America’s fighting Irish

Green, Blue and Grey.

The Irish in the American Civil War, by Cal McCarthy, The Collins Press; €16.99

CIVIL wars are embarrassing. Recently, when Barack Obama laid wreaths on memorials commemorating both sides in the American civil war, voices were raised in protest.

The American civil car still hurts, to the extent that for many Americans, support for the Confederate side equals support for slavery, and its modern-day followers are seen as right-wing rednecks.

Even here in Ireland, little is made of the fact that one of the civil war’s most outstanding generals, Corkman Patrick Cleburne, was the highest-ranking immigrant in the Confederacy.

His home at Kilumney, near Ovens in Co Cork, is a place of pilgrimage, but only for those Americans who still nurture the Confederate cause.

Cal McCarthy quickly sets to work to dispel some of the myths of the war. Truth was an early casualty in the bloody conflict. Like most wars, it was about power and land, rather than principles.

The split between north and south was well developed long before hostilities broke out. Divisions were economic and political – the industrial north versus the agricultural south. Although slavery became an issue during the war, prior to the outbreak of hostilities the reduced status of black people was undisputed by both sides. Slaves were not citizens of the United States, although they did count for taxation and representation in Congress.

This led, says McCarthy, to a conflict of interest between the southern states, who wanted slaves counted for representational purposes but not taxation, and the northern states, which saw the advantages of taxing the south, but not of giving slaves an increased representation in Congress.

The dispute eventually led to the secession of the 11 Confederate states, and war.

Patrick Cleburne first led troops at Shiloh and went on to earn the rank of general before his death on November 30, 1864, during the second battle of Franklin. Before his death, Cleburne was approached by a fellow Corkman, Brigadier General Thomas Sweeny, a Fenian supporter who wanted Cleburne to fight for the Fenian cause. Cleburne refused.

Cleburne and Sweeny weren’t the only Irishmen to fight in the war between north and south. As McCarthy explains: “Thousands of Irish people left for the New World in the 19th century. Their families here may have mourned them as if they were dead but some went on to involve themselves in the conflicts of their new home.”

Irish men fought in every important action in the American civil war, helping to shape the America that we know today. The most famous Irish unit in the Union army, the Irish Brigade, which included the famous ‘Fighting 69th’, was formed in 1861. Corkman Tom Smyth died on April 9,1865, from injuries sustained during the brigade’s final battle.

Many other Irish died in Union blue and Confederate grey, and their actions at Antietam, Gettysburg and Fredericksburg have become an important part of American history. McCarthy’s work sheds new light on Irish involvement in the war and on the war itself.

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