The Irish (and Irish Music) in the American Civil War

For the past two Sundays, the History Show on RTE Radio 1 has explored the Irish presence in the American Civil War, particularly looking at the role of Irish music.  I highly recommend listening to the episodes, especially the first one which covers a wide swathe of Irish music from both the Union and Confederacy.  The episodes highlight music as a primary source that can be used to uncover the mood of the country during war, the transmission of ideas, the connections made between people spread out over wide geographical areas, popular culture, and views of Irishness in the United States in this era.

While there had been a long history of Irish immigration to America, Catholics overtook Protestants in overall numbers of immigrants for the first time in the 1830s.  The new immigrants faced rampant anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment in the urban areas in which they settled, particularly in the Know-Nothing, nativist era of the 1850s.  The immigrants often took refuge in the institutions of the Catholic Church and Democratic Party.

Because of their high population presence in northeastern cities, Irish immigrants made up a large part of the audience at vaudeville performances and had close ties to the popular music of the mid-nineteenth century.  I found the segment in the first show on Irish blackface minstrelsy particularly interesting.  Irish immigrants sought opportunities to establish their legitimacy as Americans and pursued blackface minstrelsy as a way to prove their equality to all other white members of United States society.  Blackface minstrelsy was a rationalization of slavery that portrayed slaves leading happy lives on the plantation.  The song “Dixie” came out of the minstrelsy tradition, written by Dan Emmett (an American of Irish ancestry).

It is estimated that about 100,000 Irish-born soldiers fought for the Union, and 20,000 for the Confederacy.  Both sides had Irish Brigades, a term which had roots in Irish history itself with the Wild Geese (Irish soldiers who fought for France and Spain in continental Europe).  Both sides had popular songs written by Irishmen or Irish-Americans, promoting their cause.

The second episode of the show highlights the ways in which songs about war change from early anthems which provide meaning and motivation for the conflict and romanticize the war, to later songs which long for the return home and mourn the pain of separation and loss.  The disillusionment of the Irish over the course of the war, exposed during the New York Draft Riots of July 1863, is also highlighted in song with “Paddy’s Lamentation.”

There are many other elements of Irish involvement in Civil War-era America covered in these two episodes, and it’s worth listening just to hear all of the songs.

An unrelated yet fascinating article from this past week is National Geographic’s portrait of the archaeology of London, a layman’s look at the history of archaeological exploration of the city.  It portrays the layers upon layers of history present in the city, and it goes without saying that many of those layers contain archaeological finds revealing London’s millennia-long connection with the wider world.  As the article notes, “The modern city sits atop a rich archaeological layer cake that’s as much as 30 feet high.”  The Museum of London, a personal favorite of mine, itself does a fine job of portraying those layers of prehistory and history from its perch alongside the Roman Wall.

The Thames is at the heart of archaeology in the city, and when the tide is out it’s particularly revealing.  The article’s author, Roff Smith, observes the river at early morning with a representative from the Museum of London Archaeology.

“Almost everything you see here is archaeology,” says Cohen, who points out a Roman-era roofing tile here, a piece of blue-patterned Victorian porcelain there, as we scramble over the uneven ground.  “With every tide this gets jumbled up again.  It’s never the same twice.  You never know what you’ll find.”

This reminded me of the “Tate Thames Dig” installation at the Tate Modern, a work of art filled with hundreds of random, repeating, and revealing artifacts unearthed from the Thames.

  • Smith, Roff. “London’s Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History.”  National Geographic (February 2016).
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