[This article is crossposted at uncpressblog.com]
Today we welcome a guest post from David T. Gleeson, author of The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America. A new history of the Irish in the Confederacy, The Green and the Grey evaluates the ambiguities and complexities of the Civil War experience for Irish Americans in the South. Taking a broad view of the subject, Gleeson considers the role of Irish southerners in the debates over secession and the formation of the Confederacy, their experiences as soldiers, the effects of Confederate defeat on Irish Americans and their emerging ethnic identity, and their role in the rise of “Lost Cause” ideology. Focusing on the experience of Irish southerners in the years leading up to and following the Civil War, as well as on the Irish in the Confederate Army and on the southern homefront, Gleeson argues that the conflict and its aftermath were crucial to the assimilation of Irish Americans in the region. Throughout the book, Gleeson draws comparisons to the Irish on the Union side, expanding his analysis to engage the growing literature on Irish identity in America.
In a previous post, Gleeson explored how Irish immigrants in Charleston “became southern” by participating in Lost Cause memorializing. In today’s post, Gleeson explains how studying Irish identity in the Civil War can shed light on American identity as well.
In early November 1860 New Orleans resident Michael Nolan, an Irish immigrant originally from County Tipperary, but who now owned a coffeehouse in the French Quarter, campaigned hard for the election of National Democrat Stephen Douglas to the presidency. Nolan loved the Union, it seemed, and did not want it to break up. In the sectional crises of the 1850s the Irish, in both the North and the South, had been on the side of compromise and opposed to any extremist positions that might threaten the United States, which had provided refuge from political discrimination and economic blight in Ireland. Yet shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s victory in that election, Nolan and hundreds of fellow Irish New Orleanians marched through the streets in support of Louisiana’s secession. As a member of the Louisiana militia, in his case the Irish “Montgomery Guards,” Nolan had gone from being a defender of the United States to one of the “Republic of Louisiana.” He would go on to become a prominent Confederate officer reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, serving with distinction, before being killed in action at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Yet while Nolan and thousands of other Irish men from New Orleans were off fighting in Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee, others at home undermined the Confederate cause. Some guarding the city mutinied, allowing Union forces to occupy it without firing a shot. Most accepted the defeat with ease, and Union commander General Benjamin “the Beast” Butler found the Irish helpful in his running of the fallen city. Back at the front, Irish Confederate soldiers retained a reputation for being brave soldiers but were also more likely to desert than native Confederates. It seems that the Irish in the South could shed their American nationalism for a Confederate one, and, after defeat, take up the American again just as easily.
As an immigrant myself, I can attest that one’s sense of identity is heightened by the immigration experience. In your new country, even when your language is the same as the natives, you suddenly you have an “accent,” your religion and culture are different, and you must adapt to new social and political realities. Immigrants then give us valuable insights, not only into their own changing identity, but also that of the host country. Irish immigrants in the South had to become Americans and Confederates. They had to negotiate the cultural traits they brought from Ireland with the demands of loyalty to their new home. And it was this Irish cultural baggage which played the key role in binding them to the United States and the Confederacy. keep reading →