The Ages and Origins of the Union’s Irish Soldiers

In 1869 Benjamin Apthorp Gould published Investigations in the Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers. Very much a scientific work of its time, it explored topics such as the nativity and ages of Union volunteers together with examinations of physical characteristics such as stature, complexion, dimension and proportions of the head and pulmonary capacity, to name a few. The Irish are frequently referenced in the work; this post concentrates on the data regarding the States where Irish soldiers enlisted, what age they were when they did so and how tall they were.

Gould’s data was garnered from the records of the Sanitary Commission, and was partly based on the efforts of Irishman T.J. O’Connell, a graduate of University College Dublin. After he left the Union army O’Connell had served as Chief Clerk of the Statistical Bureau in the U.S. Sanitary Commission from the summer of 1863 until April 1865. Ill health brought on by his military service had forced his resignation, and eventually led to his death. Gould specifically acknowledges O’Connell’s contribution towards compiling the data upon which his study was based. (1)

Among the fascinating range of tables in Investigations are statistics on the stature of natives when compared to the Irish and Germans. Thus we can learn that the average height  of the 746 Irishmen who enlisted in New Hampshire was 66.610 inches (5.55 feet) compared with 66.373 inches for Germans (5.53 feet, based on 299 recruits) and 68.418 inches for natives (5.7 feet, based on 5,239 recruits). (2)

The table in Investigations that looks at the comparative distribution of Irish soldiers by age examines data based on 83,128 records. The information serves to provide a glimpse of the age profile of Irish-American soldiers in Northern armies.

Age Last Birthday

Total in United States Army

Below 17

84

17

187

18

4,345

19

4,519

20

4,095

21

7,550

22

6,445

23

5,235

24

4,360

25 & upward

46,308

Total

83,128

Table 1. Comparative Distribution of Irish Soldiers, by Age (adapted from Table XL, Investigations) (3)

It is striking from the table that the majority of those Irish recorded were over the age of 25, a trend that is seen in many other groups. Information is also available with regard to where Irishmen joined the Northern military. Although it was not possible for the statisticians to exclude bounty-jumpers from their totals (which may have led to some duplication) the figures do provide a picture of the States which provided the strongest Irish contingents. Unsurprisingly New York was overwhelmingly dominant, with over 50,000 Irishmen recorded as enlisting there. It was  followed by Pennsylvania, Illinois and Massachusetts.

Place of Enlistment

Number of Irish

Maine

1,971

New Hampshire

2,699

Vermont

1,289

Massachusetts

10,007

Rhode Island & Connecticut

7.657

New York

51,206

New Jersey

8,880

Pennsylvania

17,418

Delaware

582

Maryland

1,400

District of Columbia

698

West Virginia

550

Kentucky

1,303

Ohio

8,129

Indiana

3,472

Illinois

12,041

Michigan

3,278

Wisconsin

3,621

Minnesota

1,140

Iowa

1,436

Missouri

4,362

Kansas

1,082

TOTAL

144,221

Table 2. Nativities of United States Soldiers, by State (adapted from Table III, Investigations) (4)

Aside from comparing physical attributes such as height, eye colour and hair colour between nativities it is also possible to use the tables in Investigations to gain a range of information on a single nativity, such as the Irish. This is the case with the table below on mean height. This information would seem to suggest that the ‘average’ Irishman in the American Civil War was in the region of 5 feet 5 inches tall.

Age

Number

Mean Height (inches)

Mean Height (feet)

Under 17

84

62.586

5.215

17

187

65.344

5.445

18

4,345

65.818

5.485

19

4,519

66.309

5.526

20

4,095

66.612

5.551

21

7,550

66.809

5.567

22

6,445

67.030

5.586

23

5,235

67.071

5.589

24

4,360

67.144

5.595

25

4,679

67.106

5.592

26

3,760

67.131

5.594

27

3,596

67.192

5.599

28

3,994

67.206

5.600

29

2,400

67.202

5.600

30

3,730

67.103

5.592

31-34

7,621

67.242

5.603

35 and over

16,528

67.090

5.590

Total

83128

66.951

5.579

Table 3. Mean Heights of Irish soldiers by age (adapted from Table VI, Investigations) (5)

Naturally much of the information in Investigations has to be treated with due caution, but nonetheless it does contain some interesting data that can be used to increase our understanding of the Irish in the Northern forces during the war. Future posts will explore other aspects of the information in Investigations with a view to reproducing relevant tables in the ‘Resources’ section of the website.

(1) Apthorp 1869: viii; (2) Ibid: 128; (3) Ibid: 182; (4) Ibid: 27; (5) Ibid: 105;

References

Gould, Benjamin Apthorp 1869. Investigations in the Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers. 

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Categories: Research, Resources

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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6 Comments on “The Ages and Origins of the Union’s Irish Soldiers”

  1. July 5, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    Interesting stuff. I wonder how reliable the info is, though. Adult Irish immigrants of this period rarely seem to have reported their ages in military docs, census recs, passenger manifests, etc, in a consistent way, but I’ve never heard a good explanation why. I know many did know exactly when they were born, but does that alone account for the chasm of sometimes 10+ years in variation from one rec to another? They didn’t tend to do it in a consistent way to make themselves seem “older” when they were young and “younger” as they aged either, nor was it a matter of rounding to the nearest multiple of ten or five.

    Another thing that might have been “off” in this table would have been the number of minors (under 18). In studying the 25th NY, I’ve found quite a few Irish-born soldiers who, based on the 1860 Census, plus subsequent pension and census records, were almost certainly underage (some as young as 13). Irish who immigrated as children seemed to have reported their ages in a more consistent fashion throughout their lives, which made this a less confusing process. In the company I focused on, at least 10% of the enlisted men were most likely underage, not even including the musicians. About half of these boys were born in Ireland. It was also interesting to see that in this company, all of the underage ’61 recruits were listed as “age, 19,” not 18 as one might assume. But of course one company is not a representative sample.

    Gould’s table is also lacking the huge spike in 18-19 year-olds the overall figures on Union recruits show, which I likewise found surprising.

    • July 7, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

      Hi Brendan,

      That is certainly the big question with the data- particularly given that much of it is drawn from what we know to be only a proportion of recruits. I agree with you on the younger ages- it is the age where inaccuracies are most likely as many would have lied to make themselves appear older. The information for the most part is I believe drawn from their enlistment records so from that respect I think it does have some value, but it most certainly has to be treated with caution. I am interested in your work on the 25th New York and the numbers of Irish- did you have ancestors in the unit? I would love to know more about the Irish in it!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. July 9, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

    Hi Damian,

    I was first drawn to this regiment while trying to discover whether my gg-grandfather William Hamilton, an Irish immigrant to NYC, fought in the Civil War. There’s a good chance he’s the same “William Hamilton” on their roster, but I have not found enough info to say one way or another. The research ended up taking on a life of its own, and now I’m working on a novel from the perspective of a fictional soldier in this regiment. The work you’ve done on the Irish experience in the war has been a huge help here!

    Unfortunately, there aren’t biographical details for most of the men of the 25th NY in the Muster Roll Abstracts. From what I’ve gathered from a few emails with the National Archives, there are no records of “Descriptive Rolls” for most most of these soldiers. I’ve had to comb through pension records, the censuses, and city directories to paint a better picture of who these soldiers were, but there are big gaps–some men, especially those with common names, I have not been able to find any info on. But they undoubtedly included many Irish natives, perhaps as much as half, in addition to many 1st gen Irish-Americans. The regiment had a reputation in their division for being a bunch of “roughs” and gangsters who generally kept to themselves (with the exception of their brawl with the 118th Pennsylvania).

    I’d be happy to share the stories I’ve uncovered about some of the Irishmen in the regiment, like that of Richard Ewing, a 15-year-old Dublin native whose father vouched for him being “19” and promptly pocketed his bounty. We talked at one point about a bio of their first colonel, James Kerrigan, but I realized I couldn’t do any better than Tyler Anbinder does in his great book Five Points, and I would’ve probably relied on his work for about 90% of what I would’ve written.

    Thanks and regards,
    Brendan

    • July 14, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

      Hi Brendan,

      Thanks for that! The stories of regiments like this with a number of Irishmen in them but not regarded as ‘Irish’ regiments are really what the Irish experience of the war was all about, as it was the most common. I remember our discussions on Kerrigan- somethign we might revisit at some point! The story of Richard Ewing sounds utterly fascinating, I would love to hear more about him- was that information from pension records? He sounds like the perfect opportunity for a guest post if you were interested!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. July 18, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

    The info was from his “Navy Survivors’ Certificates” file from the National Archives, which I accessed via Fold3.com. And actually, now that I’m re-reading it I realize it was Richard’s little brother John whose father took his bounty upon his enlistment in the 51st New York in 1864; the 25th didn’t offer a bounty in ’61. John was also 15-16 at the time. John is mentioned in the file because he advocated for his brother’s pension claims when the bureau was giving him grief for the age discrepancies. I’ll do a write-up on both of them and email it to you.

    • July 18, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

      That would be brilliant Brendan it is a super story- looking forward to it!

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