What Were the Motives of the Irish in the American Civil War

Monument to the Irish Brigade, Gettysburg battlefield.

The choices made by potential Irish soldiers were motivated by devout beliefs. The irony of Irish countrymen fighting on opposite sides during the Civil War is that both were fighting for the cause of their beloved Ireland. This was done; however, by the use of different methods so as to accommodate the stance of either the Union or Confederacy. Southern Irishmen saw the Confederate struggle against the Union as that of Ireland against England; to gain independence from an oppressive central government. The Irish who remained loyal to the Union did so to display gratitude to their adopted country, forge an alliance between Ireland and America, and to train Irish troops for a future rebellion against England. Upon examination of these motives, it is evident that, though both sides were fighting for the love of Erin, Confederate Irishmen were doing so symbolically in support of an ideology while the Irish in the Union were fighting with a pragmatic purpose.

By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, only 84,000 of the 1.2 million Irish in America resided in the South. As many Confederate records did not survive through the war, it is generally agreed upon by historians that approximately 20,000 Irish immigrants served in the Confederate Army; nearly one quarter of the southern Irish population. Conversely, less than ten percent (150,000) of the more than one million Irish immigrants living in the northern states served in the Union Army.[1]It can be argued that one reason for the shy turnout when President Lincoln issued the call to arms was politics.

Politics and Rhetoric

Flag of the Know Nothing movement.
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Predominantly staunch Democratic supporters, Irish born residents of the northern states had little inkling to support the newly formed Republican Party. During the early 1850s, the then dominant Whig party split into factions based primarily on the attitude toward European-Catholic immigrants. Due to the rise in immigration rates, there was a resurgence in nativist parties popping up throughout the country; the most prominent being the Know Nothings. This group was initiated begun by nativist Protestants as an exclusive society. When asked about the events that took place during the secret meetings of the society, members simply replied, “‘I know nothing.’”[2]The primary purpose of the party was to curtail the power of the immigrant vote. They were outspoken in their prejudice of immigrants and took every opportunity to promote nativism through the media. Theodore Parker, a prominent Protestant from New England, openly declared that, “‘The Irish are ignorant…idle, thriftless, poor, intemperate, and barbarian.’”[3]Most Irishmen in the U.S. were well aware of the prejudices and hatred directed at them by the Know Nothings and welcomed support from any source. Overall, the majority of backing came from southern Democrats, including Mississippi Representative Jefferson Davis.

Davis, being a savvy politician, wasted no time in courting Irish sympathies for the Confederate cause. As the southern states belonged almost exclusively in the control of Democrats, Irish born residents found a natural ally in their struggle against the Know Nothing Party. Concurrently, the Democrats were also taking advantage of every opportunity to sway the Irish towards a pro-slavery stance. As the election of 1860 grew nearer, Virginia Governor Henry Wise appealed to the sense of Irish nationalism felt by many of his constituents by claiming that the anti-immigrant Know Nothings were simply, “‘the minions of British abolitionists.’”[4] This exacerbated the feelings of animosity held by the Irish towards the British Empire and also to the strong feelings of advocacy they had regarding slavery.

Irishmen on both sides were equally racist. Both saw freemen as competition for the already scant, low-wage, unskilled jobs available. Further, keeping African Americans relegated to their positions as slaves guaranteed a permanent social underclass. This second reason held more significance in the South than the North. The reason southern Irish, and immigrants in general, did not face the severity of racism felt by their northern counterparts was due to the presence of chattel slaves. Regardless of the region in which one lived, after Abraham Lincoln was elected on November 6, 1860, each section of the U.S. appealed to the Irish in its own manner; the South on a symbolic basis while the North did so from a practical standpoint.

Mitchel and Meagher

John C. Mitchel as part of the Young Ireland Movement, 1848.

Ironically, the men who possessed the most influence over their regional Irish population both reached America through identical routes. Thomas Francis Meagher and John C. Mitchel were both prominent instigators of the Rebellion of the Young Irelanders in 1848; an uprising and futile attempt at Irish independence. Meagher and Mitchel were both tried and convicted of treason and had their death sentences commuted to prison terms on Van Damien’s land; that is, present day Tasmania, Australia. Meagher escaped and reached New York in 1852 while Mitchel did the same just one year later. After working together in New York to promote an awareness of the Irish cause, their paths veered off in different directions. Mitchel headed south and through a series of events began writing opinion pieces for a newspaper, while Meagher stayed north to hone his oratorical skills on Irish audiences. When the guns of war sounded at Fort Sumter, the former countrymen displayed the vast differences in their individual ideals.

Mitchel used his considerable influence over his fellow Irishmen in order to launch a propaganda campaign in support of the Confederacy. While still in New York, Mitchel averred that the Great Famine was a “deliberate genocidal policy enacted and encouraged by the British government.”[5] After moving to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1855 and later Richmond, Virginia, he continually reinforced the genocide hypothesis in the minds of Irish born southerners. As the war drew closer, he introduced a new theory to his southern brethren in order to guarantee their alliance to the Confederacy. He opined that, “‘in national character the North is more English, the South more Irish.’”[6]By linking these two thoughts less than ten years after the conclusion of the Famine, Mitchel created an explosion of Confederate patriotism in the southern states. He manipulated the Irish of the South into believing that the cause of the Confederacy was akin to the cause of Ireland. Meagher made a different appeal to his Irish New Yorkers.

Thomas Francis Meagher.

With the departure of his friend Mitchel and the support of Bishop John Hughes and the Catholic Church, Thomas Meagher went from being a passive southern sympathizer to an active and outspoken advocate of the Union. Meagher felt a great deal of gratitude for his adopted country and worked to instill that same feeling among his fellow Irishmen. Though jobs were scarce, wages were low, and racism was rampant, the Irishmen who made it to America were alive. Perhaps due to his political fervor or life on Van Damien’s land, Meagher was a staunch Unionist and without hesitation enlisted in company K of the 69th New York Volunteer Regiment. The 69th engaged in combat at the First Battle of Bull Run. It was during this fight that the regiment lost its commander, Michael Corcoran, to an enemy prison camp after he suffered a wound to his leg.[7] After this Union loss and an even greater loss to the 69th, Meagher returned to New York to recruit what he hoped to be an all Irish brigade. The oratory skills for which he was renowned did not fail him as he fired American patriotism into Irish hearts and minds.

When the 69th returned to New York after the defeat at Bull Run, they were feted with a hero’s welcome from their adopted city. In order to bolster recruitment and support for the northern cause, Meagher accepted the invitation to speak at a “grand and enthusiastic festival,” that was being held to support the 69th’s widows and orphans.[8]He urged his fellow Irishmen to “rise in defence [sic] of the flag,” that had harbored them safely from the “poison of England’s supremacy.” Like his southern counterpart, Meagher also invoked the name of England to further his cause. Though Meagher was sincere in his words of gratitude, he also had an agenda that was to benefit Ireland in future endeavors. He, like Corcoran before him, saw the American Civil War as an opportunity to train Erin’s sons on the battlefield so as to avail Ireland’s rebels with skilled and battle hardened soldiers.

Corcoran and Meagher were not alone in their loyalty to America or in their foresight for Ireland’s future. Color sergeant Peter Welsh served with the 28th Massachusetts Regiment, which was part of the Irish Brigade, from September 1862 until he was wounded at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. During his time with the army, he was the author of hundreds of letters to his wife, Margaret. A letter dated 1863 to his father-in-law, who was still in Ireland, succinctly addressed the duality of the Irish motives for participating in the Union Army. In response to his father-in-law’s question of why it was necessary for Irishmen to participate in another country’s war, Welsh remarked that “When fighting for America we are fighting in the interest of Irland [sic] striking a double blow cutting with a two edged sword.” Aside from being a fertile training ground, Welsh also viewed America as a potential ally for Ireland in her struggle against England. The sergeant saw America as “Irlands refuge Irlands last hope [sic],” and warned “destroy this republic and her hopes are blasted.” Welsh believed that if Ireland were to become free “the means to accomplish it must come from the shores of America.”[9] He spent the next several pages emphasizing that without a strong Union army, the Confederacy would prevail, thus rendering the American republic obsolete, along with any hopes for an independent Ireland. Although the beliefs of men such as Meagher, Corcoran, and Welsh were farsighted and practical, the metaphoric rhetoric employed by southern propagandists was equally effective.

Irish Racism

Many southerners, immigrant and native alike, have held firm that the move towards secession and ultimately war was due to the South’s refusal to relinquish their states’ rights and succumb to an overbearing central government. Conversely, the Irish members of the northern Army were fighting solely for the preservation of the Union and to uphold the United States Constitution. 1863 challenged the commitment of most Irish immigrants while it enlightened and opened the minds of others.

Regimental flag of the 69th New York, Irish Brigade.

The casualties suffered at Antietam and Fredericksburg, coupled with the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation was more than some Irish Unionists were willing to tolerate. Many felt as though the Irish Brigade and other Irish regiments were being exploited and overused during the most dangerous battles. They were even more outraged with the Proclamation as they were adamant in their stance against fighting a war to free slaves. The last straw came in March 1863 when the Enrollment Act was passed. This conscription act differed from the South’s in that immigrants in the North were not excluded from the draft. Adding to the fury of northern Irishmen, most of whom were at the level of poverty, was the stipulation in the Enrollment Act that a draftee was allowed to pay a substitute to take his place. As most Irishmen barely had the means to feed their families, and the reports of the latest battles were grim, tempers flared and the cities of the North boiled over. The most infamous example of the explosion in the North is the New York Draft Riots. The hostilities, primarily perpetrated by the Irish, were directed at the draft office and a “colored” orphanage. During these three days in July, people were killed, offices were destroyed, and homes were looted. These hateful and destructive acts naturally reflected poorly on the Irish population as a whole thereby erasing the progress made by the heroic soldiers towards bringing respectability to Erin’s children.

A sketch from Harper's depicting the 1863 Draft Riots in New York.

The Irish immigrants in the North began to rescind their support of the Union due to the events of 1863. The Irish Brigade was but a skeleton of what it was a year prior and the country as a whole was tiring of war. Two years earlier in Boston, the 9th Massachusetts regiment came into the city as a unit from what was then called Long Island, in Boston Harbor. The regiment had completed their training and were in the city to march on parade before heading back to the island to await orders. As reported in the Boston Pilot, an Irish Catholic newspaper, when the 9th was sailing out of port an American born bystander remarked, “There goes a load of Irish rubbish out of the city.”[10] Regardless of the wounds, deaths, deprivations, or disease endured by Irish immigrants, some nativists refused to see these men as anything but “rubbish.”

At nearly the same time the 9th Massachusetts was being called rubbish, Thomas Meagher was appealing to Irishmen in New York to support the Union cause. He passionately asserted that, “‘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.’” This one statement made clear Meagher’s two primary motives in advocating for the perseverance of the Union: his devotion to the United States and his plans for Ireland’s future. Unlike those Irish who reacted with violence to the Emancipation Proclamation, Meagher’s intelligence prompted him to reconsider slavery. Although never a true supporter of the South’s “peculiar institution,” Meagher at one time was a passive supporter of the rights the southern states demanded. In an 1863 letter to his friend Patrick Guiney of the 9th Massachusetts, he described the Democratic Party, of which he was once a staunch member, as a “‘selfish and conscienceless faction.’” Later the same year, Meagher’s position on slavery was at last made clear when he exclaimed, “‘Thank God! That disgrace has been averted.”[11] Meagher’s acceptance of slavery was due in part to his unwavering support of the Union and the Constitution. He was well aware of his status among the Irish community and used it to his full advantage when advocating for Union causes, especially those that were in the best interest of Ireland.


After travelling to New York and various points in Europe, Mitchel returned to Ireland where he died March 20, 1875.Thomas Meagher accepted the offer to be Territorial Governor of Montana. He held office from 1865 until his death on July 1, 1867. He boarded a boat after having been sick for several days and met his death when he fell into the Missouri River. The freezing waters presumably took Meagher’s life immediately, though his body was never recovered.[12]

Independence for Ireland did not come to fruition until a full 57 years after the American Civil War ended. Meagher, Mitchel, Welsh, and so many others had long since left the earth when Ireland became a sovereign nation, through its own efforts. Mitchel used words to symbolically promote the cause of Ireland. The orator Meagher transformed himself into a soldier and actively led men like Welsh for the pragmatic cause of Ireland on America’s battlefields.


  1. David T. Gleeson, “‘To live and die [for] Dixie’: Irish Civilians and the Confederate States of America,” Irish Studies Review 18, no. 2, (May 2010): 140, accessed September 26, 2013, http://web.ebscohost.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/ehost/0-a927-7b9c0ec1cf50%40sessionmgr4&vid
  2. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 135
  3. Jay P. Dolan, The Irish Americans: A History (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008), 62.
  4. David T. Gleeson, The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 14.
  5. Gleeson,The Green and the Gray,19.
  6. Gleeson, The Green and the Gray,21.
  7. D.P. Conyngham, The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns, ed. Lawrence Frederick Kohl (1866; repr., New York: Fordham University Press, 1994), 41.
  8. Conyngham, 48.
  9. Lawrence Frederick Kohl and Margaret Cosse Richard, eds., Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh; Color Sergeant, 28th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers (New York: Fordham University Press, 1986), 102. For the complete text of this letter see pages 100-104. Welsh wrote this letter one month before he participated in the battle of Gettysburg.
  10. Christian G. Samito, Becoming American Under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), 105.
  11. Paul R. Wylie, The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 204-05.
  12. For a full description of Meagher's death, see Wylie, 304-331.

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