If you are Irish, you should know about this history, as written about in Lincoln And The Irish, of the essentiality of the Irish to winning the Civil War. Without the Irish fighting on the side of the Union, the North would have almost certainly lost the war.
When the Civil War broke out, the Irish were coming to the shores of America in large numbers. It was the end of the Great Famine, and there were many immigrants coming to America. According to the book, the American government also sent people into Ireland to recruit more soldiers and pay for their passage on a ship to join the army on the North side.
This was only possible due to the help of several prominent Irish men, including a revolutionary named Thomas Francis Meagher, an archbishop named John “Dagger John” Hughes, and General Michael Corcoran.
Meagher was a revolutionary from Ireland who made a spectacular escape from a ship that was on its way to a penal colony where he was to be held captive. This was for his role in the abortive Irish Rising in 1848. He was on a ship headed for the colony when he managed to escape and get on another ship bound for America. This allowed him to take his place in history, recruiting the Irish for the North and for Lincoln’s army.
It was not an easy task to recruit the Irish, because many of them were ambivalent about slavery, as for the most part it didn’t affect them. Most of the Irish by this point were not indentured services, but were coming to America as free persons. While they tended to have very little, and often lived in poverty, they did not identify with the slaves. Those who had ties to the industrial trades made possible by the slavery in the South even identified with the slave owners.
For the most part, however, the Irish had their own lives and weren’t always interested in joining in the war effort. Due to the efforts of the three aforementioned men, they were recruited in large numbers. Each recruited them on a different basis, such as revolutionary, religious, and following a brave general, but they were responsible for the great victory that the North earned.
A full fourth of the North army was Irish. Out of 600,000 men, 125,000 of them were Irish. Native Irish came from Ireland to fight, but also those American Irish who were already on these shores. Without these men, the North surely would have lost to the Irish.
The second person, Archbishop Hughes, recruited the Irish on spiritual grounds. He helped to bring many Irish into the army. There were some issues recruiting the Irish, because in many cases there was controversy, as they believed they were being used as “cannon fodder.” In some battles, they were used on the front lines, and had many casualties in these instances. However, for the most part, the Irish did survive the fighting.
The last person who helped Lincoln recruit for the North was General Corcoran. The general had an earned reputation as a true hero of the war. There was a battle that he was sent away from, where the Irish 69th regiment was running away from the battle. When they saw General Corcoran riding into the battle, the stragglers all turned and followed. This particular battle was a decisive victory for the North, and helped Lincoln to recruit many more Irish.
Not everyone knew that General Corcoran was the top Fenian in America, ordained as such by Fenian founder John O’Mahoney. He also inspired many when, during a visit from the British monarch, he refused to dip the flag, preferring instead to show his independence as a true-blooded Irishman.
This act made many Irish follow him, into war and anywhere else that he would lead. He was a true hero in the war itself, and in fact he had convinced Meagher to become a Lincoln man, wanting to fight for the North. He did many heroic things during the war, including refusing to be exchanged as a prisoner after Bull Run unless his men were exchanged as well.
In the end, though, it turned out that the Irish were there for Lincoln’s demise as well. His bodyguard John Parker, was Irish, and had taken leave of guarding Lincoln to have a drink with several other gentlemen. His valet, Charles Forbes, was also Irish, and was with his bodyguard having a drink at the pub next to the theater that night.
It is unfortunate that Lincoln was assassinated, and that the people supposed to protect him were MIA, for so many reasons. Not the least of which being that reconciliation would have been much more effective under Lincoln than under his successor.
And it should only be natural that the persons who found John Wilkes Booth, and ultimately assassinated him as well, was an Irishman named Edward Doherty. The killer and several of his conspirators were tracked to a barn, where Booth wanted to come out shooting and go down in a blaze of glory. Instead, one of the police who was there with Doherty saw this intention through the crack of the wall, where he was raising his gun to shoot at Doherty and the rest of his men.
In a sense, the killer went out in a blaze of glory, but by being shot himself. The gunshot he received was only an inch below the one he inflicted on Lincoln, in an interesting twist of instant karma. He died in the same way that Lincoln did.
The Irish in America should remember their history, and learn of how important their people were to the ultimate outcome of the most ultimately divisive war. Irish should be proud of this incredible history. It should be brought back to life by the Irish that are in America, as without them this country would either not exist or would be extremely different than what we see now.
Without the Irish, and Lincoln’s great relationship with them, there might be no America. Lincoln loved the Irish, and the Irish loved him back, fighting for him with all of their courage and passion. As the president who would come later and leave this world in the same way, JFK admired Lincoln for everything that he was able to accomplish in his lifetime. Being Irish, it is likely that he had a special fondness for Lincoln, the president who welcomed the Irish with open arms. Lincoln even hugged the Irish flag, and had mostly good things to say about the Irish.
Lincoln was an innocent person who could not understand that there were people in this world who would make it their business to see that he did not accomplish his goal, in this case reuniting America and ending racism forever.
If he had been the one to see reconciliation through, there might be a lot less racism in America today. Unfortunately, we can never know what might have been. But what we can know for sure, thanks to the telling of this part of history, is that Lincoln and the Irish are forever indebted to one another, Lincoln for winning the War, and the Irish for being brought to an America that promised them freedom and the hope of a better life.
Lincoln and the Irish by Niall O’Dowd is highly recommended, and this reviewer gives it five stars.
Banner Image: Book cover. Image Credit – SkyHorse Publishing