By: Toby Joyce | History Ireland

It is well known that Irish emigrants to the United States played a significant role in the American Civil War of 1861-65. Individuals such as Patrick Cleburne for the Confederacy, and Philip Sheridan for the North, played important roles in military operations. Even more significant were the tens of thousands of Irish-Americans who fought, plus about 150,000 Irish-born emigrants who joined the Union forces, and 40,000 who fought for the Confederacy.
Yet there is a paradox in the Irish participation—in the North, the section most resistant to the war effort of Lincoln’s Republican government was the Irish-American community. The Irish were easily stirred into resisting radical measures like conscription and the emancipation of slaves. Economic rivalry with black Americans, and an acute psychological need to distinguish themselves from ‘niggers’, made the Irish virulently racist. The worst expression of this was the New York draft riots of 1863 when blacks were murdered in the streets, homes of Irish army officers were attacked, and a black orphanage burned to the ground.


Keen Irish interest in foreign wars

Irish-American resistance to the war effort is explicable in terms of their Democratic allegiance before the war, the rejection of the Irish by the nativist ‘Know-Nothing’ party of the 1850s, plus economic and racist antipathy to blacks. Attitudes to the war in Ireland itself are harder to explain. The Irish in mid-Victorian Ireland took a keen interest in foreign wars. Generally, if Britain was involved, nationalists looked to ‘Ireland’s opportunity’. Otherwise, the Irish were attracted to the side of traditional overseas allies. In 1860, an Irish Brigade of over one thousand men was raised to help the Papal States resist Garibaldi’s invasion. The Catholic church in Ireland was very supportive of the recruitment drive, and the departure and return of the brigade were greeted with general rejoicing. Similarly, in 1870, the invasion of France by Prussia caused an outburst of enthusiasm in nationalist Ireland for assistance to the French Empire. Meetings were held up and down the country, resolutions were passed and men were encouraged to join the French army. Yet in 1861-65, not even a handful of public meetings were held in Ireland to affirm support for the Union, despite the Irishmen fighting in the Federal ranks and the high level of public interest in the war. There was a general consensus, from 1864, within the Catholic Church and the nationalist press, discouraging Union recruitment in Ireland.

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