Pioneering work on the Irish of the Confederacy
John Mitchel: approved of slavery
The Green and the Gray: the Irish in the Confederate States of America
David T Gleeson
University of North Carolina Press
It’s the song most associated with the brief existence of the Confederate States of America. Dixie tells the unlikely tale of a freed slave pining for the South – “I wish I was in the land of cotton / Old times they are not forgotten”. Although a favourite of Abraham Lincoln, it became the unofficial anthem of the southern insurgency.
But it was written by an Irish-American northerner, the composer and blackface-troupe leader Daniel Emmett, as the closing song of a minstrel show run by the New York Irish O’Neill brothers. As a faux Irish contribution to that traumatic conflict, known south of the Mason-Dixon Line as the War between the States, it has little place in David T Gleeson’s admirable survey of the Irish contribution to the Confederate war effort. There are more than enough real Irish Confederates to populate this splendid and absorbing narrative.
Given the lowly status of Irish diaspora history in this country, Gleeson’s volume is a welcome addition to a paltry Irish-originated corpus of literature on the topic. This scanty oeuvre has recently been enhanced by Damien Shiels in The Irish in the American Civil War (and on irishamericancivilwar.com), Ian Kenneally in sections of his Courage and Conflict: Forgotten Stories of the Irish at War and webmasters such as Robbie Doyle in myleskeogh.org.
Gleeson goes well beyond the merely anecdotal in conveying a sense of what it was to be an Irish immigrant in the southern states that formed the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865.
With the 150th anniversaries of all the major set-piece confrontations of the American Civil War being marked in an American half-decade of commemoration, this is a timely and superior addition by an Irish scholar to a field normally the preserve of Americans.
Gleeson peels back layers of received wisdom and reveals the complexities as well as the banalities of the Irish experience of the American south. He points out that some Irish immigrants settled in southern cities such as Charleston and Savannah in order to escape the nativist Know Nothing bigotry of the rapidly expanding northern conurbations. In the 1840s, for example, a freshman congressman from Mississippi felt compelled to speak out against nativist attempts to curtail the naturalisation of Irish immigrants as American citizens. His name was Jefferson Davis, and he went on to assume the presidency of the Confederacy in 1861.
But Gleeson also acknowledges an ambiguity on the part of many Irish in the south to the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Some, such as the Catholic bishop of Charleston, Patrick Lynch, acquired slaves; others, such as John Mitchel, approved of the practice; still more, such as Jack McGuigan of Vicksburg, aided the escape of slaves at great cost to themselves – 10 years’ hard labour in the case of McGuigan.
Some of the southern Irish rationalised slavery on the dubious basis that slaves were better treated than the Irish peasant or agricultural labourer. In the rubric of the truly Confederate Irish the crusading Yankee morphed into the despised “British abolitionist” and offered further justification for the keeping of slaves.
Mitchel had brought with him to the US notions of Irish exceptionalism characteristic of the Nation newspaper and the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s. The Lord Haw Haw of the Confederacy, through his journalistic work on the Richmond Enquirer, adapted his ideas on race to encompass the validation of slavery. He concluded, in the process, that the south was actually more Celtic than the north (although 95 per cent of Irish emigrants settled north of the Mason-Dixon Line). Mitchel wrote in 1858 that “the South is Ireland”, by which he meant a beleaguered, agrarian community oppressed by a larger and more powerful industrial neighbour.