Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom

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1812

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In the spring of 1862, the Irish Brigade slowly made its way up the Virginia Peninsula towards the Confederate capital at Richmond. The men of that famous brigade were not the only Irish in the massive Union army of the Potomac. There were Irish immigrants scattered throughout many different units, and there were whole Irish companies and regiments. One of the most prominent was the Irish 9th Massachusetts from Boston.1

When Massachusetts had been under Know Nothing control in the 1850s, Irish militia companies had been banned by the governor. As the Civil War began, new governor John Andrews welcomed the immigrants into the ranks and supported the formation of Irish units. The 9th Massachusetts United States Volunteer Regiment was formed from the core of the disbanded Irish militia. Its very existence was a rebuke to anti-immigrant bigotry.2

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The flag of the 9th Massachusetts mixes American and Irish symbols on an Irish green flag. In the upper left hand corner are the words “Erin Go Bragh” which translate as “Ireland Forever,” a traditional Irish nationalist motto. (Source)

When the 9th arrived on the Virginia Peninsula, its officers and men eagerly looked towards linking up with other Irish Unionists. The letters home from the unit often refer to sightings of Irish serving in other regiments. The men of the 9th seemed particularly fascinated with the commander of the Irish Brigade, Irish nationalist hero Thomas Francis Meagher.3

Patrick Guiney, who would soon command the 9th wrote home from the peninsula that deserters told him that not all the Irish in Virginia were fighting for the Union. There were some Irish serving in a nearby Confederate artillery battery. The Confederate deserters told him that “the sight of our Green flag has made some commotion among them.” The Irish Confederates seemed to have second thoughts about firing on their own countrymen and they were stirred by the sense of Irish nationalism that the 9th’s green flag inspired.  Guiney wrote that he hoped they would “come boldly over where they belong,” assuming that the natural place of an immigrant was in the ranks of the United States army, not in the army of the rebel slave states. However, he added that “I ought to not expect so much, as many of them doubtless have families in the South,” implying that the men’s families would face punishment if they deserted.4

As the Irish units moved towards Richmond, they were passing through what one Irish soldier said was a land so pleasant that “in times of peace the inhabitants…must have indeed enjoyed their country life.” But now, he wrote, “its inhabitants had fled leaving everything in the face of two contending armies…”5

The most valuable “property” that was left behind was enslaved African Americans.

The Virginia Peninsula, which contains iconic colonial towns like Williamsburg and Yorktown, had the oldest experience of black enslavement of any place in the United States. The first slaves had been landed in America in 1619 at what became the Union army base of Fortress Monroe during the Civil War. Fort Monroe is at the extreme eastern end of the peninsula. Local tourism officials like to say that the area is “Where Freedom Was Born” but it is also where black slavery was introduced.6

When Union forces pushed back their Confederate enemies, they disrupted a two hundred year old system of violent control over the lives of the enslaved. As “masters” fled, slaves struck out for liberation, fleeing their plantations and seeking asylum with the Union army.7

As Union officers put them to work, many of the blacks received the first wages they had ever been paid in their lives.

Officers of the Irish Brigade hired African Americans to work as cooks and servants, jobs they had done as slaves for which they were now paid.8

“The slaves who lived on the plantations throughout the surrounding country, and received news of the approach of the Union army—“Massa Linkum’s sojers”—were now coming in from all quarters,” a soldier of the Irish 9th recalled after the war. To care for them, “camps were organized where they had to be taken care of, and fed with army rations.”  The immigrant soldier depicted the scene:

These dark-skinned wanderers included men, women and children of all ages and sizes. They were well received and treated kindly by the soldiers. Some of the young fellows attached themselves to the officers of the different regiments and became faithful servants. Most of the slaves appeared happy and contented with their new-found freedom, and were ready to go anywhere except back to their old servitude. The confidence which the poor innocent blacks placed in the Union soldiers was quite touching. That they knew and felt that they were among friends and on the road to freedom, was freely expressed and sincerely shown.9

The government in Washington had not yet determined that slaves were to be free, but Union soldiers and the black families escaping slavery were creating a situation that demanded that Lincoln decide the question of emancipation.

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This recruiting poster from the summer of 1861 offers a range of attractions for men to join the 9th Mass. At the very top, in huge letters, is the announcement of “Irishmen to the Rescue” immediately followed by the words, “Irish Americans of Massachusetts.” The clear appeal was to ethnic pride and solidarity as well as to the historic role the war provided for “Irishmen” to save the United States. Toward the bottom of the poster, also in bold letters, is the announcement that the 9th will fight under a “Green Flag,” indicating that there was official state and army approval of the unit maintaining a distinct Irish identity. Directly underneath this, is the news that the Irish soldier will be ministered to by a “Chaplain of the Old Faith,” in other words, by a Catholic priest. This told him that the care of his soul before possible death in battle would be in the hands of a priest of his own religion, that he would not be tormented by an evangelical minister as were Irish in other units, and that his religious freedoms were to be respected. The poster also offers a small “bounty” of $100 for all new enlistees. (Source)

“Run Moaner Run” was a song sung by enslaved people encouraging them to run away from their slave drivers and run to freedom. This performance is by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Sources
1. Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Patrick Guiney, edited by Christian Samito, Fordham University Press (1988), To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Ticknor and Fields (1992).

2. . Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Patrick Guiney, edited by Christian Samito, Fordham University Press (1988).

3. . Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Patrick Guiney, edited by Christian Samito, Fordham University Press (1988).

4. . Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Patrick Guiney, edited by Christian Samito, Fordham University Press (1988) p. 91.

5. The History of the Ninth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantryby Daniel Macnamara published by E.B. Stillings (1899) p. 87.

6. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012).

7. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America) by Glenn David Brasher, University of North Carolina Press (April 2, 2012).

8. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by D.P. Conyngham published by McSorley and Company (1867) p. 129.

9. The History of the Ninth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantryby Daniel Macnamara published by E.B. Stillings (1899) p. 87.

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

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