On the face of it, one can understand quite well why a significant number of Irishmen would put on a grey uniform and fight for the Confederacy, especially if they happened to be of a nationalist or republican persuasion. Here was, in many ways, the second coming of the American revolution (indeed, more than once I have heard of the American Civil War being described as the last battle of that older conflict), a war where one country and one people rose up against another in defence of what they saw as their God-given right to freedom, the freedom to live as they pleased and pursue life, liberty and whatever else to their hearts content. There is much in such a concept to attract the kind of person who would also have identified with Tone or Emmett.
Of course, all of that pursuit was inherently wrapped up in the ongoing slave trade, and that naked reality should never be forgotten. The leaders in the south went to war to protect their way of life and the rights of states: and that way of life and those rights were primarily to keep people as property.
But that didn’t stop the Irish from marching under the stars and bars. As noted briefly in the last entry, entities like the Fenian Brotherhood were as liable to split as any other over the issue of the American schism: and while it is safe to say that the majority of Irish nationalists would end up siding with the north and the Union, a fair proportion did throw their allegiance southward.
Perhaps the most notable of these men was John Mitchell, one of the most important Irish nationalist voices of the period, who aside from advocating for the complete independence of Ireland was also an unashamed and almost outspoken defender of the slave trade and the benefits that it brought states like Virginia. Mitchell would send three sons to fight for the Confederacy, two of which would never come home: he would maintain his beliefs in slavery and the Confederacy after the war.
But this is not a series about individuals, but about larger units. While the Confederacy lacked any “named” Irish units on the same level as the north had, many of its regiments and “legions”, from throughout its length and breadth, would have a distinctly Irish character.
The cities on the east coast of the Carolinas and Virginia had their fair share of poor Irish Catholic emigrants who found themselves swept up into the military much like their northern brethren, and for similar reasons. But in the south, there would also have been a very distinctive Protestant dimension to its Irish service: men who had immigrated to the United States from places like north-eastern Ulster, who brought their own faith with them. While many Catholics would fight in Confederate colours, it would not be inaccurate to say that it was an army with a more singular Protestant ethos than that of the armies that opposed it.
Regardless, the units that we will focus on in this entry were ones where the Irish were mostly Catholic. Regiments like the 24th Georgia Infantry, the Louisiana Tigers and the 10th Tennessee contained large amounts of Irish for example, who tended to be mostly poorer labourers or dock-workers. But I want to look at one named Irish unit that’s synonymous with the Irish experience in fighting for the Confederacy, in its highs, its lows, and its bitter end.
Company E of the 33rd Virginia Infantry regiment, named the “Emerald Guard” due to the make-up of its soldiery, were largely Irish-American’s recruited from the Shenandoah Valley region, poor men who would have migrated down from the north seeking work on railways and farms. A company in those days and in that army was supposed to number 100 or so men, but it seems unlikely that the Guards ever reached that size, with maybe 60 or so active duty soldiers at its biggest number. However, not withstanding that, they played their part in what would soon become one of the most famous regiments in Confederate service.
At the First Battle of Bull Run, it was the quick and brave action of units under General Thomas Jackson,which included the 33rd, that stopped a Union advance and then took the lead in reversing it, leading to that crucial early victory that kept the Confederacy going in the early stages of the war. The Emerald Guard were in the thickest of the fighting, its first captain shot through both legs in the stand, that earned both the regiment and its general the nickname “Stonewall”. From there, the 33rd would fight over and over again as part of the Army of Northern Virginia, with the Irish participating mostly as infantry, and occasionally as back-up artillery.
In Jackson’s famed Valley Campaign and later in the Peninsula against McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, the Emerald Guard served, though it saw less combat than other parts of the 33rd. At Second Bull Run and Antietem, the 33rd fought, in bloody scraps for little gain to the Confederacy: by the end of these battles, the Guard was noted as suffering on nearly every level, in its gear, its uniforms, its discipline and in the matter of those members of the company being absent without leave. It should be remembered that the Army of Northern Virginia, far more even than its Union equivalent, was an army where regiments had a distinctly local flavour, often sprouting up from militias raised just after the war itself had started: after a few engagements with the enemy, and after a taste of what modern combat was actually like, problems like desertion were common place, whatever the romantic gloss later put on the Confederate military by sympathetic historians.
At Fredericksburg, the bare remnant of the company, which amounted to 3 officers and and 12 rankers, helped guard the Confederate right flank, while their Irish counterparts on the Union right were being cut to pieces attacking the low stone wall. At Chancellorsville, the 33rd took more casualties, while losing its famous General, who died after amputating an arm due to friendly fire. By then, despite the many victories that Lee and other tactical geniuses on the southern side had been able to win, the larger Confederate effort was already coming apart, due to the Union naval blockade, the lack of manpower to make up for the losses and the squabbling between the actual states that made up the rebellion.
At Gettysburg, sometimes characterised as the Army of the Potomac’s desperate saving of the Union when it was really the furthest the Confederates ever got or were likely to get, the 33rd advanced on the Confederate left, attacking strong Union positions on Culp’s Hill not far from Gettysburg itself. Numerous assaults were thrown back, and the Emerald Guard lost another captain that day, before retiring to the rear, thankfully to miss out on the carnage of Picket”s Charge on the third and last day of the fighting.
By 1864, after more months of skirmishing and desertion, Company E barely merited the title of a platoon, but was still counted as part of the 33rd and the Army of Northern Virginia. During Grant’s Overland campaign, where the Army of the Potomac repeatedly smashed into Lee’s force, wheeled around and smashed again, what was left of the 33rd was broken to pieces, first at the messy and confused Battle of the Wilderness, and then shortly after at the Battle of Spotsylvania, when the regiment, the Emerald Guard included, had its last bit of genuine battlefield experience, defending a crucial point in the Confederate lines called the “Mule Shoe”. Most of the 33rd was killed or captured in the engagement, the regiment essentially ceasing to exist in the aftermath. A bare handful of Company E’s recruits would continue in Lee’s service, as part of other regiments, but by then even the fiction of the Emerald Guard had ceased to be acknowledged. By the time Lee surrendered at Appomattox, no members of Company E are listed as being present, and the 33rd was only a memory.
The Emerald Guard, grandiosely titled but with a shabbiness underneath, was typical of many Confederate units in the war, who gambled big and won in the early years, but could barely equip themselves by the end, if they still existed at all. Union advantages in industry, ships and most importantly in sheer manpower, were impossible to overcome. Defeat would bring decades of recriminations and “reconstruction”, and well over a century (and counting) of continued racial violence and persecution.
On both sides, Irish had fought. Now, with the war done, some of them looked back across the Atlantic to their original homeland, and resumed the dream of liberation that had been a partial motivator both for their immigration and for their service in the fighting. The Fenians would soon make their own gamble, though with far longer odds of success than the Confederacy ever faced.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.