The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865

The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865

The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865

The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865


"Bruce explores with astute insight the complex web of political bonds and personal motivations that sent thousands of Irish Catholic soldiers into the ranks of the Union Army during the Civil War. Her smooth blending of social, religious, political, and military history makes clear that the comprehensive contribution of Irish Catholic Union soldiers in the Civil War deserves the broad and nuanced appreciation she presents." - Carol Reardon, author of Pickett's Charge in History and Memory

"With remarkable sensitivity and acuity Bruce goes digging among the personal and public accounts of the Irish soldiers in the Union army and presents these soldiers, and their families and communities, on their own terms so that they emerge as real people conflicted and changed by the demands of war and the obligations of 'community.' The result is a book of immediate interest." - Randall M. Miller, author of Union Soldiers and the Northern Home Front: Wartime Experiences, Postwar Adjustments

"Through wide-ranging research, Susannah Ural Bruce moves us closer than ever before to a full understanding of the real experiences, in all their glory and horror, of ordinary Irish immigrant soldiers and their transatlantic communities and families during the American Civil War." - Kerby A. Miller, author of Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America

"A fine overview of the Irish participation in the Union War effort. Bruce describes how the Irish contested the memory of their participation in the conflict thereby highlighting the continued importance of the War to the Irish in the North far beyond 1865." - David T. Gleeson, author of The Irish in the South, 1815-1877

On the eve of the Civil War, the Irish were one of America's largest ethnic groups, and approximately 150,000 fought for the Union. Analyzing letters and diaries written by soldiers and civilians; military, church, and diplomatic records; and community newspapers, Susannah Ural Bruce significantly expands the story of Irish-American Catholics in the Civil War, and reveals a complex picture of those who fought for the Union. While the population was diverse, many Irish Americans had dual loyalties to the U.S. and Ireland, which influenced their decisions to volunteer, fight, or end their military service. When the Union cause supported their interests in Ireland and America, large numbers of Irish Americans enlisted. However, as the war progressed, the Emancipation Proclamation, federal draft, and sharp rise in casualties caused Irish Americans to question- and sometimes abandon- the war effort because they viewed such changes as detrimental to their families and futures in America and Ireland. By recognizing these competing and often fluid loyalties,The Harp and the Eaglesheds new light on the relationship between Irish-American volunteers and the Union Army, and how the Irish made sense of both the Civil War and their loyalty to the United States.


William O'Grady braced himself against the cold. It was early December 1861 and he was alone in New York City. Just two years before he had been a second lieutenant with the British Army in India, but to the outrage of his Irish-born father, a colonel also serving in India, O'Grady had inexplicably resigned his commission and gone to America. Now the son was determined to prove that he was no coward. He could fight, and would fight, for causes he believed in. For William O'Grady, like so many other Irishmen already fighting in America, the cause of union was inextricably linked to that of Irish independence.

As he stepped off the boat and onto the dock, a mass of soldiers, recruiters, and other immigrants whirled around O'Grady. Wandering into the city, he encountered a fellow Irishman named Colonel Dennis Burke recruiting men for his Irish 88th New York Infantry Regiment, which became part of the Irish Brigade, one the most celebrated Irish units of the American Civil War. Burke regaled young O'Grady with tales of the glory and honor of serving in an Irish regiment fighting for the causes of America and Ireland. As a man proud of his heritage, O'Grady knew of the historic traditions of other Irish units like the Irish Brigade of France, celebrated for its bold bayonet charge that turned the tide at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745. He believed this was his chance to show his father “what he was made of.” He signed his name and joined the 88th New York. William O'Grady had been in America for only two hours.

Before the war was over a ball would rip through O'Grady's shoulder at Antietam and another would graze his hip at Fredericksburg. By 1864 his vision would begin to fail him and he would require a guide to lead him through camp and on the march. The war would take its toll on O'Grady, but he could tell his father that he had remembered the martial tradition of his Irish ancestors and continued the ancient struggle for liberty.

William O'Grady's experiences were fairly common among Irish and Irish-American Catholic volunteers in the Union Army during the Civil War. While many served in nonethnic units, others joined Irish regiments . . .

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