Preserving the Union? The Irish and The Union War

Gary W. Gallagher’s latest book The Union War focuses much of its attention on the central reason why so many men volunteered to fight in Lincoln’s armies. Slavery caused the war, but for the majority of those in the North it was the preservation of the Union that was the reason for their enlistment. Gallagher highlights how in the 21st century we find it difficult to comprehend what ‘Union’ meant in 1861, and why anyone would choose to risk their life for it. Understanding this is central to any examination of the conflict, as Gallagher points out:‘Recapturing how the concept of Union resonated and reverberated throughout the loyal states in the Civil War era is critical to grasping northern motivation.’ (1)

In the context of Irish involvement it is perhaps even more vital for us to try to understand what ‘Union’ really meant, as very few Irish soldiers fought with emancipation as their main motivation. The majority were opposed (or at least indifferent) to the notion of fighting to free the slaves. How then did they explain their decision to fight in the years following the war, and did these explanations change as the 19th century wore on? As part of his research for The Union War Gary W. Gallagher examined 68 regimental histories written between 1863 and 1866, and demonstrated that in these early works the Union was given significantly more weight than emancipation as the main reason for fighting. Irish in the American Civil War followed suit and looked at six such histories relating to the Irish Brigade, the 9th Massachusetts (two histories), 69th Pennsylvania, 116th Pennsylvania and 9th Connecticut to find out. (2)

'The Union Volunteer' by Currier & Ives, 1861 (Library of Congress)

'The Union Volunteer' by Currier & Ives, 1861 (Library of Congress)

The works span the years 1867- 1903. The two earliest are David Power Conyngham’s The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns (1867) and Michael MacNamara’s brief history of the 9th Massachusetts, The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle (1867). Although they fall outside Gallagher’s 1866 cut-off point both are written very shortly after the war, when the sacrifices of the units involved were fresh in the writers’ minds, and memories of motivations remained relatively undiluted. Conyngham was under no illusions as to why the Irish fought- preservation of the Union. Interestingly he also takes the time to point out that they did not fight with emancipation as a primary aim:

The Irish felt that not only was the safety of the great Republic, the home of their exiled race, at stake, but also, that the great principles of democracy were at issue with the aristocratic doctrines of monarchism. Should the latter prevail, there was no longer any hope for the struggling nationalists of the Old World. The Irish soldier did not ask whether the colored race were better off as bondsmen or freedmen; he was not going to fight for an abstract idea. He felt that the safety and welfare of his adopted country and its glorious Constitution were imperilled; he, therefore, willingly threw himself into the breach to sustain the flag that sheltered him when persecuted and exiled from his own country, the laws that protected him, and the country that, like a loving mother, poured forth the richness of her bosom to sustain him. (3)

MacNamara in Bivouac and Battle was of a similar mind, describing the conflict as:

‘…the great and eventful struggle which was to decide the supremacy of the Federal Government and the stability of the American Constitution.’ (4)

He accentuated the horror felt by all in Boston following the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861:

‘The desecration of the American flag not only fired with indignation the native, but awakened the patriotism of the foreign element, so that, in a few short hours, there were congregated on “Change” and in the public places, groups and bodies of indignant citizens, who loudly vowed the vengeance since inflicted upon the treacherous states which so grossly insulted the sacred flag, beneath whose folds so much honor had been achieved, and under the light of whose stars the American nation marched to prosperity and success.’ (5)  

In MacNamara’s (albeit brief) history he does not enter in any significant discussion on the issue of emancipation as a motivating factor for fighting. Twenty-two years later Anthony McDermott penned A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers (1889). Throughout the introduction he offers no indication as to the motivations of the men in 69th, but does conclude the service history section of the book with reference to Union:

‘Our work was done; the Union was saved; and the troops returned to their homes, to receive the joyous welcome of fond hearts, and the congratulations of their fellow-citizens.’ (6) 

In his discussion of the dedication of the 69th Pennsylvania monument at Gettysburg in 1887 McDermott goes into more depth about why he felt the war was fought, categorically stating that preservation of the Union was paramount, but also noting that victory would be hollow without equal rights and privileges for all citizens:

‘Remembering that the war was waged for the preservation of the Union; to prevent certain of the States of the Union from leaving or severing their connection therewith, and setting up for themselves an independent government, and believing that the States could not peaceably exist with two or even more general heads, and that two such unions or confederacies would tend to overthrow the peace and tranquility of all the States and destroy that freedom, that equality and peace bequeathed to us by the great founders of our system of government, we therefore believed our victory would be fruitless if all the citizens of all sections of our country could not enjoy equal rights and privileges as guaranteed by the constitution of our country…’ (7)

The second and more in-depth history of the 9th Massachusetts was written in 1899 by Daniel MacNamara, brother of the aforementioned Michael. He was keen to illustrate that Irishmen were no different from the natives who had taken up arms:

‘It can be said without egotism, that in patriotism, in valor, in love for the American flag, the Constitution and the Union of the United States, the Catholic Irish-American soldiers take no second place, and the survivors stand today in the front rank to uphold, as they did in the war, all the principles of true American citizenship’ (8)  

Describing the rush to enlist in 1861, he again highlights that the Irish and natives shared similar motivations:

‘Everywhere could be seen then young men, and the middle-aged, ready and anxious to don a uniform and shoulder a musket in order to fight for the “old flag” and the preservation of the Union. Patriotism and love of country was as publicly prominent in the voices and hearts of the Irish-American citizens as it was in the native born.’ (9)

'The Union Must and Shall be Preserved' wartime print (Library of Congress)

'The Union Must and Shall be Preserved' wartime print (Library of Congress)

Thomas Hamilton Murray’s 1903 History of the Ninth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry was also keen to demonstrate that not only did the Irish fight to preserve the Union, but they did so as willingly as any native:

‘Young men of Irish birth or extraction enlisted in these early regiments by the hundred, and were as zealous as any descendent of the Pilgrim or the Puritan to fight for the maintenance of the Union.’ (10)

St. Clair Mulholland also wrote his Story of the 116th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1903. He ones again highlights the desire to preserve the Union, but also indicates that emancipation was an important reason for fighting:

‘Our army fought to preserve and secure- even to those whom they strived to conquer- the rights and liberties that they themselves hoped to enjoy. Our soldiers fought to preserve that great legacy- more dear and valuable than all else gained by the sword on earth- the first real Republic that has ever existed; to demonstrate that human freedom was not a myth and a dream, but a splendid reality; to preserve intact, for all men who love liberty, that vast territory over which our flag floats, the glorious land that stretches from the storm-swept coasts of the Atlantic to the golden shores of the Pacific, that reaches from the frozen lands of Alaska to the orange groves of sunny Florida- the land that will, in the boundless future, shelter in its bosom so many happy homes and countless millions of freemen.’ (11)

So what can be discerned from some of these Irish regimental examples? Granted the sample is small, but the desire to fight for the preservation of the Union is a common theme throughout. Emancipation is consistently viewed as a secondary, even abstract, war-aim, although it does receive more coverage in Mulholland’s 1903 history. The importance of the Union in these writings and the force with which that message is conveyed demonstrates the passion and commitment these men held to that ideal, and helps the modern reader to take a step closer to understanding the cause of Union as a motivation.

It must also be remembered that one of the main reasons behind the creation of these histories was a desire to illustrate that Irishmen had fought just as hard as natives, and for the same reasons. This needs to be viewed in the context of continued anti-Irish discrimination in the post-war period, with memories of the 1863 draft riots and Irish support for the Democratic Party during the war still fresh. Emphasising the achievements of Irish regiments helped to ‘rehabilitate’ the Irish wartime image in the United States, as the Irish-American community moved towards a greater level of acceptance in society during the latter part of the 19th century. Their fight to preserve the Union during the Civil War was an important part of that development. (12)

(1) Gallagher 2011: 46; (2) Ibid: 65; (3) Conyngham 1867: 5-6; (4) MacNamara 1867: 13; (5) Ibid: 14; (6) McDermott 1889: 51; (7) Ibid: 52-53; (8) MacNamara 1899: ix; (9) Ibid: 5; (10) Murray 1903: 26; (11) Mulholland 1903: v; (12) See Ural 2006: 233- 262 for discussion of Irish Veterans and the Creation of Irish-American Identity;


Conyngham, David Power 1867. The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns 

Gallagher, Gary W. 2011. The Union War

MacNamara, Daniel George 1899. The History of the Ninth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Second Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, June 1861- June 1864

MacNamara, M.H. 1867.The Irish Ninth in Bivouac and Battle; or Virginia and Maryland Campaigns 

McDermottAnthony W. 1889. A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers 

Mulholland, St. Clair A. 1903. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of Rebellion 

Murray, Thomas Hamilton 1903. History of the Ninth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, “The Irish Regiment”, in the War of Rebellion, 1861-65. The Record of a Gallant Command on the March, in Battle and in Bivouac 

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


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Categories: Discussion and Debate

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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11 Comments on “Preserving the Union? The Irish and The Union War”

  1. September 24, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

    The Irish fought to preserve the Union and to gain the military skill necessary to free Ireland. The men who composed the Irish regiments were Fenians. The Excelsior Brigade contained many Fenians in their ranks. Immigrants flocked to colors to preserve “the last hope of republican government”. If the Union failed, the refugees of the 1848 Revolutions believed that democratic government stood no chance against the forces of monarchism.

    • September 26, 2011 at 8:31 am #

      Hi William,

      You are quite right a lot of these men were Fenians- Fenian Circles were in operation throughout Union armies during the war. I think as with every other group there was a multitude of reasons why these men chose to fight, some undoubtedly did it for adventure, some because others were doing it, and towards the end of the war financial reasoning played a big part. Interest in preserving the United States both as a republican government and as a place of assistance for the Irish were also factors.

      Kind Regards,


  2. September 26, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

    Yes, there were other reasons why the Irish and other immigrants enlisted. I believe the early volunteers did it for love of their adopted land. There were no authorized bounties paid to recruits in 1861; though several cities, counties, states, and towns paid a quasi-bounty in the form of financial aid for families. The bounty system became more common from late 1862-1863, as enthusiasm for the war by the people necessitated a bounty for men willing to serve. These bounties increased as causalities mounted. These bounties amounted to several hundred dollars. These inducements brought thousands of men into service. The majority of the bounty was paid when the soldier mustered out,
    It is interesting that when the War of the Rebellion ended, the Fenian Brotherhood resurrected the plans to send an army of liberation to Ireland, and the decision to seize Canada and use it as a bargaining chip for Irish freedom

  3. September 26, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

    If many or most of the Irish born Civil War soldiers were Fenians, it puzzles me as to why so few of the Irish born soldiers from Civil War regiments joined the Fenian effort to invade Canada. That effort involved such a small number of troops. What kept the others from joining?

  4. September 26, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

    The lack of strong support of Fenian Union and Confederate soldiers lay in the fact at the time of the Fenian movement, there was a bitter split in the movement, John O’Mahony and O’Donovan Rossa ans others. The New York Times published a short of O’Mahony’s efforts to have the Fenians strike a blow. The Moffat House blow up split the party and the Fenian movement in New York City, several thousand strong in the city, had penetrated all the city militia regiments, dwindled to less than 200 members. The split destroyed the Fenians as an organization. The Clan-na-Gel replaced it.
    One of the interesting things of the Fenian and other independence organizations, the Canadians in 1837 of using U.S. soil to launch attacks on the territory of a friendly power would cause war. Remember the U.S. was not the nation it is today, most European armies outnumbered the U.S. Army and Navy. The Royal Navy was clearly superior in terms of ships, and technology.

  5. September 27, 2011 at 6:41 pm #


    I often wonder as well how many men who appeared dedicated Fenians in 1861 found that by 1865 they were utterly war-weary, and had no interest in putting themselves in harms way so soon after surviving the crucible of the Civil War. Also it would seem likely that more Fenians joined up at the start of the war when there was the general stampede to enlist, so many such men would also not have survived the war. The split and the fact that many people fell out with the movement over the years must also have been a factor (I know some had issues with organisation for example). The fact does remain though that of the colossal number of Irishmen who served so few did chose to support the invasion of Canada or indeed the 1867 events in Ireland. I wonder is there an element that some of the high profile Irishmen who tended to write and record events at the time were themselves Fenians or at least revolutionaries and their record may have led to a modern distortion in the numbers we think were willing to strike a blow after the war- it certainly seems that some may not have been as committed to the movement as it initially seemed. I suspect it is a combination of issues within the Fenian Movement itself, a lack of willingness to go to war so soon after the conflict, and an overestimation of numbers- what do you both think?

  6. September 28, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    On high profile Irishmen and the Fenian movement. Meagher did not join the Fenians at the founding of the brotherhood. At the time of the Civil War he considered raising another regiment for the Phoenix Brigade. Instead he raised the Meagher Zouaves and joined the Sixty-ninth already in the field. John Gavan Duffy and Thomas D’Arcy McGee, were not Fenians. McGee went to Canada shortly after arriving in America in 1848. Duffy in his extensive writings on Irish independence, never acknowledged himself as a Fenian member. John Savage appears to have left the brotherhood. A New York Times piece from the 1880’s “Snub to the Fenians. O’Gorman also appears to stand on the sidelines of the Fenian movement.
    Part of the reason I believe is the failure of the Irish Republican Union to strike a blow for Ireland during the Crimean War. Many left the Union and did not participate in the founding of the Fenian Brotherhood. It is a fact that Fenian circles existed within the New York City militia at the outbreak of the war.
    I agree that war weariness played a role in the failure of the Fenian movement. Many of the nominal members of brotherhood enlisted in the Union armies. The high casualties these units led to the men in New York’s two year regiments to decline reenlisting, despite the huge monetary enticements to keep these veterans with colors. Finally, I believe that many of these men placed more emphasis on their American citizenship. Though these men and men active Fenians, supported the Irish independence with cash. The arrest and trial of the Fenians of the Manchester Martyrs and Colonel Warren soured active participation for American Fenians

  7. September 30, 2011 at 5:52 pm #

    Damian, I agree that “war weariness” probably lessened the Irish enthusiasm for taking on another military campaign. The Lt. Col. from the 90th Illinois, Owen Stuart, from County Tyrone, may have been a Finian before the war. He was the captain of the Emmet Guards in Chicago. There is some evidence that he belonged to a Finian circle. However, after a life-threatening wound (he was actually reported dead) at Missionary Ridge and a long recovery, part of which was in the saddle during the Atlanta Campaign, by the end of the war and after the long march to the sea and through the Carolinas, he wrote he was only wanting to get back to the farm and “enjoy the fruits of [his wife’s] garden labor.” William, I think you are right that after the war they had an increased pride in their American citizenship. As Patrick Sloan (90th Ill, from County Westmeath) said, “I done a good thing.”
    Best, Jim

  8. October 3, 2011 at 6:12 pm #


    Some good points there- there is more and more work being carried out here on the attempted Fenian rising of 1867, which included a number of returned American Civil War veterans. The Fenian Papers are held in our National Archives (which includes some great ‘mugshots’ of the Fenian suspects) and I hope to go through some of these before the end of the year to see how many Civil War veterans I can find, and what can be found out about their service- it would provide an interesting picture of the type of men who did come back to be involved- I would be interested in seeing if there are any patterns visible, but that is for a ‘Discussion and Debate’ post in the future!

    Kind Regards,


  9. October 3, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    That’s an excellent idea, Damian. I’ll look forward to learning what you find out.


  1. ‘The Fight Was for the Union, Not for the Abolition of Slavery’ | Irish in the American Civil War - March 21, 2013

    […] in works such as Gary W. Gallagher’s The Union War, a topic previously discussed on this site here. Many Democrats wanted this to be fully understood, even decades after the guns fell silent. A 1903 […]

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