For all that has been written about the Civil War, it’s hard to imagine there are many unturned stones left about.
But from the outset of his eye-opening account, “The Green and the Gray,” David T. Gleeson claims to have found one: “Irish participation in the Confederate experiment,” the Northumbria University historian notes, remains a “complex and imperfectly understood element of the American Civil War.”
As his analysis unfolds, there is much that will surprise, perhaps even unsettle, Boston readers familiar with the abolitionists, the Massachusetts 54th, and the summertime encampments of reenactors. Gleeson looks at the role of Irish-Americans in the Southern debate over slavery, in the Confederate Army, on the homefront, and in the aftermath of the defeat.
The Irish in the Southern states had generally arrived a generation or more before those who came to Boston and other Northern cities and were already well-established socially, culturally, and politically by the time of the run-up to war. They were active in politics; a number owned newspapers; and there were bishops and cathedrals in the larger cities of the otherwise predominantly Protestant region.
Many Irish Americans were, in fact, slave owners. Among them was Frederick Stanton, who in 1818 arrived in Natchez, Miss., where he got into the cotton business, eventually owning six plantations and 333 slaves. Later immigrants, Gleeson observes, “saw slave ownership as the way to success in the South.”
Also among the slave owners was Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston, S.C. Lynch, writes Gleeson, not only “saw himself as a good Confederate paternalistic slaveholder,” but was “willing to sell slaves” through an Irish-American slave trader.
Lynch reappears later when he was sent to Europe on a blockade-runner to meet with Pope Pius IX, as Confederate leaders had become convinced “that papal recognition of the Confederacy might encourage other Catholic countries” to come to the aid of the South. The pope was cordial, but it was clear, Gleeson writes, that slavery was “a major sticking point.”
When war came, some 20,000 Irish would serve in Confederate units with such names as the Irish Volunteers, Emerald Guards, and Shamrock Guards. Those men “earned a reputation for bravery,” Gleeson writes, but also “for being difficult to manage.” “Irish men fought hard but also deserted . . . in larger numbers than native Southerners.”
There was apparently only one Irish vs. Irish battlefield clash. That occurred at Fredericksburg, Va., in December 1862. As Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade — men from New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania — “charged up Marye’s Heights toward certain death,” Confederates — including the Lochrane Guards, an Irish unit from Georgia — “ensconced behind a stone wall poured fire into the charging Irishmen.”
As the war progressed, support waned throughout the South. Notable exceptions were the Irish-owned machine shops that “were an integral part of the Confederate military complex.” And there was A. G. Magrath, son of an early Irish immigrant, who was elected governor of South Carolina in December 1864 — and in May , a full month after the surrender at Appomattox, “was still writing letters as governor, fretting about the end of slavery and its impact on the South’s economy and social relations.”
In the end, “Irish loyalty was shallow,” writes Gleeson. Not many were willing “to sacrifice everything on the altar of the new nation as it disintegrated before their eyes.” They were “ambiguous Confederates,” and “when the Yankees finally came,” most Irish were ready to rejoin the United States.
But as the memories of the war’s suffering dimmed, and as racial supremacy was seriously challenged during Reconstruction, Irish-Americans in the South found common ground with other Southern whites.
“This common ground,” Gleeson writes, “was based in nostalgic ‘memories’ of the Confederacy” and of the “Lost Cause,” marked at United Confederate Veterans reunions.
Michael Kenney, a freelance reviewer living in Cambridge, can be reached at email@example.com.