The Irish of the North overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party during the period of the American Civil War. Many had little time for Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, and in the 1864 Presidential Election most rowed behind George McClellan– the former commander of the Army of the Potomac– who was hugely popular among the Irish. Though his Democratic affiliations made him the natural choice for many Irish, McClellan nonetheless had put work into endearing himself to them. One such occasion was his appearance at a meeting in 1863, organised to raise funds for the relief of the poor of Ireland. McClellan no doubt saw this as an ideal opportunity to garner significant Irish support. His speech that evening is reproduced in full below, as is an explanation from one Irish Legion voter as to why he intended to support McClellan in the 1864 Election.

George McClellan and his wife during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

George McClellan and his wife during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

 The speech below was given at the Academy of Music in New York on 7th April 1863. The event had been organised in an effort to raise funds for the relief of the poor of Ireland (to read more on these efforts, see posts here and here). The New York Times described the event as follows:

At half-past 7 o’clock the entire edifice was filled with beauty and fashion. On the stage were the officers of the Society known as the Knights of St. Patrick; Mayor Opdycke, who presided over the meeting; His Grace Archbishop Hughes; Rev. Messrs. O’Reilly, Mooney, Schneider, Hon. Judge Daly, Hon. Recorder Hoffman, Brig. Gen. Meagher, Very Rev. Dr. Starrs, Vicar General;Rev. Thomas Quinn, of Rhode Island, Rev. Mr. Moran, of Newark, Mator Kalbfleisch, of Brooklyn, and several other distinguished gentlemen, both of the lay and clerical orders. (1)

The evening wasn’t just for Democrats– Mayor Opdyke, who was also in attendance, was a staunch anti-slavery Republican. Among the other speakers was Thomas Francis Meagher, who although a Democrat, would ultimately support Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Though “Little Mac” protested that he had not intended to speak at the event, he had undoubtedly intended to do exactly that. His speech, which by all accounts was extremely well received, was calculated to link himself still further to the Irish. McClellan spoke of springing from a “kindred race,” and of witnessing the bravery of Irish soldiers on the battlefields of Mexico and the Civil War. He went as far as could reasonably be expected in condemning the British position in Ireland, pointing out that the Irish were little represented in the Government of Ireland and had no influence on the laws of the land. One can imagine what the expression of such views meant for those in the crowd with designs on gaining American support for Irish independence. He accentuated the idea that the United States had become a refuge for Irish exiles, stoking Irish pride by noting what a boon this had been for America. He closed by taking the opportunity to espouse the cause of Union, and the importance of the current fight. It would be more than a year before “Little Mac” would receive the Democratic nomination to challenge Abraham Lincoln, but, as his speech below demonstrates, he was already preparing the groundwork for Irish support in his future political career.

The Academy of Music was an impressive venue. This was the Russian Ball held there, only a few months after McClellan's speech, in November 1863 (Library of Congress)

The Academy of Music was an impressive venue. This was the Russian Ball held there, only a few months after McClellan’s speech, in November 1863 (Library of Congress)

MY FRIENDS: I came here to-night as a listener and spectator, not as a participant in the proceedings of the evening. I came to hear the ablest and best of the friends and sons of Ireland plead her cause to-night. I have departed from my usual rule to avoid large assemblies, because I knew that this meeting had neither partisan nor political purpose. [Cheers.]

I knew that you had assembled for the noblest of all purposes– that of charity towards suffering brethren in a distant land. I came here simply to evince my sympathy in your cause; for I have strong and peculiar reasons for feeling an intense sympathy for and interest in all that relates to Ireland and the Irish [great applause.] I sprung myself from a kindred race. I have often seen the loyalty of the Irish to their Government and to their General proved. I have seen the green flag of Erin borne side by side with our own Stars and Stripes through the din of battle [Cheers.] I have witnessed the bravery, the chivalry, the devotion of the Irish race, while I was a boy, on the fields of Mexico, and in maturer years on the fields of Maryland and Virginia [Loud cheers] It has often been my sad lot, pleasant withal, to watch the cheering, smiling patience of the Irish soldier while suffering from disease or ghastly wounds; and I have ever found the Irish heart warm and true. [Cheers]

I feel, then, that I have a right to sympathize with your cause to night. It is most unfortunate that there are so many in Ireland who need our sympathy; but at least we should thank our God that He has given us the means to extend our hands to them. [Enthusiastic cheering.] It is perhaps unfortunate for Ireland that laws, in the making of which the Irish have had but little to do- that a Government in which perhaps they been but little represented- should have induced so many to have left their native land and sought foreign climes. But what has been the loss of Ireland has been the gain of America [Cheers] It has given us some of the proudest intellects that have adorned our history, countless strong arms who have developed our resources, and soldiers innumerable, who, on every field, from those of the Revolution to those of the present sad rebellion, have upheld the honor of their adopted country. [Wild Cheers] And so, I repeated, we have gained what Ireland has lost. [Continued cheers]

One thing more before I close. Although, as I said before, we have come here to-night for no political purpose, yet no true friend of his country, in the present crisis, can repress altogether the thoughts that will crowd upon his brain. What is it that enables us now to extend our hands in succor to your brethren across the Atlantic? What is it that our fathers worked for, and for which we too worked, and are working now? It was to establish on this broad continent one nation, one free Government, that might be a refuge for all from foreign lands. I know, then, that I express the sentiments of all who listen to me when I say that all oue energies, all our thoughts, all our means, and, if necessary, the last drop of our blood, must be given to uphold that unity, that nationality. [Great cheering]

I did not rise to make a speech, but simply to express my warm and most cordial thanks for the greeting with which I have been honored. I will therefore thank you again, and then make way for abler and more eloquent men who will plead the cause of your country to-night. (2)

'Irish Brigade Giving to the Cause of Ireland', Detail from New York 'Irish World', 1903

‘Irish Brigade Giving to the Cause of Ireland’, for which McClellan was speaking. Detail from New York ‘Irish World’, 1903

When the election finally did arrive in 1864, many Irish were extremely vocal in their support for McClellan’s efforts. This widespread support is borne out among the private letters of soldiers I have been studying in the widow’s and dependent pension files. To gain a sense of some Irish views you can see previous posts here and here. A letter published in the Irish-American of 22nd October 1864 is illustrative of Irish backing for McClellan. It was written by Captain Thomas Norris of the 170th New York Infantry, part of Corcoran’s Irish Legion. At the time of his writing the Killarney, Co. Kerry native was in hospital in Annapolis, recovering from a wound received at Petersburg on 16th June 1864. Norris was best known in later years for his efforts to preserve the Irish language, which have been featured in a previous post here. Norris was replying to a letter from a (presumably Irish) Sergeant about the election, and particularly to a comment that all of the officers would vote for “Old Abe and the niggers”, highlighting how many Irish felt about Lincoln, African-Americans, and emancipation. It is worth noting that these views did not prevent men like this unnamed Sergeant from wanting to return to his regiment, and to fight for a Government which by this date had made clear its intent with respect to emancipation. Like many Irish troops, he likely felt emancipation was a means to an end in the goal of preserving the Union, which was the strongest ideological motivational factor for Irish (as for native-born) troops. (3)

Democratic Party Poster for the 1864 election supporting McClellan and Pendleton (Image via Wikipedia)

Democratic Party Poster for the 1864 election supporting McClellan and Pendleton (Image via Wikipedia)


Dear Seargeant- I received yours of the 24th ult. I am glad to hear you are well, and in hope of going to your regiment soon. I feel no trouble, save all that my wounds give me, which is enough. I had a letter from the Colonel, stating that he had but sixteen men left with him in the regiment (we got cut up “right smart, I reckon”); but it is consoling to know that there is not a dark spot on our whole career, which is partly substantiated by our colors being still in our possession. We lost our men, but not our colors; we have them both yet.

You compliment me highly, indeed, when you say- “I suppose that all of you (officers) will vote for Old Abe and the niggers.” I think I taught you to be more respectful to your superior officers. But as you are so far away, you think you are all right. Did you ever see me do, or know me to say anything, not right, or honorable, or contrary to my principles, to please any person or to curry any favors? Did you ever hear me say that I did or would vote for President Lincoln? Don’t you know that I could do better out of the army as a citizen, than in it as an officer? and still you make use of the above language to me. As I am in the service for the country’s good, and not for the immediate good of my family, I intend to serve the country by voting for George B. McClellan. When President Lincoln was legally elected (not by my vote) to be the President of the United States, I thought it my duty to support him as such. So did George B. McClellan, and every true Democrat; and, no matter how we liked the workings of his administration (as soldiers), we found no fault. If he is again elected, I have no objection- nay, it will be my duty, to maintain him. I have done it before, with musket and sword, and I challenge a living man to say that I have not done my duty. But I must say, that I hope he won’t require support from either of us as the President of 1865. We are going to lick the South; but I hope the country will have a man that will say to the whipped party- “Arise and don’t whine over your bruises. It’s all your own fault. You have done wrong against your father’s house (the Government and the Constitution), and got the worst of it. Repent now of your past follies, and be good citizens in future, and you shall be men, once more, having all the rights and privileges our glorious Constitution guarantees to the children of the Republic. Yes, as for the Prodigal Son, we shall kill for you the fatted calf, on seeing signs of your repentance: we shall love each other once more, and be as one body and one fold, animated by one spirit, under one Government and one Constitution as framed by the never-to-be-forgotten fathers of American freedom and independence. Your rashness has brought desolation on yourselves and weeping to the whole country, but we must try to turn past evils to future profits. our family quarrel has developed our strength and resources, and proven the ability of our republican form of government to maintain itself from invasion from abroad or commotion from within, and put secession out of the question for evermore. But we are now, as we were before the war, a ‘Republic,’ and as a part of the same you shall stand without distinction. Let remorse be your punishment for the past; you are welcome once more to our sisterhood of States, on that equality which must exist in conformity with the nature and workings of republican institutions.”

The man to say the above is, in my estimation, George B. McClellan. He is the man to unite the whole country. And whilst I think so, I am with him; and I think that every man (soldier), who fought and bled for the Union, ought to be with and for him. No doubt, the mis-named Union men of to-day will call every man a “Copperhead” who does not pretend to endorse their pretended views. But I am afraid that a great many of these would hereafter wish- should they succeed at present in their crazy rantings, and perhaps drift the country into God knows what- that they had copper or brass heads, or no heads at all, instead of adder-heads and numbskulls. I hate what is called- Copperhead, or a rebel sympathiser, as much as the Devil hates holy-water, and, consequently, I detest the humbug calling himself a Republican who would feign have it believed that every good man who loves his country, and who considers it his duty to vote for Seymour or McClellan, is a Copperhead and a traitor. Did not the present President and his Administration force the pay of a Major-General on McClellan since he was relieved from command, whilst they deprived the country of his services. Then, are President Lincoln & Co., traitors and Copperheads? How consistent the prating of those radicals must be. I don’t go for permanent subjugation and a standing army in the South or elsewhere; that would be a military despotism, and only the beginning of monarchy. We must whip the rebels back into the Union, place their States on an equal footing with the other States, and themselves on an equality with the other citizens of the country. If they won’t have that, why I say we must either extinguish or exterminate them; for, with McClellan, I say, “The Union must be preserved at all hazards;” and we all know that there is not a man in the United States that can raise such a volunteer army for the purpose to-day as George B. McClellan. Then I say, my boy, that he must have my voice, and may God grant him success.

Yours, &c.,


Captain 170th Regt., N.Y. Vols. (4)

Despite the strength of Irish support, McClellan lost the 1864 Presidential election. President Abraham Lincoln advanced to a second-term, wartime victory, and assassination. In many respects, the Democratic Irish majority’s opposition to Lincoln and views towards emancipation have placed them on the wrong side of history. However, there was far more to their political views than simply racism towards African-Americans, and it is worth listening to their thoughts on the matter in order to attempt an understanding of those views.

Captain Thomas David Norris, 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran's Irish Legion, and veteran of the 69th New York State Militia at the First Battle of Bull Run. Perhaps the most major advocate of the Irish language to serve during the American Civil War (New York State Military Museum).

Captain Thomas David Norris, 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, and veteran of the 69th New York State Militia at the First Battle of Bull Run. He voted for McClellan in the 1864 election. (New York State Military Museum).

(1) Irish American 9th April 1863; (2) Ibid.; (3) Irish American 22nd October 1864; (4) Ibid.;


New York Irish American Weekly 9th April 1863. The Suffering Poor of Ireland. Relief Meeting– Speech of Gen. McClellan.

New York Irish American Weekly 22nd October 1864. The Irish Soldiers for McClellan.