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The Coming Of The Green
The Irish built America’s roads and canals, fought in its wars, and triumphed over poverty and discrimination: it was a grand battle indeed
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
Two factors killed it. The first was the difficulty of devising an antiforeign plank acceptable to all the different sections of the country. The second and more important factor was that the big question before the United States was not the political power of the Irish immigrant but the slavery of the American Negro. The Know-Nothing party tried to straddle the slavery question in devising a national platform and failed miserably. By 1860 the party had disintegrated.
Up to the moment that Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter, the Irish in America had been proslavery and inimical to Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican party. They formed, for President Lincoln, a most embarrassing bloc of northern voters—numerous, vocal, powerful, and aligned with the southern slavery faction. The alignment was remarkable—an alliance between the propertyless Irishmen, in their congested city slums, and the propertied southern planters, with their mansions and their vast estates.
But it was not love of the southern planter but fear of the southern Negro that decided the Irishman in his stand supporting slaverv and opposing Lincoln. Although by this time many of the earlier Irish immigrants had managed to raise themselves in the economic strata, the vast bulk of them were still day laborers, using the pick and the shovel and the maul, their wages constantly depressed by the influx of more of their countrymen. They were afraid that the Negro slaves, released in time from bondage, would come north, undercut their wages, and even take away from them the fifteen hours’ hard work a day they depended on for their living.
On the continued bondage of the Negro depended the salvation of the Irish. That was the laborer’s view. Anyone who wished to liberate the slaves was no friend of the Irish.
This being their attitude, it was expected that the Irish immigrants would not fight for the North when hostilities started. But hardly had the war broken out before the Irishman began to enlist.
The reason was the objective of the war as announced by President Lincoln in his first call for volunteers. The war was being fought to “save the Union,” Lincoln said—that is, to save the United States of America from dissolution. The Irish in the northern states were certainly in favor of that.
Added to this deep motivation were several others. There was the Irishman’s love of fighting. There was the Irishman’s sense of outrage that the South was apparently going to try to enforce its will upon the North by war. There was the growing suspicion (as the war continued) that England would come in to side with the South. Fighting for the Union, then, offered a prospect of striking, indirectly, a blow for Ireland. There were the excellent bounties offered to men who would enlist—amounting to well over a year’s pay for most Irishmen. And there was the belief, encouraged in both the Union and Confederate armies, that the War Between the States would provide the finest military experience for Irish soldiers, who could then invade and free their own country.
The arguments that stimulated the Irishman to join the Union Army applied in many instances to Irishmen in the southern states, providing reasons for joining the Confederate Army. The Irish flocked in great numbers to both sides. In the South the Irish conceived that the new Confederate States of America, exercising their perfect right to secede from the Union, were being prevented from doing so by force of arms. This was just like what took place in the old country, where, by force of arms, Ireland was being kept within the United Kingdom of Great Britain, against the will of the Irish. Bounties offered in the South represented much more than any man could hope to earn in a year, as they did in the North. And the southern Irishman had no more wish to see the slaves freed than his northern fellow.
On both sides, the Irish often fought, as did their fellow Americans, with sword-bright courage. They emerged from the Civil War with a reputation for being extremely hard to discipline, but also with a reputation for fighting fiercely when the need arose, regardless of the odds against them. Around their camps they were not the best of soldiers. They did, perhaps, more drinking and more roistering than their by no means completely disciplined non-Irish comrades. But told to storm a position or hold a line, they did so with a careless, laughing courage that brought words of praise even from the war correspondents of English newspapers.
Some 400,000 foreign-born—the equivalent of forty divisions—helped to save the Union, and according to a Sanitary Commission report issued in 1869, of these, 144,221 were natives of Ireland. These figures, of course, do not include first- and second-generation Irishmen or others in the Union Army of Irish descent; so the Irish contribution was plainly a mighty one. The Sanitary Commission report divides the statistics of Irish soldiers into the states where they enlisted. New York enrolled 51,206; Pennsylvania, 17,418; Illinois, 12,041; Massachusetts, 10,007 (the equivalent of a modern division); Ohio, 8,129; Wisconsin, 3,621; and Missouri, 4,362.
There was heavy recruiting by both sides in Ireland as the war wore on, and immigrants right off the ship were quickly cajoled to take up a musket and fight for a country of which they knew little or nothing. They were remarkably willing to do so, as the statistics show, and a big inducement, apart from the bounty money, was the promise that there would be an Irish priest as chaplain for every regiment.