Alexandria, Irish Immigration, and the Civil War

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Alexandria’s geographic location posed a problem for Confederate supporting whites living in the city. Despite being in Virginia, a key member of the Confederate States of America, Alexandria was only a few miles down the Potomac River from the Union capital of Washington, D.C. In late May 1861, Alexandria was under Union military occupation until the end of the war.

Loyalties in Alexandria conflicted. Many Confederate-leaning, white Alexandrians fled the city once it underwent Union occupation. Nonetheless, in May 1862, several white Alexandrians signed an oath of allegiance to the Union; the full list is available here. Note that the list does not account for individuals who fled Union-occupied Alexandria prior to the signing. Of the Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans listed in the 1860 US Census for Alexandria, 13 of them signed the Union oath.

Irish-born Individuals who Signed the Oath of Allegiance to the Union, May 1862 [1]

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

According to the table above, nearly all of the individuals who signed the oath had valuable property in Alexandria. In addition, only four out of the 13 were laborers, the most common occupation for Irish immigrants in Alexandria in 1860. The rest were either grocers, or held semi-skilled and skilled occupations. Considering that nearly all of these individuals had some property of value, this data suggests that their oath to the Union was driven by financial concerns more so than pro-Unionist leanings. Alexandria’s proximity to Washington, D.C., Union occupation, and African-American refugees would most likely contribute to their decisions to sign an oath that would secure their positions. Also, when cross-examined with the 1860 U.S. Census, it is evident that most of these individuals were listed as the head of their households and had families to take care of. Potentially, they signed the oath out of concern for their families.  Finally, it is possible that some of them, if not all, did have Union sympathies. This, however, is hard to discern based on the limited amount of information available.

Generally, however, the Irish in the US South, and thus Alexandria, sympathized with the Confederate cause. Many of them compared the Confederacy to Ireland, with the Union substituting for the oppressive regime of England.[2] They considered the South their adopted land and sought to protect its autonomy, including the right to own slaves, a practice that protected Irish working class jobs.  Although their Catholic religion prevented them from being fully accepted into the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), their whiteness allowed them to remain above African Americans, both free and enslaved. Several wealthier Irish immigrants living in the South, particularly Irish artisans and merchants, would go on to become slave-owning themselves.[3] Several Irish living in Alexandria were no exception: Rose Vaccari, one of the women who signed the Union oath, owned slaves. The Irish in the South had an investment in the southern cause, and found themselves supporting the infamous “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Over 20,000 Irish fought in Confederate military units, which accounts for roughly 24% of the 85,000 Irish who lived in the eleven Confederate states.[4] One Confederate unit was the 17th Virginia Infantry, originating from Alexandria and its surrounding vicinity. Companies G and I, known as the Emmett and O’Connell Guards, respectively, contained large numbers of Irish immigrants. Below is a table of Irish-born individuals who were listed in the companies’ muster rolls and in the 1860 US census for Alexandria. Note that the muster rolls were also compared to the 1870 census data, but none appeared in that list.

Irish-born Members of the 17th VA Infantry, Companies G & I [5]

Company & Rank Name Age Occupation Property Value Miscellaneous Notes
G (Emmett), 4th Sargent Michael Nugent 28 Laborer $0
G, 1st Corporal Patrick Doyle 25 Laborer $0 Listed as “P. Doyle” in census
G, 3rd Corporal John Murphy* 45/30* Laborer $20/$0* See asterisk below
G, Private John Murphy* 20/16* Laborer $0* See asterisk below
G, Private James Archibald 45 Laborer $0
G, Private Patrick Burke 11 No occupation $0
G, Private Thomas Carroll 30 Laborer $0
G, Private Michael Downey 20 Laborer $0 A different Michael Downey appears in the 1870 census
G, Private Morris Lynch 30 Laborer $0
G, Private Charles McCarty 40 Laborer $0
G, Private James Martin 23 Sailor $0
G, Private John Nugent 29 Laborer $0 A second John Nugent appears in the census, age 7
G, Private Hugh Smith 70 No occupation $0
I (O’Connell), 4th Corporal J.  Sullivan 35 Laborer $0 Listed as John Sullivan in the census
I, Private William Murray 36 Tailor $6,850

* 4 individuals are listed with the name “John Murphy,” all of them listed as laborers from Ireland, ages 16, 20, 30, and 45. The John Murphy aged 45 had a property value of $20, the rest $0. The 16-year-old John Murphy is the son of the 45-year-old John Murphy. The muster roll for Company G includes two John Murphys, one a Third Corporal and the other a private (as accounted in the table above). However, there is no indication about ages; therefore I included all four as candidates, and split two to each “John Murphy” based on age.

There are noticeable differences when comparing these individuals to those who signed the Union oath. The table shows that nearly all of the Irish men listed above were laborers with little or no property value, save for two exceptions (most notably William Murray). Most of them were younger than who signed the Union oath: the average age for this table is 32, while the average age for the previous table is 45. Some of the men above did have families and are listed as the heads of their households in the 1860 U.S. Census. However, several others were single and living in a boarding house; recently married but living with another family; or single sons within a family.

These contrasts indicate not only class differences between the Confederate-fighting and the Union oath-signing Irish immigrants, but also possible explanations for joining the Confederate cause. Those who signed the Union oath had certain priorities to keep in mind; most of those who fought in the 17th Virginia Infantry probably had “nothing to lose,” and donned the gray uniforms out of lingering nationalistic fervor and ethnic unity, for “being poor and desperate may have been a sign of Confederate patriotism.”[6]

Irish community and military leaders in the South recognized the zeal of their fellow Irishmen and women. They tailored the the concept of the “Lost Cause” to the Irish sentiments, even with the tie to Catholicism, and, like the rest of the “Lost Cause,” it “would develop into a type of civil religion . . . [with]  its own elaborate ceremonies . . . , icons . . . , and ‘saints.’”[7] The poorer Irish living in the South generally listened to their elite counterparts, responding to the call for direct military service or supporting efforts as civilians.[8]

However, as the war progressed and the South’s early winning streak came to a halt, the Irish quickly abandoned their units. As noted by David T. Gleeson, desertion was common during the later years of the war, primarily because of worries for families back home and losing their will to fight, though this was not specific to Irish Confederates.[9] There is no indication that any of the Irish members of Emmett and O’Connell Guards in the 17th Virginia deserted, but it is possible that similar sentiments rippled amongst them. None of them appear in the 1870 U.S. Census for Alexandria, suggesting that they either died during the war, their families moved out of Alexandria in between during the decade, or both.

Upon returning home following Confederate defeat and the Era of Reconstruction on the horizon, the Irish would eventually fade into the background of the white, southern narrative. In Alexandria, their stories are hard to uncover. What is available reveals a better idea of Irish immigrants and their lives in the South and especially Alexandria, and how the Civil War affected them.


  1. “Oath of Allegiance, May 1862-1865,” Special Collections, Alexandria Public Library, Alexandria, VA;; Krystyn R. Moon, “1860-1870 US Census Data for Alexandria, Virginia,” Unpublished Spreadsheets, 2014.
  2. David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South: 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001): 155-156.
  3. Gleeson The Irish in the South, 122.
  4. David T. Gleeson, “‘To live and die [for] Dixie:’ Irish civilians and the Confederate States of America,” Irish Studies Review 18, no. 2 (2010): 140.
  5. Edgar Warfield, Manassas to Appomattox: the Civil War Memoirs of Private Edgar Warfield, 17th Virginia Infantry,  2nd ed. (McLean, VA: Howell Press, Inc., 1996): 150, 152.; Moon, “1860-1870 US Census Data.”
  6. Gleeson, “‘To live and die [for] Dixie,’” 145.
  7. David T. Gleeson, “Another ‘Lost Cause,’” Southern Cultures 17, no. 1 (2011): 53.
  8. Gleeson, “‘To live and die [for] Dixie,’” 144.
  9. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 170-171.

Author: Kim Humphries

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