Civil War History 47.1 (2001) 75-76
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Clear the Confederate Way!
The Irish in the Army of Northern Virginia
Clear the Confederate Way! is two books in one-an ambitious, scholarly analysis of how Irish nationalists became Confederate nationalists and an old-fashioned, uncritical tribute to the battlefield exploits of Irish Confederates. The two books are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but O'Grady's unabashed celebration of lost Irish Confederate heroes detracts ultimately from his scholarship.
The book, the author declares, is "an attempt to bring a truthful balance to the story of Irish participation in the war" (xiv). Irish-born or first generation Irish Americans were as proportionately represented in Southern armies as they were in the Northern armies. O'Grady argues that the antebellum and wartime South was a friendlier environment for Irishmen than the nativist North. Consequently, Irish Confederates were enthusiastic supporters of their region's cause, while Irish in the North were often "lukewarm" toward the war effort or, late in the war, hostile.
O'Grady's provocative, sometimes pugnacious, assertion of Irish-Confederate patriotism and military prowess gives interpretive coherence to a book that is otherwise a chronological catalog of war stories. He locates the predominantly Irish units on each battlefield of the eastern theatre of war, then recounts stories of battlefield valor involving those units, their soldiers and commanders. Reinforcing the book's encyclopedic quality are two useful appendices that offer capsule biographies of Irish and Irish American Confederates and Irish Confederate units, not only in the Army of Northern Virginia, but, curiously, in all Confederate armies.
A historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, O'Grady considers the December 13, 1862, battle of Fredericksburg to be "the most important battlefield event of the war for many Irish-Americans today" (143). The brave, but hopeless, assaults by the Union Army's Irish Brigade quickly became a milestone in that unit's glorious reputation, but had the immediate effect of turning Irish-American opinion against the war, lighting a "slow fuse" that exploded during the draft riots the following July (147-50).
While denying any intent to impugn the Irish Brigade, O'Grady highlights the politically motivated origins of its fame and the inflated reputation of its commander, Thomas Meagher. As a true Irish hero of Fredericksburg O'Grady promotes Col. Robert McMillan, of the 24th Georgia Infantry, who "may have come to represent Irish allegiance in the war if not for a concerted campaign to showcase the equally courageous actions of the Union Irish Brigade" (117).
Much of the book is devoted to impassioned, overwrought, accounts of forgotten valor. In a passage that summarizes his interpretive perspective, O'Grady recounts the deeds of Col. William Feeney, 42d Mississippi, at the Wilderness: "His story, or his lack of one, is all too typical of many Confederate Irish who were quickly lost and callously forgotten by history. . . . As Irish Confederates, they are lost in the pages of history-perhaps disavowed or merely forgotten by Irish historians, perhaps shunned [End Page 75] by Northern historians because of their Southern sympathies, or neglected by Southern historians because of their immigrant status" (171).
Infused with this sense of grievance and dedicated to telling a story of "patriotism, physical courage, duty, honor, and sacrifice," Clear the Confederate Way! contributes to a growing literature on ethnic Confederates but contributes also to the unfortunate tendency to use history as group therapy.
John M. Coski
The Museum of the Confederacy