In 1863, Ireland was on the brink of famine. Poor harvests for three consecutive years had left many destitute, and disaster loomed. In response to the threat, relief committees that had previously been established to channel funds to assist the worst afflicted areas were reactivated. The large Irish population in the United States, many of whom were Famine victims themselves, were not to be found wanting in coming to the assistance of those at home. The cause was championed by the leaders of Irish-American communities, and soon Irish Relief Funds emerged across the war-stricken North.
Irish soldiers were also quick to put their hands in their pockets to help out those less fortunate. Irishmen in the British army of India collected rupees for the appeal, while those soldiers stationed in Shanghai, China sent on £108 sterling. The Irishmen in Union blue were no different to their red-coated brethren. Even so, it is remarkable that despite the ongoing hardships of life at the front, thousands were willing to contribute to ease the suffering of the Irish poor.
The 1863 efforts were unfortunately not unique, as conditions in Ireland in 1862 had also seen the need for assistance for the most impoverished. In that year the Fenian movement played a leading role in coordinating collections across the U.S., with the money being passed to the clergy to ensure that it reached those who needed it most. However the relief efforts of 1863 were coordinated on a grand scale, and vast sums were gathered. By the time the central Irish Relief Committee in Ireland took stock of the contributions it had received at the end of August that year, the contribution of the Irish in America was clear:
|China & Shanghai||£108||15||8|
Table 1. Contributions to the Irish Relief Fund by country as of August 1863.
The Irish in the United States, perhaps because they were so aware of the consequences of Famine, were by far the biggest respondents. The Irish-American community made sure that they used their Democratic Party connections to pull in some big attractions in support of the relief efforts, and they didn’t come much bigger than George McClellan. In April 1863 the former commander of the Army of the Potomac and future Presidential candidate addressed a crowd at New York’s Academy of Music on the topic. The charismatic leader knew how to please his audience:
I knew that you had assembled for the noblest of all purposes- that of charity towards suffering brethren in a distant land. I came here simply to evince my sympathy in your cause; for I have strong and peculiar reasons for feeling an intense sympathy for and interest in all that relates to Ireland and the Irish [Great applause.] I sprung myself from a kindred race. I have often seen the loyalty of the Irish to their Government and to their General proved . I have seen the green flag of Erin borne side by side with our own Stars and Stripes through the din of battle. [Cheers.] I have witnessed the bravery, the chivalry, the devotion of the Irish race, while I was a boy, on the fields of Mexico, and in maturer years on the fields of Maryland and Virginia. [Loud cheers] It has often been my sad lot, pleasant withal, to watch the cheering , smiling patience of the Irish soldier while suffering from disease or ghastly wounds; and I have ever found the Irish heart warm and true. [Cheers].
Many of the relief fund donations were recorded in contemporary American newspapers, identifying the individuals and groups within the community that had contributed. This record also allows us to build a picture of the different military units who made donations, and how much they were able to give. The table below provides a list of some of these military contributions as recorded in publications such as the New York Irish-American Weekly.*
|17th Wisconsin Infantry||$1302.50|
|69th New York N.G.A. (Irish Legion)||$874|
|155th New York Infantry (Irish Legion)||$807|
|88th New York Infantry (Irish Brigade)||$771.50|
|42nd New York Infantry||$493.50|
|General Corcoran and staff (Irish Legion)||$460|
|63rd New York Infantry (Irish Brigade)||$355|
|15th Independent New York Battery||$336|
|164th New York Infantry (Irish Legion)||$327.50|
|4th United States Infantry||$318.50|
|170th New York Infantry (Irish Legion)||$254.50|
|Fort Pulaski Garrison, Georgia||$231.75|
|37th New York Infantry (Privates)||£121 12s. 6d.|
|2nd United States Infantry||$128.50|
|94th New York Infantry||$114|
|9th Massachusetts Infantry (Co. D)||$100|
|15th New York Infantry (Co. C)||$90|
|Telegraph Builders of Rosecrans’ Army||$80.50|
|United States General Hospital||$61|
|5th Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry||$52.50|
|15th New York Infantry (Co. D)||$50|
|10th Ohio Infantry (1862)||$40|
|3rd United States Infantry||Not Specified|
|28th Massachusetts Infantry||Not Specified|
|69th New York Infantry||Not Specified|
Table 2. Military Contributions to the Irish Relief Fund by military group (identified to date).
This information provides a fascinating insight into the distribution of Irishmen throughout the Union military, and undoubtedly represents just a small portion of the actual contributions made by the North’s armed forces. One of the typical letters accompanying these donations was that compiled by the 4th United States Infantry:
Camp of the Fourth U.S. Infantry,
Near Falmouth, Va., May 8, 1863
To the Editors of the Irish-American
Gentlemen- You will very much oblige the members of this regiment by publishing in your next issue of the Irish-American the enclosed list of contributors to the Irish Relief Fund, with the amount contributed by each party opposite their respective names. The money was transmitted some time since, by the Treasurer, to Archbishop Hughes, and has by this time, I presume, been handed to the proper parties appointed to receive it in New York. The sum of $318.50 was collected by Sergeants John Riley, P.H. McCarthy, Dennis Kelly, and John W. Rolands. Hoping you will grant the desired favor. I remain, very respectfully yours,
Thomas F. Quinn
Drum-Major 4th Infantry, Secretary.
Such letters clearly show the strong Irish character that remained a characteristic of the regular regiments of the United States army during the Civil War. They also form important historical documents, as included with the letter are the names of the 114 soldiers of the regiment who contributed, together with the amount each put forward. Interestingly these men were not all Irish, or even members of the Irish-American community. A number of those who donated bore German names, and clearly felt empathy for the suffering of their fellow Europeans.
These men who handed over anything between $1 and $10 would have been forgiven for not concerning themselves with the plight of those still in Ireland. They were in a position where death could come at almost any time, and indeed many of them would not live to hear of the contribution they had collectively made to the Relief Fund. Of the 182 men of the 42nd New York Infantry (Tammany Regiment) who made contributions, at least 35 subsequently died during the war- 13 of them as a result of the Battle of Gettysburg fought that very summer.
The survival of these documents provide us with the names of hundreds of soldiers and sailors who gave money to the Irish Relief Fund. Part 2 of this post will look at these names and attempt to identify the ultimate fate of some of these men, who took time during the bloody year of 1863 to think not of the war that surrounded them, but of the potential Famine that loomed across the Atlantic, and those they perceived to be less fortunate than themselves.
*The paper articles looked at for the compilation of this list are shown below. Please note that there were undoubtedly many other military contributions- it is intended that this information will form part of the ‘Resources’ section on the site and will be added to over time.
**Names have been transcribed using spellings as they appeared in the contemporary newspapers. Given the vagaries of print in 1863 some of the names and sums donated were difficult to discern, making some errors unavoidable.
Irish American Weekly 2nd August 1862 ‘Aid for Father Lavelle’
Irish American Weekly 14th February 1863 ‘Impending Famine in Ireland’
Daily National Intelligencer 9th April 1863 ‘The Suffering Poor of Ireland. Relief Meeting- Speech of Gen McClellan’
New York Herald 29th April 1863 ‘The Irish Relief Fund’
Irish American Weekly 2nd May 1863 ‘Relief for Ireland from the Army of Rosecranz’
Irish American Weekly 2nd May 1863 ‘Relief from the Irish Brigade’
New York Irish American 9th May 1863 ‘Relief From the Tammany Regiment’
Irish American Weekly 9th May 1863 ‘Irish Relief Fund. Charity in the Camp’
Freeman’s Journal 15th May 1863 ‘American Sympathy for Irish Distress’
Irish American Weekly 23rd May 1863 ‘Irish Relief Fund’
Irish American Weekly 23rd May 1863 ‘Fourth United States Infantry’
Irish American Weekly 6th June 1863 ‘Relief for Ireland, from the Irish Brigade and 94th N.Y. Vols.’
Irish American Weekly 27th June 1863 ‘The Central Relief Committee’
Boston Herald 5th August 1863 ‘Soldiers’ Contribution for the Relief of Ireland’
Irish American Weekly 1st August 1863 ‘Relief for Ireland’
Irish American Weekly 8th August 1863 ‘Contributions in the Diocese of Boston’
Irish American Weekly 29th August 1863 ‘Irish Central Relief Committee. Full and Final Report of Its Operations’