An Uncivil War, and the Irish Place in it – on Both Sides

By Brian McGowan

The Irish ballad “Paddy’s Lament” recalls the fate that awaited countless Irish immigrants on their arrival in the United States: “When we got to Yankee-land, they shoved a gun into our hands, saying ‘Paddy, you must go and fight for Lincoln.’”  We’ve talked about a tragic episode in the Irish-American saga, the 1863 Draft Riots in New York City.  Today we look at the contribution made by the Irish – on both sides, Union and Confederate – during the American Civil War.

At least 150,000 Irish-Americans wore Union blue between the years 1861-1865, among them seven Union generals, including Waterford native General Thomas F. Meagher, who recruited and then led the famous Irish Division.  On the other side some 40,000 wore grey, and provided the Confederacy with six generals, the most famous being Cork-born General Patrick Cleburne.

The Irish Division was a formidable fighting unit.  In its ranks was the 69th New York Infantry, the famous “Fighting Sixty Ninth”, whose battlefield prowess was epic.  The Division itself was formed after the first Battle of Bull Run (in which the 69th played a pivotal role protecting the rear of the routed Union army).  Meagher’s creation ultimately comprised five Infantry regiments, three from New York (63rd, 69th, 88th), one from Massachusetts (28th), and one from Pennsylvania (116th), all of which were predominantly Irish.  At Antietam, on Sept. 17, 1862, the Brigade faced the entrenched Confederate center, which they attacked relentlessly before finally being forced to withdraw with a 60% casualty rate.  Their sacrifice gave the Union army enough time to flank the Confederates, and ultimately win the day.

Meagher is a fascinating character.  Born into affluence, at an early age he embraced the cause of Irish freedom.  As a member of the “Young Ireland” movement, he participated in the abortive 1848 rebellion, was found guilty of treason, sentenced to death, and ultimately transported to the penal colony of Australia.  He made a daring escape to the United States, where he became a lawyer in New York City.  Following his Civil War service, he headed west and became the progressive Governor of the Montana Territory.  He met his end in 1867, aged 44, drowning in the Missouri River, a fate some allege was actually murder at the hands of political opponents.

While there was no equivalent unit to the Irish Brigade on the Confederate side, a number of Irish units were raised during the war, drawing from a surprisingly significant immigrant community.  While the bulk of Irish immigrants ended up in Northern ports, a good number first set foot in America in New Orleans and other Southern port cities.  Louisiana fielded a fabled Irish unit called the Louisiana Tigers.  Other Irish units included the Charleston Irish Volunteers, the 24th Georgia, the 10th Tennessee, and the 33rd Virginia, who under Stonewall Jackson at First Bull Run are credited with originating the famous “Rebel Yell” as they charged against entrenched Union artillery positions.

Few of these soldiers owned slaves.  Cleburne certainly didn’t.  A veteran of the British Army, he originally had set out to be a doctor, as was his father.  Failing to achieve that goal, in 1849 he immigrated to America, and settled in Arkansas.  He felt adopted by the people of the South, and when war broke out, he quickly enlisted as a private, and ultimately rose to Major General.  His brilliant command at battles such as Shiloh, Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge earned him the nickname “Stonewall of the West.”  In 1864, as the South slid closer and closer to defeat, Cleburne proposed to emancipate the slaves and enlist them in the Southern forces, a proposal that ostracized him from most of his fellow commanders.  He was killed in the Battle of Franklin, in Tennessee, on Nov. 30, 1864, aged 36.

Wherever they were born, wherever their travels took them, both Meagher and Cleburne carried an abiding love for their native land, and simultaneously embraced and defended their adopted land with true Irish tenacity, determination and courage.

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx, a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World.  Reach him at, or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and
“Love, Son John,” about World War II.  Both are available at