Civil War Celts: The Fighting Irish
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Because I’m Irish, I think it is only fitting to pay homage to some of the many Irishmen who fought in the War Between the States. The Irish played an enormous role in both armies during the Civil War, and many famous soldiers were Irish. Nearly everyone has heard of the infamous Irish Brigade, the 69th New York Infantry “Fighting Irish,” which still exists today. The Irish Brigade, led by Thomas Francis Meagher, played a significant role in many major battles, and there have been documented accounts of the Confederates hearing the approaching Irish Brigade chant, “Erin Go Bragh!” as the Irishmen marched toward them with the Union army. The 2,500 Irish soldiers stuck green sprigs in their caps to remind them of the “old sod.”
On the Confederate side, six of the 425 generals were Irish. Patrick Cleburne saw the South’s plight as that of Ireland’s, in that the Union refused to allow secession, just as Britain disallowed Irish independence. General Cleburne, who would be celebrating his birthday today if he was alive, distinguished himself as a brave and innovative leader. Other notable Irish commanders included General Philip Sheridan, General George Armstrong Custer, John Barry, father of the American Navy, and the Reverend Abram Joseph Ryan, who served as a chaplain to Confederate troops and went against Union authorities to do so.
During the course of the War Between the States, approximately 2.2 million men fought for the Union, 150,000 of which were Irish. In comparison, around 900,000 enlisted for the Confederacy, with 20,000 to 40,000 of these men being of Irish decent. The Irish influenced Civil War music as well. A popular song of the time, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” was written by Patrick Gilmore, who was, of course, an Irishman.