Irish Brigade was) perhaps the best known of any
brigade organization, it having made an unusual reputation for dash and
gallantry. The remarkable precision of its evolutions under fire, its
desperate attack on the impregnable wall at Marye's Heights; its never
failing promptness on every field; and its long continuous service,
made for it a name inseparable from the history of the war..."
Irish Experience in the Civil War
he Irish Brigade was not just another Civil
War unit. Its
military reputation alone set it apart from the great mass of the Union
Army of the Potomac. But what made its story particularly distinctive
was the Irish Catholic identity that most of its members
Nearly 150,000 men of
Irish birth or heritage eventually fought in defense of the Union, but
most served in predominantly "American" units where their bravery and
contributions were less likely to be distinguished from those of other
The Irish Brigade was
specifically created to preserve this special identity and to advertise
the important contributions to the Union cause that Irish Catholics
made. Its founders were anxious to demonstrate to skeptical Americans
the extreme devotion that Irish immigrants felt for their adopted land.
But their motives were
mixed, and sorting out their allegiances was not easy. The story of
Irish-American attitudes toward the issues of the Civil War is a
The Irish were not the likeliest of
candidates to rush to the
Union war effort. Most were recent arrivals who had not exactly been
welcomed with open arms. The terrible years of the potato famine had
pushed more than two million of the Irish overseas, with the United
States becoming their most popular destination.
From 1846 to 1854, more than one million
found their way to America. Desperate poverty caused many of these
refugees to crowd into tenements and "shanty towns" in the worst
neighborhoods of Northern cities. Willing to accept poor wages and
terrible working conditions, they soon drove blacks out of the most
menial jobs available.
By the 1850s, most common laborers,
draymen, waiters, cooks, barbers and domestic servants in the North
were Irish by birth or heritage. Elsewhere, Irish workers dominated
canal and railroad construction, and poured into the mining industry.
Their poverty alone might have made them
outcasts, but the
Catholic faith of the Irish also subjected them to the scorn of
Protestant America. Anti-Catholicism had deep roots in the young
nation's history. The earliest English settlers of North America had
been steeped in a culture that was intolerant of Catholics.
In the early 19th century, an organized
of "No-Popery" began to take shape. The antebellum era was punctuated
by fierce anti-Catholic riots, the notorious burning of a convent, and
the founding of political parties dedicated to stemming the tide of
Catholic immigration. Dread of a Papal conspiracy to undermine America,
together with economic fears of wage competition from impoverished
workers, stirred powerful emotions against the massive Irish
immigration of the potato famine years.
The 1850s saw the rise of
political movement that
evolved into a "war against the immigrant." The new American Party,
whose members became better known as the "Know-Nothings" for their
standard answer to questions about the party's secret rituals, very
nearly became the dominant force in U.S. politics by their appeals to
fear and mistrust.
Know-Nothings attacked the Irish for their
Catholicism, Democratic politics, intemperance, criminality, devotion
to Ireland, and attempts to sow discord between the United States and
Britain. With a political tide rising for the abolition of slavery, the
Know-Nothings eventually lost their clout, but never stopped
distrusting and discriminating against the Irish.
As staunch Democrats, the Irish would have
opposed any other
political party, but their rejection of the Republicans, who supplanted
the Know-Nothings, rested on an even firmer foundation. The Irish were
well aware that most of the nativists and temperance reformers who made
up the American Party had found a new political home among the
Republicans. Moreover, the Republicans had dedicated themselves to
liberating blacks from slavery, a development that would threaten the
precarious foothold the Irish had on the lower rungs of the social
An Irish hatred of blacks
stemmed largely from the intense economic competition between the two
ethnic groups in America's unskilled labor market. When the famine
Irish flooded into U.S. cities, they pushed black labor out.
African-American leader Frederick Douglass complained in 1855 that
"every house sees us elbowed out of some employment, to make room
perhaps for some newly arrived immigrants, whose hunger and color are
thought to give them special favor."
however, many employers found blacks acceptable while noting in their
advertisements for help that "No Irish Need Apply."
contempt could not have been made more clear than it was in an ad for
household servants that sought applicants of "any country or color
except Irish." The anger and frustration that the Irish felt
experiencing such prejudice was often turned against African-Americans,
and observers remarked that the Irish detested them even more than
other whites who looked down on blacks from a position of social
When the secession crisis came, then, the
could hardly expect to gain an enthusiastic following among the Irish
for its war to subdue the South. Yet Irish-Americans in the North
staunchly supported the Union at the outbreak of war, and they answered
the country's call to arms as readily as any group in society.