The Irish in the Civil War

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved


On my mother’s German side from Western Pennsylvania, I had a great-grandfather and two of his brothers who served in Pennsylvania volunteer regiments in the Civil War. Even though the Irish on my father’s side had not yet arrived in the United States and Ohio during the Civil War, I have been interested more in the Irish-Americans who fought for the Union than the German-Americans.

In this article, I will discuss the role of the Irish in the Civil War focusing on some famous units, primarily on the Northern side but also some in the South. I will profile the three leading Irish-American military leaders of the war – Thomas Francis Meagher of the Irish Brigade and “Little” Phil Sheridan of the Union and Patrick Cleburne of the Confederacy. While “Stonewall” Jackson was of Ulster Scots-Irish stock, I am not including him. Seven Union and six Confederate generals were Irish-born. And I will discuss the conflict between Irish immigrants and Negroes which erupted in the New York City draft riots of July 1863.

The Pre-War Irish

By the beginning of the Civil War, the United States had a considerable Irish population, mainly centered in the cities. In 1860, a quarter of New York City’s population (204,000) was Irish-born, with 22 percent (57,000) Irish-born in Brooklyn, then an independent city. The two other leading cities with large numbers of Irish-born immigrants were Philadelphia (95,000-18%) and Boston (46,000-26%). The Midwestern cities with the largest number of Irish-born immigrants were: St. Louis (19%), Chicago (18%), Detroit (14%), and Cincinnati (12%). The Southern Irish-born population was estimated to be between 85,000-175,000 in 1861. The Irish were about 25 percent of the population of New Orleans (24,398) and Memphis (4,159).

The first Irish emigrant wave was the Ulster Protestant (Presbyterian) Irish who left Northern Ireland for the rural United States, motivated by economic and religious reasons. Around 250,000 arrived in the eighteenth century. The next wave was the Irish Catholics numbering almost a million who came to North America – mostly the United States – between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the beginning of the great potato famine in 1845. For them the reasons for emigrating were also to escape economic hardship and religious persecution. This rising Irish emigrant population triggered anti-Irish Nativist reactions, including occasional violence in eastern cities and in the 1840’s the birth of the Know Nothing party, dedicated to ridding the United States of Papist-led Roman Catholics. It enjoyed its greatest electoral successes in the mid-1850s in New England. Some of this sentiment continued while approximately 1.5 million Irish, mostly Catholic, came to the United States in a single decade (1845-1855) to flee the famine. On the other hand, many Americans came to the aid of the Irish suffering under British policies and from Irish landowners clearing many of their desperate tenant farmers who were unable to pay rent or sustain themselves due to the disease that destroyed their potato crops.

Despite the discrimination and poverty endured by these Irish immigrants, they began to gain political power in those cities where their numbers were high. They mostly joined the Democratic party. As the Abolitionist movement grew in the North, the Irish were not attracted to it for a number of reasons. Many distrusted its largely Protestant leadership and with most Irish immigrants employed in low-paying, unskilled jobs, they feared competition from freed slaves in the same economic class.

In the election of 1860, in the North, the Irish-born voters predictably supported the Democratic Party. However, after the South fired on Fort Sumter, many of these Irish Democrats volunteered to fight for the Union. It is estimated that about 145,000 Irish-Americans served in the Union’s armed forces. Of this number, more than 8,000 were from Ohio. In addition to patriotism, many joined for the pay (and later bounties paid to recruits). Others saw this as an opportunity to prepare for a future opportunity to fight to liberate the Irish homeland from British rule. What they were not fighting for was ending slavery.

It was estimated that about 40,000 Irish-Americans fought for the Confederacy. On the Southern side, Irish-Americans, including their Catholic bishops and priests, sympathized with the defense of the South against Northern aggression, although they also generally supported the institution of slavery. They also identified with the Democratic Party but experienced less discrimination than their Northern immigrant counterparts. Interestingly, “The Bonnie Blue Flag” was written by Irish-American minstrel Harry McCarthy, later a prisoner of war held at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. “Dixie” was written by Irish-American entertainer Daniel Decatur Emmett, born in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Leading Irish nationalist John Mitchel, the Young Ireland leader and escaped exile, moved to the South and became a noted defender of the Confederacy (breaking with his follower, Meagher). Two of his sons who served in the Confederate army were killed (one at the Bloody Angle in Pickett’s Charge) and the third was badly wounded.

Irish-American Units and Battles

The most famous Irish-American unit in the Union armies was the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac. More detail about its most famous commander – Thomas Francis Meagher – follows below. Its genesis was the 69th New York State Militia regiment, commanded by Irish exile Michael Corcoran, a Fenian (the Irish Republican Brotherhood founded in Dublin in 1858). Corcoran gained renown in October 1860 when he refused to include the regiment in a parade in New York City to honor the visiting Prince of Wales. For this, he was court-martialed and jailed. He was defended by Meagher, a fellow Irish exile and rebel and a captain in the regiment. After the attack on Fort Sumter, the 69th voted to answer Lincoln’s call for volunteers. The governor of New York then quashed Corcoran’s court-martial. Soon after, the 1,000-strong 69th left New York for Washington, D.C. amidst great fanfare, marching under their green silk regimental banner and the slogan “Remember Fontenoy” (the battle in which the exiled “Wild Geese” of the Irish Brigade of the French Army turned the tide against the British in 1745). The 69th was assigned to the brigade commanded by Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman.

Its first battle experience came at First Bull Run. It twice assaulted Confederates holding Henry Hill, fighting fellow Irish-Americans, many of them dock workers, serving with the Louisiana Zouaves under Roberdeau Wheat from New Orleans. In the midst of the Federal retreat, Michael Corcoran was captured, as well as the regiment’s flags. It lost 192 men killed, wounded, and missing. Afterwards, Sherman criticized the 69th for their near mutinous behavior, partly resulting from their feeling that there was anti-Irish bias against them. This included disagreement over exactly when their 90-day enlistment ended. The 69th’s initial enlistment ended amidst acrimony.

Meagher returned to New York to recruit an Irish Brigade, of which he became commander, replacing Corcoran in December 1861. Tiffany and Company made a replacement flag featuring an Irish harp. Returning to the Army of the Potomac, the 69th was joined by two other largely Irish New York regiments – the 63rd and 88th. Father William Corby, a Jesuit priest from Notre Dame University, became the chaplain of the Irish Brigade. The brigade was assigned to Israel Richardson’s division.

Regimental colors of the 69th New York Volunteers of the Irish Brigade

The Irish Brigade was next bloodied in George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. It fought in the Battle of Fair Oaks on June 1-2, 1862 and then in several of the battles against Robert E. Lee’s attacking Army of Northern Virginia. On July 1, it went up against the Confederate Irish-Americans of Roberdeau Wheat’s Louisiana Tigers. Wheat had been killed a few days earlier at Gaines’ Mill and the Tigers were disbanded soon after. The three regiments of the Irish Brigade suffered almost 500 killed, wounded and missing out of about 4,000 during the Peninsula Campaign. A few weeks later, it was reinforced by the 29th Massachusetts, a New England Yankee regiment. This did not sit well with the Irish or the Yankees. The all-Irish 28th Massachusetts replaced the 29th following the Battle of Antietam. Meagher returned to New York to recruit replacements, which he found to be more difficult, even with the lure of bounties. In August 1862, Corcoran was exchanged but did not return to command of the 69th. Instead, he recruited an Irish Legion unit.

The next test for Meagher’s Irish Brigade was the slaughterhouse known as the Battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 17, 1862. The Irish Brigade under Richardson launched an attack against the Confederates in the Sunken Road. Previously, the Irish-American 69th Pennsylvania of Howard’s Philadelphia Brigade was decimated in the fighting in the West Woods. After absolution by Father Corby, the Irish Brigade charged the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane) defended by D.H. Hill’s division. In the savage fighting that followed, the Irish Brigade suffered over 500 casualties but could not break through the Confederate defense.

Many protested Lincoln’s decision to again relieve McClellan of command of the Army of the Potomac for his failure to pursue Lee following Antietam, and his replacing of McClellan with Ambrose Burnside. Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation also did not sit well with many of the Irish-American volunteers in the army, as well as their civilian relatives. Lincoln’s action exacerbated previous opposition to the draft passed by Congress in the summer of 1862. Many felt that it favored the rich who could afford to buy their way out of the draft, versus poor immigrants who could not.

Burnside then led his army to Fredricksburg and another terrible battle which would reinforce the fighting reputation of the Irish Brigade. In addition to the 28th Massachusetts, the Irish Brigade now also included the 116th Pennsylvania from Philadelphia. Although the latter was not all-Irish, its commander and his second in command were both Irish-born, as were many of its soldiers.

On December 13, 1862, the Irish Brigade marched through the town to join the assault on Longstreet’s troops on Marye’s Heights entrenched in another sunken road behind a stone wall. Before their assault, soldiers of the Irish Brigade put sprigs of green boxwood in their caps to make their Irish heritage known. Their valiant but futile charge gained the admiration of Longstreet’s troops, which included the Irish-Americans of the Georgia brigade. After the death of its brigade commander, Thomas Cobb, the Georgia defenders were led by Robert McMillan, colonel of the 24th Georgia and born in Antrim, Ireland. The Irish Brigade suffered 45 percent casualties, including 55 officers killed and wounded. Father Corby called it a “slaughter-pen.” This disaster fueled Northern Irish-American disenchantment with the war. On January 16, 1863, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City was the site of a requiem mass for the dead heroes of the Irish Brigade with Meagher attending.

Upon his return to the army in February, Meagher attempted to obtain home leaves for the New York regiments in the Irish Brigade shortly after he met with President Lincoln but his request was denied by War Secretary Edwin Stanton. A few months later, the Irish Brigade found itself caught up in the rout of General Joseph Hooker’s right wing by Stonewall Jackson on May 2 at Chancellorsville. Frustrated by the brigade’s losses and the denial of his requests for leaves, Meagher resigned from the army on May 8.

As the Army of the Potomac, now under the command of George Meade, marched to a momentous rendezvous with Lee’s army at Gettysburg, the battle-hardened Irish Brigade now numbered only 530 men, commanded by Colonel Patrick Kelly of the 88th New York. Small as it had become in numbers, the Irish Brigade still made a memorable contribution to the Union victory. The brigade was among others of Winfield Hancock’s Second Corps ordered to support Dan Sickles’ beleaguered Third Corps in the Wheatfield on the second day of the battle. Again first receiving absolution from Father Corby, it plunged into the maelstrom. Before it retreated back to Cemetery Ridge, the brigade lost 202 men.

Other Irish-Americans distinguished themselves as well at Gettysburg. Irish-born and West Point graduate Colonel Paddy O’Rourke led his 140th New York regiment in a desperate race to Little Round Top to stop a Confederate charge up its slopes. Leading his troops, O’Rourke fell dead but his men and others of the Fifth Corps successfully defended Little Round Top, along with the more celebrated 20th Maine under Joshua Chamberlain. The next afternoon it was the turn of the 69th Pennsylvania, still under Colonel Dennis O’Kane from County Kerry but reduced since Antietam to only 258 men. In the 2nd brigade of the 2nd division of Hancock’s Second Corps, they awaited the approach of the Pickett-Pettigrew charge at the Angle. Despite O’Kane’s wounding (and later death) and casualties of 50 percent, the 69th Pennsylvania played a critical role in defeating the Confederate attack at its high-water mark.

In December 1863, Michael Corcoran died in an accident in the company of Meagher and his loss was much lamented. The Irish Brigade, back to a strength of about 3,000 despite the re-assignment of the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania, would participate in Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign, suffering losses of one-third of its men and officers, including two commanders killed in succession at Cold Harbor and Petersburg and then their successor captured at Ream’s Station. Nevertheless, the brigade survived as a re-organized unit and was commanded until the end of the war by Robert Nugent, an original member of the 69th New York. They were there for the final defeat and surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. In his 1963 address to the Irish Parliament, President John F. Kennedy presented to the Irish people a battle flag of the Irish Brigade.

William Lytle

In the West from Ohio, the most notable unit was the 10th Ohio, known as the “Bloody Tinth.” It was comprised mainly of Irish immigrants from Cincinnati. It gained fame because of its first commander, William Lytle. He came from a distinguished family and was a prominent lawyer and Mexican War veteran. He was also nationally known as a poet, especially for “Antony and Cleopatra.” Lytle was wounded in 1862 at the Battles of Carnifex Ferry, West Virginia and Perryville. Promoted to command of a brigade in Sheridan’s division of Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland, Lytle’s brigade stood in the way of Longstreet’s breakthrough on September 20, 1863 at Chickamauga. He led them in a desperate charge to stem the tide and died from four wounds. His body, accompanied by an honor guard from the Bloody Tinth, was returned to Cincinnati for a public funeral.

These are, of course, only a few examples of the heroism of the many Irish-Americans who fought and died for the Union. Due largely to the fact that there were not similar large concentrations of Irish-Americans in Southern cities and the segregation of Southern units by state, there was no Confederate equivalent to the Northern Irish Brigade. Instead, there were a number of predominately Irish-American smaller Confederate units, mostly at the battalion and company levels. Several of these served under Stonewall Jackson and Richard Taylor in Jackson’s 1862 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. Some were prominent in the defeat of Irish-born General James Shields at Port Republic.

Battle flag of the 6th Louisiana “Tigers” from New Orleans

At the regimental level, the 6th Louisiana “Tigers” from New Orleans was perhaps the best known in the Army of Northern Virginia. It served with Jackson and Taylor in the 1862 Valley Campaign and in Early’s 1864 Valley Campaign. It was devastated defending against Union attacks on the West Woods at Antietam, losing its Irish-born commander Henry Strong and eleven other officers. Its brigade of Louisianans under Harry Hays suffered 60 percent casualties. It fought in every major battle of Lee’s army, a total of 25 major battles. At the surrender under John Gordon at Appomattox, the 6th Louisiana numbered only 52 out of a total of 1,146 during the war. Thirty had originally enlisted in 1861. Approximately 60 percent of this regiment were Irish-born or of Irish ancestry. The 6th Louisiana lost 219 killed in battle and a total of 330 died (including one executed for desertion).

An outstanding family example of Lee’s Irish-Americans was the Dooley family of Richmond. John Dooley emigrated from Limerick in 1832. From clerking to becoming a prosperous clothing manufacturer, Dooley helped to organize the Montgomery Guard militia. He served in the 1st Virginia regiment and later commanded the Richmond Ambulance Corps. His oldest son was wounded at Williamsburg in 1862 and then served in the Confederate Ordnance Department. His younger son, a captain in the Montgomery Guard in the 1st Virginia, was in the forefront of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, was shot through both thighs, but survived to serve 21 months as a prisoner at Johnson’s Island. Of the 90 in the Montgomery Guard who began the war, only 11 were left at Appomattox.

In the Army of Tennessee, two regimental units are especially worth mentioning. The 5th Confederate Infantry was a combination of two largely Irish-American units from Memphis and served in Cleburne’s division. After the destruction of Cleburne’s command at Franklin, only 21 survived. At the surrender in North Carolina in April 1865, there were only 10 left. The 10th Tennessee, known as the “Sons of Erin,” was led by the mayor of Nashville, killed at Raymond, Mississippi in the defense of Vicksburg. It too fought with Cleburne. Three of its officers were captured at Bentonville, leaving a single survivor at Johnston’s surrender.

Regimental Colors of the ‘Sons of Erin’, the 10th Tennessee Infantry, CSA

Two incidents also deserve mention. On June 26, 1863, after Grant’s army besieging Vicksburg, exploded a mine tunneled under the city’s defenses, it was Irish-Americans in the 5th and 6th Missouri who rushed to fill the gap against their fellow Irish-Americans of the Federal 7th Missouri, mostly Irish-Americans from St. Louis.

On September 8, 1863, a band of 43 Irish-American artillerymen defended the Sabine Pass on the Texas-Louisiana coast against a Federal expedition comprised of four gunboats and 5,000 troops on 22 transports. The vastly outnumbered Confederates were led by Dick Dowling, who emigrated from County Galway to Houston. Without the loss of a man, they disabled two of the gunboats. A third ran aground before the Federals gave up their attempt to invade East Texas.

Three Leading Irish-American Heroes

Thomas Francis Meagher

Thomas Francis Meagher was born in 1823 near Waterford, Ireland. His mother died when he was three and a half years old. He also lost an older brother and two sisters in infancy. After schooling in England, the Catholic Meagher, dedicated to Irish nationalism, returned to Ireland in 1843. He became a lawyer in Dublin and, in contrast to Daniel O’Connell’s home rule movement, joined the group that became known as Young Irelanders, which promoted independence from England. In 1846, Meagher gave a speech supporting violence if necessary, earning him the nickname “Meagher of the Sword.” In 1848 in the midst of the Great Potato Famine, Meagher was tried for his views under the Treason Felony Act but was acquitted by a jury. However, later that year (a year of failed revolutions throughout Europe) he was re-arrested and convicted along with three associates of fomenting an abortive rebellion. Sentenced to death, following public protests, Meagher and the others were instead sentenced to life in the Tasmania penal colony in Australia. After three years there in exile, he escaped to New York City by way of Brazil. Meagher was greeted as a hero by Irish-Americans.

Thomas Francis Meagher

Meagher became a well-known Irish-American, a lecturer and publisher of the Irish News. President Franklin Pierce invited him to his home and then to his inauguration in 1853. As a lawyer, he was recruited to the defense of New York City Congressman Dan Sickles (and future general in the Army of the Potomac) for the murder of U.S. Attorney Phillip Barton Key (grandson of Francis Scott Key), killed when Sickles discovered his affair with his wife. Sickles was acquitted on the basis of the first successful use of the temporary insanity defense. As war loomed, Meagher was sympathetic to the South. However, after the attack on Fort Sumter, Meagher supported the Union cause. He joined the 69th New York Militia regiment, en route to the defense of Washington, D.C.

In the 69th’s baptism under fire at First Bull Run, Meagher was accused by some of cowardice and drunkenness after he was toppled from his horse. This accusation was fueled by the pro-Southern correspondent of the London Times. With the capture of the regiment’s commander, Meagher succeeded him. When the regiment returned to New York City, Meagher started to recruit an Irish Brigade. With the prospect of Meagher being able to recruit Irish immigrants, President Lincoln made him a brigadier general and he was appointed commander of the Irish Brigade. He led it through McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign and then returned to New York City to recruit replacements to make up for its losses. He returned in time to join the reinstated McClellan to face Lee’s first invasion of the North. On September 17, 1862, Meagher led the Irish Brigade in its heroic attempt to dislodge the Confederates from the Sunken Road. In the midst of the fighting, Meagher fell from his horse. Later, some charged that this was because he was drunk, a story repeated by Whitelaw Reid of the Cincinnati Gazette. However, he was lauded for his bravery by others, including his corps commander Edwin Sumner. Nevertheless, the charge followed him later.

At Fredericksburg, Meagher struggled on foot with his men against Longstreet’s Confederates on Marye’s Heights. However, he was again accused by some of failing to lead his troops in their valiant but hopeless charges. He soon returned to New York City as an invalid on medical leave. When he returned to the brigade in February 1863, only 600 of the 2,250 men were left of the original three New York City regiments that made up the brigade. After the Battle of Chancellorsville, a discouraged Meagher resigned. He left still having the support of the officers and men of the brigade. His subsequent efforts to recruit the Irish, including new immigrants, were crippled by the New York City draft riots of July 1863, which Meagher condemned and blamed on the Copperheads (Peace Democrats).

In the election of 1864, Meagher supported Lincoln against McClellan, along with New York City’s influential Catholic Archbishop John Hughes. It wasn’t until the spring of 1864 that Meagher rejoined the Army of the Potomac but without a command. After a drinking bout in August, he returned to New York City. In September he was sent west to Nashville but not given any responsibility until November, when he was told to organize convalescents into a provisional division. It was to proceed east to be shipped to the Carolinas to join Sherman. However, it met with mishaps and delays, for which Meagher was blamed by Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck and Commander in Chief Grant. Combined with renewed charges of drunkenness, Meagher was relieved of his command on February 20, 1865. Again without a command, Meagher spent St. Patrick’s Day, 1865 with the remnant of the Irish Brigade near Petersburg.

After the war, Meagher headed west. He became the territorial secretary (acting governor) of Montana. Amidst political disputes, conflicts with General Sherman (his nemesis after First Bull Run) over Indian policy, and financial problems, he drank heavily. On July 1, 1867, the 44-year-old Meagher died when he fell overboard from a docked steamboat on the Missouri River and drowned. The most likely cause was drunkenness, although the circumstances remain mysterious. This was an ignominious end for the dedicated Irish nationalist and Irish-American patriot. Nevertheless, he was remembered by his admirers. Statues in his memory were erected in Butte, Montana in 1905 (mostly paid for by Irish miners) and later in his birthplace of Waterford, Ireland.

Phil Sheridan

Phil Sheridan was a short, colorful, and combative Union commander, only behind Grant and Sherman in its pantheon of heroes. He fought in many of the key battles of the war. He also fought with many of his fellow officers. This began with his suspension for a year from West Point for attacking William Terrill, who would be killed at the Battle of Perryville. He returned to graduate with his fellow Ohioans and close friends Joshua Sill (killed at Stones River) and George Crook. Fellow Ohioan James Birdseye McPherson (killed at Atlanta) was first in his class. During the Civil War, Sheridan would not only clash with Crook but also William Hazen, William Averill, Gouverneur Warren, and George Meade, among others.

Phil Sheridan

Phil Sheridan, according to his mother, was either born in 1831 in Ireland, or en route to America, or in Canada or Albany, New York. His farmer parents emigrated from County Cavan, Northern Ireland to Somerset, Ohio (where Sheridan assumed he was born). His father was a laborer on roads and canals, then a contractor, who went bankrupt. After graduating from West Point, Sheridan served in the frontier army in the Southwest and Northwest, fighting against various Indian tribes.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was posted to St. Louis, where he served under Henry Halleck, first as an auditor and then as a quartermaster. He, of course, lobbied for combat duty and was finally named colonel of the Second Michigan Cavalry in 1862, missing Shiloh but participating in Halleck’s plodding advance on Corinth. As a result of his skirmishing with rebel cavalry, Sheridan was appointed brigadier general commanding an infantry brigade. He had named his horse “Rienzi” after a cavalry skirmish in this Mississippi town. Rienzi would later become almost as famous as Sheridan.

Sheridan’s first major battle experience came at Perryville, where Buell’s army stopped the Confederate invasion of Kentucky. Sheridan advanced in disobedience of orders but his aggressive action gained attention. He next served under another Ohioan, William Rosecrans, who replaced Buell and eventually moved out of Nashville against Bragg’s army at Murfreesboro.

Sheridan gained renown at the resulting Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863). Amidst the rout of McCook’s corps on the right of Rosecrans’ army on the morning of the first day, Sheridan’s division stood firm and retreated resolutely. He is credited, along with Hazen, of preventing the Confederates, including Cleburne’s division, from destroying the Army of the Cumberland. In doing so, Sheridan lost 1,600 casualties (40 percent) and had three brigade commanders (including his classmate Sill) killed. For his stalwart defense, Sheridan was appointed major general.

At Chickamauga, Sheridan was again in the midst of a Confederate breakthrough against Rosencrans’ army. This time, it was Longstreet’s assault through the gap created on September 20. Sheridan managed to save most of his troops and ended that bloody day helping to cover the retreat to Chattanooga of the left wing rallied by Thomas on Snodgrass Hill. It was there on November 25, after Pat Cleburne beat back Sherman’s attacks on Tunnel Hill, that the Army of the Cumberland charged Missionary Ridge. Instead of stopping at its base, they chased the retreating rebels up the ridge, causing Grant to demand from Thomas who ordered this. Thomas replied that he did not.

Sheridan led his division atop Rienzi. Sheridan swore that he would take the rebel guns that fired at him when he toasted them before his ascent. At the top, astride one of the captured Confederate guns, Sheridan directed his troops to pursue the fleeing Confederates. Fighting on into the darkness, Sheridan was the only commander to actively pursue Bragg’s defeated army. At the same time, he and Hazen disputed who was entitled to claim some of the captured guns. In this battle, Sheridan lost over 1,300 men, half of the casualties of Thomas’ army that memorable day. Sheridan caught the attention of U.S. Grant, now in command of all Union armies. First, he headed under Sherman and Gordon Granger to the relief of Burnside in Knoxville. Soon, he was ordered to Washington, where Grant named him Commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. It was in the East in 1864-1865 that Sheridan would embellish his reputation, although not without more controversy.

With Grant’s approval and over Meade’s objections, Sheridan changed the role of the cavalry corps to one primarily of attack. In May 1864, he took his three divisions south to Richmond to fight the legendary Jeb Stuart. Two days later, in a desperate defense of the Confederate capital, Stuart was killed at Yellow Tavern. Returning to the Army of the Potomac’s Overland Campaign, Sheridan’s troopers fought at Haw’s Shop and Cold Harbor before they were sent by Grant in June to sever the Central Virginia Railroad all the way to Charlottesville. This led to the Battle of Trevilian Station, where Wade Hampton, Stuart’s successor, blocked Sheridan’s path. Returning from this expedition, Sheridan was given a new assignment.

Grant sent Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley to deal with Jubal Early, whose small army had threatened Washington, D.C. David Hunter’s forces were augmented by Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps from the Army of the Potomac, William Emory’s Nineteenth Corps from Louisiana, and George Crook’s Army of West Virginia. Sheridan also had cavalry under Alfred Torbert. With this reinforced Army of the Shenandoah, Sheridan confronted the greatly outnumbered Early and defeated him at the Battles of Winchester and Fisher’s Hill in September. In their aftermath, he and his friend and West Point classmate Crook argued over who should get credit for Crook’s flanking movements that defeated Early. Crook would soon have other concerns when John Gordon’s troops crushed his encamped corps in a surprise attack in the fog on the morning of October 19 at Cedar Creek. With Sheridan away at Winchester for a military planning meeting, his army reeled (except for the Sixth Corps) in defeat.

Undaunted when informed of the battle, Sheridan made his famous ride on Rienzi to his dispirited troops. He rallied the army, promising them that they would retake their camps this day. That they did in a sweeping counterattack that devastated Early’s temporarily victorious army and helped Lincoln to re-election that Fall. Sheridan’s ride was memorialized in the poem “Sheridan’s Ride” and Sheridan renamed Rienzi “Winchester.” Sheridan’s army, while harassed by Mosby’s guerillas, then burnt much of the Valley in accordance with Grant’s orders, and he and his cavalry finished off the remnants of Early’s army at Waynesboro as Sheridan made his way back to Grant’s army besieging Lee at Petersburg.

Sheridan would play a pivotal role in ending the siege and forcing Lee to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865. In late March, Grant sent Sheridan in command of his cavalry (including those commanded by the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer, Wesley Merritt and George Crook, recently released from captivity after his kidnapping that winter) along with the Second and Fifth Corps, commanded respectively by Andrew Humphreys and Warren (a hero of Gettysburg), to cut the Southside and Danville railroads and possibly to go on to link up with Sherman advancing against Joe Johnston in North Carolina, thereby preventing Lee’s army from joining Johnston. This led to Sheridan’s decisive victory over Pickett’s troops at Five Forks on April 1, where 5,000 Confederates surrendered. Pickett’s defeat, combined with his previous failed attack at Fort Stedman, forced Lee’s evacuation of Richmond as Grant mounted an all-out attack on Petersburg. In the midst of his victory over Pickett, Sheridan dismissed Warren for dereliction as commander of the Fifth Corps for his unit’s initial confusion in direction in making its flank attack. Sheridan dismissed Warren’s plea for reconsideration by saying: “Reconsider, hell! I don’t reconsider my decisions.”

With that, Sheridan headed for Lee’s retreating army. On April 6, Sheridan’s troops destroyed Ewell’s corps at Saylor’s Creek, capturing him, six other generals (including Lee’s son), and 10,000 exhausted soldiers. With Custer in the lead, Sheridan finally blocked the path of Lee’s rapidly disintegrating army at Appomattox Court House, where Lee surrendered on April 9. After the surrender ceremony, Sheridan bought the desk upon which Grant signed the surrender document, giving it to Custer the next day.

Grant then ordered Sheridan to take command of Union forces west of the Mississippi to force the surrender of Kirby Smith’s army. Sheridan failed to win a respite in order to participate in the grand review of the Union armies in Washington in late May. Sheridan spent 1865-1867 in the trans-Mississippi, first in Texas to offset any threat from the Emperor Maximilian and former Confederates in Mexico, and then dealing with the difficult Reconstruction issues in Texas and Louisiana. Once again embroiled in disputes with fellow officers, he dismissed generals Edward R.S. Canby, Gordon Granger and Horatio Wright. He also contravened the policies of President Andrew Johnson and the Congress, leading to his re-assignment by Johnson and Grant to head the Department of the Missouri in the western plains, replacing Winfield Scott Hancock.

Once again, over the next 16 years, Sheridan would be embroiled in numerous controversies as the army was assigned the duty of protecting settlers and dealing with hostile Indian tribes that resisted white encroachment on their ancestral lands. While Sheridan denied ever saying that the only good Indian was a dead Indian (more a sentiment attributed to Sherman), nevertheless, under his leadership, the tribes were eventually defeated and restricted to reservations (with Nelson Miles and Ranald MacKenzie earning the most credit after Crook’s and Custer’s defeats in Montana in 1876). In 1875, Sheridan had married but his honeymoon was cut short by concern over Sioux resistance to ceding the Black Hills where gold had been discovered by Custer the previous year. In 1883, Sheridan took President Chester Arthur (successor to the assassinated James Garfield) on an expedition to Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 with support from Sheridan, who protected it against miners and developers.

In 1884, Sheridan succeeded Sherman as commander of the U.S. Army. In August 1885, along with Sherman, he accompanied the vast procession in New York City for the funeral of his patron, Ulysses S. Grant. The following year, he parted ways with his old classmate and fellow Civil War general, George Crook, who resigned in protest against criticism of his treatment of Geronimo in Arizona, whom he had persuaded to surrender. Sheridan died in 1888 of heart disease at age 57, having lived just long enough to write his memoirs and be appointed to the same four-star rank as Grant and Sherman before him. His coffin was accompanied by his battle flag from the Battle of Cedar Creek. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery close to Robert E. Lee’s former home. Sheridan’s statue in Washington, D.C. was dedicated in 1908.

Patrick Cleburne

Patrick Cleburne was called the “Stonewall of the West” by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Robert E. Lee called Cleburne like “a meteor shining from a clouded sky.” Like Meagher and so many other Civil War soldiers, Cleburne was Irish-born. Unlike many other Irish-Americans, however, Cleburne was neither poor nor Catholic. He was born in 1828 and grew up near Cork as a member of the Protestant gentry. His father was a doctor. Unfortunately, his mother died at 37 when he was only 1, leaving his father a widower with 4 children. Then his father died at 51 when Patrick was only 15, leaving him an orphan. Six years later, without notifying his stepmother, Cleburne enlisted in the British army but served only 3 years before departing Ireland for America. Having failed to pass exams to become a pharmacist in Ireland, he made his way to Cincinnati, where he clerked in a drugstore. He quickly moved on to Helena, Arkansas to work in a drugstore, of which he later became an owner. After selling it, he became a lawyer. He worked with fellow lawyer and future Civil War comrade Thomas Hindman to combat the Know Nothing party’s campaign against Irish immigrants. As the 1860 election loomed, Cleburne helped to organize a militia company (the “Yell Rifles”) in Helena.

Patrick Cleburne

After Arkansas voted to secede from the Union, the Yell Rifles became part of the 1st Arkansas Volunteer Infantry. Cleburne got off to a rocky start, deposing his state commander for incompetence, leading to a charge of mutiny against Cleburne. However, his scheduled court-martial was dismissed by Gideon Pillow, commander of the new Army of Tennessee. Cleburne and his troops then voted to join the Confederate army under General William Hardee, who became Cleburne’s friend and patron. Cleburne would serve as best man at Hardee’s wedding and Hardee would offer the eulogy at Cleburne’s burial.

Cleburne and his Arkansas troops were first bloodied at Shiloh in April 1862. Cleburne had become a brigade commander in Hardee’s division of Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Cleburne’s brigade attacked Ohio regiments in Sherman’s division, driving them back on the first day of the battle. Cleburne and Sherman would meet again in Tennessee and Georgia. The second day Cleburne’s command was devastated as U.S. Grant’s reinforced army drove the Confederates under Beauregard from the field. Cleburne’s 2,700-man brigade suffered over 1,000 killed, wounded and missing. The commander of his former regiment and the captain of the Yell Rifles were both killed in this murderous battle.

Following the Confederate retreat from Corinth, Cleburne and his brigade participated in the invasion of Kentucky by Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith later in 1862. On August 27, while inquiring about the wounding of his friend Lucius Polk from the Yell Rifles (and nephew of the bishop-general Leonidas Polk of the Army of Tennessee), Cleburne was wounded himself (although only slightly) at the defeat of Don Carlos Buell’s forces at Richmond, Kentucky. Then on October 8 at Perryville Cleburne was again wounded, hit by an artillery shell. Nevertheless, his troops distinguished themselves against a much larger Federal force, which included Phil Sheridan.

After Bragg’s retreat to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Cleburne was promoted to major general and command of a division under Hardee. Cleburne played a prominent role in the Battle of Stones River. His division spearheaded the surprise attack by Hardee against Alexander McCook’s corps of William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland on the morning of December 31. Initially successful, they eventually ran up against the diehard resistance of troops which included Sheridan’s. In the wake of Bragg’s retreat after his repulse on January 2, 1863, Cleburne was caught up in the conflict among the officers of the army who were asked by Bragg for a vote of confidence. Along with Hardee and others, Cleburne responded that a new commander of the Army of Tennessee was needed. However, Jefferson Davis, supported by Joseph Johnston, refused to remove Bragg. Thereafter, Bragg held this against Hardee and Cleburne. Nevertheless, the fighting quality of Cleburne and his division were recognized.

This proved true in September at Chickamauga. Cleburne fought hard on the Confederate right under Polk, going up against George Thomas. Of his 5,000-man division, one-third were killed or wounded in the fierce fighting. After the battle, Bragg accused Polk, his worst critic in the army, and D.H. Hill for failures to attack effectively. A visit from Davis again failed to solve this continuing conflict. As the Army of Tennessee conducted a siege of Rosecrans’ army in Chattanooga, Bragg remained in command.

With Rosecrans’ removal by Lincoln, the appointment of Thomas, and the arrival of Grant and Sherman to lift the siege, the situation was about to change. Bragg rid himself of Longstreet, sending him off at his request to attack Burnside in Knoxville. Beginning with Hooker’s successful attack on Lookout Mountain on November 24, the Army of the Cumberland was about to redeem itself for its defeat in September. On November 25, Sheridan would lead the unordered charge up Missionary Ridge that would result in the rout of Bragg’s army. However, Grant’s plan of attack was for Sherman to deliver the main blow. Sherman attacked the north end of Missionary Ridge. Defending against Sherman at the Chattanooga and Cleveland Railroad tunnel was Cleburne’s division. Outnumbered four to one, Cleburne’s force beat back several attacks that day by Sherman’s 30,000-strong army. With the collapse of Bragg’s center and left, Cleburne’s embattled division served as the rear guard of the retreating army. He and his heavily outnumbered troops prevented further disaster and saved the army’s wagon train by holding off the pursuing Federals at Ringgold Gap.

While in winter camp and after Bragg’s replacement finally by Johnston, Cleburne came to the most controversial decision of his military career. On January 2, 1864, before the assembled (fractious) high command of the Army of Tennessee, the naïve Cleburne read his proposal to overcome the North’s numerical military superiority (including its Negro regiments) by arming slaves with a guarantee of freedom for fighting for the South. Cleburne argued that Southern independence was more important than the preservation of slavery. For this, he was denounced by many of his fellow officers, some of whom considered this to be treason. Despite being sworn to secrecy by Johnston, Cleburne’s proposal was leaked by a fellow officer to Davis, who suppressed it for fear that it would destroy his government. This setback was offset by Cleburne’s pursuit and engagement with Sue Tarleton, the maid of honor at Hardee’s wedding in Mobile later that January.

That spring and summer found Cleburne and his troops playing an important role in Johnston’s (and then Hood’s) attempt to prevent Sherman’s much larger army from capturing Atlanta. At the end of May, Cleburne is credited with saving the army’s right wing from destruction at Pickett’s Mill. On June 27, Cleburne’s entrenched division again stopped an assault by Sherman. Versus 8,000 attackers who lost 800 killed and wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Cleburne’s losses were only 2 killed and 9 wounded.

Davis’ choice of Hood over Hardee to replace Johnston as Sherman approached Atlanta after repeatedly flanking Johnston was very disappointing to Cleburne. As was, no doubt, Hood passing over him in appointing Frank Cheatham instead to command Hood’s corps. Cleburne and his division were in the thick of the fighting triggered by Hood’s offensive attacks on Sherman from July through September in his defense of Atlanta. On July 22 at Bald Hill, Cleburne’s troops killed Ohioan James Birdseye McPherson, the only Union army commander killed in battle. On August 31 and September 1, in his only opportunity to command a corps (Hardee’s), Cleburne failed to defeat the Federals under Thomas and Logan at Jonesboro. Hood blamed Hardee for this defeat. The next day Hood evacuated Atlanta, sealing Lincoln’s victory in the fall election.

Cleburne and his troops and their comrades were dispirited by these defeats and Sherman’s capture of Atlanta. They blamed Hood, who nevertheless remained in command. He failed to prevent Sherman from mounting his March to the Sea. Hood then began his doomed campaign to invade Tennessee and capture Nashville. Instead, he would largely destroy what remained of the Army of Tennessee, the finale being George Thomas’ victory at Nashville in December.

Cleburne nevertheless did his duty. However, he once again was caught up in one of the many setbacks of the Army of Tennessee. On November 29 at Spring Hill, Tennessee, due to confusing orders, Frank Cheatham’s corps, including Cleburne’s division, allowed John Schofield’s fleeing Federals to retreat that night almost directly through the sleeping Confederates, whom Hood had ordered to block their retreat. The next day, a furious Hood denounced his generals and then ordered a hurried attack on Schofield, now entrenched in Franklin en route to Nashville. Instead of following Nathan Bedford Forrest’s advice to flank the Federals, Hood ordered an assault by his 20,000 troops even before the artillery arrived to support them. Surpassing the Pickett-Pettigrew assault at Gettysburg in both bravery and futility, the Army of Tennessee lost over 6,000 in this desperate attack. A despondent Cleburne before the attack responded to one of his fellow Arkansan commander’s foreboding that many of them would not get back to Arkansas by saying, “If we are to die, let us die like men.” His last words to Hood were reported as, “I will take the enemy’s works or fall in the attempt.” Twice unhorsed leading his men, Cleburne died from a shot through his heart 50 yards from the Federal breastworks. He was one of several Southern generals killed in this disastrous, ill-advised attack. En route to Franklin, he had admired the chapel at Lucius Polk’s estate, saying, “It is almost worth dying to rest in so sweet a spot.” Polk had Cleburne buried there, although he was re-interred and buried in Helena in 1870. Hardee said this about his protégé Pat Cleburne:

“[He was] an Irishman by birth, a Southerner by adoption and residence, a lawyer by profession, a soldier in the British army by accident, and a soldier in the Southern armies from patriotism and conviction of duty in his manhood.”

The New York City Draft Riots

For five days beginning July 13, 1863, the Irish of New York City went on a rampage against both the military draft enacted March 1, 1863 (an extension of the 1862 draft) and also Negroes. For the mostly impoverished population, much less enthusiastic after two years of war and fearful of the impact on their economic future after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the draft was especially galling. Anyone who could afford it could pay $300 or pay a substitute that amounted to evading the draft. Poor Irish-American immigrants could not afford the former and would be many of the substitutes hired to serve in the Union armies. The law also ended the earlier draft exemption of the city’s voluntary fire department.

The New York City Draft Riots as depicted in Harpers Weekly, August 1, 1863

The prior hostility of the Irish to abolition and emancipation was aggravated in New York City in June 1863 when 3,000 striking mostly Irish stevedores on the city’s docks were replaced by Negroes, protected by the police. As the draftees’ names became known, mobs of rioters attacked the draft offices, as well as police stations. The police superintendent barely survived but the head of the local militia was hung. Ironically, the head of the draft was Colonel Robert Nugent, formerly of the Irish 69th regiment, whose house was burned. Wounded at Fredericksburg, Nugent would be the last commander of the Irish Brigade. Across the city, Negroes became targets of the angry mobs. The rioting ended with the return of New York troops sent to Gettysburg earlier that month. The exact number of dead is unknown but it is likely that the number well exceeded 100 and was estimated to be as high as a thousand.

Following the restoration of order, the conscription law was temporarily suspended. After its reinstatement, the city governments of New York City and Brooklyn agreed to buy exemptions for those wishing them but unable to afford the cost, helping to deflate continuing opposition to the draft. The New York City draft riots were the largest anti-war outburst of its kind, in contrast to the opposition of many “Copperheads” (Peace Democrats) to Lincoln’s war policies.


Despite their lowly economic and social status, their political affiliation with the Democratic party (as opposed to Lincoln’s party in the North), and discrimination against them, Irish-Americans distinguished themselves in the Civil War. They enlisted (and re-enlisted) in great numbers and served with distinction on many battlefields on both sides, suffering heavy casualties in some of the bloodiest engagements. Seventy Irish-American Union soldiers received the Medal of Honor. They produced some of the outstanding generals, most notably Sheridan for the North and Cleburne for the South.

In the North, the major blot of the war was the opposition of many Irish-Americans to abolition and the 1863 New York City anti-draft and anti-Negro riots. The hope of many Irish-Americans that service in both armies would then lead to participation in a post-war military uprising to liberate Ireland from British Unionist rule was not realized. The Fenians, who attempted post-war invasions of Canada, were eclipsed by the Home Rule movement in Ireland until the Rising of 1916 amidst World War I and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

Related link:
Erin’s Spartans in Gray

References (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

Bruce, Susannah Ural. 2006. The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865. New York University Press.

Callaghan, Daniel. 2006. Thomas Francis Meagher and the Irish Brigade in the Civil War. McFarland & Company.

Cotham, Edward Jr. 2004. Sabine Pass: The Confederacy’s Thermopylae (Clifton and Shirley Caldwell Texas Heritage Series). University of Texas Press.

Cozzens, Peter. 1990. No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River (Civil War Trilogy). University of Illinois Press.

Gannon, James. 1998. Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers: A History of the 6th Louisiana Volunteers. De Capo Press.

Morris, Roy Jr. 1992. Sheridan: The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan. Crown Publishers.

O’Brien, Sean Michael. 2007. Irish Americans in the Confederate Army. McFarland & Company.

O’Grady, Kelly. 2000. Clear the Confederate Way! The Irish in the Army of Northern Virginia. De Capo Press.

Spann, Edward. 2002. Gotham at War: New York City, 1860-1865 (The American Crisis Series: Books on the Civil War Era, No. 9). Scholarly Resources.

Symonds, Craig. 1997. Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne and the Civil War (Modern War Studies). University Press of Kansas.

Tucker, Phillip Thomas. 2006. God Help the Irish!: The History of the Irish Brigade. McWhiney Foundation Press.

Wittenberg, Eric. 2005. Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. Potomac Books.

Wittke, Carl. 1956. The Irish in America. Louisiana State University Press.

Wylie, Paul. 2007. The Irish General: Thomas Francis Meagher. University of
Oklahoma Press.