Please welcome guest author David T. Gleeson. Gleeson is reader in American History at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. He’s just published The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
In the climactic scene of the 2003 movie Gods and Generals, the famous Irish Brigade, filled with Irish immigrants from New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, charge up Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg toward well-defended Confederate lines and certain death. Indeed the brigade, already severely hurt by a charge at the Battle of Antietam a few months earlier, were decimated in the attack. The Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg became the epitome of the Irish “fighting spirit” in America and remains so to this day — witness famous Civil War artist Don Troiani’s print of “The Fighting 69th” [NY] at Fredericksburg being his most expensive production with a Union focus.
The film highlights that some of this decimation meted out from behind the stonewall at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, came from Irish Confederates. As the Irish in blue charge up the hill, on one of the Confederate flags flapping in the wind, one can see a harp and a wreath of shamrock and the 24th Georgia emblazoned on it. Text appears on the screen identifying the unit as “Brigadier General Thomas R. R. Cobb’s Irish Regiment, Georgia.” Later a number of its soldiers, in discernible Irish accents and with tears in their eyes, lament the fact that they have to kill their own countrymen to defend the South’s “rights.”
The 24th Georgia was a regiment recruited in North Georgia with virtually all of its soldiers coming from mountain counties (every company came from a county under the current auspices of the Appalachian Regional Commission). And so in reality, there were very few Irish immigrants in it, because most of those who settled in the South had done so in non-mountain towns and cities.
Yet, there was a grain of truth in the idea of this mountain regiment being an Irish one. Its commander at Fredericksburg was one Robert Emmet McMillan, who had begun the war as the Captain of the McMillan Guards, from Habersham County in the northeastern corner of the state. McMillan was an immigrant from County Antrim in the North of Ireland, whose predecessors to Appalachia would be described later as the “Scotch Irish.”
McMillan, however, was not your typical Ulster settler. In 1860 he was a prominent attorney in the county seat of Clarksville with real estate valued at over $32,000 and a personal estate of $48,000. He was the owner of at least 12 slaves, a substantial number for any white southerner. His son and namesake Robert Emmet Jr. also practiced law with him. In politics he had been a strong southern rights advocate, even standing on a pro-secession ticket in 1851, and he served in the State Senate in the mid-1850s. He was in many ways an atypical Irish immigrant and an atypical mountain resident.
His Irishness, however, was explicit in his name, which he had passed on to his son. Robert Emmet was an Irish rebel who led an unsuccessful rebellion in Ireland in 1803; he became the epitome for many Irish immigrants of the brave and romantic but ultimately unsuccessful rebel. And the press recognized as much when a Richmond newspaper described McMillan’s actions in bold headlines as “A Gallant Irishman at Fredericksburg.” Other Confederate newspapers reprinted the article, pointing out the Ulsterman’s exemplary service, especially after brigade commander Cobb had been killed. According to the newspaper McMillan had displayed “the utmost coolness and calmness,” as he “waved his sword” along the line to order his men to keep pouring fire into the Irish Brigade.
His coolness in some ways countered the image of the wild Irish or Scots Irish fighter and their supposedly “attack and die” proclivity. He nonetheless had displayed the courage expected of the Fighting Irish. Indeed the image was a strong one in each army.
This view of the Irish missed many of the complications of the Irish in both armies and led to myths such as the one recreated in Gods and Generals. McMillan, for example, resigned his commission in late 1863 (which was finally accepted in January 1864), ostensibly it seems because his request for promotion to General, well supported by politicians in Georgia, was unsuccessful.
He had also failed to be elected to Confederate Congress in his home district in the mountains of Georgia. The letters in support of his promotion mention nothing of his Irishness or Ulster heritage, just his military record and his “strong [and early] support for our southern cause.” Eventually Governor Joe Brown of Georgia gave him a commission as a general in the Georgia militia and in May 1864 he wrote the Confederate Secretary of War, rather peevishly, asking for “the return of the applications and accompanying documents made in January 1862 and between January and September 1863 for my promotion to Brigadier General” to him at his home in Clarksville. They were not returned.
His strong support for secession had not helped get him promoted and neither did it help him win election in what was, as Jim Webb describes in his book Born Fighting: How the Scots Irish Shaped America, one of those “communities in the Scots-Irish heartland that provided the bulk of the Confederate army’s manpower.”
Despite the 24th Georgia and its Scots-Irish commander, the Georgia mountains were a major source of dissent against the Confederacy. “Union men” in Gordon County, for example, apparently threatened Confederates that “in case of insurrection they would help the negroes,” while a Confederate from Hog Mountain in Gwinnett County lamented that he lived in the “most union part of the state.” In Blairsville on the North Carolina line, another worried about assassination from unionist “bushwhackers.” The “Scots-Irish heartland” in Georgia it seems was not so Confederate.
The same was true for “real” Irish, as one 19th century Ulster resident of South Carolina had called them. Not far away from McMillan and the mountain boys of the 24th Georgia behind the stonewall on that fateful day at Fredericksburg, were the Lochrane Guards from Macon, Georgia who were part of Phillips Legion. They were an explicitly Irish unit named for an Irish judge from Macon and were filled with famine-era, mostly Catholic, immigrants.
Commanded by Patrick McGovern, these Irishmen had also poured fire into their fellow countrymen. It did not seem to bother them much, because none left a memoir of or wrote about the event after the war in the numerous veterans’ publications. To them, perhaps, it was just another battle against the Yankees. By then anyway a number had been killed and even more had been discharged for various health reasons, or had deserted. Less than ½ of the original company was in action at Fredericksburg. Since 1861, some had fought well, others had quit.
For all the “Fighting Irishmen” there were also large numbers of Irish shirkers. Across the Confederate army, the Irish had a higher propensity to die in action but also to desert. They seem to have bought into the rhetoric of the Fighting Irish but ultimately not enough to see it through for the Confederacy. This more complicated story of the Irish in the Civil War, just like the one in the southern Appalachians (as also highlighted for example by John Inscoe in his work on western North Carolina), is not useful to movies or politicians looking to simplify things for their respective audiences. But, it is the more accurate one.