The Irish Brigade
At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, many men from New York of Irish descent joined the army of the North. Some joined normal regiments and some joined regiments of just Irish soldiers. Three Irish regiments from New York were the core group which came to be called the Irish Brigade.
The Union wanted to win the support of the Irish people in the North. The southern states had seceded from the Union because they felt they had the right to make their own decision about owning slaves. Many of the Irish-Americans didn't oppose slavery. They didn't want the slaves freed to then take their places in the labor market. Many felt great sympathy for the South's desire for independence because they had fought hard to be free from the British. Therefore, the Union had to promise more food rations, better pay and financial support for their families to get the Irish to join their cause.
In February 1862, Thomas Meagher became the leader of the Irish Brigade. He was from Ireland, had fought with the Irish against the British for independence, and had been caught and sent to a British penal colony in Australia. Penal colony is another word for a prison. The prisoners were sent from Britain and lived in colonies in Australia. Meagher came to America in 1853. He was hopeful that if he were a commander of the Irish Brigade, he could be of help to the cause of nationalism in Ireland.
During the spring of 1862, a non-Irish regiment joined the Irish Brigade to support the Union's drive from the sea inland to capture Richmond. In October of the same year, another Irish regiment joined the Brigade in time to help in the raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia. In November, the non-Irish regiment was replaced with an Irish one.
Because these Irish soldiers were so fearless and strong, they led many of the battles of the Army of the Potomac. As a result, many of them were killed. 600 were killed at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, 60% of the Brigade. Several months later in 1862, 545 of the 1200 men were killed or wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia. At the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in July 1863, 320 men of the 530 men left were killed.
By the summer of 1863, because of the very high casualty rate among the Irish-American soldiers, the Irish in the North began to feel that they were being used to feed the enemy at the front of the lines. They were also upset about the National Conscription Act of 1863 which said that every single man, between 21 and 45 was being put into a draft lottery. People's names were picked at random from the list of names to serve in the war. However, a man could hire someone to take his place for $300. The Irish-Americans were poor and could not afford to pay anyone $300. In addition, the Irish-Americans began to believe that the North no longer was fighting to save the union but to get rid of slavery. They did not want to abolish slavery.
On July 13, 1863, thousands of Irish-Americans in New York went out on the streets to protest the draft law. They also displayed anger against black Americans and blamed them for the war. Mobs of Irish-Americans attacked black American and whites who favored the abolition of slavery wherever they found them. They vandalized and destroyed their homes and stores. Federal troops arrived to stop the riots, but about 120 people were killed, mostly blacks.
This series of events marked the end of the formal groups of Irish-Americans in the Civil War. Individual Irish people served in various regiments, but the size of the Irish Brigade grew smaller. The Brigade disbanded for good in 1864.
To link to this The Irish Brigade page, copy the following code to your site: