Recruiting the Irish Brigade, Creating the Irish American


Links to all the articles in The Immigrants’ Civil War may be found at the bottom of the page.

Defeat at Bull Run had left the Union war plan in tatters. Lincoln had assumed that the Confederate rebellion could be suppressed with fewer than 100,000 soldiers. Now he realized that a single battle by a limited army could never bring the new Confederacy to heel. An army more than 20 times larger than the one Lincoln first envisioned would be necessary. Where once a few ethnic regiments symbolic of immigrants’ support for the Union were welcome, now scores of Irish, German, and other immigrant companies, regiments, brigades, and even divisions were required to do the hard fighting in a long war.

The Irish Brigade would become one of the most recognized and certainly the most remembered of all the ethnic units.

The very name of the unit, “The Irish Brigade,” showed the transnational nature of immigrant consciousness, for it was named after another Irish Brigade in another county. No, not one in Ireland, but the Irish Brigade of France. When the English empire removed Ireland from the states of Europe and rendered the Irish a subject people without an army of their own, young Irishmen embarked for France to fight against the British in their own Irish Brigade. The American Irish Brigade’s war cry, “Remember Fontenoy,” recalled the French Irish Brigade’s charge against the British in a 1745 battle. In other words, the American Irish did not just claim their Irish heritage from Ireland itself, but also from the far reaches of the international Irish diaspora.1

A Union “brigade” was a military unit typically made up of three or more regiments. Regiments were supposed to have approximately 1,000 soldiers each. Unlike most early Union brigades, which were recruited from a single state, Irish leader Thomas Francis Meagher hoped to have regiments from New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. This would symbolize Irish American unity across the artificial boundaries of state lines. The Irish had immigrated to the United States, not to Massachusetts or New York or Pennsylvania. They might well love the urban communities they created, but they often felt more affinity for the habitants of Irish ghettoes in other cities and in other states than they did for rural Know Nothings from their own states. Places like the Five Points in New York City, Fishtown in Philadelphia, or Bridgeport, Connecticut, were islands in the Irish American archipelago. The spaces in between them were often dangerous zones of nativism.2

The governors of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania initially refused to transgress their own version of states’ rights by having Irishmen from their states serve alongside Irish New Yorkers. Instead of a multi-state unit, the Irish Brigade would only consist initially of three Irish regiments from New York, the Fighting 69th and the newly organized 63rd and 88th New York Volunteers.3

While the three regiments were organized in New York City’s Irish heartland, calls went out for recruits from other Irish islands. Volunteers rushed to the brigade’s green banners from Utica, Albany, Buffalo, the Hudson Valley, and Long Island. Men also filled the ranks of the brigade from Boston and Philadelphia, in defiance of the governors of those states. A large number came from as far away as Chicago. The new brigade would represent Irish America, not just New York’s immigrant community.4

In modern America, military recruitment is centralized and handled by an extensive network of professional recruiters. During the Civil War, army recruitment was largely entrepreneurial. A prominent local man—a politician or businessman, for instance—would be authorized to raise a regiment or brigade. He was then essentially on his own to recruit and train his men. When the Irish Brigade was authorized by the War Department, Thomas Francis Meagher, with only a few months of military experience, possessed the most important requirement for a new commanding general: He could recruit soldiers by the hundreds. The Irish revolutionary was a well-known public speaker and the kind of celebrity whom other immigrants were thrilled to be associated with. A young Irish soldier could write home to Ireland and tell his parents that he was to serve under Meagher and fully expect his parents to know the story of the newly minted brigadier general.5


Irish Brigade recruiting made extensive use of the color green. (Source)

Meagher’s rhetorical strategy for winning Irish recruits to the Union cause had to address the immigrants’ misgivings about the war. The first was why a man with only a few years in America should risk his life in this country’s war. This impediment to recruitment was particularly strong among those Irish who thought of themselves as “exiles” expelled from the country of their birth by the British. They believed they would one day return to Ireland, and that if they were to die in battle it should be against the British in the cause of the liberation of Ireland, not in a petty squabble among Americans. The second was Irish resentment of the nativism that had left the new immigrants excluded from the mainstream of Northern society. Coupled with this was Irish opposition to the Republicans, whom they saw as the heirs of the Know Nothings. As Democrats, the Irish had been political allies of Southern whites before the war and enemies of the new Republican administration.6

Meagher acknowledged his own opposition to Lincoln’s election, but said he respected the democratic process. “I care not to what party the [president] has belonged. I care not upon what…platform he may have been elected. The platform disappears before the Constitution…” Respect for the constitutional office of the presidency trumped partisan political consideration, he told his audiences. Meagher reminded the Irish Democrats that Southerners had held substantial power in the United States government, but that when Lincoln was elected, they rebelled. The Southerner, he said, “substitutes for the rule of the ballot box…the rule of the bayonet…against the will of the majority of the people.”7

Meagher acknowledged that some of the same men who sought to exclude the Irish were now members of Lincoln’s government, but the attack on Fort Sumter had permanently altered the position of the immigrant in American society. In a speech in Boston near the scene of an anti-Irish riot, Meagher spoke of a new era for Irish Americans: “I proclaim…Know-nothingism is dead. This war …brought with it this result, that the Irish soldier will henceforth take his stand proudly by the side of the native-born and will…look him straight and sternly in the face and tell him that he has been equal to him in his allegiance to the Constitution.” Meagher noted that his speech was being given in a state that had just a few years earlier disbanded its Irish militia companies. He said that after the attack on Fort Sumter, the “alacrity with which the adopted citizens of the United States, German as well as Irish” joined the army “proves how unworthy and unjust” was the disbanding. He was insisting that by joining the army, immigrants were proving all the lies of the Know Nothings wrong.8

Meagher also tied the cause of Ireland to that of the Union. He argued that the Southern slaveholders were the American equivalent of the British aristocracy. He said the monarchists of Europe prayed for a Southern victory because it would mean that the democratic experiment had failed. He warned that a Southern victory would “encourage the designs of kings and queens and knaves to whom this great commonwealth…has been…a source of envy.”9

Meagher enlisted some of New York’s best-known Irish leaders to popularize the Irish Brigade. One of the most prominent was Judge Daly, a prominent politician. In a widely reported speech to the Fighting 69th, Judge Daly said that Ireland had ceased to exist as a country when internal disputes had left it vulnerable to foreign invasion. Daly acknowledges that the US had problems, “that it has its defects none of us are vain enough to deny.” But for those who felt the defects outweighed the greatness of America he urged them to “go and live under the monarchy of Great Britain.” Daly warned that if secession succeeded, America would be turned into a set of “weak and rickety republics” making it prey for the princes of Europe just like Ireland.10

The recruiting effort worked, and thousands of Irish joined up and were sent to train at Fort Schuyler, located at the modern-day SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx. Meagher, with only half a year’s military experience, was made a brigadier general and Irish America was given a new way of melding its dual identities.

Ceremonies marking the departure of the brigade’s regiments to war were attended by thousands of cheering immigrants and native-born alike. Whether the Irish would transition from parade ground heroes to hardened fighters would be determined in the wet spring and bloody summer of 1862.

The song “The Irish Volunteer” appeared about a year after the Civil War began. Songs like this could serve as recruiting tools and morale boosters. The song sounds transnational themes common in Thomas Meagher’s speeches. It opens with the energetic immigrant soldier singing about his father who “fought in ’98”—the Irish rebellion of 1798 against the British—and implies that the modern Union soldier was fighting for the same “liberty so dear” that motivated the 1798 rebels. The chorus says that the Irish Union soldier will fight for “the flag we all revere,” not the American flag but the Irish green flag with a gold harp at its center. Loyalty to Ireland and loyalty to America are mixed together as though identical.

The next stanza reminds the immigrant that he was driven from his homeland by the English “oppressor” and that the only country that provided asylum was the United States. It also boasts that the immigrants have built up their own society here.

The third stanza depicts the Irish Volunteers as distinctly working class. The volunteer throws down his “hod,” a carrier for cement or mortar, and his shovel, indicating that he is a construction worker or day laborer. The next stanza recalls the refusal of the 69th to parade before the English Prince of Wales in 1860, which had nothing to do with the Civil War, but is used to create an association in the recruit’s mind between fighting the Confederacy and fighting the British in a manner similar to that in the first stanza.

The song ends by hailing Union General George B. McClellan, a Democrat, who commanded the Union army heading for Richmond. It ignores Abraham Lincoln, a Republican who two out of three Irish voted against.

Here are some of the lyrics to The Irish Volunteer:

My name is Tim McDonald, I’m a native of the Isle,
I was born among old Erin’s bogs when I was but a child.
My father fought in “‘Ninety-eight,” for liberty so dear;
He fell upon old Vinegar Hill, like an Irish volunteer.
Then raise the harp of Erin, boys, the flag we all revere—
We’ll fight and fall beneath its folds, like Irish volunteers!
Chorus—Then raise the harp, etc.

When I was driven form my home by an oppressor’s hand,
I cut my sticks and greased my brogues, and came o’er to this land.
I found a home an many friends, and some that I love dear;
Be jabbers! I’ll stick to them like bricks and an Irish volunteer.
Then fill your glasses up, my boys, and drink a hearty cheer,
To the land of our adoption and the Irish volunteer!
Chorus—Then fill your glasses, etc.

Now when the traitors in the south commenced a warlike raid,
I quickly then laid down my hod, to the devil went my spade!
To a recruiting-office then I went, that happened to be near,
And joined the good old “Sixty-ninth,” like and Irish volunteer.
Then fill the ranks and march away!—no traitors do we fear;
We’ll drive them all to blazes, says the Irish volunteer.
Chorus—Then fill the ranks, etc.

When the Prince of Wales came over here, and made a hubbaboo,
Oh, everybody turned out, you know, in gold and tinsel too;
But then the good old Sixty-ninth didn’t like these lords or peers—
They wouldn’t give a d—n for kings, the Irish volunteers!
We love the land of Liberty, its laws we will revere,
“But the divil take nobility!” says the Irish volunteer!
Chorus—We love the land, etc.

Now if the traitors in the South should ever cross our roads,
We’ll drive them to the divil, as Saint Patrick did the toads;
We’ll give them all short nooses that come just below the ears,
Made strong and good of Irish hemp by Irish volunteers.
Then here’s to brave McClellan, whom the army now reveres—
He’ll lead us on to victory, the Irish volunteers.
Chorus—Then here’s to brave, etc.
Now fill your glasses up, my boys, a toast come drink with me,
May Erin’s Harp and the Starry Flag united ever be;
May traitors quake, and rebels shake, and tremble in their fears,
When next they meet the Yankee boys and Irish volunteers!
God bless the name of Washington! that name this land reveres;
Success to Meagher and Nugent, and their Irish volunteers!
Chorus—God bless the name, etc.

1. The Irish Brigade in the Civil War by Joseph Bilby, Combined Publishing, (1995) Chapter 1.

2. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by D.P. Conyngham, McSorley and Company (1867) p. 50.

3. The Irish Brigade in the Civil War by Joseph Bilby, Combined Publishing, (1995) Kindle location 219-220.

4. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by D.P. Conyngham, McSorley and Company (1867) p. 53; . The Irish Brigade in the Civil War by Joseph Bilby, Combined Publishing, (1995) Kindle location 228.

5. The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, Oxford University Press, (1988) Chapters 10 and 11.

6. Thomas Francis Meagher by Robert Athearn, Arno Press (1976).

7. Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher: His Political and Military Career by W.F. Lyons (1870) pp. 83-84.

8. Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher: His Political and Military Career by W.F. Lyons (1870) p. 102.

9. Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher: His Political and Military Career by W.F. Lyons (1870) p. 83.

10. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by D.P. Conyngham, McSorley and Company (1867)  pp. 60-62.

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.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

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.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

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.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American


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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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1 Comentario

  1. Thanks for posting. It’s an important story that always bears retelling. Two of my family were volunteers in the 88th New York, in the Irish Brigade: John Madigan and Patrick Madigan. Both enlisted as privates. Patrick was invalided out just before Gettysburg. John reenlisted in 1864 as a lieutenant in the 2nd New Jersey Cavalry, and was on Wilson’s staff when he captured Selma, AL at the end of the war. I’m always on the lookout for memoirs from the 88th, apart from father Corby’s almost unreadable one. Have you heard of any in archives anywhere? I don’t think any but Corby’s is in print. But I could be wrong.

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