90% of Irish immigrants lived in the North at the time of the Civil War. Another 5% lived in the Border States, slave states that stayed in the Union. Only 5% lived in the states that would become part of the Confederacy.1
Irish immigrants avoided the states that would rebel against the Federal government largely because of slavery. Although few Irish were abolitionists, low-wage Irish workers understood that they could not compete with slaves for the kinds of backbreaking work that was often their only lot in the American economy. There were also social and cultural reasons for settling in the North, but the problem of wage competition with slaves was the most important single factor.2
There were 85,000 Irish immigrants living in the eleven future Confederate States according to the 1860 Census. Another 95,000 lived in the four Border States. Approximately 1.4 million Irish immigrants lived in the North.3
Only a few Confederate States had sizable Irish populations. About a third of the Irish in the Confederacy (28,207) lived in Louisiana. This community was concentrated in the South’s only large city, New Orleans. Virginia had the second largest Irish population at 16,501. The third largest was in Tennessee, the state that became the scene of a race riot led by some Irish immigrants after the war. 12,498 Irish called Tennessee home, most of them living in cities and towns along the Mississippi River where they did the dangerous jobs involved in the steamship industry.4
Memphis was founded in 1819, but as late as 1850 it was still a small city of fewer than nine thousand people. Mass Irish immigration following the Great Famine more than doubled the population to almost 23,000 by 1860. The Irish made up 23% of all city residents that year. This view of Beale Street was taken in the 1860s.
The coming of the Civil War presented Irish in the South with a dilemma. While not abolitionists, the mostly poor Irish rarely owned slaves. They had come to America to become citizens of the United States and they rarely had a highly developed identity with the states they had settled in. The immigrant living in Richmond was likely to think of himself as an Irish American, not as a Virginian. Moreover, when war came, some pro-Confederate activists began to target men not from the South as potential pro-Northern subversives and the Irish, the quintessential outsiders in 1860s America, were sometimes targeted. Irish in the South often had families in the North with whom they felt greater kinship than with their Southern native-born neighbors. 5
For all of these reasons, historian David Gleeson says, the Irish in the South were “reluctant secessionists.” Although many Irish served in the Confederate armies, some fled to the North, or switched allegiances from Confederate to Unionist when Union troops occupied their areas. Gleeson writes that “As a result, some natives resented them for being so open, for example, in their acceptance of Confederate defeat and Federal occupation.”6
The Battle of Memphis was a naval action in the Mississippi River within sight of the city that took place on June 8, 1862.
As Union troops took control of more and more of the South, they sometimes looked to local Irish as potential allies. In New Orleans, for example, military commander Ben Butler courted the city’s Irish community and won many over to supporting the occupation. A similar pattern took place in Memphis, Tennessee. The Irish community in Memphis was new, but it made up a large part of the city’s white working class. Most Irish had arrived in the city only a decade before the Civil War. Although they were both poor and recent arrivals, the Irish had succeeded in building a Catholic Church, creating a mutual aid society, forming an Irish nationalist Fenian club, and organized labor unions. They had also become politically organized as a wing of the local Democratic Party where they had learned the strong lessons of that party’s virulent white supremacist teachings.7
The naval battle lasted less than two hours and resulted in a Confederate defeat. Soon afterwards the city was surrendered to the Union.
When the Union army occupied Memphis, the role of the Memphis Irish became unique. New laws barred from voting all men who had participated in the Confederate revolt. By law, writes historian Stephen Ash:
anyone who had aided the Southern rebellion could not vote in the municipal general election in June 1865. Most of the Irishmen (and most of the German men) residing in Memphis when the war began had declined to enlist in the army or in any other way serve the Rebel cause, and the early capture of the city by federal forces ensured that Confederate conscription was never carried out there. The twenty-five hundred voters in June 1865 were predominantly foreign-born; a majority were Irish.8
Soon after taking control of Memphis, the Union authorities gathered the valuable cotton being stored there for shipment to the North.
The immigrant vote elected an Irish mayor. Nine of the sixteen aldermen were also Irish. With both former Confederates and blacks barred by state law from voting, the Irish had achieved an unprecedented victory. The immigrant community used the electoral win to fill many city jobs with immigrants. For instance, forty of the forty-six men in the fire department were Irish. While the chief of police, Benjamin Garrett, was a native Southerner, 162 out of 177 men in his department were Irish.9
The months immediately after the April 1865 surrenders of the main Confederate armies had been a time of submission by Southern whites to Northern occupation. By the Fall, though, the defeated Confederates were reasserting themselves. Their particular target were the newly freed black slaves.10
Union troops in occupied Memphis.
Blacks were freed from slavery as Union forces occupied the South, but their legal status and their future was unclear. Blacks were “free”, but the meaning of freedom was undetermined. Blacks were still not considered citizens in the Southern states, nor could they vote. They made up a quarter of Tennessee’s population, for example, yet they held no elective offices and wielded little power.11
Blacks trying assert the basic freedom to move from one town to another risked death. As the German immigrant leader Carl Schurz observed during his investigation of conditions in the South in the Summer of 1865:
In many instances negroes who walked away from the plantations, or were found upon the roads, were shot or otherwise severely punished, which was calculated to produce the impression among those remaining with their masters that an attempt to escape from slavery would result in certain destruction. A large proportion of the many acts of violence committed is undoubtedly attributable to this motive…12
New white-controlled state legislatures passed “Black Codes” that kept the freedmen in conditions as close to slavery as could legally be allowed. In Mississippi, for example, blacks were required to show papers from the white man the law referred to as their “Masters” in order to be on the road. If they did not have such papers, the black man could be arrested and sold to perform labor for another white man.13
The Black Codes in Mississippi controlled the most intimate elements of the life of the black population. The code in that state made it a felony for blacks and whites to marry, punishable by life in prison. Similar laws in other states defined a person as black if the person had one great-grandparent who was black. Blacks were forbidden to set up their own churches unless the local white authorities licensed them. While whites were heavily armed, blacks were barred from owning any weapons, even most types of knives.14
The Ku Klux Klan was first organized in Tennessee in 1866.
Edmund Rhett, the editor of the Charleston Mercury, wrote a letter explaining the need for the Black Codes:
the general interest of both the white man and the Negro requires that he should be kept as near to his former condition as Law can keep him and that he should be kept as near to the condition of slavery as possible, and as far from the condition of the white man as practicable.15
Black codes were enacted in state after state in the eight months before the Memphis riots. Many of the states allowed blacks to be whipped for minor offenses, just like they had been in slave days. By the Spring of 1866 African Americans were finding their new “freedom” precarious and dangerous. As violence increased throughout the occupied South, conflicts developed between the freed people and Memphis’s important Irish community. The presence of black troops in the city led to a clash that set many of the city’s Irish on a path of destruction. 16
Video: Historian Eric Foner Discusses the Black Codes
1. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013) p. 7; A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013).
2. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013) p. 5-10.
3. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013) p. 7-8.
4. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013) p. 7-8.
5. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013).
6. The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson published by University of North Carolina Press (2013) p. 8.
7. A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013) p. 57-59.
8. A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013) p. 59.
9. A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013). p. 52.
10. A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013)
11. Census summary
12. Immigrants’ Civil War
13. Mississippi Black Code Nov. 22, 1865
14. Black Code of Nov. 29, 1865 Black Code Nov. 25, 1865
15. Edmund Rhett, Jr, letter to Armistead Burt, October 14, 1865.
16. A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot that Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War by Stephen Ash Hill and Wang Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (2013).
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
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
157. A Scottish Socialist and a German General Work to Help Slaves Become Freedpeople-Robert Dale Owen, Carl Schurz and the founding of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites