Irish Loyalties in the Civil War

The Civil War brought violence and upheaval to countless locales throughout the United States, which–in turn–caused large movements of the population. One place in particular that experienced massive waves of migration because of the war was Alexandria, Virginia. While looking through Alexandria’s census data from 1860, I began to wonder if the loyalties of individuals was the driving force behind their decision to stay in the city or to leave, especially among the city’s Irish population. The strategic location of Alexandria attracted the attention of Union forces, which occupied the city in late May 1861.  It remained under Union control until the close of the war.  The needs of the Union Army combined with large numbers of African American refugees was a potential business opportunity, and those Irish who stayed might be able to make a handsome profit.

In David T. Gleeson’s The Irish in the South, 1815-1877, he argues that a majority of the Irish immigrants in the region joined the Confederate cause because they viewed the North as an oppressive force, much like England.  They were also invested in slavery, a system which they felt guaranteed white privilege in spite of their outsider status and limited job opportunities.1

So who were these Irish immigrants who chose to stay in Union-controlled Alexandria? A quick online search for Union and Confederate supporters in Alexandria led me to Alexandria’s Public Library website, which includes a transcription of the Union Oath of Allegiance, a document that local whites were asked to sign as a pledge to the Union cause, and a list of signatures. The list can be found here. Comparing the Oath to the 1860 U.S. census, I found only 13 out of 57 Irish immigrants had signed. This list does not take into account the people who might have fled from Union-occupied Alexandria in the years between the 1860 U.S. Census and the signing of the Oath.  Others might have signed up to serve in the Confederate cause or were drafted into the Union Army.

Irish Immigrants who Signed Oath

Name                           Age      Sex    Race      Occupation    Value of Prop.  Country of Origin

                                       Flood, John              45      M      W         Laborer              $1,150            Ireland
Graham, Charles      70      M      W         Grocer                $11,000          Ireland
Lynch, John              35      M      W         Laborer              $1,500            Ireland
Meaghor, Elizabeth  42      F       W        Grocer                 $1,800            Ireland
Moran, Anthony       52      M      W        Sailor                   $3,000           Ireland
Murphy, Thomas      33      M      W        Drayman              $500              Ireland
Nugent, Owen         36      M      W        Grocer                  $300              Ireland
O’Leary, Cornelius    45      M      W        Porter                   $525             Ireland
Roach, James           28      M      W        Laborer                 $0                 Ireland
Swain, Stephen       41      M      W        Master Carpenter  $1,350          Ireland
Taylor, George P.      37      M      W        Laborer                  $830            Ireland
Vaccari, Rose           64      F       W       Grocer                    $4,120          Ireland
Walsh, John             60     M       W       Grocer                    $1,000           Ireland

Five out of the thirteen who signed had listed “grocer” as their profession. In a city with an influx African American refugees and Union soldiers, it is likely that these grocers catered to these populations as well as local residents–both black and white–who decided to stay. Others who signed the oath might have benefited similarly. Some of these men and women might have also had pro-Union or abolitionist leanings; however, more research will need to be conducted to ascertain their political beliefs.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

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