Decoration Day and Immigrants

A brief story for Memorial Day.

Memorial Day first began as Decoration Day shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865. It was exactly what it sounds like – a day to decorate the graves of the dead of the war.

Recent revisions put the number of dead for the Civil War at 750,000. That is more than the total of dead in every other American war … combined. Between April 1861 and April 1865 an average of 420 American soldiers died every day. A disproportionate number of the dead were immigrants. One out of every three Union soldiers were immigrants.
Many of those immigrants were Irish. At the outbreak of the war the Irish were not well received in the United States. ‘No Irish Need Apply’ was a common sign in store windows and in print classified ads. We’ve written before about the Know Nothings and the anti-immigrant sentiment of the time.

That sentiment as so strong that when a group of Irish in New York City tried to volunteer to fight for the North, they were turned down. Eventually, though, it was decided that a brigade of Irish immigrants, well armed and well trained and officered by the men who had led the Irish revolt against British rule in 1848 just might be a good idea. As Great Britain was neutral – though suspected of sympathizing with the South – it was thought that the Irish Brigade could be something of a deterrent to British intervention – a not so subtle message that Ireland was still Great Britain’s Achilles Heel.

The Irish Brigade was formed in September, 1861 in Manhattan. About 3,000 strong at the start of the war, they quickly established themselves as an elite unit. They were involved in every major battle of the Army of the Potomac from the early days of the Peninsula Campaign in Spring, 1862 through Chancellorsville in May, 1863.

By then, their fame had overcome the rampant anti-immigrant sentiment of the time. That was, however, dearly bought. By late May, 1863, the Irish Brigade had been bled white, from the original 3,000 men they were down to 269 effectives.

The Irish Brigade received reinforcements – almost all new immigrants – in June. They went into Gettysburg on July 2, 1863 with 505 men, they lost 202 in a few hours in what came to be known as The Wheatfield. Gettysburg ended the Irish Brigade as an effective force.
Gettysburg today has some overwhelming, incongruous, baroque monuments, many of which shatter sight lines and loom over the visitor.

There is, however, a remarkable exception. It is tucked away in a corner of the Wheatfield. It is nestled in a copse of trees in a still, quiet, shady area on the side of a little traveled road.

It’s the Irish Brigade Monument. Even at first glance, the monument is visceral. A bronze and green granite Celtic Cross, curled around the base is a sleeping, life-sized bronze Irish Wolfhound – an open acknowledgement of the unit’s heritage.

The State of New York raised the funds for a monument for its once unwanted immigrants. They used green granite from a quarry in upstate New York. The sculptor, chosen by the state of New York, Rudolph O’Donovan, was well-known and specifically requested by the survivors of the brigade.

Rudolph O’Donovan was also an immigrant. He was honored to be selected to build a memorial for a group of men he admired. O’Donovan was also at Gettysburg on July 2nd. He was an artillery man in the Confederate Army directly across the lines from the Irish Brigade.

On this Memorial Day, we’re posting this while reflecting on the fact that America’s relationship with its immigrants is a complicated one. At any given moment in history.