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Fighting Irish
How the Civil War shaped the Celtic community

The Irish in the American Civil War by Bill Gillespie is available at Saints and Shamrocks (309 Bull St.) and E. Shaver Bookseller (326 Bull St.)

It's hard to visualize this during St. Patrick's Day week in Savannah, but the Irish in America didn't always have a strong sense of ethnic pride.

"Irish identity in the U.S. really formed during the Civil War period," says Bill Gillespie, Armstrong professor, retired Army colonel, and local Hibernian Society historian. "In Ireland itself there was no real sense of national identity at the time — just individual counties and provinces."

Gillespie details how the War Between The States forged modern Irish American sensibilities in his book The Irish in the American Civil War.

"There was such dramatic loss of life. So many Irish immigrants were maimed and killed. At just two battles — Antietam and Fredericksburg — almost 100,000 Irish on both sides died," Gillespie says.

"But in the end the fighting proved almost ephemeral," he says. "The infrastructure created by the Civil War really carved out a niche for Irish immigrants, who then became dominant in cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia."

That strong neighborhood infrastructure was funded by "death gratuities," monetary awards to families of slain soldiers. However grimly acquired, that seed money literally built the foundation of the concept of Irish identity in America.

As Irish enclaves became well-established — and at last well-funded — Gillespie says Irish immigrants soon took over "urban labor organizations, Democratic Party politics, and city government. Furthermore, this organization allowed the Irish to dominate later immigrant groups." 

While Irish immigrants were often notoriously ambivalent about the Civil War's causes — during the infamous 1863 draft riots in New York City, mobs of enraged Irish lynched African Americans and burned black orphanages — they fought with distinction on both sides.

The experience between North and South, however, was quite different, Gillespie explains.

"The Irish were better assimilated in the South, mostly because their numbers were so small compared to the North," he says.

While there were notable Irish fighting units, such as the Louisiana Tigers and the "Fighting 10th," in the South they tended to be modest in size.

"The two Irish units from Savannah only amounted to about 80 and 110 men each," says Gillespie. "So one was actually less than a company in size."

Northern Irish units were usually assembled by religion, neighborhood, and county origin, but in the South they tended to be grouped together strictly and only because they were Irish — "You're all foreigners," laughs Gillespie.

Consequently there was "much more diversity within Southern Irish units, many of which were actually led by Protestant officers," Gillespie says. "In the South the Irish were really fighting to be American. In the North it was strictly about being Irish Catholic and an immigrant."

Schools and education seem to be the ties that bind successful immigrant groups, Gillespie concludes.

"The entire process of Irish assimilation came to fruition by about 1930, when the typical Catholic in America was as educated as the typical WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant). That was the real break point," he says.

"As I study this, I'm thinking this model really applies to the entire immigrant experience as a whole — you lend money, you start fraternal organizations, you build churches, you build real neighborhoods, you build schools. And then you get into politics."