Pioneering work on the Irish of the Confederacy

Sat, Oct 26, 2013, 01:00


Book Title:
The Green and the Gray: the Irish in the Confederate States of America


David T Gleeson

University of North Carolina Press

Guideline Price:

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, Ian Kenneally in sections of his Courage and Conflict: Forgotten Stories of the Irish at War and webmasters such as Robbie Doyle in

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.

Gleeson records the departure from New Ross, Co Wexford, in the 1850s of one Patrick Murphy. Murphy moved to Natchez, in Mississippi, and bought slaves. He left behind an archive in which he recorded that he was prone to whip any of his charges who “deserved punishment”.

Irish readers might well prefer to remember his namesake, Bridget Murphy. She left Wexford in 1849 in favour of Massachusetts. There she met, or was reunited with, another native of her home county, Patrick Kennedy. In 1963 their great-grandson John Fitzgerald Kennedy set about tackling the abiding legacy of slavery with civil-rights legislation that he could not bring to fruition before his assassination.

The employment of Irish nationalist sloganeering, by recruiters such as Gen Thomas Francis Meagher, was not just a Union phenomenon. Conveniently ignoring the tacit Confederate alliance with Britain, the Charleston slave dealer Thomas Ryan deployed emotive rhetoric to recruit Irishmen to the Confederate cause. Seeking to “raise a company of IRISH REBELS to enter into Confederate service”, Ryan claimed that “Oliver Cromwell lives again in the person of Abraham Lincoln. Should they succeed in capturing Charleston the butcheries of Drogheda will be repeated on our streets.”

‘Stonewall of the West’
The most celebrated Irish Confederate military figure, Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, the “Stonewall of the West”, is given his due. Cleburne was the highest-ranking and probably the most effective Irish-born commander on either side in the civil war. Robert E Lee said of the Corkman that he “shone like a meteor in a clouded sky”. At the age of 21 he emigrated to the US and settled in Helena, Arkansas. Like most Irish combatants he did not own slaves and professed to see the issue of slavery as a distraction. To Cleburne the cause of the Confederacy was that of independence.

He was an unfortunate fatality of the conflict in more ways than one. He was killed at the Battle of Franklin in 1864, but long before that he had originated a proposition to recruit slaves into the Confederate army. Their reward was to be a highly circumscribed form of postwar emancipation. His petition, signed by other senior officers, was forwarded to Richmond, where President Davis curtly rejected it. Cleburne, who had risen through the ranks from private to major general, received no further promotions before his death.

This volume is a valuable addition to American Civil War studies. The only vague disappointment is a failure to satisfy this reader’s curiosity about the extent of Fenian infiltration of the Confederate army, though the role of the IRB in the immediate postwar environment is well covered. Such a trivial reservation does not detract one iota from the comprehensive research and excellent pioneering narrative.