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