“Cherishing” the Diaspora: Thoughts from Kennesaw Mountain

Last summer myself, and Damian Shiels of the Irish in the American Civil War site, walked the battlefield of Kennesaw Mountain just north of Atlanta on the 150th anniversary of the fight there. On a hot and humid late June day we climbed the mountain with hundreds of other Civil War enthusiasts, went across to “Little Kennesaw,” followed to ridge line to Pigeon Hill, and finally, on to the Illinois memorial on Cheatham Hill.[1] Along the way we passed numerous places where Irishmen from Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois had fought on June 28th, 1864. In one place just east of Cheatham’s Hill we came on the place where the men of Corkman Patrick’s Cleburne division saw combat. Among them were the Irish Memphians of the 3rd and 5th Confederate Infantry regiments, one of the most Irish units in the whole Confederate army, made up mostly of labourers from the docks on the Mississippi river at Memphis and company of Irish ditch diggers from Vicksburg, Mississippi. One of the units across the lines from them that day were the 35th Indiana, known as the “First Irish” of Indianapolis. During the battle in front of Cleburne’s division the scrub caught fire and threatened to burn alive the Union wounded. Only a quickly arranged truce saved numerous lives. At the other end of the battlefield, in front of the mountain itself, General Thomas Sweeny, also native of Cork, commanded the 2nd division of the 16th Corps of the Union Army of the Tennessee. Only a few weeks before Sweeny had sent a message across the lines to his fellow Corkman asking Cleburne to join with him in a Fenian Army to liberate their homeland after this American conflict was over. Cleburne reportedly replied that they would probably have had “fighting enough to last them for the rest of their lives.”[2]

In general though, the Irish who fought on both sides rarely spoke of fighting other Irishmen on the other side. The scene recreated in the movie Gods and Generals where the Irish Confederates behind the stonewall at Fredericksburg, with tears in their eyes; complain of the misguided Union Irish Brigade charging up the hill towards them is pure fiction. Irishmen in general just got on with the fight, though a British visitor to the Confederacy did notice that Irishmen had no compunction about killing their fellow countrymen. “Southern Irishmen” he wrote “make excellent ‘Rebs’ and have no scruple in killing as many of their northern brethren as they can.”[3]

What remains remarkable, however, is why would Irish immigrants on both sides end up fighting on a winter’s day in 1862 on a hill above a town in Virginia or a summer’s day in 1864 on a Georgia mountain range? Damian and I were dressed appropriately in summer clothes for our hike across Kennesaw but still felt the intense heat. We were glad of the water for sale in the National Parks Service shop and the water fountain along the way. What had it been like then for the Irish on the field in June in their wool uniforms? They were thousands of miles from home. Most had fled famine to find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict not of their making. Some did not make it off those hills, and others literally left parts of themselves behind (James McGowan of the Irish Jasper Greens from Savannah, for example, lost an arm in the battle).

Beyond Kennesaw, more than 200,000 Irishmen (180,000 Federals; 20,000 Confederate) served in America’s bloodiest war with over 50,000 making the ultimate sacrifice. These are numbers comparable to, and perhaps greater than, the Irish involvement in World War I. Those men who fought in the First World War though were fighting for their own country, a nation that appeared to be heading for Home Rule within the United Kingdom. They had both the inducements of government and national party to join up. The Irish in America had a way out of that conflict when Queen Victoria on behalf of her government declared neutrality in the conflict in May 1861 making it illegal for any British subject to join either army.[4] The Irish government has rightly spent a lot of effort around remembering this participation and has also committed to recognizing upcoming centenaries around the War as well as events such as the birth of W. B. Yeats in 1865 and of course is making a major effort around the centenary of the Easter Rebellion next year.  Yet, apart from a welcome statement by Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys, at a Great Famine commemoration in New Orleans last year acknowledging the Irish involvement in the War, there has been nothing official from the Irish government. Though charged under the new Article 2 of the Constitution with “cherish[ing] its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage,” just affirmed this month by the Department of Foreign Affairs in a new diaspora policy which envisions “a vibrant and diverse, global Irish community connected to Ireland and each other.” As part of this self-stated “new” focus on the Irish and their descendants abroad, the government promises to “facilitate a wide range of activity at local, national, and international level designed to build on and develop two way diaspora engagement.”

This promise is welcome as the recent scepticism expressed by some about the 2013 “Gathering” as just another gimmick to milk the diaspora for money, highlighted that for too long many have seen the relationship as a one-way engagement. Yes, Irish government ministers are all over the globe today celebrating Irishness, but it seems too much of a “once-a-year” effort around the St. Patrick’s season. Despite this criticism, the Diaspora embraced the Gathering, especially the tens of thousands of Irish Americans who caused a “double-digit” growth in visits to Ireland from the U.S. that year, and ultimately it was largely a success. Perhaps it is time then to give something back to the diaspora, especially to the 30 million plus Americans who identify themselves as Irish American. Damian and I, along with a dozen or so other scholars interested in the Irish diaspora, have provided an opportunity for the Irish people through their government to do something to commemorate the sacrifice of their ancestors in an American cause. We have asked for a small effort to be held in Ireland, incorporating a conference, a musical concert, and an official commemoration, around the involvement of the Irish in the American Civil War, hopefully to occur in this final sesquicentennial year of the Civil War. However, we’ve waited almost three months now for a decision. This delay is unfortunate as it would have been great for the Taoiseach on his current visit to the U.S. to tell Irish Americans that Ireland would recognize the sacrifice of their ancestors. He could have also told President Obama today, someone very aware of the Civil War, and in it the first President from Illinois’s efforts to end slavery, that the Irish government would be commemorating the Irish effort in the first significant redefining moment of U.S. history. Indeed, at the inauguration in 2009, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, Obama explicitly recognized the links between Lincoln’s calling for “a new birth of freedom” and his election as the first African American president. In an era when many Irish Americans were on the wrong side of history, it would be good to remind all Irish people and Americans of the complexities that drove Irishmen to fight on both sides but also that, whatever their motivations, those 180,000 or so in the Union army played an important role in its most important outcome, the legal end of slavery.

It’s not too late for Ireland to right this egregious omission in its commemoration activities. The results of the War were still felt in the U.S. during the tumultuous Reconstruction period from 1865 to 1877 and in Ireland with the continuous Fenian activities from 1865 through the 1880s, the latter often driven by Irish- and Irish American-born veterans. Only then can we understand fully why those Irish in America came to fight and die in the mountains near Atlanta and indeed in fields all over the United States from Pennsylvania to Texas. In the process we hope we can restore them to their prominent place in the story of the Irish diaspora and of Ireland itself. Remembering them properly would be one good way to cherish the Irish who left the shores of Ireland for new lives across the Atlantic.

[1] The best book on the battle is Earl J. Hess, Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[2] Irving A. Buck, Cleburne and His Command (New York: The Neale Publishing Co., 1908), 240-41.

[3]Arthur Lyon Freemantle, quoted in David T. Gleeson, The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 104.

[4] Howard Jones, Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 42-45