Thursday, November 27, 2014

From Huddled Masses To Heroes


I have previously referenced some of my Irish ancestors.  Really, all I have is Irish ancestors, so it is more of a matter of picking which once to reference at a given point.  Anyway, since many of us come to an appreciation of the Civil War based on our ancestor's experiences, I thought that sharing some of my ancestors' stories might be an appropriate topic of today's post.  If it turns out to be too lengthy, please forgive me in advance.

Let us travel back in time to the year 1845.  I had relatives living in numerous Irish Counties. (Antrim, Galway, Clare, Wexford, Cork, Fermanagh, and Mayo)  This post will focus on those leaving from Galway and Wexford.  At that time, my family lived as tenant farmers, as did much of the Irish peasants.  I hate to use that term since they weren't peasants prior to the occupation and exploitation of their country by a foreign government. Nonetheless, they were treated as second class citizens in their own country.  Those in Galway were Irish speaking and unable to read and write.  Those in Wexford spoke both Irish and English and had enough schooling to be able to write their names at least.  Their lives were hard.  But they carried on as their ancestors had done and their descendants, myself included, still do.  Then disaster struck.

We now know that the blight that attacked the potato crops in Ireland probably originated in North America, an irony not lost on me.  Some accounts from the west of Ireland say that they countryside was covered in a fog the night before the blight was first discovered in 1845.  Since it is mentioned in several sources, it might very well be true, thought that had nothing to do with the blight itself.  I can only imagine the horror experienced by my family when they found their crops had been ruined by this unknown enemy.  The first year did not effect the entire crop in the whole country, and so there was enough left to carry on.  And then it came again.  And again.  And again.  Soon, starvation and disease ravaged the countryside.  Scenes like the below were all too familiar

I don't know at what point my family decided to leave.  I don't know for sure if it was an actual choice or if they were evicted.  Regardless, they made their way down roads littered with corpses, sometimes witnessing starving dogs eating the human remains, only to book a passage on a ship that would turn out to be a almost as dangerous as remaining behind in Ireland.  The Coffin Ships that they sailed on were not meant for comfort.  In fact, some of the same ships that carried the Irish to America a few years before had carried slaves from Africa.  And in similar conditions.  My family would have spent most of their time below decks in truly disgusting conditions.  Imagine people who were already weakened from the hunger or disease crammed into a small space that rocked back and forth constantly.  They lived, ate, and slept in absolute filth.  The space reeking of unwashed bodies, vomit, urine, feces, and above all, death.  It was not abnormal for as many as a third of the passengers to die on this trip.  It has been said by smarter people than I that if you could walk from Cork to New York City along the body of the Atlantic that you could so so without ever stepping on the ocean floor.  You could just step from one Irish body to another the entire way.

These two branches of my family arrived in the United States but in two different locations.  One ship landed in New Orleans and one in New York.  My family who came in through New Orleans fared a little better than those who arrived in New York.  Though they faced hardships, it was nowhere near as bad as what my family faced in New York.  The following cartoon is just one of many.  (And keep in mind this one was published in 1871!)

I am not an expert in the history of race relations in the United States. I'll defer to my better informed colleague Andrew P. on this point. But the Irish were not considered "white" despite their skin color. In the North they were racialized as being black. In fact, you will notice that they were depicted (in the above cartoon) in the same way that Africans were depicted. They were not considered "white" until after the Civil War ended. I think it is interesting how fluid race can actually be. This is a very good indication. Pardon the bad pun, but in the case of the Irish it wasn't a black and white issue. Society considered them something less than white. I wonder if they had been wealthier or Protestant if that would have made a difference. I'm sure it would. Below is another cartoon which illustrates the point. And when the day came that the Irish "became white", they did not identify with the people whom they were once compared to (the blacks) and instead strove to become accepted by the very upper class white society that once rejected them. Here is an excellent book on the subject.

But when Civil War came, my ancestors threw in their lot with their adopted part of the country.  I really doubt the enlisted "for the cause" as it were.  They didn't seem like that kind of people really.  My great-grandmother told me once that the reason her grandfather enlisted was so that he could learn useful skills.  (She knew him and that quote is directly from him.)  I always wondered what that meant.  He was a child when he came over with his family on the New Orleans trip.  I later found at what.  He was an active Fenian.  His service saw him at all of the major battles in the Western Theater and he came through it all without a scratch.  Talk about luck of the Irish!  On the New York side, my third great grandfather, who also made the trip as a teenager, enlisted in the 160th New York Infantry and was killed in Louisiana.  He is buried in the National Cemetery in Baton Rouge.  He gave his life for a country that, at the time, scorned and ridiculed him in the manner of the cartoon above.

I don't know why I am making this lengthy post.  I don't know if you are even still reading it at this point.  My ancestors were tough, proud people.  They fought against the English invaders of their country and they fought for their respective sides here in the United States as well.  England tried to eradicate them from the face of the earth.  The United States was less than welcoming.  But they survived.  And as a consequence, I am here today because of that strength.  Allow me to close with a quote from the book Paddy's Lament by Thomas Gallagher.  You will find it on page 295.  When speaking of the perseverance of the Irish immigrant, he said the following "But whatever name he goes by now.....he will forever, with his battered high hat, ragged swallow-tailed coat, dangling breeches, and bare feet, haunt not only Irish memory, but also the halls and chambers of Westminster Palace, where Parliament tried for so long, without success, to do him in."

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who only hopes that I can live in a manner to bring honor to my ancestors.


  1. May the road rise up to meet you! Good one. :-)