David T. Gleeson: Immigrants and American Wars: The Irish Confederate Experience

gleeson_green[This article is crossposted at UNCPressCivilWar150.com]

Our guest post today comes from David T. Gleeson, author of The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America. Why did many Irish Americans, who did not have a direct connection to slavery, choose to fight for the Confederacy? This perplexing question is at the heart of Gleeson’s sweeping analysis of the Irish in the Confederate States of America. 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 for them and their emerging ethnic identity, and their role in the rise of Lost Cause ideology.

In the following post, Gleeson explores how Irish Charlestonians’ participation in Lost Cause mythologizing helped solidify their acceptance into southern culture.


When immigrants and other offspring fight in American wars, it’s seen as a key element to them integrating into the American society and politics. One is familiar with the appearance of Irish and Mexican American soldiers in the U.S cavalry in westerns such as Fort Apache (1948) or the obligatory representative of every white ethnicity in World War II movies such as Stalag 17 (1953) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), where natives and ethnics learn to respect each other in the tempest of war. Indeed, Christian Samito, a legal historian of the Civil War era, in a study of Irish and African American soldiers in the Union army, has described the whole experience as “becoming American under fire.”

My own work for The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America indicates that military enlistment and prowess on the battlefield were key elements of Irish integration into the Confederacy. The performance of Captain William Ryan and his “Irish Volunteers” of Charleston, for example, at the Battles of Secessionville in 1862 and again at Battery Wagner in July 1863, in defense of their adopted city, earned the Irish praise in the local press. Even one newspaper, which had been sympathetic to the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings in the 1850s and had been a critic of the Irish response to the Confederacy, had to recognize “the gallant charge led by Captain Ryan and the Irish Volunteers.” When killed in action at Battery Wagner, another Charleston correspondent stated that, “no nobler soldier” had fallen in battle. As it was for the African American 54th Massachusetts on the Federal side, immortalized in the movie Glory (1989), the fight at Wagner on Morris Island was just as important for the image of Irish in Charleston.

And yet, the Irish in Charleston, and elsewhere in the Confederacy, were willing to accept defeat and the return of the Union with ease. The Irish Confederate units of Charleston have higher desertion rates than those filled with natives. On the home front, one of Charleston’s leading wartime Unionists was P. J. Coogan, an Irish merchant in the city. His unionism was so unrepentant that he had to flee the city in 1864 for fear of arrest. After the surrender of Charleston in February 1865, he returned to the city and was elected to the first Reconstruction South Carolina State Legislature. With Irish votes (he was active in the local circle of the Fenian Brotherhood), he was also elected to city office and became a supporter of African American participation in politics. It looked that the Irish were rejecting the dominant racial ethos of the anti-Reconstruction white southerners and were moving toward those Radical Republicans who truly wanted to create a “new South” based on a multiracial democracy.

The Irish in the postwar South ultimately rejected that move, and a key element of that rejection was their embrace of the “Lost Cause.”  It was in memorializing the war, and their Confederate part in it, that the Irish in the South became full citizens of the New South. On the day after St. Patrick’s Day, 1878, for example, the Irish of Charleston unveiled their memorial to the Irish Volunteers, which commemorated their service during the War of 1812, the Seminole wars of the 1830s, and most importantly in the Civil War. The day was filled with music, prayer, and speeches lauding the Irish and the Confederacy as well as the defeat of Radical Reconstruction. The fundraising brochure for the event listed all the members of the Volunteers from the Civil War, particularly noting all those killed in action. What it did not acknowledge, however, were the deserters and those who took the oath of allegiance to the United States before the Confederate surrender in 1865. The deserters’ names were listed, but no mention was made of them in the brochure or on the day. Instead, the Irish Volunteers were “true patriotism personified fighting and dying for the southern Confederacy with all the ardor and devotion of knights of fair renown” and thus “stood before the [white] people of Carolina, the representatives of all that is great and brave and true.”

Well, their actual ardor and devotion were mixed, to say the least, but on this day of memorial, the reality was forgotten. The result was that Irish Charlestonians could claim their place as full members of the post-Reconstruction New South, one dedicated at its core to white supremacy. Rather than becoming southern “under fire,” they became southern by misremembering, reimagining, and reinterpreting the real experience of being under fire. For the Irish in the North too, their military prowess had been sullied by the performance of some of their commanders as well as opposition to the war such as the New York City draft riots. It was their efforts after the conflict to memorialize their experience that the myth of the “Fightin’ Irish” was preserved. African Americans also struggled to have their effort recognized in an America keen on reconciliation between the sections, and as a result the fight to end slavery became lost in the dominant narrative. Historical memory is vital then to understanding the links between ethnic integration and war, and the Irish Confederates are a classical example of this reality.

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.