Scroll down for a complete list of The Immigrants’ Civil War articles.
When Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, it was not clear what New York’s best-known regiment would do. The New York State Militia’s “Fighting Irish” 69th Infantry Regiment was one of the most controversial, and beloved, military units in the United States. But its loyalty to the Union and its willingness to submit to Lincoln’s control were in doubt.
Today we think of militias as paramilitary groups attached to extremist political movements. Historians like to compare Civil War-era militias to today’s National Guard: part-time soldiers under state control who could be federalized in times of national emergency. Upon closer examination, however, we find that the militia units of 1861 were not exact counterparts of either.
The 69th New York was formed in 1849. The city was flooding with refugees from the Potato Famine and exiles connected with the failed 1848 revolt against British rule. Irish immigrant leaders saw the formation of an Irish military unit as a way of focusing a dispirited community on a future in which they would be able to challenge their overlords.
The leadership of the regiment would come from a cadre of recent nationalist exiles associated with the Young Ireland revolutionary movement who believed that Irish in their homeland and in the growing diaspora needed an armed force to win respect.
As anti-immigrant violence broke out in the 1850s, New York’s vulnerable Irish turned to the 69th as a guarantor of their community’s physical preservation. The regiment’s tight discipline and fine ceremonial performance were a source of pride in a community that felt itself despised as primitives by its Nativist foes.
The 69th also contained the seed of hope within it that one day Irish soldiers from America would return to Ireland to help liberate their homeland. Its officers told their men that they were not simply training to perform the ordinary duties of an American militia regiment, they were also preparing for the day they would take arms against the English.
It was a non-violent battle against British royalty that put the 69th in the national spotlight.
In 1860, Michael Corcoran, the commander of the 69th at that time, refused to follow the order of the governor of New York to march in a parade honoring the visiting Prince of Wales. Corcoran had been involved in a peasant guerrilla movement in Ireland and he and his men were determined that they would not honor the future leader of the country they believed had allowed more than a million Irish to die miserable deaths from starvation.
New York state authorities arrested Corcoran and ordered him to face a court-martial. His defense only angered them more:
“Although I am a citizen of America, I am a native of Ireland,” Corcoran said. “In the Prince of Wales I recognize the representative of my country’s oppressors.”1
A flag carried by the 69th when they left NY bore the cryptic date “11th Oct. 1860.” This was the day the unit had snubbed the Prince of Wales.
The incident widened an already gaping chasm between the Irish American poor, who rallied to their champion Corcoran, and the state’s elite, who saw the Irish as rebellious, alien, and radical. The rich affiliated themselves with the Republican Party. The Irish did not.
The 69th New York, like most Irish institutions, had become politically identified with the Democratic Party, the party that defended the immigrant against the Know Nothings, the workingman against the bosses – and the slaveholder against the abolitionists.
It was the unit’s identification with the Democrats that would lead many New Yorkers to wonder where its loyalties would lie in the hours after Fort Sumter. That, and the fact that Corcoran still faced prison for his slight against British royalty.
The 69th would soon go off to war and its very unit number would become synonymous with heroism. But before it left New York, Colonel Corcoran would speak at an April 21, 1861, meeting of the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish nationalist society.
Corcoran, who a few months later would be one of the first heroes of the Union cause, told the assembled Brothers that if they were not already in military units, they should avoid service in the war. Their purpose, he believed, was to liberate Ireland, not die in a war between fanatical native-born secessionists and abolitionists. He warned that if the Irish community was infected with war fever, its best men would be killed before they could ever serve their native land and all their preparations for Ireland’s freedom would be wasted.2
The months between his speech and the Battle of Bull Run would test whether Irish America heeded Corcoran’s advice and stayed out of the army, or followed Corcoran’s example and marched off to war.
1. The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army by Susannah Ural Bruce published by NYU Press (2010) pp. 44-45
2. Id. at p. 58; Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union’s Ethnic Regiments by William L. Burton published by University of Iowa Press (1988) p. 112
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