As February’s Black History Month fades into memory and March’s Irish History Month begins its ascendancy, there’s a brief moment where the black takes on a tinge of green.
Few realize that these two ethnic groups, African-Americans and Irish-Americans, who together make up one-quarter of the U.S. population, have an historical connection that dates back to the Boston Massacre. During which, Cyprus Attucks, a free Black, and Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant, both lost their lives. These ethnic groups also met historically, during the Civil War.
At this point in our tale, we could venture off in great detail about the heroics of the Irish Brigade under the fervent prayers of Notre Dame’s Father William Corby at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Or bring up Patrick O’Rorke and the 140th New York Infantry regiment for saving the Union right on Gettysburg’s Little Round Top; enabling the 20th Maine to survive on the Union left. Then there’s Dennis O’Kane and his 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers of the renowned Philadelphia Brigade preventing Lewis Armistead from taking Bloody Angle on Cemetery Ridge. For the complete story, order The Civil War’s Valiant Irish from Kindle, Nook, etc.
It’s important to note that, for the 150,000 Irish-born who wore the Federal blue, the cause, by and large, was not freedom of the slave, but rather preservation of the Union.
I’d like to highlight here, heroism of a different kind, exhibited by an Irishman who also distinguished himself with his intrepidness on many Civil War battlefields. I’m speaking of Confederate Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, born in Ovens, County Cork.
Cleburne recognized that the Southern soldier was “sinking into a fatal apathy, growing weary of hardships and slaughters,” and proposed a dramatic solution. In January 1864, he led 13-officers to petition the Confederate Congress to offer emancipation to any slave who would volunteer to serve in the Confederate military. It would emancipate the slave’s wife and children, as well.
Cleburne’s proposal would’ve eliminated the one moral issue used to justify slavery; and may have gained the Confederacy … their long sought-after recognition by England and France. Southern whites, however, would’ve had to accept the black man as their equal—one culturally advanced enough to serve in the army.
This request was considered a sacrilege by the Confederate leadership. And as a result, Cleburne sacrificed his here-to-fore unlimited prospects for advancement into the highest echelon of the army.
Irish-born Cleburne, an attorney in Helena, Arkansas, never owned a slave, but volunteered to preserve the right of a state to determine the laws for its people. A brilliant commander, christened “Stonewall of the West,” Cleburne gave his life at Franklin, Kentucky, on November 30, 1864. His farseeing, controversial proposal remained publicly unacknowledged for decades.
Note: An earlier version was originally published during 2012 in our “Hell’s Kitchen Blog”