`American Civil War empowered the Irish'


The American Civil War changed attitudes towards newcomers to that country and after decades of hostility and rejection Irish people emerged as a key component as disunity emerged, according to an American academic.

Dr Arthur Mitchell of the University of South Carolina was addressing a conference on the Irish and the American Civil War at the University of Massachusetts at the weekend. The conference was co-sponsored by the St Brendan Society of Ireland and the Irish-American Cultural Institute.

Dr Mitchell said by the spring of 1861, the Irish had generally decided to rally to the cause of the Union. It was also clear that many Irish and Irish-Americans were prepared to volunteer for military service.

The civil war gave many of them the opportunity to demonstrate with word and deed their deep-held attachment to the United States.

About 150,000 Irish-born people served in the Union forces, while those of Irish parentage probably supplied a similar number. The nay-sayers, begrudgers and bigots were confounded, Dr Mitchell said.

The 9th Massachusetts Regiment was the first Irish unit formed. A second Irish regiment, the 28th Massachusetts (the Faugh-a-Ballaughs) was formed in 1862. Many of the 10,000 Irishmen from the state served in other units. About 40,000 Irishmen served the Confederate military. All-Irish units were formed in eight Confederate states.

In sharp contrast to past attitudes, state officials almost invariably adopted a friendly and co-operative stance in regard to matters of Irish concern.

Ireland became a battleground for the fight for public opinion. Union recruiters worked to secure volunteers, while Confederate agents tried to counter them.

Some Union agents in Ireland attracted young men with glowing inducements concerning jobs in American war industries. The movement of young men out of Ireland for military/industrial purposes caused a diplomatic flurry between the United States and Britain.

The Fenians hoped to use trained supporters to overthrow British rule in Ireland when the American Civil War ended, but a rebellion attempt failed.

The service and sacrifice of thousands of Irish soldiers in the Union cause won the respect of the American public.

After the war the atmosphere of good will and common endeavour soon dissipated. Irish bodies were no longer required. It was back to pre-war sectarian combat.

Among the speakers was Brendan O Cathaoir, an Irish Times journalist, who spoke on "Bishop Lynch of Toronto, Canada, and the American Civil War".