The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier

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The North was an ethnically polarized region at the start of the Civil War.Know Nothings hated immigrants and many immigrants feared freed black slaves.

The need to quickly raise an army to preserve the Union meant that men from all over the North were thrown together into the Army of the Potomac, the Union force charged with protecting Washington, DC. Nativist bigots served next to the Irish immigrants they despised and Irish Democrats were forced to confront slavery right where it existed.

The 19th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was raised in Boston and the industrial cities north of it, and drew some of its recruits from the Irish working class. Commanding the infantry was Colonel Edward Hincks, an anti-immigrant newspaper editor. In his prewar career, he had been famous for insisting that immigrants be barred from serving in the army.

Long after the war, Captain John B. Adams of the 19th Mass. wrote of an incident during which a soldier called out Colonel Hincks’ on his earlier prejudices, to Hincks’ embarrassment. According to Adams:

“We had in Company A an Irishman, who was one day detailed for headquarters guard. The night was dark and rainy and the morning found Mike, pacing his beat in front of the colonel’s tent, wet to his skin. Colonel Hincks came out and Mike said, “Colonel, will you allow me to speak a word with you?” “What is it?” said the colonel. “Well, colonel, I wish you believed as you did before the war. Then you believed in putting none but Americans on guard and here I am, an Irishman, wet to the skin, having been on guard all night.” The colonel laughed and retired. Colonel Hincks had edited a Know-Nothing paper whose motto was, “Put none but Americans on guard.”

The need for immigrant soldiers made any attempt by old Know Nothings to exclude them from service look ridiculous. All but the most ignorant understood that if immigrants shed their blood to save the Union, then their place in the society would inevitably rise.

The change in status for blacks was less certain in early 1862.

This 1850s print falsely quotes George Washington saying, “Put none but Americans on guard tonight.” It was popular among Know Nothings who demanded that the foreign-born be barred from the military. At the start of the Civil War, roughly half of the men in the United States Army were immigrants.
This 1850s print falsely quotes George Washington saying, “Put none but Americans on guard tonight.” It was popular among Know Nothings who demanded that the foreign-born be barred from the military. At the start of the Civil War, roughly half of the men in the United States Army were immigrants.

The 19th Massachusetts was stationed at Camp Benton near the Maryland border with Virginia, an area that depended on slavery for its wealth. Early in the war, Union soldiers were supposed to return escaped slaves to their Southern “owners.” Even though many Irish and native-born soldiers had been opposed to abolitionism when they enlisted, seeing slavery up close began to change some minds.

Winslow Homer’s painting of Camp Benton in Maryland, where the 19th Massachusetts trained.

Captain Adams remembered one incident early in the war that foretold the end of slavery:

“We were in a country where there were many slaves…and nearly every day some citizen would come into camp hunting for his runaway negro. One day a man came to the colonel and was sure one of his negroes was in our camp. Colonel Hincks sent for Sergeant McGinnis of Company K and ordered him to assist in the search. By the look the colonel gave McGinnis it was understood that the slave was not to be found. McGinnis went into the woods with the man.”

McGinnis took the slavedriver out of sight, cut a tree branch and beat him, crying out, “Do you suppose we left Massachusetts and came out here to hunt negroes?”

Sergeant McGinnis was acting in direct contradiction of army policy, and the slaveowner knew it. Captain Adams chronicles the exchange:

“The man was indignant and said he would report McGinnis to the colonel. “Go ahead and I will go with you.” Both went to the colonel, and the citizen told his story with tears in his eyes. Colonel Hincks turned to McGinnis and said, “Sergeant McGinnis, is this true?” “Colonel, do you think I would be seen doing such a thing?” was the reply. “No,” said the colonel; “Sergeant McGinnis is a man of truth, and I must take his word. You have deceived me, sir; leave this camp and never enter it again.” The man, fearing McGinnis might get another chance at him, left as quickly as possible.”

Union regiments, originally raised simply to preserve the United States, would become armies of liberation by the end of 1862 and engines of remarkable social change.

Sources

Reminiscences of the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment by Capt. John G. B.  Adams, Wright, Potter Printing Company, Boston (1899)

For short blog on the problems associated with Union troops being forced to return escaped slaves, visit Civil War Emancipation.

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?

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