By Spc. Samuel KeenanMarch 16, 2018
HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. - People throughout the region, country and globe know Massachusetts as a hub of Irish culture and heritage. That intense bond is obvious throughout the state. In Charlestown, almost every other car has a shamrock sticker plastered to its bumper. On Cape Cod, Irish flags fly proudly on the beach next to Old Glory. On Saint Patrick's Day, the residents of Boston celebrate with the same zeal as they do on the Fourth of July.
However, it was not always that way. The Irish blood that now runs through the veins of nearly a quarter of Massachusetts' population had to be spilled on the battlefields of the American Civil War to prove the loyalty and patriotism of Irish-Americans.
During the mid-19th century, the United States had an influx of migration from Ireland. The former British territory was in the midst of a famine. With limited options for survival, many of the oppressed and poverty stricken population left their homeland for greener pastures.
They arrived in northern cities like Boston where instead of finding a congenial welcome, they faced racism and bigotry.
Local employers precluded the Irish from most jobs. If they did hire the Irish migrants, bosses would pay meager wages for backbreaking labor.
Government officials publicly announced their disdain for the Irish. In one instance Henry J. Gardner, the mayor of Boston, even referred to the recent arrivals as a "horde of barbarians."
But, as the Irish diaspora grew in numbers in and around Boston, so did their influence in local business and politics. Nonetheless, the old-school Brahmin society still considered the Irish as outsiders.
That began to change in April 1861 when the forces of the Confederate States of America attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.
As news reached Boston, a patriotic furor tore through the town, and people from all walks of life lined up to enlist. Muster rolls from the period show many Irish surnames adjacent to ones of Yankee lineage.
"Patriotism and love of country was as publicly prominent in the voices and hearts of the Irish-American citizens as it was in the native born," wrote Daniel George MacNamara, a Civil War veteran and historian. "[They] vied with each other in their feverish haste to volunteer, and go to the seat of war, that they might boast in future years how they had a hand in putting down the rebellion."
As men lined up to join the fight, Col. Thomas Cass of the Massachusetts militia, an Irish immigrant himself, proposed to muster a unit made up of ethnically Irish soldiers. The governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, supported the idea thoroughly and recruiting for the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment began with haste.
As they amassed troops, the 9th MVI used the historic Faneuil Hall to barrack its new recruits.
"Our close confinement in Faneuil Hall...was very irksome and our accommodations were quite unsatisfactory," wrote MacNamara. "In order to give the men some good air and exercise, the colonel ordered all the companies to assemble on Boston Common for drilling each evening."
After requesting a more appropriate training ground, the regiment sailed to Long Island in Boston Harbor in May 1861 to polish their skills before heading to the frontlines. After only one month of training there, the unit was ready to fight.
On June 25, 1861 the 9th MVI sailed back to the wharfs of Boston and rallied at the Massachusetts State House for a farewell ceremony hosted by the governor.
The 1,691 enlisted men and officers marched up Beacon Hill and met the governor and a crowd of proud Massachusetts citizens.
As he made his remarks, Andrew made it clear even though the Irish soldiers may have been born on foreign soil, their sacrifice was sure to bring them fully into the fold.
"As religion makes no distinction in the human family, so the United States of America knows no distinction between its native born citizens and those born in other countries," Andrew said. "In one common tide flows the blood of a common humanity inherited by us all."
He went on to praise the loyalty of the men and expressed the gratitude that their country owed to them.
"From all inhabitants of this land, today begins an indebtedness which will take long to discharge," he said. "Inspired by the purposes of patriotism you will know no other allegiance. When you look on the Stars and Stripes, you can remember that you are American citizens. "
Members of the public presented the 9th MVI with two banners. The first was a Massachusetts flag; the second was to be the unit's regimental colors. The flag was green with a harp strung with red, white, and blue cords flanked by two Irish wolfhounds. Stitched below those symbols of Eire was the phrase "as aliens and strangers thou didst us befriend, as sons and true patriots we do thee defend."
After the ceremony, as the immigrant soldiers of the 9th MVI marched towards the Potomac to tear down the stars and bars, they heard the cheers and shouts of support from a city that once rejected them.
Not long after the 9th MVI's departure, another Irish regiment was established in Massachusetts. The 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment mustered 1,746 Irish-American troops to fight in the battle to preserve the union.
In addition to 9th and 28th MVIs, Irish-Americans from Massachusetts joined other various regular and state militia units.
"Historians have trouble getting a firm number of Irish-born and first generation Irish that fought in the Civil War," said David Barrett, library director at the Irish Cultural Center of New England. "But latest figures put that number between 160,000 to 200,000 men."
However, not all of those hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants were volunteer soldiers. In March of 1863, Congress passed a law that required most men to register for the draft. The law did allow wealthier individuals to pay their way out of the draft or find a replacement. As a result, conscripted soldiers in Massachusetts were disproportionate from the poorer class of Irish-Americans.
Regardless of voluntary or forced enlistment, Irish-Americans served loyally and distinguishably throughout the war.
"Irish immigrants and first generation Irish were recipients of the Medal of Honor more than any other ethnic group that fought in the Civil War," said Barrett.
The tradition of Irish-Americans serving in the military has lasted since the birth of the nation and continues to this day. The legacy of the 9th and 28th MVIs continues as well through the Massachusetts National Guard where it would be hard luck to not find a Kelly, McDonald, O'Brian or Sullivan in one of the State's armories.