By Ray O’Hanlon
On a spring day in 1863, with Fredericksburg behind them and Gettysburg still weeks in the future, two great armies eyed each other warily across the banks of the Rappahannock River in Virginia. Irishmen were to be found in the ranks of both. Yankee Irishmen and rebel Irishmen.
The American Civil was a struggle rife with anomaly and contradiction. As with all civil wars, brother was pitted against brother and cousin battled cousin. At times, it was even a case of father against son.
As 1863 gathered and prepared itself to be the deciding year in the now two-yea- old struggle between the Union and the Confederacy, one little incident would bring home to those who witnessed it just how crazy it could get when a nation sundered and turned in on itself.
Soldiers in the "War Between The States" were only too familiar with the chaos and fear of battle. But they were even more acquainted with the tedium of marching, the routine of camp life and the sometimes very close encounters that occurred between pickets on both sides.
The Rappahannock was not the Mississippi and as the two armies settled in to await the next moves by their respective commanders, contacts between pickets picked up that spring of 1863 in tandem with the growing chorus of birds ushering in the new season.
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One Confederate picket was all too familiar with the accents drifting across the portion of the stream that formed his watch.
George Russell was a native of Albany, N.Y., who had moved to New Orleans a couple of years before war had broken out. Albany was a city with a sizable Irish population, but in New Orleans Russell was to discover a town that, in 1860, counted as many as one in five of its citizens as Irish-born.
When the conflict erupted, Russell quickly found himself carrying a musket in the ranks of the 6th Louisiana Volunteer Infantry, a regiment with a predominantly Irish muster that would, through the course of the war, forge for itself a reputation for fighting spirit and tenacity every bit as exalted as the better-known regiments of the Union army’s Irish Brigade.
Russell listened to the voices from across the water and knew immediately that these men in blue were from Albany. Some, it turned out, were even old friends and acquaintances.
Russell was invited over to the Federal side and, assured of courtesy and protection, he forded the river in search of news of his aged mother and father in the far off city by the Hudson.
Once across, his fellow Albany men tried to lure Russell back into Union ranks. But Russell would have none of it. He had shared the privations and dangers of battle with his Southern comrades across the river. Their cause was noble, Russell argued, and he was sticking with them. The Yankees gave up and allowed Russell to return to his regiment.
One thing that is not recorded in contemporary accounts is that Russell, who was quite likely of Irish stock, probably felt quite at home in the 6th Louisiana, a fighting unit that often sounded like an 1850s wharfside in Boston immediately after the arrival of a ship from Ireland.
For the Louisiana men it might just as easily have been a wharf in Boston. But as author James P. Gannon explains it, the 6th Lousiana came into being largely due to the fact that thousands of Irish set sail in the 1850s for the still-at-peace United States in ships that were not bound for Boston. Rather, they were headed for the greatest port city in the South, New Orleans. And it all had to do with the price of a ticket.
According to Gannon — whose book, "Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers" tells the story of the 6th Louisiana during the Civil War — by no means all the Irish in the immediate post-Famine years came to America on Coffin Ships. Some made the Atlantic crossing on "Cotton Ships," great sailing vessels that carried cotton from the South to Liverpool in England.
"Normally the ships would be expected to return to America empty, but in the years after the Famine many Irish bought cheap passage on these ships and ended up in New Orleans as opposed to Boston or New York."
Two of these Irish exiles were Gannon’s ancestors. Patrick Cavanaugh, from Galway, was his great-grandfather. Dennis was Patrick’s brother. Both came to New Orleans in the 1850s. Patrick would not stay in the South, however. He would make his way up the Mississippi and become a prosperous farmer in Minnesota. Dennis would stay in New Orleans and end up in a gray uniform. He fought and survived the war only to die a lonely old man in a Confederate veterans home five decades after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Dennis did not serve in 6th Louisiana, but his story was to draw James Gannon to the South’s most Irish fighting unit.
"Besides the ancestral connection," Gannon said, the reason I decided to do the book was because there are so many books about the Irish in the Union army. Historians had virtually ignored the thousands of Irish in the Confederate army. This was, in my view, a big gap in Civil War history. So I decided to write the book about what was the most Irish Confederate regiment, the 6th Louisiana."
Gannon’s curiosity would draw him to a tale that was both inspiring and tragic. The 6th Louisiana Volunteer Infantry — soon to be counted among the famed "Louisiana Tiger" regiments — turned up just about everywhere in the war where muskets and cannon were fired in anger. The 6th, under its three commanders, one of them Col. William Monaghan, was with Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862. In the following months and years, the regiment’s battle flags would tell the tale: Port Republic, the Seven Day, Gaines’ Mill, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Rappahannock Station, Mine Run, the Wilderness and the horrific collision at Spotsylvania, where the regiment became embroiled in the cauldron known as the "Mule Shoe." Other battles would follow, with the inevitable consequences.
As Gannon relates it: "Counting the replacements a total of roughly 1,250 men served in the regiment throughout the war. The regiment was founded in June, 1861, but after the summer of 1862 there were few new recruits available. By the time the war ended there were only 52 men still standing and ready for duty."
The story of the 6th Louisiana might have been told long before this had the New Orleans Irishmen ever come face to face with a Union Irish Brigade regiment. Somehow it never happened. Perhaps it was just as well.
As it was, the deeds, heroic, desperate and mundane of these Irish soldiers were left gathering dust until Gannon became intrigued by their story yet untold.
As he writes in the preface to his book: "In the years shortly after the war ended in 1865, a brief article appeared in one of New Orleans’ newspapers and was clipped and pasted in the family scrapbook of William J. Seymour, the son of the first commander of the 6th Louisiana, Col. Isaac Gurdon Seymour. The article recalled that three successive field commanders of the regiment — Cols. Seymour, Strong and William Monaghan — died leading the 6th Louisiana in combat. The writer lamented the fact that very little had ever been recorded of the history of this regiment and asked: ‘Will the state of Louisiana let the days pass, and her dead heroes be forgotten, and the names and deeds left out of the history of the times that tried men’s souls . . . ? Let us hope that the historian will appear in time.’"
It took a while. But the historian did appear. "It was like a calling. I knew it ought to be done," Gannon said.
He began work on "Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers" in early 1995. By the beginning of 1998 the tale was complete. It is now in its second edition and has been named a selection of the Doubleday Military Book Club. "Irish Rebels, Confederate Tigers, A History of the 6th Louisiana Volunteers, 1861-1865, is published by Savas Publishing Company of Campbell, Calif.; (408)879-9073. It is distributed by Stackpole Books at 1 (800) 732-3669.