The ‘green flag’ regiments of the Union army remain the most recognisable expression of Irish involvement in the American Civil War. These ethnic Irish units were proud of their heritage and sought to combine this with their loyalty to Union, often by carrying green flags amongst their colours or bearing epithets such as the ‘Irish Brigade.’ But where were these ‘Irish’ soldiers from? How many of the men were Irish emigrants, how many were Irish-American, and how many had no connection to Ireland? Using the nativity records of one Irish regiment, the 23rd Illinois Infantry (‘Mulligan’s Irish Brigade’) this is the first in a series of posts that seeks to explore this question.
In order to gather data for this discussion, information on the company, place and country of birth was recorded for 1,585 men of the 23rd Illinois, using the Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls Database as a source of data.* Examining the nativity of Civil War soldiers in isolation is of course an overly simplistic method of determining origin. It does not allow for where a soldier considered himself to be from, a factor often more important that the location of his birth. For example a New York or Canadian born Irishman would in many cases have had just as strong a sense of his ‘Irishness’ as someone born in Ireland. This was particularly true of the pre-war years when anti-Irish sentiment had a binding effect on members of the Irish-American community. In addition, it should be noted that assessing all the men as one group does not account for variables such as when they joined the unit (many Irish regiments lost some of their Irish character later in the war, when non-Irish conscripts were drafted in) or their motivation for joining. With these caveats in mind, it is nonetheless worthwhile to review this data, as it provides an insight into the levels of Irish-born emigrants in the ranks, may indicate where Irish-American communities were located, and suggests the proportion of ‘non-Irish’ in the ranks.
The 23rd Illinois Infantry were formed in Chicago under the leadership of Irish-American Colonel James A. Mulligan. They were engaged at Lexington, Missouri in September 1861 where the majority of the regiment was captured. An order mustering out the unit following its exchange was countermanded and the regiment was subsequently reformed. They served as prison guards into the middle of 1862 when the 23rd moved to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. They would remain in West Virginia and Virginia for the remainder of the war. The regiment saw service in the 1864 Valley Campaign (in which Colonel Mulligan was killed) and that August was consolidated into five companies, becoming the 23rd Illinois Veteran Volunteers. In late 1864 it was transferred to the Army of the James with whom it served at Petersburg and Appomattox. During the course of the conflict the regiment lost 4 officers and 50 men killed or mortally wounded, and 2 officers and 93 men from disease. (1)
Once the nativity data was collected, percentages were calculated for the total number of soldiers born in each country based on the 1,585 records viewed. The results are set out in the table below:
|Country of Birth||Number of Soldiers||% of Total|
|Born at Sea||2||0.1|
What is immediately apparent is the Irish character of the 23rd Illinois. If we exclude the men for which no record of nativity survives, those of Irish birth account for 53.8% of the remaining total. This suggests that over half of the men who served in the regiment were of Irish birth. In addition, surname evidence indicates that the majority of those born outside Ireland were from Irish-American communities. This said, caution does need to be exercised when using surnames as an indicator of ethnicity, as many Irish-born men often bear atypical Irish names, and vice-versa. However there are clear examples in the 23rd linking men born in North-America to the Irish-American community; for example a number of cases where an older brother born in Ireland served with a younger brother born in the United States.
It is also possible that nativity evidence for those born within North America can provide indicators as to the locations of Irish-American populations or ports of entry. Of the 407 soldiers who were born within the United States, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that only 150 of them hailed from Illinois and Michigan, the two states where companies of the 23rd Illinois were raised. This accounts for less than 10% of the total number of men in the regiment. Indeed the highest nativity figures from the United States are from New York, where 122 of the men were born. Locations such as Canada and the states of New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and to a lesser extent Ohio were often where Irish emigrants found themselves shortly after arrival in the country, and cities in each location soon had thriving Irish-American communities. It seems likely that at least some of the men in the 23rd were born into such communities in these states, and later moved on to Illinois and Michigan, either to improve their lot or specifically join Mulligan’s regiment.
There are of course those who had no connection whatsoever to the Irish-American community in the ranks of the 23rd. Although some of the names on the rolls of the unit are clearly ‘native’ in character, perhaps the most obvious evidence for this are men from countries such as France and Germany, who had no specific reason to seek out an Irish regiment to join. It is most likely that they enrolled in companies which were organising where they lived, and did not make their decision based on ethnic associations. It is clear that this non-Irish element of Americans and Europeans formed a sizeable proportion of the 23rd and must have made a significant contribution to the unit’s character.
The nativity information from the 23rd Illinois clearly illustrates the regiment’s Irish character, with those born in Ireland forming the largest group in the ranks. The unit also attracted significant numbers of North-American born members of the Irish-American community, as well as a number of men who had no particular ties to Ireland. Although each regiment in the Union army, Irish or otherwise, undoubtedly had its own character and set of circumstances which influenced its make-up, it is nonetheless of interest to analyse the origins of the men who formed one of these units. It is intended in the future to compliment this survey by looking at the nativity of a non-Irish regiment to note the degrees of difference, as it was in such formations that the majority of Irish in the American Civil War served. The next post in this series will look at where in Ireland the Irish-born men of the 23rd Illinois came from, to examine if any patterns or concentrations are discernible.
*Efforts were made to avoid duplication of individuals due to contemporary spelling discrepancies and multiple records, though some margin of error is unavoidable. Field officers were not included.
**Special thanks to Sara Nylund for preparing the illustrations for this post.