Discussion and Debate: ‘On Stereotyping Irish Soldiers’

As the Irish in the American Civil War site continues to develop it is intended that the regular articles will be interspersed with ‘Discussion and Debate’ pieces, aimed at stimulating dialogue and asking or posing specific questions about the Irish experience of the war. Certain topics will include follow-on posts, allowing for responses or differing viewpoints to be expressed. The first of these has been kindly provided by Jim Swan, author of Chicago’s Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War (see book review here), who puts forward a piece entitled ‘On Stereotyping Irish Soldiers’.

Recruitment Poster for Corcoran's Irish Legion (Civil War Treasures from the New York Historical Society, via Library of Congress)

Among Civil War historians, there is a strong temptation to describe Irish-Catholic soldiers who fought in American’s Civil War with broad generalizations. Such an approach fails to recognize the great diversity that characterized these soldiers. In writing The Harp and the Eagle, Susannah Ural Bruce attempts ‘to convince the reader of what I discovered through years of detailed reading and research. Dual loyalties to Ireland and America influenced the actions of Irish Catholic volunteers in the Union Army during the American Civil War.’ She also discusses other loyalties to families, church, and local Irish Catholic communities, yet fails to question whether these loyalties might better describe the motivation of some Irish Catholic soldiers. As Randall Miller observed: ‘Although the vast majority of Irish Catholic soldiers served in non-Irish regiments, most judgments about the loyalty and character of the Irish Catholic soldier come from observations of Irish regiments.’ Most Irish regiments receiving such attention served in the East. Irish Catholic soldiers were not a homogenous group of men. Instead, they exhibited different loyalties, most served in non-Irish regiments, and underwent very different experiences before and during the war. Soldiers featured in this Blog: Irish in the American Civil War illustrate the great diversity of these Irish Catholic soldiers. (1)

Many Irish soldiers no longer had immediate families in Ireland, but had cut familial ties with ‘the old country’ and established ties in the new one. Although most were proud of their Irish heritage and held a ‘soft spot’ in their hearts for ‘the old sod,’ these soldiers held citizenship loyalty only to America. Presumably this was more characteristic of those who had migrated to the western states than it was of those who were new arrivals in large eastern cities. (2)

Most Irish Catholic soldiers who had been in America for a few years had developed loyalty to the Democrat Party. The Republican Party incorporated Know-Nothings and Abolitionists who actively discriminated against Irish immigrants, especially those of the Roman Catholic faith, whereas the Democrat Party defended them. This loyalty led them to align their thinking with that of the Democrat Party. Although, some Democrats supported the war, most party leaders opposed it. In western states the so-called ‘Copperheads’ were primarily anti-war Democrats. Yet, many Irish Democrats fought for the Union and there is evidence that some, alienated by Copperhead resistance to the war, became supporters of the Republican policy toward the war. In early 1864 one soldier in the Irish 90th Illinois Volunteer Infantry wrote ‘This might have been a copperhead Regt. when it came out but I am sure its not one now.’ He added it may ‘return a republican Regt.’. A Captain of the 90th expressed his, and he believed [Sherman’s] Army’s, support for Lincoln’s reelection and their lack of sympathy with ‘Copperheads.’ Later that year Major Flynn of the 90th Illinois went back to his home area in northern Illinois and campaigned for President Lincoln’s reelection. For some Irish Catholic soldiers at least, allegiances changed during the war. (3)

Did loyalty to Ireland lead some Irish Catholic soldiers to enlist? Certainly Generals Corcoran and Meagher seemed to think it would when, as part of their recruitment efforts, they told potential enlistees that their experience fighting in American’s Civil War would prepare them to return to Ireland and fight to liberate it from England. Nonetheless, there is little evidence that this was a major factor for most. Conversely, of the estimated 145,000 Irish Catholic Civil War veterans, less than 1,000 veterans and non-veterans took part in the post-war Fenian invasions of Canada out of an estimated American membership in the Fenian Brotherhood of 300,000 in 1865. (4)

Did Irish Catholics join the Union army to preserve the United States as a refuge for Irish immigrants or in recognition and gratitude for protection provided past Irish immigrants? Both reasons are given as inducements for recruitment, however, the latter implies loyalty to the United States rather than Ireland. (5)

Location also mattered. Soldiers who fought in the western theater experienced the Civil War differently from those who fought in the East. The size of the theaters differed, with western troops marching much greater distances during most of their major campaigns than those in the East.  The war in the West was more often one of maneuver and occupation of territory following military success rather than of repeated massive assaults in what became a war of attrition in the East. Western armies spent greater efforts to maintain their long supply lines deep into Confederate territory and western soldiers not infrequently found themselves short of supplies requiring that they ‘live off the land.’ Differences between western and eastern troops in their attitude, deportment, and dress were highlighted in press descriptions of the Grand Review in Washington at the end of the war. Irish and non-Irish alike shared such differences in the experiences and demeanor of eastern and western soldiers. (6)

Press attention focused on the conduct of the war in the East, slighting coverage of the war in the West, where there were fewer large population centers and fewer major newspapers. For Irish soldiers, press attention focused on brigades or larger units, such as Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade or Brigadier General Michael Corcoran’s Irish Legion in the East, shining a spotlight on their actions, and obscuring the actions and experiences of most Irish Catholic soldiers widely dispersed throughout both the eastern and western Union armies. (7)

The historical record suggests that it is misleading to characterize Irish Catholic soldiers in America’s Civil War in broad generalizations drawn from their experiences in a few units because of the many ways in which they as individuals differed, as well as the ways in which their experiences differed. Letters from these soldiers illustrate individual characteristics, but to suggest that a limited number of letters, especially from a particular group of soldiers, can be used to illustrate the characteristics of most Irish soldiers, as some have done, is unwise. As a group, Irish Catholic soldiers in America’s Civil War were too diverse to be stereotyped. We should guard against this.

(1) Bruce 2006:6; Miller 1998: 261-3, 274, 279; Ferrie 1999: 186. (2) Casey, Letters; Stuart Letters; Main, White Letters; Fulton, Sloan Letters. (3) Swan 2009: 129, 189. (4) Cavanagh 1892: 369; Miller 1998: 275; Walker 1969: 47, 187-8. (5) Ural 2010: 108-9; Bruce 2006: 52; Chicago Post Sept. 27, Oct. 4, 1862; Woodworth 2011: 249-50. (6) New York Times May 27, 1865. (7) Lonn 1951: 125, 147; Miller 1998: 274.


Bruce, Susannah Ural 2006. The Harp and The Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865.

Casey, Peter. File. Research Center, Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Ill.

Cavanagh, Michael 1892. Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher comprising the Leading Events of His Career.

Ferrie, Joseph 1999. Yankees Now: Immigrants in the Antebellum U.S. 1840-1860.

Fulton, Julia. “The Civil War Letters of Patrick H. Sloan.” http://juliafulton.com/phsloan/patsloan.htm.

Lonn, Ella 1951. Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy.

Main, Marguerite Harris. ILGnWeb, Civil War Scrapbook. http://civilwar.ilgenweb.net/scrapbk/whiteletter.html and whitestory.html.

Miller, Randall M. 1998. ‘Catholic Religion, Irish Ethnicity, and the Civil War’ in Miller, R.M., Stout, H.S., Wilson, C.R. (eds.) Religion and the American Civil War.

Stuart, Owen. Letters. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Ill.

Swan, James 2009. Chicago’s Irish Legion: the 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War.

Ural, Susannah J. (ed.) 2010. Civil War Citizens: Race, Ethnicity and Identity in America’s Bloodiest Conflict.

Walker, Mabel Gregory 1969. The Fenian Movement.

Woodworth, Steven E. 2011. This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War.


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Categories: Discussion and Debate, Guest Post

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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5 Comments on “Discussion and Debate: ‘On Stereotyping Irish Soldiers’”

  1. August 13, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

    I share your concerns about Susannah Ural Bruce’s generalizations from what were often Fenian affiliated units outward towards Irish soldiers more generally. Only a minority of Irish immigrants who fought in the Union army were in these types of units.

    Non-ethnic regiments often had substantial numbers of Irish enlistees, often numbering 25% or more. This is little solid research on the interactions of immigrant and non-immigrant within these units.

    However, for more than two generations afterwards, the Irish Brigade, and other such formations captured the imagination of the Irish American communities here in a way that the Irish soldier fighting beside the native in a non-ethnic regiment did not.

  2. August 18, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    “Although most were proud of their Irish heritage and held a ‘soft spot’ in their hearts for ‘the old sod,’ these soldiers held citizenship loyalty only to America. Presumably this was more characteristic of those who had migrated to the western states than it was of those who were new arrivals in large eastern cities.”

    Would be interesting to test that theory, if possible. How? One way I could think of is to see how fund-raising for Irish causes fared in the west as compared to the east. Land League and later movements sent delegates to America to raise money. Be interesting to see some estimate as to what percentage of Irish in the west contributed as compared with those in the east and did the amounts subscribed differ?

  3. November 10, 2011 at 11:49 pm #

    I was asked by Ms. Ural Bruce to provide input on the 69th Pennsylvania–which I did freely. However although she promised me a free copy of her book, I nver received one. So I bought a copy and read it. A very shocking hidden agenda–possibly for academic politically correct reasons—marred the whole manuscript, transferring Irish identity into a new completely assimilated Irish born American.
    There were no truly Fenian Irish regiments but there were Fenians in every regiment. Being an Irish nationalist in 1865 who had survived Gettysburg or the seige of Petersburg took the edge off going back to Ireland or on the Canadian invasion. However hatred of the British empire and the place of Robert Emmet as the number one Patriot shows the Irish-American soldier was not assimilated into the WASP Calvinist philosophy of the average American. Irish soldiers were known to refuse to be sworn into American courts when a King James version was produced by officials……Is anyone still angry about the NYPD calling a Black Maria ….a Paddy Wagon?


  1. Discussion and Debate: A Response to ‘On Stereotyping Irish Soldiers’ | Irish in the American Civil War - August 11, 2011

    […] first in our ‘Discussion and Debate’ series saw author Jim Swan put forward an article ‘On Stereotyping Irish Soldiers’. Among the works cited in the piece was The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the […]

  2. Know Nothings | bellbookcandledotcom - August 14, 2011

    […] Discussion and Debate: ‘On Stereotyping Irish Soldiers’ (irishamericancivilwar.com) […]

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