Civil War Profiles — Out of Ireland, into the Union army

Date Published: 
March 17, 2017

St. Patrick’s Day is an appropriate time to recognize the more than 200,000 men born in Ireland who fought on behalf of the North and South during the Civil War. By far, however, the predominant number of Irish served in the Union army.


More Irishmen emigrated to the North, because of the Union blockade of Southern ports. The story behind how the Confederacy attempted to stifle this flow of manpower into the Union army is filled with intrigue.

When Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862, offering free farmland to those with intentions to become U.S. citizens, people in Ireland suffering economic and political adversity emigrated by the thousands. Since military service was an inducement for accelerated citizenship, many young Irishmen signed up upon arrival.

Southern spies lurking near the ports reported to Richmond that passengers arriving from Ireland had been recruited beforehand into the Union army. Since recruitment by foreign armies on British soil (Ireland being a part of Great Britain) was against the law, President Jefferson Davis sought proof that this was indeed occurring.

Davis decided to send two natives of Ireland currently serving in the Confederate army back to their homeland as secret agents to gather evidence of illegal U.S. military recruiting. The Rev. John Bannon, a Catholic priest and military chaplain, and Capt. J.L. Capston, a Confederate cavalry officer, received orders to travel to Ireland and “enlighten the population [there] … with the view of defeating the attempts made by [U.S.] agents … to obtain recruits for their armies.”

The Confederate president’s objective in exposing alleged U.S. illegal activity in Ireland was to motivate British authorities to recognize the Confederate States of America as a legitimate government. Bannon received approval from Davis to first stop in Rome to seek Pope Pius IX’s encouragement of European powers to sanction the Confederacy.

After making his appeal to the Pope in Rome, Bannon arrived in Dublin on Oct. 31, 1863. While Pope Pius IX sent a friendly letter of encouragement to Davis, he deferred to France and England to initiate formal recognition of the Southern government.

In Ireland, Bannon and Capston were welcomed by the Catholic hierarchy, who were loath to lose more parishioners through emigration to other countries. Not revealing their secret mission, the Confederate agents propagandized the Irish populace about anti-Catholic activities in the U.S.: “Caution to emigrants — Persecution of Catholics in America— The Tabernacle overthrown — The Blessed Host scattered on the ground!” — read leaflets handed out at churches.

Countering these anti-U.S. voices, nationalist elements in Ireland called for young Irishmen to go to America and join the army to gain military experience. Ultimately, they were to return and fight for Ireland’s independence from the despised British rule.

The concept was not lost on Irish soldiers fighting for the North in America. Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, commander of the Union Irish Brigade — made up primarily of immigrants from the “Old Sod” — told a colleague: “It is a moral certainty that many of our countrymen who enlist in this struggle … will … come back when this war is over … [to] fight for Ireland’s freedom.”

Bannon and Capston eventually returned to Richmond emptyhanded. They were unable to gather evidence proving U.S. agents in Ireland recruited young men for the Union army.

The U.S. consul in Dublin, William West, informed Secretary of State William Seward that, despite propaganda the Confederate secret agents disseminated, “100,000 people would leave immediately for the U.S. … the Irish were so desperate that they would emigrate even if their only option were to join the Union army.”

West placed the entire affair in perspective: “Ireland is the most important foreign country to us, having sent more emigrants … to cultivate our lands and enrich the Republic, than all the world beside, and having also supplied our Army and Navy with many thousands of brave and hardy soldiers and sailors.”

In the final analysis, neither of Davis’ goals was successful, given he was unable to win British recognition of the Confederate nation and failed to stem the tide of Irish emigrants to the North. The large-scale flow of potential military recruits to America was a major factor in the Northern victory that resulted in preservation of the Union.

(Source: “Ireland and the American Civil War,” Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, Summer 2002.)

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.