- Shades of Green: Irish Regiments, American Soldiers, and Local Communities in the Civil War Era by Ryan W. Keating
Ryan Keating expands the story of the Irish in the Union war effort beyond the common focus on Thomas Francis Meagher's "Irish Brigade" by examining the experience of three ethnic Irish units in Connecticut, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Meagher's brigade, recruited predominantly in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, has dominated the historiography of the Irish in the Civil War. This domination is in some ways understandable in that the brigade was led by one of the most famous Irish immigrants in America, it had a distinguished record of combat during the conflict, and its former members ran a successful campaign after the war to preserve the memory of its actions. Keating's work here is a useful corrective to the popular fascination with the brigade and the view that its experience was representative of the Irish one as a whole.
Keating challenges the traditional story both by shifting the focus to the Midwest and by studying the experience of the Irish in the Northeast outside of the major metropolises. The Ninth Connecticut Infantry was a predominantly Irish unit, recruited mainly in Bridgeport and New Haven, but also in other towns such as Hartford and Waterbury. The Ninth's organization is particularly interesting because Connecticut had a virulent and successful nativist Know-Nothing movement in the mid-1850s, which disbanded ethnic militia units. Having been rejected so, the immediate Irish effort after the assault on Fort Sumter to organize a unit for a state that had ostracized them is somewhat surprising. But they did, with the usual support of Irish leaders and clerics. The Ninth sought and received native praise in return. Unfortunately for them, this campaign to prove their loyalty was hindered when they received a posting in New Orleans. There were just not enough opportunities for glory.
Farther west, Irish Chicagoan James Mulligan's "Irish Brigade" found glory early in the conflict. Though he failed to raise a brigade, he did recruit a regiment, the Twenty-Third Illinois Infantry. It saw action early at the Battle of Lexington, Missouri, in September 1861. Mulligan's and his Irish regiment's courage under fire earned him the title "brave defender of Lexington." He was feted in the press, and ultimately it meant that "Irishness took on favorable meaning in the eyes of the public, becoming fused with a sense of Americanness, that embodied notions of honor, loyalty, and military prowess" (41). Despite an early "mutiny," the other predominantly Irish unit studied here, the Seventeenth Wisconsin Infantry, [End Page 720] had the most distinguished record, first entering battle at Corinth in October 1862 and serving later in the Vicksburg and Atlanta campaigns and the March to the Sea. These Irish units, to different degrees, did fulfill the image of the "fighting Irish" so carefully cultivated by Irish supporters of the Union cause.
Beyond examining the different combat experiences of his regiments, Keating makes other useful comparisons. In contrast with the Ninth Connecticut, for example, the Twenty-Third Illinois and the Seventeenth Wisconsin recruited from across the state rather than just centers of Irish settlement, indicating a strong sense of ethnic identity among the Irish in rural areas too. Likewise, the regiments from the Midwest were likely to have a higher occupational status than those from Connecticut, reinforcing the opinion that the Irish who got out of the eastern cities found more opportunity farther west. There were commonalities too. On average, the Irish recruits were older than their native-born comrades, and they were also more likely to desert. This latter trait could have hurt Irish reputations, but Keating highlights that, in general, the native press stayed favorable to the Irish regiments.
More problematic was the 1863 New York City draft riots, which sullied the name of all Irish immigrants, and Keating rightly devotes a chapter to the impact of the riots. Here he...