It could be ventured that almost all students of the American Civil War are aware of the role played by the Irish. Those who have a little more than passing acquaintance with the Civil War know of the famed Irish Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher. Less well known is that Meagher raised his brigade to perform a dual duty: to help restore the Union and end the Southern Confederacy and then to go and free their native Ireland from the oppressive boot of English rule.
Equally surprising is the number of those of Irish ancestry who wore the Confederate gray. This writer recently became aware of a little known fact: When the boys of the Irish Brigade went up against the famed Sunken Road at Marye's Heights during the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg, there were two Southern units composed of Irishmen opposing them.
Major General Patrick Cleburne, the "Stonewall" of the Western Theatre, was an immigrant from Ireland who settled in Arkansas before the outbreak of war and managed to become rather wealthy. Cleburne was a former Corporal of the British Army and his division was not only among the best trained but also among the best shots on either side for either theater.
The courage, tenacity, compassion, obedience to orders and resolve of the Irish volunteers in the American Civil War is a legacy all those of Irish descent can be justly proud of, regardless of which side they may favor or which their ancestors might have fought for. This writer's maternal great-grandfather served with the Union artillery in the trenches at Petersburg during the last year of the War in the East in addition to a great-granduncle who served with the Seventh Regiment, New Jersey Volunteers, as part of the division commanded by Major General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker of the 3rd Army Corps, Army of the Potomac. This writer's great-granduncle took part in the Peninsular Campaign and also in the disastrous campaign of the Army of Virginia culminating in the resounding defeat at Second Manassas and the bloody attempt to swoop up the remaining portions at the Battle of Germantown (Chantilly). The same individual received a serious wounding at or near Centreville, Virginia on September 2, 1862 that put him out of the war and ended his military service. Yet, the author of this column reenacts as a Confederate, when by family rights he should be wearing Union blue. (That is not to say he is not proud of the service of his forebears.)
Even the great Stonewall Jackson was of Irish descent, coming from hardy Scotch-Irish stock from the northern part of Ireland; Sam Grant could count Irish ancestry as well.
Why did the Irish fight in such numbers under Union blue and not under the Stars and Bars? The Irish traditionally favored the underdog and, in the beginning of the contest, many Irish favored the South as they saw the North attempting to act much as the English had in their native land of Ireland. However, when Britain began considering support of the Confederacy, many Irish threw their lot in with the North. The tale is true of many an Irish immigrant arriving in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia, and enlisting in the Union Army fresh off the boat. The question was once asked of a Confederate who knew of the numbers of Irish in the Union armies and the response was, "Well, you'uns had more Irish than we'uns did."
Your writer will be enjoying a weeklong holiday in Ireland next week and therefore will not write another installment until early August. He hopes to be able, if the tour itinerary will permit, to look up the birthplace of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher and take a picture of it. Meagher was a fascinating person; an article on this unlikely hero of the Civil War will appear as part of The Picket Line sometime next month.