The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America

By Murray, Damien | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Fall/Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America


Murray, Damien, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America. By David T. Gleeson. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. viii, 307, illustrations, appendix, notes, index. Cloth, $35.00).

With the publication of his book The Irish in the South, 1815-1877, in 2001, David T. Gleeson made an important contribution to an often neglected topic. In this new book, Gleeson delves deeper into the southern Irish experience during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, while also explaining how Irish participation in commemorations of the Civil War in the late nineteenth century contribut- ed to both Lost Cause mythology and the integration of the Irish into southern white culture. The Irish record during the Civil War was, as Gleeson demonstrates, "mixed" (p. 219). Reluctant secessionists at first, most Irish men who joined the Confederate army had no material interest in the survival of slavery. Instead, more often, they fought for the Confederacy because of ethnic pride, their identification with their new homeland, or out of poverty. Anecdotal evi- dence of Irish Confederate soldiers' bravery is abundant, but their desertion rates were higher than average. On the home front, meanwhile, Irish civilians' initial enthusiasm for the Confederacy waned, and they were less dismayed than other southern whites by Federal occupation. During the Reconstruction era, however, the southern Irish, mindful of how their material advancement was depen- dent on their political power, became increasingly disenchanted with the federal government because of its support for African Americans' political rights. Consequently, the Irish supported the redeeming of southern states and, through selective use of Irish Confederate soldiers' service, contributed to the creation of a unified southern white identity that both included Irish Americans and embraced the Lost Cause myth.

Gleeson has chosen to define "Irish" here "as someone born in Ireland or the descendant of an Irish person who displays an Irish ethnic awareness" (p. 5). This definition is fluid enough to include A.G. Magrath (the son of a Presby- terian Irish immigrant who became governor of South Carolina in 1864), John Mitchel (the Presbyterian Young Irelander), and Irish-born Roman Catholic Bishop Patrick Lynch, who was also a slaveholder. As those examples indicate, however, much of Gleeson's evidence of Irish opinion comes from the more educated and more affluent members of that ethnic group. Attitudes toward the Confederacy among the poorer Irish are not so easy to ascertain. Nevertheless, Gleeson is able to provide evidence of Irish leaders mobilizing their fellow Irishmen behind the Confederate cause in the early stages of the war. …

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