Civil War Top 100

"(The 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..."

-William F. Fox

The 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 shared. 

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 ethnic groups.

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 complex one.

Mid 19th Century Immigration

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 Irish immigrants 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, dock-workers, coachmen, 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 "Protestant Crusade" 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.

Political Factors

The 1850s saw the rise of a national 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 poverty, 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 ladder.

Economics of Ethnicity

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."

No Irish Need ApplyOn the contrary, however, many employers found blacks acceptable while noting in their advertisements for help that "No Irish Need Apply." Society's 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 from 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 superiority.

When the secession crisis came, then, the Republican party 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.

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