David T. Gleeson: Irish Confederates and the Meaning of American Nationalism

The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederacy, by David T. Gleeson[This article is crossposted at UNCPressCivilWar150.com]

Today we welcome a guest post from David T. Gleeson, author of The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America. A new history of the Irish in the Confederacy, The Green and the Grey evaluates the ambiguities and complexities of the Civil War experience for Irish Americans in the South. Taking a broad view of the subject, Gleeson considers the role of Irish southerners in the debates over secession and the formation of the Confederacy, their experiences as soldiers, the effects of Confederate defeat on Irish Americans and their emerging ethnic identity, and their role in the rise of “Lost Cause” ideology. Focusing on the experience of Irish southerners in the years leading up to and following the Civil War, as well as on the Irish in the Confederate Army and on the southern homefront, Gleeson argues that the conflict and its aftermath were crucial to the assimilation of Irish Americans in the region. Throughout the book, Gleeson draws comparisons to the Irish on the Union side, expanding his analysis to engage the growing literature on Irish identity in America.

In a previous post, Gleeson explored how Irish immigrants in Charleston “became southern” by participating in Lost Cause memorializing. In today’s post, Gleeson explains how studying Irish identity in the Civil War can shed light on American identity as well.

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In early November 1860 New Orleans resident Michael Nolan, an Irish immigrant originally from County Tipperary, but who now owned a coffeehouse in the French Quarter, campaigned hard for the election of National Democrat Stephen Douglas to the presidency. Nolan loved the Union, it seemed, and did not want it to break up. In the sectional crises of the 1850s the Irish, in both the North and the South, had been on the side of compromise and opposed to any extremist positions that might threaten the United States, which had provided refuge from political discrimination and economic blight in Ireland. Yet shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s victory in that election, Nolan and hundreds of fellow Irish New Orleanians marched through the streets in support of Louisiana’s secession. As a member of the Louisiana militia, in his case the Irish “Montgomery Guards,” Nolan had gone from being a defender of the United States to one of the “Republic of Louisiana.” He would go on to become a prominent Confederate officer reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, serving with distinction, before being killed in action at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Yet while Nolan and thousands of other Irish men from New Orleans were off fighting in Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee, others at home undermined the Confederate cause. Some guarding the city mutinied, allowing Union forces to occupy it without firing a shot. Most accepted the defeat with ease, and Union commander General Benjamin “the Beast” Butler found the Irish helpful in his running of the fallen city. Back at the front, Irish Confederate soldiers retained a reputation for being brave soldiers but were also more likely to desert than native Confederates. It seems that the Irish in the South could shed their American nationalism for a Confederate one, and, after defeat, take up the American again just as easily.

As an immigrant myself, I can attest that one’s sense of identity is heightened by the immigration experience. In your new country, even when your language is the same as the natives, you suddenly you have an “accent,” your religion and culture are different, and you must adapt to new social and political realities. Immigrants then give us valuable insights, not only into their own changing identity, but also that of the host country. Irish immigrants in the South had to become Americans and Confederates. They had to negotiate the cultural traits they brought from Ireland with the demands of loyalty to their new home. And it was this Irish cultural baggage which played the key role in binding them to the United States and the Confederacy.

Nolan’s militia company was named for General Richard Montgomery, a Dublin-born Anglo-Irish immigrant who joined the patriot cause in 1775 and became the American Revolution’s first famous martyr when he was killed at the Siege of Quebec at the end of that year. His name was popular with Irish militias and used to signify the Irish role in America’s founding. The Montgomery Guards of New Orleans stressed their Irish connections in the founding of the southern republic beyond just their title. They made sure to continue highlighting their Irish heritage by carrying with them a pike from the 1798 rebellion. This spear-like anti-cavalry weapon was the symbol of Irish rebellion against British rule in Ireland and had become so since its widespread use in the 1798 uprising when over 30,000 people died. As a local newspaperman who witnessed Nolan and his men marching in the city put it, “It was a glorious weapon which sixty-three years ago saw good service in Ireland.” The image of the Irish struggle was the most important one used in recruiting the Irish in the South and indeed in the North. The blessings of Catholic clergy, too, were far more important to Irish enlistment than any stirring pronouncements from Confederate politicians.

This constant use of Irish images of rebellion and militancy indicates the strength of Irish identity among Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century. It also speaks to the weakness of a Confederate one. The vast majority of Irish, including Michael Nolan, did not own slaves. Appeals to preserve the “southern way of life” were not going to work. Images of defending American homes did, however, have some resonance. Along with a wreath of shamrock, Nolan’s company’s flag also included the statement “Louisiana Our Home, Her Cause is Ours.” Nolan, it seems, accepted this wholeheartedly even to the point of dying in Pennsylvania to defend his new home in Louisiana. But, as with those at home in New Orleans who collaborated with Ben Butler, many of Nolan’s fellow Irish Louisianians abandoned the Confederate cause. Thanks to his leadership his unit had one of the lowest desertion rates of any in the Confederate army, but in general Irishmen were far more likely to desert than native-born soldiers. Their commitment to the cause was just not as strong. Along with desertion they were far more likely to take the oath of allegiance to the United States when captured. Their families on the home front too accepted Confederate defeat with ease.

All this evidence points not just to weakness of nationalism behind the Confederate state, but to shallowness of the American version too. The U.S. and Confederate governments needed to emphasize the connection of the Civil War to Ireland and Irish issues to motivate their respective Irish populations. Without the cry for Union, as Gary Gallagher has shown was a powerful motivator for many on the Federal side, the Confederates would have to emphasize personal and local connections to motivate natives just as they did with the Irish. As Federal forces conquered and destroyed the Confederacy, these connections frayed and broke, and many natives, as the Irish had done, would abandon the new nation and return to the fold of the old one.

David T. Gleeson is reader in American History at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. He is author of The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America and The Irish in the South, 1815-1877. He co-edits the blog The Atlantic Irish. Follow him on Twitter @dgleesonhistory.

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