Time to Move Beyond the Irish Brigade? The Problems with Studying Ethnic Irish Units– A Case Study of the New York Irish at Gettysburg

When we think and examine the Irish of the American Civil War, we often consider first and foremost ethnic units; formations such as the Irish Brigade, Corcoran’s Legion or regimental level contingents such as the 9th Massachusetts and 69th Pennsylvania. Such units have undeniably been the focus of attention for both scholars and enthusiasts (this site included) when discussing the “Irish” of the Civil War. This is perfectly understandable- the ethnic identity of these units meant that veterans tended to highlight this “Irishness” in post-war writings, which in turn caused them to dominate the historical record. Unsurprisingly, as a result, they also dominate Civil War scholarship on the Irish. However, it is increasingly my view that these units, and what was written about them in the post-war decades by members of the Irish community, are skewing the realities of the broader Irish experience of the conflict. What was in reality an exceptional experience for the Irish of the conflict has become the central theme of how we explore, examine and remember Irish participation today.

Memorial to the New York Regiments of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg (Damian Shiels)

Memorial to the New York Regiments of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg (Damian Shiels)

The reality of the American Civil War was that the vast majority of Irish who served in the conflict did not serve in ethnic Irish units. As regular readers are aware, over recent years I have been using the Widows and Dependents Pension Files to identify the letters of Irish-American soldiers, which illustrate that the Irish served in large numbers throughout the majority of Northern units. How did the experience of this majority differ (or not) from that of the Irish in the ethnic regiments? Were they fighting for the same reasons, and with the same goals? How did they view their Irish identity, and how did they view their American identity? How did they relate to the Irish at home, and were they drawn from the same communities and groupings as those who chose to serve in ethnic units? These are questions we need to explore in further detail. In many ways, the experience of this majority of Civil War Irish remains hidden from us, though I suspect they have much to teach us not only about Irish motivations during the conflict, but also Irish communities in 1860s America.

New York State Memorial, Gettysburg National Cemetery (Damian Shiels)

New York State Memorial, Gettysburg National Cemetery (Damian Shiels)

Of late I have been examining in some detail the New York Irish who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. There is perhaps no clearer example of how ethnic Irish units have come to centrally dominate what we perceive to be the Irish experience of the conflict than this engagement. The Irish Brigade and it’s actions in the Wheatfield utterly dominate the perception of the Irish experience at this most famous of battlefield sites. Even during the conflict, the Irish-American press (particularly the New York Irish-American Weekly) looked to the Irish Brigade to be representative of Irish participation. This continued into the post war period, with the publication by David Power Conyngham of the Irish Brigade history only two years after war’s end, and with later writings by veterans such as St. Clair A. Mulholland. Irish Brigade veterans and the Irish-American community made sure they were remembered on the field as well, through memorials such as the Irish Brigade Monument and Father Corby statue. These are overtly connected to the Irish experience, and serve as permanent markers to Irish participation. The Irish Brigade as representative of the major Irish experience at Gettysburg (and in the wider war) continues today– for example it is often a focus of National Park Service interpretation with respect to the Irish. This is in no way a criticism of focus on the Irish Brigade. They are one of the most famed formations of the Civil War, and visiting sites associated with them and learning about their experiences is extremely popular (and something which I also greatly enjoy). The brigade’s history also serves as the most logical educational vehicle to explain the story of Irish participation in the conflict. But to what extent does the Irish Brigade actually come close to representing the entirety of the Irish experience at Gettysburg?

An excellent presentation by NPS Ranger Angie Atkinson on the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg. The experiences of the brigade dominate modern perception of the Irish at the battlefield, and is among the most popular stories of any relating to the engagement.

The Irish Brigade was a shadow of its former self at Gettysburg, taking into action some 530 men. They suffered a total of 198 casualties, heavily concentrated among members of the 28th Massachusetts, who alone lost 100. The three founding New York regiments lost 17 men killed and 50 wounded. There is no doubt this is an extremely high casualty rate given the proportion of men the Irish Brigade took into the fight. But from an ethnic Irish unit perspective, the experience of the 69th Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg fighting was significantly worse– they alone sustained 149 casualties, including 43 killed outright out of a strength of some 258.  I am currently examining all the New York unit fatalities as a result of Gettysburg in an effort to gain some insight into the impact of the battle on the New York Irish community as a whole, the largest Irish community represented on the field. I am a particularly interested in those regiments and brigades that were not ethnic Irish but nonetheless contained large numbers of Irish troops, such as those which had strong Democratic Party ties. For example, an examination of those who men who died in the 42nd New York, the Tammany Regiment, shows a potential 16 men who may have been Irish-born or Irish-American, almost the same number of men who were killed outright in the entire Irish Brigade. (1)

Barrett, Daniel Private 42 New York Infantry C
Barron, Thomas Private 42 New York Infantry D
Byrne, William Corporal 42 New York Infantry K
Cuddy, Michael Sergeant 42 New York Infantry I
Cullen, James Private 42 New York Infantry F
Curley, Thomas Private 42 New York Infantry C
Flynn, William Sergeant 42 New York Infantry H
McGrann, Felix Private 42 New York Infantry F
McLear, Neal Private 42 New York Infantry A
McMara, Patrick Private 42 New York Infantry E
Moore, Charles Sergeant 42 New York Infantry D
Murphy, Hugh Private 42 New York Infantry G
O’Shea, Daniel Private 42 New York Infantry E
Riley, Michael Private 42 New York Infantry G
Smith, John Private 42 New York Infantry D
West, Peter Private 42 New York Infantry K

Table 1. 42nd New York Infantry Gettysburg Fatalities of Potential Irish Ethnicity (After Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg)

Memorial to the 42nd New York Infantry, the Tammany Regiment, Gettysburg (Damian Shiels)

Memorial to the 42nd New York Infantry, the Tammany Regiment, Gettysburg (Damian Shiels)

Another regiment with ties to the Democratic Party was the 40th New York Infantry, the Mozart Regiment. An examination of their Gettysburg related deaths reveals the names of 8 men who may have been Irish or Irish-American, comparable to all but one of the New York Irish Brigade regiments.

Fleming, George Private 40 New York Infantry B
Harding, Michael Private 40 New York Infantry C
Horrgian, Timothy Private 40 New York Infantry F
Kelly, Timothy Private 40 New York Infantry D
O’Brien, Thomas Private 40 New York Infantry C
O’Harra, Daniel Private 40 New York Infantry G
Slattery, Jeremiah D Sergeant 40 New York Infantry C
Sweeny, Francis Private 40 New York Infantry D

Table 2. 40th New York Infantry Gettysburg Fatalities of Potential Irish Ethnicity (After Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg)

Above the regimental level, there is one brigade level New York unit whose losses in all likelihood had a significantly greater impact on the Irish and Irish-American community in New York in real terms than those of the Irish Brigade. The Excelsior Brigade consisted of the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73rd and 74th New York (the 120th New York also formed part of the brigade at Gettysburg). They had been formed in New York and were initially led by Dan Sickles, who by Gettysburg commanded the Third Corps. The regiments had a strong Irish flavour. Joseph Hopkins Twichell, Chaplain of the 71st New York, wrote in a letter to his brother that “at least half, I might say two thirds, of my men are Irish Catholics alone.” On 2nd July the regiments were heavily engaged in the vicinity of the Peach Orchard, sustaining significant casualties. An assessment of the brigade deaths (excluding the 120th New York) identifies as many as 50 men who fell who may have been Irish or Irish-American. It would be reasonable to assume that in the case of the vast majority (certainly in excess of 40) they were ethnically Irish.

Detail of the New York State Monument at Gettysburg National Cemetery (Damian Shiels)

Detail of the New York State Memorial at Gettysburg National Cemetery (Damian Shiels)

NAME RANK UNIT COMPANY
Crowley, Patrick Private 70 New York Infantry G
Higgins, John Private 70 New York Infantry G
McGraw, Matthew Corporal 70 New York Infantry E
McKenna, John Private 70 New York Infantry C
Massey, Joseph Private 70 New York Infantry H
Nolan, John Private 70 New York Infantry K
O’Connor, Robert Private 70 New York Infantry G
Robb, John Private 70 New York Infantry K
Ryan, Michael L. Private 70 New York Infantry C
Smith, Thomas Private 70 New York Infantry K
Tommy, John Corporal 70 New York Infantry D
Brady, James Private 71 New York Infantry A
Canty, Daniel Private 71 New York Infantry C
Holland, David Private 71 New York Infantry F
Kearns, Timothy Private 71 New York Infantry A
King, Thomas Sergeant 71 New York Infantry E
Olvaney, Patrick Private 71 New York Infantry A
Burke, Daniel L Sergeant 72 New York Infantry E
Colyer, John Private 72 New York Infantry K
Gormelly, Michael Private 72 New York Infantry E
Holland, Thomas Private 72 New York Infantry E
Coniff, John J Sergeant 73 New York Infantry K
Cowney, John Private 73 New York Infantry B
Devlin, Edward Private 73 New York Infantry A
Duane, Patrick Private 73 New York Infantry C
Flanigan, Patrick Private 73 New York Infantry B
Gallagher, Michael Private 73 New York Infantry G
Higgins, Martin E Lieutenant 73 New York Infantry E
Holmes, Edward Private 73 New York Infantry F
Keegan, Thomas F Private 73 New York Infantry B
Lacy, William Private 73 New York Infantry H
Lally, Thomas Sergeant 73 New York Infantry K
Lynch, Patrick Private 73 New York Infantry D
Malloy, Wilson M Private 73 New York Infantry C
McAdam, John Private 73 New York Infantry G
McAvoy, james Private 73 New York Infantry G
McCormick, Andrew Private 73 New York Infantry H
McGlare, George Sergeant 73 New York Infantry F
McIntyre. James D Private 73 New York Infantry G
Murphy, John Sergeant 73 New York Infantry B
O’Neil, James Private 73 New York Infantry G
Renton, John Sergeant 73 New York Infantry C
Shine, Eugene C Captain 73 New York Infantry F
Trainor, James Private 73 New York Infantry D
Trainor, Peter Private 73 New York Infantry D
Trihy, Edmund Private 73 New York Infantry C
Burke, Henry Corporal 74 New York Infantry B
Casey, John Private 74 New York Infantry H
McLaughlin, John Corporal 74 New York Infantry A
McMullen, John W Corporal 74 New York Infantry A

Table 3. Excelsior Brigade Gettysburg Fatalities of Potential Irish Ethnicity (After Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg)

Excelsior Brigade Memorial, Gettysburg (Damian Shiels)

Excelsior Brigade Memorial, Gettysburg (Damian Shiels)

Based on the available evidence, it is reasonable to put forward that the Irish losses in the Excelsior Brigade at Gettysburg were almost certainly significantly greater than those in the Irish Brigade. There is little doubt in my mind that the fame of the Irish Brigade has masked an awareness (particularly in Ireland) of the sheer extent of Irish participation through Northern forces, and is one of a number of factors that has led to an under appreciation of just how much the war impacted large swathes of the Irish community both in America and Ireland. The experiences, social circumstances, motivations for service, and impact of fatalities on the Irish community relating to those who served outside of ethnic units are certainly worthy of more detailed attention by those of us engaged in the study of the Irish in the Civil War. To further this work, I hope in the coming weeks to produce a full list of the probable/possible Irish and Irish-American deaths associated with New York units at Gettysburg, in order to highlight this issue still further. I am in the process of examining a range of sources in order to establish ethnicity and origin, and would be grateful to any readers who can provide documentation to assist with the addition and subtraction of names to the list of New York Irish dead at Gettysburg.

73rd New York (2nd Fire Zouaves) Memorial, Gettysburg (Damian Shiels)

73rd New York (2nd Fire Zouaves) Memorial, Gettysburg (Damian Shiels)

(1) OR: 175, OR: 431; (2) Butler 2012: 4;

References

New York Monuments Commission 1902. Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg, Volume 1.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1, Volume 27, Part 1.

Butler, Francis 2012. To Bleed for a Higher Cause: The Excelsior Brigade and the Civil War.

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Categories: Battle of Gettysburg, Discussion and Debate, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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19 Comments on “Time to Move Beyond the Irish Brigade? The Problems with Studying Ethnic Irish Units– A Case Study of the New York Irish at Gettysburg”

  1. bart murphy
    November 12, 2016 at 4:11 pm #

    I applaud your passion and hard work to bring the Irish experience in the Civil War to a broad audience. A fairly new student of both my Irish heritage and the Civil War, in any detail, I have felt somewhat ‘left out’ of the historical community’s presentation/perception of both. My ancestors were farmers from County Mayo who immigrated about 1847-48 through Canada to western New York state;found a livelihood building the railroads west, landing in Freeport Illinois about 1855. When the war started,3 men from two related families joined the 46th Illinois infantry; two serving the entire war in the Western theater and the third wounded/disabled at Shiloh. Three brothers stayed back to provide for aging parents. As time went on two of those joined, one in the 46th and one in the 90th Illinois, the so called ‘Chicago Irish Legion.’ One died at Vicksburg and the other served in 27 engagements under Sherman until the end of the war. The survivors all went back to farming or worked with railroads, moving westward to Minnesota and South Dakota. Other than the book by James Swan on the 90th Illinois, I feel like my heritage has an untold story. Keep up the passionate work but the next time you come to the US, travel westward into ‘flyover country’ for the rest of the story.

    Bart Murphy(Gallagher/Barrett/Gibbons/Whelan)

    • February 18, 2017 at 10:13 am #

      Hi Bart,

      Thanks for the comment! Really glad to hear you like the posts! You have a fascinating family story. Jim’s book on the 90th is superb, one of the best out there dealing with the Irish.

  2. JOE FENTON
    November 12, 2016 at 5:44 pm #

    Damian,

    I’ve always enjoyed your posts. I have even thought about doing reasearch on my ancestors from Dunquin, Ireland that fought in the American Civil War.

    You have written about one of them Luke Ferriter. Luke was married to Elizabeth FENTON and his Brother In Law Patrick FENTON also fought In the Civil war. They both were from Brattleboro,Vt. I’m sure there were many more Irish from the area west of Dingle. I think some may have even fought For the South.

    Really enjoy your research!

    Regards,

    Joe FENTON

    >

    • February 18, 2017 at 10:12 am #

      Thanks Joe! Luke’s story is one of my favourites!

  3. Patricia Roth
    November 13, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    My Irish ancestor joined the 57th NY in Utica. In his letters he often referred to the “Utica Boys”. In the few names he mentioned, not all of them could be considered Irish but seemed to be more neighborhood friends. Only guessing, but I felt like he joined with a group of his friends.

    • February 18, 2017 at 10:11 am #

      Thanks for the comment Patricia- I think you would be right there. Many Irish-born men who I read correspondence from referred to themselves as from the town or state where they had settled- far more than they would have referred to themselves as Irish (I think the latter part often didnt need to be said in correspondence) but it is clear that they were fully commited to being ‘Americans.’

  4. November 13, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    An excellent and thought-provoking study as always. Even more so when I stop to think that the surnames chosen may have been 1st generation Irish-Americans because that number reflects only those with Irish fathers not those with Irish mothers married to the non-Irish. Once again many thanks for giving me “one more thing to think about”. Nicely done.

    • February 18, 2017 at 10:10 am #

      Thanks Joe! And you are right there, they are almost impossible to track, though I have come across one or two

  5. Mark McLoughlin
    November 13, 2016 at 1:50 pm #

    Very similar to WW1 where priority is given to 10th, 16th and 36th Divisions in the media however most of the Irish were serving in the artillery, engineers and many other units

  6. Keith Howe
    November 13, 2016 at 3:21 pm #

    Great read and good luck with your research. Also as you might know already, most of the men of the 40th NY were not from New York. There was 4 companies from Massachusetts and 2 from Philadelphia. Also some of the men who were in the New York companies were not from New York. My great great grandfather was a private and served 3 years in Company D a New York company of the 40th, he was born and raised in Philadelphia.

    • February 18, 2017 at 10:09 am #

      Thanks for the comment Keith! What was his name?

  7. November 13, 2016 at 4:56 pm #

    Hi Damian. Among the larger immigrant groups, the Irish were among the most common to serve outside of ethnic regiments. Germans grouped in German-speaking units partially for the very practical reason that they could not understand orders from English-speaking officers. Also, because so many Irish entered non-ethnic units in outfits like the Excelsior Brigade, the 20th Mass., the Fire Zouaves or the 6th Wisconsin that the Irish immigrant did not have to fear being isolated from other Irish in a “Puritan” regiment. And let’s not forget Irish in the Navy. While 7% of Union soldiers were Irish, 20% of Naval personnel were born in Ireland. Yet there were no “Irish ships.”

    While some of the fault for the lack of a broader focus lies with the Irish press and communal organizations, more of it is with the natives. Northerners were stung by the accusation that the Union forces were mercenaries and escaped slaves. Until thirty years ago, the role of blacks was largely unacknowledged. Even today, the story of immigrants is neglected beyond three memes: The Irish Brigade in a Suicidal Charge (pick your battle), The Germans Ran Away (pick your battle), The Irish Rioted. This reduces complex interactions of ethnicity, race, religion, and politics to be reduced to a few simple and reductionist tropes.

    • February 18, 2017 at 10:09 am #

      Hey Pat,

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this- absolutely right, I think they were the most common to spread out in that way. Also a very good point re the nativist attitude with respect to the Irish which certainly also would have played a major role. Hopefully we are contributing a bit to the recognition of the wider truth I hope :-)

  8. November 13, 2016 at 10:47 pm #

    In thinking about the Irish across the spectrum of the Civil War, I am reminded of Mary’s Hill (I think) where the Confederate Irish cheered the bravery of the Union Irish who tried to take the hill. On first reading that had surprised me. In the Northeast, we tend to think of Boston and New York as the Irish strongholds, when they existed in the southern states as well.

  9. November 18, 2016 at 9:50 am #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

  10. tf
    February 3, 2017 at 12:44 am #

    a son Ireland in the fighting 69th:
    http://civilwartalk.com/threads/john-h-donovan-69th-new-york-19th-vrc.130217/

  11. Bill Backus
    February 11, 2017 at 5:13 pm #

    This is a great post!

    I’m currently researching the Excelsior Brigade and slowly going through the entire roster set of each regiment. Probably no other Brigade is as representative of the Army of the Potomac than the Excelsior. As a result of horse-swapping, there were companies from Michigan, Pennsylvania (both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia), New Jersey, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Even among the New Yorkers, a lot of them are from Up-State or Western New York.

    On top of the various regional composition of some of the companies, each regiment had a sizable immigrant representation, either scattered through the various companies or concentrated into single “ethnic” companies. For example the 72nd New York had a company of German immigrants or descendants. Like you mentioned the 71st New York was mainly an Irish unit. Curiously it also had the highest desertion rate in the Brigade, with a lot deserting in July 1861.

    • February 18, 2017 at 9:45 am #

      Hi Bill,

      Thanks so much for the comment! That sounds like fascinating work you are doing, if you are ever interested in a guest post on the breakdowns in it please let me know. The early desertion is interesting, I have seen the same with the New York Irish Brigade regiments when they were about to leave state.

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