Iveagh lecture to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the
American Civil War
Opening remarks by Minister Charles Flanagan T.D.
I am very glad to have this opportunity, in the 150th anniversary year of the war’s end, to commemorate the Irish who fought in the American Civil War. I wish to welcome you all to this Iveagh House Lecture by Professor Patrick Griffin titled "Ireland, Irishmen, and Civil War America". I am particularly delighted that the US Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin O’Malley, is able to join us for some of the proceedings, and I’d also like to acknowledge the present of his Excellency Archbishop Charles Brown.
As we go through our decade of commemorations and look ahead particularly to the centenary of 1916 next year, it is good that we also commemorate those Irish who fought and died far from home – whether in Flanders or Fredericksburg, Gallipoli or Gettysburg, Messines or Manassas, the Somme or Shiloh.
The American Civil War was a conflict that in a very real sense shaped and formed the modern United States, a country which has welcomed generations of Irish to its shores and that remains one of our key partners in the world today. Indeed the War’s cause, its consequences and its legacy continue to be matters of great contemporary debate – to such an extent that even the name of the conflict is an issue of difference.
What we call the American Civil War is described by some within the United States as the War between the States. As we know from our own history, even terminology can be freighted with contestation.
What is undeniable is that the Civil War remains America’s bloodiest conflict, with 2.75 million combatants and at least 620,000 killed. In many ways the conflict was a fore-runner of the terrible ‘total’ wars of the twentieth century, with enormous numbers being mobilised on both sides, casualties in individual battles so large they might have ended an earlier war, and the harnessing of the full industrial capacities of the Union and the Confederacy to war purposes, as well as enormous suffering amongst civilian populations.
While the stories of the Irish brigade's role in the war and a handful of famous regiments such as the 'fighting' 69th are known in Ireland, it is surprising that the full extent of Irish involvement is not more widely recognised. Nearly 200,000 Irish fought in the war, with the great majority serving with the Union forces. Many served in non-Irish units and indeed many held commanding positions.
Thousands of Irish lost their lives – indeed, the very first person to lose his life in the war was a Tipperary man, Daniel Hough, part of the Garrison at the Fort Sumter in Charleston. He was just 36 years old, one of many Irish serving in the small regular US military forces at the start of the war.
In a sign of the role played by the Irish, 146 Irish-born men received the Congressional medal of honour, Americas highest military award created at the start of the war to award gallantry above and beyond the call of duty; they represented nearly 10% of the total number of medals awarded during the course of the war (1527).
While there were famous participants such as Michael Corcoran, Thomas Francis Meagher and Patrick Cleburne, there was also a great wave of ordinary Irishmen and women who were affected by the great conflict and whose sacrifice and commitment have often been overlooked.
And if the sacrifice of these Irish men has not been sufficiently recognised, the plight of Irish women has been even more neglected. However, through the work of fiction and, in particular, the recent novel TransAtlantic by Colm McCann, we can at least imagine the story of one such woman – Lily Duggan. Inspired by meeting the African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglas in Cork, Lily emigrates to the United States in 1845 and ends up as a nurse tending the wounded on the Civil War battlefields and burying her own son.
Many of the Irish involved and affected by the war had fled terrible conditions in Ireland during the famine and its aftermath. In TransAtlantic, McCann describes those Famine conditions through the eyes of Frederick Douglas:
“The children looked like remnants of themselves. Spectral. Some were naked to the waist. Many of them had sores on their faces. None had shoes. He could see the structures of them through their skin. The bony residue of their lives.”
Carrying no more than the bony residue of their lives, they came to the United States with the hope of a better life and with a desire to contribute to their new country. And still their adversity was far from over. They often faced discrimination and a sometimes hostile reception and struggled to find a place for themselves in a rapidly changing society. And yet, when called on to serve by their new country they did so in great numbers and won a reputation for themselves on the battlefield second to none.
By their service during the war the Irish made themselves an integral part of the American story and laid the foundations for the immense range and depth of the Irish narrative in the US today and for the unbreakable links between that country and Ireland.
Much of their story remained unknown, as in other conflicts where the Irish fought in great numbers such as World War I. However, in recent times, a resolute band of historians have begun to reclaim their stories and their voices. I'm delighted that two distinguished representatives of this new generation are with us here tonight, in Damien Shiels and David Gleeson, and look forward to hearing from them.
I very much look forward to hearing from our main speaker tonight, Patrick Griffin, the Madden-Hennebry Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame. It is apt that this lecture should be delivered by an historian from Notre Dame since Fr Michael Corby, later President of the University and himself the son of an Irish immigrant, served as Chaplain to the Irish Brigade - most famously at Gettysburg where he gave absolution to the 500 remaining men of the Brigade. I'm very happy that Notre Dame University continues its long-standing relationship with Ireland and that it is possible for us to hear from such a distinguished historian here tonight.
Finally, I wish to thank the US Embassy, The Keough-Naughton Institute at the University of Notre Dame and the Royal Irish Academy of Music for their collaboration in this evening’s proceedings.