Book Review: The Green and the Gray- The Irish in the Confederate States of America

The study of the Irish experience of the American Civil War has always been a popular topic, yet it is striking how many facets are yet to be explored in detail. Over recent years, historian David T. Gleeson has set his sights on one of these- trying to understand the Irish experience in the South. Having already given us the most comprehensive study of the Irish in the 19th century Southern states (The Irish in the South, 1815-1877, UNC 2001) he now brings us the highly anticipated The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (UNC 2013). It does not disappoint.

Research into the Irish and the American Civil War was for many years dominated by purely military histories, particularly of the Union Irish Brigade. This has also been true of studies of the Irish in the Confederacy. Recent times have seen a growth in work which attempts to contextualize Irish participation (and non-participation) in more detail, exploring aspects such as motivations, impacts, politics, religion and memory in conjunction with military experience to gain a fuller understanding of what it was to be Irish in the Civil War era. David Gleeson’s book sits firmly in this space.

The Green and the Gray by David T. Gleeson (UNC Press)

The Green and the Gray by David T. Gleeson (UNC Press)

For the majority of Irish people in 1860s America, the Civil War was something experienced from the perspective of the Northern states; of the 1.6 million Irish-born in the U.S. in 1860, only some 85,000 lived in areas that would go on to form part of the Confederacy. A further 95,000 Irish lived in the border states of Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. Given the small pool from which Irish Confederate soldiers could be drawn, the estimate of 20,000 Irish-born Rebels that Gleeson convincingly establishes is noteworthy in itself. Why did so many Irish in the South enlist? They were by and large not part of the slave-holding class and were generally anti-secession. As a group, the Irish in the Confederacy appear full of contradictions and complexities, and this comes across in the book. Generally hard-fighters on the battlefield, many seem to have been more than willing to take the Oath of Allegiance if captured, or to seek exemptions from service after a few months, based on their foreign citizenship. Some Irish communities on the home front also appeared all too ready to accept Federal occupation, much to the chagrin of their native-born neighbours.

The Green and the Gray begins with an assessment of Irish politics in the South prior to the Civil War. In ‘Reluctant Secessionists’ the views of some of the leading Irish political figures in the South are examined as is the Irish interaction with slaves and slaveholding. Particularly fascinating is Gleeson’s analysis of the voting patterns of largely Irish areas during the 1860 Presidential Election, which demonstrates that the majority of Irish were anything but rabid secessionists.

In ‘Irish Rebels, Southern Rebels’ it becomes clear that despite initial Irish reluctance to secede, once it happened the majority rowed in fully behind it. The types of motivational tools employed by recruiters are examined here- unsurprisingly drawing parallels between ‘historic’ Irish rebels in periods such as 1798 and the 1861 Southern rebels was high on the list. The majority of Irish lived in urban centres and they dominate the lists of ethnic Irish companies, which are examined in some detail. This chapter also explores the efforts of some Irish to avoid service, as well as those who joined the ranks as substitutes.

Chapter 3, ‘Faugh a Ballgagh! (Clear the Way!)’,looks at the Irish on the frontlines. As Gleeson highlights, ‘the story of the Irish Confederate soldier is filled with contrasting examples of bravery and treachery.’ Many Irish units fought incredibly well, often taking casualties that equaled or even exceeded native-born companies. Others seem to have lost their enthusiasm relatively quickly. Many Irish were not keen to change their enlistments from an initial 12 months to serve for the duration of the war, often seeking avenues to leave the army when this became a necessity. Conversely some Irishmen, such as Patrick Cleburne and Dick Dowling, performed martial feats that in later years would be seen as important demonstrations of Irish commitment to the Confederacy.

Those on the home front often found the war extremely tough, particularly given the low socio-economic status of many Irish in the South. In ‘Hard Times’, Gleeson examines the war from the perspective of Irish Confederate citizens. Perhaps the most famous Irish Confederate citizen was John Mitchel, an ardent supporter of both the Confederacy and advocate of slavery. Other Irish played key roles in supporting the Confederate war effort in a non-military capacity, serving in manufacturing and commissary positions. The desperate economic straits that many Irish found themselves in cities like New Orleans offers an insight into the harsh reality of the war for Irish civilians in the South. As the conflict progressed and started to go badly for the Confederates, some in the native press targeted the Irish for negative comment, particularly if they had been perceived as being less than enthusiastic regarding the Southern cause. As the prospects of defeat grew, it became apparent that the Irish were far more willing to accept a return to Union than many of their native compatriots.

The Catholic Church played a huge role in the lives of the Irish in 19th century America, and this was especially true of the Irish in the Confederacy. ‘For God, Erin, and Carolina’ looks at this fascinating aspect of the Irish experience and reveals that many of the Irish clergy were staunch supporters of the Southern Confederacy. Here we find men like Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston, who became a Confederate delegate to the Papal See and Father Peter Whelan, who would at one point administer to Union prisoners in Andersonville. The importance of the Church in encouraging Irishmen to enlist cannot be underestimated; it is also of interest to discover the waning of some Southern Irish Churchmen’s Confederate zeal as defeat loomed.

The final chapter in the book deals with the all important aspect of memory in the post-war years, and is particularly revealing given the prominence of many Irish in the Lost Cause. In ‘Another “Lost Cause”‘ Gleeson outlines how ‘in the commemoration of the Confederacy after the Civil War, the Irish in the South rediscovered a Confederate spirit they had lost during the conflict.’ Although the Irish were ready to accept defeat in 1865, they soon joined other former Confederates in attempts to stifle radical reconstruction and along the way found much to admire in the Lost Cause. Any ambiguities regarding Irish service were discarded as a new vision of Irish participation was forged. Irish-American’s like Father Abram Ryan helped to lead the way in commemoration of the Confederate cause. In many ways, the Irish became more ardent Confederates after the war than they had ever been during it.

What emerges in The Green and the Gray is the story of an immigrant community that in 1861 would largely have preferred to stay part of the United States, but which gave strong support to the Confederacy once war became inevitable. However, they were not Confederates to the core; they were willing to accept defeat and a return to the United States as the war dragged on. In the conflict’s aftermath, the realities of emancipation and reconstruction found many Irish ready to embrace the Lost Cause, setting in motion a period of idealised remembrance of Irish participation in the Confederacy.

David T. Gleeson’s book is an extremely important and significant study. It is the most comprehensive analysis of the Irish in the Confederacy by some distance, and stands to remain so for some time to come. By examining Irish participation ‘in the round’ he has done much to increase our understanding of the war from the perspective of the entire Southern Irish community, adding significant context to Irish military participation. As an Irish-born historian, David Gleeson is also unusual in that he is one of very few professional historians from this island who has chosen to examine in detail the Irish experience of the American Civil War, a war second only to World War One in terms of numbers of Irish who served in uniform. For anyone interested in a fuller understanding of the Irish in the era of the American Civil War, The Green and the Gray is an essential read.

*I am grateful to The University of North Carolina Press for providing a review copy of this book.

References

Gleeson, David T. 2013. The Green and the Gray- The Irish in the Confederate States of America. 307pp. 

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Author:Damian Shiels

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

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10 Comments on “Book Review: The Green and the Gray- The Irish in the Confederate States of America”

  1. pycarecen
    November 17, 2013 at 4:43 pm #

    The 20,000 Irish Confederates Gleason postulates seems highly suspect. Assume that out of 85,000 Irish in the Confederacy, half were female. That leaves 42,500 Irish males. Many of these would have been children, some would be elderly, and others would have been disabled. Immigrants tend to skew younger than the general population, but in the general population roughly 10% were too old to serve. About a third were too young. Let’s assume that only 25% of Irish fit into these age inappropriate categories, this would only leave a potential pool of male enlistees of 30,000.

    We know that many Irish claimed a non-citizen exemption from service early in the war, that many Irish left the South at the start of the war and that virtually no Irish immigrated to the CSA. Furthermore, the largest single concentration of Irish in the South lived in New Orleans, a city which fell under Union control before most of its Irish community entered the army. This would seem to have taken a large pool of potential recruits away from the Confederacy.

    Finally, Gleason’s own book notes frequent complaints from Confederates that the Irish were not doing their part. We know that during the 1861 recruitment in New Orleans the Irish did even supply a single all-Irish regiment.

    I have no inclination to run the numbers, and I assume that my own estimates are off, but I think Gleason’s are questionable.

    • November 18, 2013 at 9:02 am #

      Hey Patrick,

      Thanks for the comment! If I remember rightly based on his analysis it would have represented slightly over 50% of the eligible males enlisting. I think the major aspect here is that we will never know the true figures, the records are just too patchy and the data that was required (for us to retrospectively establish figures accurately) was often not recorded in the first place. Given that, I think any estimates will always be open to question. I felt the system he puts forward in the book was logical- it is certainly a far cry from the very high estimates that have often been put forward in the past (e.g. 50,000) which clearly have no basis in fact. In many ways it is a secondary point- be it 15,000 or 20,000 there does seem to have been a relatively effective turnout initially with enthusiasm waning pretty quickly (hardly surprising given the realities of the conflict!).

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

      • November 19, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

        I note that 32% of Irish immigrants in the Confederacy lived in Louisiana, almost all in New Orleans or its environs, and nearly all of whom were in Union occupied areas of the state by 1862.

      • November 20, 2013 at 8:43 am #

        Hi Patrick,

        You’re right, New Orleans and Louisiana was the major centre of Irish immigrants in the South. I suppose the question there is how many had enlisted before the city fell, and of those who were left how many were likely too. It is an interesting question generally- I am not sure if there has been work done on how the city’s capture impacted on the overall numbers (native and immigrant) who served in Confederate forces, in comparison with other cities that were not occupied so early- I would be surprised if there hasn’t. The answer might potentially lie in looking at those overall numbers in any event.

        Kind Regards,

        Damian.

  2. November 18, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    I’m no expert on mid-19th century US demographics, but I do believe that, for example, Charleston and Savannah had decent size Irish populations as of 1860, and both were cities that saw an inordinate proportion of their service-age males enlist in the Confederacy. That doesn’t mean that the Irish in either city followed suit, but it would seem a possibility. I don’t know what the Irish makeup of other port cities in the South such as Mobile, Pensacola or Galvaston was, so I can’t hazard a guess one way or the other.

    Excellent review of Gleeson’s work; I’ll have to put it on my to-read list.

    • November 20, 2013 at 8:33 am #

      Hi,

      You are quite right the Irish centred in urban areas- there was also a decent population in Galveston I believe. Glad you enjoyed the review- it is certainly worth a read!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. November 23, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    I have heard figures of 40,000 Irish Enlistees in the Confederate Service.Apart from Irish regiments,i.e. 6Th Louisiana Infantry, there appears to have been Irish representation in a lot of Southern Units. The Irish in Missouri were largely Southern in sympathy.It would be very difficult to surmise what exact figure.Love the Site

    • November 25, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

      Thanks Aidan, really glad you enjoy it! There certainly was Irish representation in a lot of Southern units, although the figure of 40,000 is too high given the Irish population in the South at the outbreak of the conflict. There are some really interesting stories of the Irish in Missouri, particularly from a pro-Southern perspective.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  4. Tj O Conchúir
    January 18, 2014 at 3:49 am #

    The Irish in Missouri provided several predominantly Irish regiments for the Union, so I highly doubt the Irish in Missouri were largely southern in sympathy.

  5. January 23, 2014 at 2:23 am #

    While I think pycarecen would normally be spot on demographically, I don’t know if his figures hold true for an antebellum immigrant population. It seems to me that the recent Irish in the South would skew male and adult. More so even than in the North.

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