Books on Irish regiments in the Civil War have long focused on the Eastern Theatre, most specifically on those units in the Army of the Potomac who formed the Irish Brigade. Although the Western Theatre is now beginning to ‘see some action’ in terms of books on the Irish experience, it has tended to focus on individuals such as Patrick Cleburne. A notable exception from a Confederate perspective is Ed Gleeson’s Rebel Sons of Erin, a history of the 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. James B. Swan’s Chicago’s Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War has now stepped up to provide us with a view of the war in the West from the perspective of the Irish who served the Union.
The 90th Illinois was raised in the latter part of 1862, at a time when enthusiasm for volunteering had long since passed. The book provides an honest and highly informative account of the early weeks of the embryonic Legion. Far from experiencing a rush to the colors, it was a long hard battle to get the Regiment off the ground at all- the unit struggled not only with attracting recruits but also with keeping them, with desertion commonplace while they remained encamped in Illinois. It was against this somewhat inauspicious backdrop that the Legion, still understrength, finally went to war. They were to spend the early portion of their service guarding the Memphis and Charleston Railroad; when they did eventually move towards Vicksburg they did not take a direct part in the siege, although they bore witness to it. They participated in the Siege of Jackson, but it was to be at Missionary Ridge in November 1863 that the Regiment’s true baptism of fire took place, having the misfortune of advancing into a hail of shot and shell at Tunnel Hill. From there they took part in the Atlanta Campaign before experiencing Sherman’s March to the Sea and through the Carolinas. At war’s end they were among the troops who marched as part of the Grand Review in Washington D.C., before their eventual return to Illinois.
The author describes the actions in which the 90th participated with skill and clarity, but the books greatest strength is in adroitly portraying the everyday life of soldiers in the West. To the fore in this are two of the activities that preoccupied the lives of most Civil War soldiers- marching and sickness. Surely few units in the war could have matched the incredible distances traversed by the Legion, mainly on foot, which Swan calculates to be a staggering 2,600 miles. Equally, it is apparent just how real a threat illness posed, as reflected both in the Regiment’s returns and in the fears of some of its members.
Swan has successfully mined the letters and correspondence of a number of the officers and men to create a narrative that reflects the reality of their experience. These include the attempts of one woman to join the Legion disguised as a man; the story of Captain Patrick Sarsfield Real, an officer in the 90th, whose brother had died at Shiloh serving the Confederacy, and of Captain Peter Casey, who discovered during the arduous campaigning that he wasn’t cut out for army life.
The 90th Illinois did not achieve the fame or glory of some other regiments on the field of battle, which is one of the reasons this book is so appealing. The absence of large-scale encounters for much of the history allows Swan to focus on the more mundane and everyday aspects of regimental life, often missing from other histories. We learn of the interaction between members of the regiment (not always friendly), with the people of the South, and with the people of Illinois. James Swan’s book is more than simply a history of the battles in which the Irish Legion fought, it is a history of the war they experienced. I have no hesitation in recommending it for anyone interested in this aspect of the American Civil War.
Swan, James B. 2009. Chicago’s Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War. Southern Illinois University Press. 306pp.