General Michael Corcoran and the Confederate Irish in America’s Civil War

Flag of the 69th Regiment Irish Brigade

The recent erection of a memorial in Sligo to Carrowkeel man General Michael Corcoran, inspired historian Paul Burns to write this article on the forgotten Irish who fought on the Confederate side:

All discussions of Irish participation in the 1861-65 American Civil War seem to lead, in next breath, to the North’s famous Irish Brigade. Few know that Irish immigrants played an equally important role in the Southern Confederacy. Over 40,000 Irish fought for the Southern cause. They were the largest immigrant group in the army, and they made up about 10% of all Confederate combatants. In contrast, there was less enthusiasm among Irish immigrants to the North, and they were underrepresented in its military.

The Confederate Irish were far more fervent in support of their side’s cause because they could identify in America with the desire for self-determination at home and the right to separate from what was viewed as a repressive government. They had little concern about slavery. The Irish in America were working class, and they competed for jobs with free blacks. Consequently, the Irish in both areas tended to support the pro-slavery Democratic Party. The Southern Irish encountered less animosity and much more religious tolerance than did their Northern brethren. There was no Southern equivalent of the anti-draft riots that occurred in the large Northern cities where the Irish were concentrated.

Georgia Irish Regiment

Gen. Ml. Corcoran & Sligo's Contribution

Although the birthplaces of some Southern Irish are known, many were listed only as “born in Ireland”. The South’s army records never were complete and, since the war was lost, much of what existed disappeared. Certainly there were Confederates born in County Sligo, but none was as well known as General Michael Corcoran, Sligo’s contribution to the Northern cause. Corcoran is often associated with the Union’s Irish Brigade, but he was not. He was commander of the 69th New York that later was a part of that famous brigade, but Corcoran was captured at the first battle of Bull Run. After being exchanged two years later, Corcoran founded the Irish Legion.

The Union’s Irish Brigade, which was perhaps 80% Irish, was unique. No effort was made to consolidate Confederate Irish into large units. For the most part, they were scattered throughout the South’s regionally raised regiments, though many company-sized units, and several battalions, were formed from Irish volunteers--the Emmet Guards of Mobile, Alabama; the Southern Celts and St. Mary’s Volunteers of the 13th Louisiana; the Irish Volunteers of the 5th Georgia; the O’Connell Guards of the 17th Virginia; the Emerald Guards of the 9th Louisiana; the Sarsfield Rangers of the 7th Louisiana—to name just a few of the more than 45 distinctly Irish companies.

10th Tennessee Irish Regiment

Many of these units carried variations of the emerald flag with golden harp so favored by Irish military groups everywhere, but company flags were not carried into battle. Since the Irish units were part of geographical regiments, their company flags were never as prominent as the well-known banner of the North’s Irish Brigade, which flew at such well-known battles as Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg.

Col. Patrick Moore and the Battle of Bull Run

Scattered as they were among dozens of regiments, Irish units probably fought in every major Civil War battle. In one of the earlier fights--called Bull Run in the North and First Manassas in the South--the 1st Virginia regiment, commanded by Galway-born Colonel Patrick Moore, defended strategic Blackburn’s Ford. The regiment’s Montgomery Guards was an Irish unit and it fought effectively as skirmishers. At one point, Col. Moore led a charge against the Yankees shouting, “Feagh a Ballagh!”—perhaps the first Irish battle cry heard in the war. General Thomas Jackson earned the sobriquet “Stonewall” at that engagement, primarily because his troops held so well at the ford. The Montgomery Guards and the 1 st Virginia later were to suffer 120 casualties out of 155 men in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.

In a way, Irish troops of the 1 st Virginia regiment created the Stonewall Jackson legend by their stand at Blackburn’s Ford— but a similarly named Irish unit ended it. The 1 st Virginia Battalion, also called the Irish Battalion, became the provost guard for the Army of Northern Virginia. During the winter of 1862-63 an Irish guard of that battalion failed to recognize General Jackson returning to his bivouac late at night—and shot him.

Sunken Rd. Battle of Fredericksburg

Irish Brigade at the Battle of Fredericksburg

Did Irish units fight Irish units? Yes. At the battle of Fredericksburg, for example, Cobb’s Brigade, of which the 24th Georgia was part, was entrenched on Marye’s Hill in a sunken road behind a stonewall. A key component of the 24th was McMillan’s Guards, an Irish company that had been raised by Antrim-born Colonel Robert McMillan. McMillan had moved up to command the 24th, and during the battle he took over the brigade when General Cobb was killed. The Union’s Irish Brigade made a suicidal attack across an open field against the 24th’s strong defensive position, and it was almost annihilated. McMillan’s cool leadership cost the Irish Brigade 545 dead and wounded, including three of its five regimental commanders. Ironically, the Irish Brigade’s commanding officer, General Thomas Meagher, was in no danger of becoming a casualty himself, having gone in to town to get his horse.

Battle line at Marye's Hgts.

There were many Irish-born and first-generation Irish officers in the Confederate Army. One of the better known was Major General Patrick R. Cleburne from Co. Cork. Cleburne served in the Army of Tennessee and often was compared to the South’s General Stonewall Jackson. He rose from company commander to regiment, and then to brigade and, after leading his troops to victory in several battles and being wounded at least three times, he was promoted to major general. Late in the war he shot himself in the foot, figuratively speaking, by proposing that the South recruit slaves to fight in exchange for their freedom, an idea that could have changed the course of the war but was quickly rejected by the pro-slavery civilian government. Cleburne was killed late in the war.

Another famous, or infamous, Southern officer was Brigadier General John McCausland, who was born in Missouri of Irish parents. Nicknamed “Tiger John,” McCausland was a “never-surrender” leader who fought his way out of many tight spots. He was best known in the North for a July 1864 raid on Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which he looted and burned when a ransom demand for $500,000 was not paid. McCausland refused to submit even after the war ended and left the USA to travel in Europe and Mexico. Several years later, he rather mysteriously returned with sufficient funds to purchase 6000 acres of farmland in West Virginia. McCausland lived until 1927.

During the war, Irish immigration to the South ceased, because the ports were blockaded. After the war, it recommenced--but slowly. Eventually, as the South recuperated from its devastation, some Irish survivors of the war rose to prominence in industry and government. Today, more than 140 years after the Civil War ended, there is little difference between the Irish of the two areas, but since “history is recorded by the victors,” little is heard about the Irish contribution to the South’s cause, and even less has been written.

Paul Burns

The dead at Sunken Rd.







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