Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?


For a full list of articles in The Immigrants’ Civil War scroll to the bottom of the page.

In the mid-1800s, the abuse that newly arrived Irish in the US had taken from the anti-immigrant Know Nothings was criminal. Mob attacks, vandalized churches, and bars to employment were all used to keep Irish immigrants out of the American mainstream. But the worst abuse came from the press. Young Irish immigrants – poor, dislocated from their homeland, tortured by the memories of families members starving to death during the Famine – had to read about their own sub-human character in popular newspapers.

Typical of the invective that native-born Americans lapped up was this piece from the Chicago Tribune published in 1855:

“Who does not know that the most depraved, debased, worthless and irredeemable drunkards and sots which curse the community are Irish Catholics?”1

The Tribune would become a leading Republican newspaper. Another Republican paper, Harpers Weekly, claimed that “nearly seventy-five percent of our criminals and paupers are Irish…seventy-five percent of the crimes of violence committed among us are the work of Irishmen.”2

The Irish newspaper, The Boston Pilot, correctly noted that the “scattered and broken forces of the Know Nothing Party” had collected in the new Republican Party and that these elements of the party represented “hatred, and prejudice, and injustice to the Irish,”3 Many Irish saw Abraham Lincoln, for all his generous words about immigrants, as a front man for Know Nothing bigotry.4

During the months leading up to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the Irish communities in America had been decidedly on the side of peace, blaming abolitionists and slaveholders alike for a crisis they saw threatening to destroy their new home. The Irish saw the abolitionist as the same sort of moralizing “Puritan” hypocrite, who championed the slave but enslaved the Irish worker, as those who had been the backbone of the Know Nothing Party in the North. The Irish feared that these so-called Puritans were behind the new Republican Party. The “haughty Southern aristocrats” were equally mistrusted. The Southern slave owners reminded Irish immigrants of the Protestant landowners who had lorded over their homeland for two centuries. Many Irish worried that radicalism on both sides of the slavery issue would wreck the Republic. 5

The attack on the American flag at Fort Sumter by the Confederates took a peaceful resolution of the sectional crisis off the table. The Irish project of maintaining the “Union as it was,” was forever dead. The large urban Irish communities in the north fell in solidly in support of the Union. As one of the leading historians of Irish America during the Civil War has written, the Irish immigrants “could not remain inactive during a war that threatened to destroy the nation.” 6

The Irish would fight. And their letters, and the speeches and manifestos of their leaders, tell us why.

Some modern historians describe the decision by the Irish to enlist as economically motivated. They were poor, and soldiering – with large enlistment bonuses – offered steady, if deadly work. That may have been true of some recruits as the war dragged on, but in 1861 bonuses were virtually non-existent and the army pay system was anarchic. Many early recruits seemed to have little considered if they would ever be paid at all. One Irish officer, Patrick Guiney of Tipperary, wrote to his wife on June 4, 1861, shortly after he joined the army, that she needed to find a way to make ends meet without depending on him.

“Compensation, at present, I fear is out of the question,” he wrote her. “Government is proverbially slow…some months may elapse before payment is made.” Guiney realized the difficulties his young wife faced because of his enlistment and he advised her to seek public assistance. He insisted such aid was “not charity,” but still told her to proceed “quietly, letting no one know.” 7

Other letters from Irish men who enlisted in the first months of the war indicate that financial gain was not a motive. In fact, some only seemed to make monetary calculations after they had already signed up and realized that they had left wives, children, and elderly parents without support. Patrick Guiney himself apologized to his wife for the “possible rashness of my resolution to volunteer.” 8

20110624-carriageThis 1861 recruiting rally roused many young men to leave the comforts of home for the adventure of army life.

Another Irish volunteer, Christopher Byrne, would later admit that he joined the Union army because of “the excitement of the time.” 9

And the times were exciting. Young Irish men, who had been largely antagonistic to the incoming Lincoln administration, saw an armed rebellion erupt in the South that many believed would destroy the United States. They saw this country not only as the land of their adoption, but also as a refuge for future immigrants and as a lever to someday free Ireland from British rule.

James McKay Rorty, who joined the Fighting 69th New York regiment, wrote in 1861 to his father that he enlisted because of his “attachment to, and veneration of, the Constitution, which urged me to defend it at all risks.” As with many other Irish volunteers, he also insisted that he joined for the sake of his homeland, saying that he hoped “that the military knowledge or skill that I acquire might thereafter be turned to account in the sacred cause of my native land.” 10

Rorty also said he fought for future immigrants, writing to his father that a Southern victory would “close forever the wide portals through which the pilgrims of liberty from every European clime have sought and found it. Why, because at the North the prejudice springing from the hateful and dominant spirit of Puritanism, and at the South, the haughty exclusiveness of an Oligarchy would be equally repulsive and despotic…Our only guarantee is the Constitution, our only safety is the Union.” 11

20110624-shamrockDuring the Civil War, Union partisans—particularly soldiers—used writing paper and envelopes with pro-Union sentiments. The shamrock envelope below was intended for use by Irish immigrants. It reads: “Here’s to Ireland’s SHAMROCK, may its pure unsullied green, as a bond of love and UNION ‘midst the Irish ever be seen. And may it help to bind the love by the exile Irish shown, To the land which gave them liberty, a shelter and a home.” The shamrock had been used by St. Patrick to teach the pagan Irish the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, that there were three persons (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) in one God. Here the shamrock is used to teach the secular political lesson that the North, South, and border states make up one United States. The poem under the Union Shamrock reminds the immigrant that it was the United States that gave the starving, nationless Irish “liberty, a shelter and a home,” playing on themes of gratitude and obligation that were common in recruitment of immigrants. (Source: Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society
The Irish revolutionary Thomas Francis Meagher, who would later command the Irish Brigade, sounded similar themes of joint loyalty to the United States and Ireland when explaining his reason for joining the Union Army. “Duty and patriotism prompt me,” he said. “The Republic, that gave us an asylum…—that is the mainstay of human freedom the world over – is threatened with disruption. It is the duty of every liberty-loving citizen to prevent such a calamity at all hazards. Above all is it the duty of us Irish citizens, who aspire to establish a similar form of government in our native land. It is not only our duty to America, but also to Ireland. We could not hope to succeed in our effort to make Ireland a Republic without the moral and material aid of the liberty-loving citizens of these United States.” 12

English support for the Confederacy was a further spur to Irish enlistment. The leading men of the United Kingdom were believed by many immigrants to be secession’s biggest backers. The French Compte de Paris visited the US and wrote that the Irish “looked upon the war…as a favorable opportunity for preparing to crush England.” 13

While Irish enthusiasm for the Union cause was high in 1861, not all nativists welcomed it. The Irish sometimes saw their attempts to enlist blocked by bigotry. For example, the quartermaster general of Wisconsin turned away Irish recruits. “There are enough young Americans to put down this trouble inside of ninety days,” he said, “and we do not want any red faced foreigners.” 14

Ninety days after the quartermaster said this, the need for hundreds of thousands more “red faced foreigners” in the army would be obvious.


1. The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers in the Union Armyby Susannah J. Ural, NYU Press, 2006, p. 15

2. Harpers Weekly Oct. 20, 1860

3. The Harp and the Eagle, p. 42

4. Civil War Citizens edited by Susannah J. Ural, NYU Press, 2010, pp. 102-103

5. The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers in the Union Armyby Susannah J. Ural, NYU Press, 2006, p. 51

6. Id. pp. 150-153

7. Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Col. Patrick R. Guiney edited by Christian Samito, Fordham University Press, 1998, p. 6

8. Id. p. 5

9. Civil War Citizens edited by Susannah J. Ural, NYU Press, 2010, p. 99

10. Id. 105

11. Id. 105
12. Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher by Michael Cavanaugh, Messenger Press, Worchester, Massachusetts, 1892, p. 369

13. Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union’s Ethnic Regiments by William Burton, Iowa State Press, Ames, Iowa, 1988, p. 70

14. The Harp and the Eagle, p. 70-71

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

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

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.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White


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2 Comentarios

  1. “Irish Catholics” — This is what the comment says, and that about sums up the extent of the vilification. The same animus was expressed to German Catholics, though they were not flooding into the country in significant numbers at the time.

    What you and most other Irish American historical writers (many of them dedicated Catholics themselves) fail to mention is that the most stridently anti-“Irish” around were none other than Irish Protestants, and that Irish Protestants make up the largest component of the Irish diaspora in this country.

    Another attempt to strip Irish ancestry from Protestant Irish Americans and hand it to the Catholics. Stop using terms like “the Irish” when you are referring to the Catholic minority. “Irish Catholics” will do fine.

    • Jonathan, the majority of Irish immigrants in the United States at the time of the Civil War were from the indigenous Irish community in Ireland, the people you refer to as “Irish Catholics.” There were many native born descendants of people whose roots went back to Irish Protestant migrations that had occurred earlier, but these people were by definition not immigrants. They were native-born United States citizens.

      As I have indicated elsewhere to you, this is not a site devoted to “People of Irish Ancestry.” It is a site about immigration and immigrants.

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