Brian talks with English professor Craig Warren about the mythologizing of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, and how it helped dispel anti-Irish sentiment in late-19th Century America.
**This transcript comes from an early broadcast of this episode. There may be changes.**
ED: In December 1862, Northern and Southern troops faced off on the slopes of Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Union assault on the Confederate-protected hill behind a stone wall would amount to a suicide mission. Among the Northern troops was a unit called the Irish Brigade, known by the emerald green flag its soldiers carried into battle.
BRIAN: That winter’s day in Fredericksburg, the brigade’s battle-worn emerald flag was making its way back to New York for some much-needed repair. And so the Irish troops instead put sprigs of boxwood in their caps to identify their Irish heritage. The Northern troops were slaughtered in that battle. But in the years after the war, it was commonly said that no one showed more bravery in the face of certain death than the troops with the green in their hats.
Craig Warren is an English professor at Penn State Erie. He says that this tale of Irish triumph hides a much darker story.
CRAIG WARREN: In fact, it was the low point in the war for most of Irish America. Of the 1,200 soldiers who took part in the battle, 545 were killed, wounded, or missing. And because the brigade suffered such horrendous casualties and because so many people on the home front lost loved ones and neighbors, it was ultimately one of the reasons that many Irish turned against the war. And many Irish-Americans decided that what had happened was that the Irish Brigade had been wantonly sacrificed during the battle by generals who saw them simply as cannon fodder.
BRIAN: And that’s because of their Irish heritage? That’s just because they were seen as something less than full citizens?
CRAIG WARREN: That’s right. As a result, they just decided the war– there was nothing that would benefit them. The war effort wasn’t bringing people around to see the Irish as true Americans. And so they turned their backs on that war effort and decided that it was not worth investing further time, energy, lives, and money into. And it’s not too much to say that you can draw a straight line between the Battle of Fredericksburg and the New York City draft riots of 1863.
BRIAN: Really? Now those happened in the summer of 1863? So they’re roughly six or seven months after the battle?
CRAIG WARREN: That’s correct. There were mass riots in the streets of New York. There was a mob of white protesters who did a number of destructive things, smashing buildings, finding African American freed men in the streets and lynching a number of them. It took actually a detachment of soldiers from the Army of the Potomac to come into the city and restore order. And at the end of this encounter, the vast majority of the rioters who were killed or were imprisoned were of Irish descent. And so this really was a black eye for the Irish-American population during the war and convinced a number of other Americans that in fact, they were not loyal to the war effort.
BRIAN: Now I’ve seen references to the Irish Brigade and the story of their heroism. I never see any reference to the draft riots or actually the response back home that you just described. So explain how that got erased from history.
CRAIG WARREN: What happened was after the war Irish Brigade veterans forged a remarkable body of literature that took the low point of the Irish Brigade’s history, the Battle of Fredericksburg, after which they effectively ceased to operate as a brigade, and transformed it into the Brigade’s most glorious moment. And they did this by publishing a series of memoirs that championed the Irish soldier, that portrayed him in the best light possible, and which showed his suffering and sacrifices that such places as Antietam and especially at Fredericksburg as his ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his American nation. And all of them want in memory of Irish participation in the war to remember the Irish Brigade soldiers on the field, not rioting Irishman back home in the city. And so they did everything they could to elevate and even mythologize the Irish soldier during the Civil War.
BRIAN: What do you mean elevate or mythologize? Do you have any examples?
CRAIG WARREN: One of the emphases that we find in the memoirs of Irish Brigade veterans is the story of the Irish Brigade encountering a full brigade of Confederate Irish, who supposedly recognized their countrymen by those sprigs of boxwood in their caps and who, though reluctant, fired into those ranks, standing by their Southern convictions. And that was enhanced and embellished in the post-war memoirs to be seen as this tragic, poignant, ironic conflict between Irishmen North and South.
BRIAN: So let me get this straight. Being loyal to the Confederacy proved that the Southern Irish soldiers were true Americans, even though they were fighting against America.
CRAIG WARREN: That’s right.
BRIAN: How does that work?
CRAIG WARREN: In the late 19th century, there is this move towards reconciliation. And there became over time this understanding that as long as one had participated in the Civil War and fought for one’s section and had stood up for one’s beliefs, then that person had demonstrated their loyalty to the American experiment. And each were fighting for American ideals, now maybe for the Union, maybe for the Confederacy. But the idea was that to have participated in the war was what mattered.
BRIAN: So in the mythology of what all of this meant– and, again, we’re looking back at this from roughly, let’s say, the 1890s– what this was saying from the Irish perspective was don’t worry. We will be loyal to the ideals and the principles of America. We are not going to be just loyal to our fellow Irishmen. We’re not going to participate in machine politics in the cities. We’re not going to hire Irish over other ethnicities. We are capable as Irish of being loyal, in fact dying for ideals and principles.
CRAIG WARREN: Exactly, yeah. The message was that, contrary to prewar beliefs that the Irish were not true Americans, that they were interested only in the stake of Ireland across the Atlantic, instead these men were willing to fight and die for their adopted country and for their homes, be it North or South, and that that was a stronger connection ultimately than the shared heritage.
BRIAN: And do you think that these memoirs helped with American acceptance of Irish immigrants in the late 19th century?
CRAIG WARREN: I believe so. And I think that their strategy worked. There was a wide-scale celebration of the Civil War veteran during the late 19th century and early 20th. And there was a receptive audience for stories about soldiers in uniform and their adventures and achievements and sacrifices. And so this story folds the Irish-American story into the larger story that we so often hear about the Civil War, and that is that it was a brothers’ war. And Irish memoirs stressed this as a way to show that they were as true Americans as any other citizens of the United States.
BRIAN: Craig Warren is a professor of English at Penn State Erie. We’ll post a link to his article about the Irish Brigade at backstoryradio.org.
PETER: We’re going to take a short break now. But don’t go away. When we got back, what the Statue of Liberty meant to Americans before it turned green.
ED: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.