When the Irish stepped up to help save the Union

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When the Irish stepped up to help save the Union

2017-03-13 15:28

As crowds line the route of this year's St. Patrick's Day parade, consider the story of Irish immigration through the prism of the Union Army's Irish Brigade.

First some background. When many Americans think of Irish immigration, imaginations flock to the 19th century's crush of humanity chased from the Emerald Isle by famine and political oppression. But this forgets the early contributions of the "sons of Erin" in the nation's founding.

Commodore John Barry, one of the fathers of the American Navy, traveled to the United States from County Wexford. John Dunlap, the official printer of the Continental Congress whose presses the broadsides of the Declaration of Independence rolled off, was born in County Tyrone. Eight Irish Americans, three born in Ireland, counted themselves as signers.

John Dunlap printing of the Declaration of Independence ca. 1776. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Treasures Collection.

Of the foreign-born delegates who met in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention a decade later, fully half hailed from Ireland.

But in the 19th century, the scale and pace of immigration dramatically increased. According to censuses, a third of all the immigrants to the United States from 1820 to the outbreak of the Civil War called Ireland home.

They were not always welcomed with open arms. "We should build a wall of brass around the country," bellowed John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, to keep out these "Catholic alien invaders."

Photograph of William Magee with his mother Mary Louise Campbell Magee, and sisters. The family were Irish immigrants to Philadelphia. From the Magee Family Photographs [PG141]

In political cartoons, Irish were portrayed as drunken, brutish, and - as Catholics - blind subjects of the pope. Of all the groups the Know-Nothing Party despised, it reserved especial vitriol for the Irish.

Tensions boiled over in Philadelphia in 1844 with the city's Nativist Riots, quelled only by the intervention of militia.

Ca. 1844 chromolithograph titled "Riot in Philadelphia, July 7th, 1844." From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania medium graphics collection [V64]

In spite of these hardships, the Irish overwhelmingly answered the call of the Union Army following the outbreak of the Civil War.

The first casualty of the conflict was, in fact, an Irishman. Daniel Hough was killed at Fort Sumter by a premature cannon discharge while lowering the American flag.

More than 150,000 Irish and Irish Americans would fight for the Union. Though the numbers are difficult to verify, about 25,000 enlisted as Confederate soldiers.

“Flags of the Irish Brigade, Army of the Potomac” from McCarter’s “My Life in the Army.”

This pride of heritage was no better exemplified than by the Irish Brigade, "probably the best known of any brigade organization, it having made an unusual reputation for dash and gallantry," observed Civil War chronicler William Fox.

Officially the Second Brigade, First Division, Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the brigade marched into battle under a green banner emblazoned with a golden harp, a sunburst, a shamrock wreath, and the Gaelic motto, Faugh a Ballagh, or "Clear the Way."

Portrait of William McCarter from the frontispiece of McCarter’s “My Life in the Army.”

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania owns the memoirs of William McCarter, the only enlisted man in the brigade to record his experiences. Born in Derry, 22-year-old McCarter enlisted in 1862, "because of my love for my whole adopted country, not the North, nor the South, but the Union, one and inseparable."

A stammer led McCarter to focus on his writing and penmanship skills, which attached him as an adjutant to the brigade's commander, Gen. Thomas Meagher, a former Irish revolutionary.

His memoirs capture actions taken at Charleston and Snicker's Gap, as well as the Battle of Fredericksburg, during which McCarter himself was severely wounded.

Ca. 1876 etching titled “A Lull in the Fight," from Life Studies of the Great Army by Edwin Forbes.

While convalescing from his injuries, he recorded "seventeen pieces of broken bone and a piece of the bullet worked their way out of the wound at intervals of about one piece every three months."

Penetrating portraits of Gens. Ambrose Burnside and Winfield Hancock, as well as Meagher, also fill McCarter's pages, making his memoirs an invaluable resource for those interested in the conflict.

"War is truly said to be a sad necessity," he said. "But civil war, be it long or short and under almost any circumstance, is indeed sadder and more desolating in its effects."

The conspicuous courage of the brigade - and the ensuing press accounts - did not sunder negative Irish stereotypes. But, as McCarter wrote, that was neither his supreme goal nor that of the brigade. Instead, "my full determination was to assist in any way that I could to prevent the Union's dissolution by the traitors of the North, as well as those of the South."


This article originally appeared in the March 12, 2017 Philadelphia Inquirer as part of HSP's weekly series, Memory Stream

Join HSP on Thursday, March 23 for Becoming U.S. – Age and Assimilation, a free program exploring the many ways age and generational status affect immigration and assimilation experiences.

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