- The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson
Mary Chesnut once wrote in her diary, “It is much too Irish to be so ready to fight anybody, friend or foe.” Elsewhere she jotted, “Yes, blarney as well as bravery came in with the Irish.” These are a small sampler of Irish stereotypes, from the pen of an affluent southern woman: martial spirit and pluck, yes, but fickleness and verbal duplicity as well.
For his part, David Gleeson is much concerned with dispelling the blarney of “the same old simple tale of the ever brave and true ‘Fighting Irish’” (9). As regards bravery, he shows how the “fighting Irish” of stereotype must be set against the “fleeing Irish” of reality, as on the whole the Irish had higher desertion rates than their native-born peers. At the same time, his book is a study in immigrant acculturation, and on its pages one finds textured and wide-ranging accounts of the Irish during the American Civil War period. Having combed through over twenty archives examining muster rolls, census data, and a raft of primary sources, Gleeson offers the most complete history of southern Irish participants—from the common soldier to the general, from propagandists to dissenters, from nuns to civilians— yet assembled.
Gleeson’s clear-sighted perspective penetrates the foggy mythos of the Reconstruction period, in which the southern Irish revised their participation to heroic (and often overblown) dimensions. He also deals with other blind spots in the historiography, in which the Irish are overlooked as “foreigners” in some cases and undifferentiated or overcounted in others. He usefully leaves religious identity out of his definition of the Irish, taking the term to mean “someone born in Ireland or the descendant of an Irish person who displays an Irish ethnic awareness” (6). Gleeson also examines many instances where the southern Irish were fully vested in slavery. Crucially, in terms of participation and desertion, the southern Irish tracked with the larger trend: the greater their stakes in slaveholding, the more likely they were to join the fight and stay in it.
Gleeson also documents the significant part the Irish played in shaping the Lost Cause as a civil religion. At first blush, the preponderance of Irish clergy in inventing and toning that civil religion might seem [End Page 606] unaccountable. Gleeson points out that the Irish-dominated Roman Catholic clergy in the South, more so than the laity, were ardent supporters of the Confederate war effort—so much so that many would find it difficult to demonstrate their bona fides during Reconstruction. Their motivations varied. Some were connected by kith and kin to slaveholding, and some, like Bishop Patrick Lynch, were themselves slaveholders, while others simply felt obliged to follow their parishioners to the front. There is little doubt that clergymen bonded the Irish more deeply to the war; as Redemptionist priest and Louisianan James Sheeran once wrote, “I had learned that no men fight more bravely than Catholics who approach the sacraments before battle” (164).
There is scarcely a figure who goes unnoted in this exhaustive study, which sets the stage of the conflict in the opening chapters and devotes only one chapter to the Irish in combat, thereby avoiding the pitfall, common to many studies, of “battlefield blinkers.” It also gives equal weight to noncombatants and to the religious orders, male and female, that played an important part in ministering to troops. Gleeson brings fine granularity to the study by acknowledging contradictory accounts, and he is similarly nuanced in his analysis of ways that southern Fenian groups were informed by the war. So one might wonder what, if anything, was left out?
While Gleeson gives significant space to parsing the rhetoric of Irish nationalism that was melded with Confederate identity, he mostly stays within its Irish contours. So he does not much consider the southern Irish in the larger context of the preceding Age of Revolution, and the...