150 years ago this month the one of the defining moments in nineteenth century American history occurred, when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. Abraham Lincoln shifted the war from one to preserve the Union to a struggle to both restore that Union and free the enslaved African-American people. Perhaps the most challenging task when looking at the Irish-American experience of the American Civil War is attempting to comprehend why so many Irish felt such antipathy towards the black community. Such ill-feeling found its full expression in events such as the lynchings and beating of New York’s African-Americans during the 1863 Draft Riots, an event in which the majority of participants were Irish. Over the next year I intend to explore this topic further, through a number of posts that will examine aspects of the cause and effects that contributed towards Irish views.

Draft Rioters Burn the Colored Orphans Asylum, New York, July 1863 (Harper's Weekly/Library of Congress)

Draft Rioters Burn the Colored Orphans Asylum, New York, July 1863 (Harper’s Weekly/Library of Congress)

It is perhaps inevitable that we tend to view the majority Irish attitude of the 1860s towards African-Americans, slavery and emancipation with modern eyes and with modern sensibilities. As a result we are rightly disgusted and horrified at the level of latent racism prevalent in Irish-American communities of the war-era. However, it is often an affliction of modern society to view the past with a degree of over-confident righteousness, confident in our convictions that we would have done differently had we been alive. Such a superficial view does the past (and those who lived it) an injustice, and ultimately falls short of revealing any true understanding of the realities which led to the views expressed by historic communities. There were numerous factors at play that affected the dynamic between Irish and African-Americans in the nineteenth century, all of which are worthy of detailed consideration. This melting pot of ’causes’ includes elements as diverse as poverty, education, social status, discrimination, religion, constitutionality, political affiliation, survival and even fear.

There is little doubt that unique factors influenced Irish attitudes towards African-Americans from almost the moment they stepped off the boat in the United States. This was recognised by none other than Frederick Douglass, himself a former-slave who knew the Irish well, having travelled through Ireland in the mid-1840s (where he befriended Daniel O’Connell, a stalwart proponent of slave emancipation):

‘The Irish, who, at home, readily sympathize with the oppressed everywhere, are instantly taught when they step upon our soil to hate and despise the Negro. They are taught to believe that he eats the bread that belongs to them. The cruel lie is told them, that we deprive them of labor and receive the money which would otherwise make its way into their pockets. Sir, the Irish-American will one day find out his mistake. He will find that in assuming our avocation, he has also assumed our degredation. But for the present we are the sufferers. Our old employments by which we have been accustomed to gain a livelihood are gradually slipping from our hands. Every hour sees us elbowed out of some employment to make room for some newly-arrived emigrant from the Emerald Isle, whose hunger and color entitle him to special favor. These white men are becoming house-servants, cooks, stewards, waiters and flunkies. For aught I see they adjust themselves to their stations with all proper humility. If they cannot rise to the dignity of white men, they show they can fall to the degredation of black men. But now, sir, look once more! While the colored people are thus elbowed out of employment, while a ceaseless enmity in the Irish is excited against us, while state after state enacts laws against us, while we are being hunted down like wild beasts, while we are oppressed with a sense of increasing insecurity, the American Colonization Society, with hypocrisy written on its brow, comes to the front, awakens to new life, and vigorously presses its scheme for our expatriation upon the attention of the American people. (1)

Frederick Douglass as he appeared at the time of his visit to Ireland in the 1840s (Art Institute of Chicago)

Frederick Douglass as he appeared at the time of his visit to Ireland in the 1840s (Art Institute of Chicago)

Douglass has identified two of the major drivers that led to conflict between the Irish and African-Americans. Discrimination immediately placed Irish immigrants at the base of the white social order, where they necessarily viewed freed African-Americans as their closest social rivals. In turn, this led to the two communities often directly competing for employment. In such circumstances, the Irish often felt they had to turn to their one ‘advantage’ in mid-nineteenth century America- their white skin.

Another strong factor at play was Irish support for the Democratic Party. The Democrats opposed the Emancipation Proclamation, but had won Irish support through their pro-immigrant outlook and by welcoming the Irish vote into their ranks, at a time when the Irish were experiencing political discrimination from the likes of the ‘Know-Nothings’ in the 1850s. The Democratic strategy towards the Irish was not necessarily a platform shared by many in the Republican Party, or indeed by some of the most vocal proponents of emancipation. Herein lies another of the dualities that can be difficult to comprehend across 150 years of history. Some of those who had a progressive view towards the emancipation of the slaves nonetheless harboured strong anti-Catholic, and often as a result, anti-Irish, views. An example of this can be seen in Henry Ward Beecher. A Protestant clergyman and abolitionist, Beecher was also an advocate of female suffrage. His sister was Harriet Beecher-Stowe, who wrote the most influential of mid-nineteenth century anti-slavery novels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Despite these impressive progressive credentials, Beecher’s view towards the Irish did not match his other beliefs. Neither did his opinion necessarily dim with the passage of years. The New York Times reported on one of his sermons from Plymouth in 1882:

Mr. Beecher was not opposed to immigration. He wanted it. But there was one tide of immigration that made us trouble. He might as well speak plainly. He meant the Irish. The Irish vote gave a great deal of trouble in New York and Brooklyn. The mercurial Irish race stood alone. They were “the most admirable people that ever abominated the earth.” They had been the ablest destroyer of nations that ever existed, but they had never built a nation. The Irish, pure and simple and unadulterated as they came to us, were the greatest trouble to us. By and by they would prove one of the most enriching elements that ever came among us. Yet, good as they were in labor, they did make trouble in our municipal governments. “Thank God,” added Mr. Beecher, “we are able in our youth to stand it, and Ireland has not many more to send us.” (2)

Such remarks highlight the complex views that some abolitionists held. That they vocalised them in an anti-Catholic and often anti-Irish way helped to increase the antipathy with which they were held by many among the Irish community. Beecher’s 1882 sermon also reveals that despite Irish service in the American Civil War, there was still much work to do in order for the Irish community to cast off the shadow of the 1863 Draft Riots and be fully accepted in the United States.

Henry Ward Beecher, Clergyman and Emancipationist (Library of Congress)

Henry Ward Beecher, Clergyman and Emancipationist (Library of Congress)

It is also important to understand when looking at the Irish relationship with African-Americans that racism towards the black community was pervasive in virtually all aspects of mid-nineteenth century white American society, both north and south. The issue was far from just an Irish problem. Indeed the majority of American whites grew up believing in their racial superiority. Even many of those who supported emancipation of the slaves did not feel that African-Americans were in any way equal to them. Nonetheless, the factors that influenced Irish attitudes often produced an extreme intolerance of emancipation and racism. The New York Irish-American provided an exemplar of this in an article on 7th March, 1863:


The Tribune, last week, went into exstacies over a report furnished by one of its own correspondents, that 5,000 negro soldiers from Gen. Hunter’s Department were about to make a raid into one of the most populous districts of the South. The impending blow was represented- in all the terrors of double-leaded type- as “irresistible as the avalanche;” and as the summing up of the whole it was declared that now, at last, the Republic was about to strike at the heart of the rebellion: the picture being framed in the usual artistic manner of the Tribune, with roaring cannons, trumpets, and the “Proclamation of Freedom.” 

Had the editors of the Tribune been a little better versed in the geography of the country, they might have known that the entrances to the most “populous districts of the Department of the South” are such ports as Charleston and Savannah, which are not available to us just yet. And, moreover, if the Tribune people were not so painfully afflicted with nigromania (or “nigger on the brain,” as George Francis Train calls it,) they would be aware that 5,000 half savage, undisciplined negroes are the most unlikely material to ensure success where 50,000 disciplined whitemen, led by able Generals, and backed by a powerful fleet, have effected absolutely nothing. The assumption of negro superiority is not flattering to the readers of the Tribune: but it may be safely doubted whether they have sense enough left to feel the slur cast upon them. The sober truth, however, is that the whole affair is one of the “romances” by which the Abolition organ amuses its dupes. The only negro corps that Gen. Hunter, with all his efforts, has been able to raise, does not number even one thousand: and their most remarkable feat has been to scuttle under hatches, when the steamer on which they were reconnoitering was fired on by the rebels. The “irresistible avalanche” of the 5,000 had no more reality than had Greeley’s “ninety thousand,” who have never yet “smelled battle,” or the “swarms” of Governor Andrew, whose appearance on the highways of Massachusetts we have yet to witness.” (3)

Despite knowledge of the factors that led to attitudes such as the one expressed by the Irish-American, such pieces are nonetheless difficult to read today without being shocked by the level of racism exhibited.

In future posts I will seek to further explore the causes of views such as these among the Irish community. I hope to look at many of the factors outlined above in further detail (poverty, education, social status, discrimination, religion, constitutionality, political affiliation, survival, fear) and also examine the views of some prominent Irishmen on the issue, such as Thomas Francis Meagher, Michael Corcoran, Daniel O’Connell and John Mitchel. I will also seek to draw out the views of ordinary Irish soldiers, north and south, wherever they discussed the issues of slavery, emancipation and African-Americans. It is also important to recognise that by no means all Irish were opposed to emancipation (Colonel Patrick Guiney of the 9th Massachusetts Infantry is but one notable example) and these men too will figure in future posts on the subject.

For any of us interested in the Irish experience of the American Civil War, it is important to address the Irish reaction to emancipation from late 1862 onwards. This is best achieved through an examination of the historical record in a search for the factors that influenced that reaction- hopefully allowing us to come to a fuller understanding of this complex question.

(1) Douglass 1892 (2003 Dover Reprint):214; (2) New York Times 27th March 1882; (3) New York Irish-American 7th March 1863;

References & Further Reading

Douglass, Frederick 1892 (2003 Dover Reprint). The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

New York Times 27th March 1882. Beecher On The Chinese And His Poor Opinion of The Irish Immigrants

New York Irish American 7th March 1863. Negro Soldiers

Civil War Trust Emancipation Proclamation Page

National Archives Emancipation Proclamation