Irish Brigades at Gettysburg, plus New York draft riots

There was a lot violence in America in July 1863. The Irish were right in the middle of it.

Most attention has focused on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of GettysburgThe Irish Brigades were among the men who fought and died on the famous battlefield and earlier skirmishes of the American Civil War. These post-Famine Irish and Irish-American soldiers joined units from New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. They had a reputation as fierce fighters, but their participation was prompted by more than patriotism. says:

Ethnic units were a way for the Union Army to help win Irish support for its cause. This support was not guaranteed: Though most Irish immigrants lived in the North, they were sympathetic to (as they saw it) the Confederacy’s struggle for independence from an overbearing government—it reminded them of their fight to be free of the British. Also, many Irish and Irish Americans were not against slavery. On the contrary, they favored a system that kept blacks out of the paid labor market and away from their jobs. As a result, Union officials had to promise many things in addition to ethnic regiments—enlistment bonuses, extra rations, state subsidies for soldiers’ families, Catholic chaplains—in order to assure that the North’s largest immigrant group would be fighting with them and not against them.

Two weeks after Gettysburg, a predominantly Irish mob erupted in a five day anti-conscription riot in New York City. These urban working-class poor believed they were being forced to fight a “rich man’s war.” Their views were stoked by anti-emancipation newspapers and Democratic politicians:

Irish Catholic rioters targeted Protestant charities, such as the Magdalene Asylum and Five Points Mission. By the late afternoon, protesters had entered the city’s arsenal, which they burned (killing ten of their own) when the police arrived. The rioters also began attacking blacks, shouting racial slurs, and torching homes of poor African Americans on the west side of 30th Street. In one of the most infamous incidents, a mob burned the Colored Orphan Asylum on west 44th Street, although its 237 children escaped to safety.

New York riots






Image from New York Public Library.

Federal troops were needed to finally quell the riot, one of the worst outbreaks of insurrection in U.S. history. At least 120 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. The outburst ended organized Irish participation in the Civil War. Tensions between Irish immigrants, Irish-Americans and the African-American community would continue through Reconstruction and deep into the 20th century, including the Boston busing crisis of the 1970s and 1980s.