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Kildare Rebels, Irish Confederates. Kildaremen in the 6th Louisiana Infantry Regiment

James Durney

When the American Civil War began in April 1861 Irishmen both north and south answered the call to arms. While some 150,000 Irish immigrants served in the Union Army, an estimated 30,000 Irish-born fought for the Confederate Army. Just as the Irish immigrants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia and other northern cities rallied to the Union cause, the Irish who landed at southern ports like New Orleans embraced the cause of the Confederacy. Though less numerous – and destined to be far less famous – than their countrymen who fought for the Union in the fabled Irish Brigade, these Irish rebels wrote an equally stirring story fighting for the Confederate States of America. In the wake of the Irish famine more than a million immigrants arrived on America’s shores, the majority of them settling in the North. However, many landed at Southern ports or found their way south, so that in 1860, the Irish were the largest white ethnic group in the Confederacy, numbering nearly 85,000. Irish units were raised in eight of the eleven states of the Confederacy.
The Confederate Army included dozens of heavily-Irish units, from companies to regiments with colorful Celtic names: Savannah produced the Irish Jasper Greens; Alabama had the Emerald Guards; Carolina raised the Emerald Light Infantry and the Old Irish Volunteers. The 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment from Nashville was largely Irish, while the 1st Virginia Infantry Regiment included Irish immigrants from Richmond. But no state produced as many Irish Confederates as Louisiana, and no city as many as New Orleans, which in 1860 was home to more immigrants from Ireland than any other place in the South.
The Irish of the Confederacy were not fighting to preserve slavery. Few, if any were slave owners, and for the most part were common labourers. They were the underclass of their day – working-class immigrants of little or no formal education, competing for jobs with free blacks and slaves, regarded by ‘native’ Americans as the lowest order of humanity. Yet 4,000 Irishmen from New Orleans volunteered to fight for their newly-adopted home. Two weeks after Confederate guns had fired the first shots of the Civil War against Fort Sumter, a notice appeared in the Daily Picayune, one of New Orleans’ leading newspapers, calling for the formation of Company B, Irish Brigade. The notice ended with the words: ‘Prompt action is now expected of every Irishman in the present crisis.’ It was signed by William Monaghan. Born in Ireland in 1820 Monaghan would eventually command the 6th Louisiana Infantry Regiment, sometimes called the South’s ‘Irish Brigade.’
If a full Irish brigade was actually contemplated, it failed to materialise. Instead, the various companies of Irish volunteers raised in New Orleans were assigned to different Irish regiments, several of which had a strong Irish composition. The 1st Louisiana Volunteers included companies composed mostly of immigrants and bearing such Irish names as the Emmet Guards and Montgomery Guards. The 7th Louisiana Volunteers were more than one-third Irish-born, while the notorious Louisiana Tigers were mainly Irish dock workers. The 10th Louisiana Volunteers fielded five companies dominated by Irish immigrants. But the 6th Louisiana Volunteers was the most thoroughly Irish regiment of them all. Of the 980 men in the regiment whose birthplace is recorded, at least 468 were born in Ireland. Another 100 men, undoubtedly sons of immigrants, bore Irish surnames. According to James P. Gannon, author of ‘Irish Rebels. Confederate Tigers. A history of the 6th Louisiana Volunteers, 1861-1865,’ close to sixty per cent of the regiment was Irish by birth or ancestry.
Of these 468 Irish-born volunteers three are recorded as being born in Co. Kildare. They are: Thomas Cleary, James Farrell and James Valentine. All three were members of Company I, an overwhelming Irish unit raised in New Orleans by its first captain, Joseph Hanlon, who was born in Ireland c. 1823 and worked as a reporter before accepting an officers’ commission at the outbreak of the war. Of the 106 men who served in the company, at least 89 were born in Ireland. Company I fought throughout the war and three men surrendered at Appomattox Court House in 1865.
James P. Gannon’s book contains a meticulously detailed and complete biographical roster of all the soldiers of the 6th Louisiana. The entry for Thomas Cleary states: Private, enlisted 17 March 1862, in New Orleans. On roll at General Hospital, Liberty, Virginia, October 1862 to February 1863. Died at General Hospital No.3, Mobile, Alabama, 6 April 1863 of consumption. Born: Co. Kildare. Occupation: farmer. Resident: New Orleans. Age thirty-five, height 5’7”, gray eyes, dark hair, fair complexion.
James Farrell. Private, enlisted 21 March 1862, in New Orleans. Admitted to Confederate State Army (CSA) General Hospital, Charlottesville, Virginia, 16 April 1862. Died of pneumonia 26 April 1862. Born: Co. Kildare. Occupation: steamboatman. Age thirty.
James Valentine. Private, enlisted 13 March 1862, New Orleans. Present to June 1862. Captured at Strasburg, Virginia, 5 June 1862. POW at Fort Delaware, Delaware. Took oath of allegiance, 10 August 1862. Born: Co. Kildare. Occupation: baker. Age thirty-three.
The 6th Louisiana fought fellow Irishmen of the Union Army at Strasburg, Virginia, in the first week of June 1862 where General Richard Taylor was pleased with the fighting abilities of his New Orleans Irish. ‘They were steady as clocks and as chirpy as crickets,‘ he later recalled. In one of the finest tributes penned to the Louisiana Confederate Irish Gen. Taylor wrote, the regiment ‘was composed of Irishmen, stout, hardy fellows, turbulent in camp and requiring a strong hand, but responding to kindness and justice, and ready to follow their officers to the death’.  The regiment, however, suffered significant loss in numbers during this engagement and at least fifty-two men were captured in the vicinity of Strasburg and Woodstock. Most of the men captured were Irish, among them Private James Valentine. Many of the prisoners, including Private Valentine, took the oath of allegiance to the United States to gain release from prison. Valentine’s age is given as thirty-three in 1862, which would mean he was born circa 1828-9. A search of births in Newbridge Library by genealogist Karel Kiely records two James Valentines – one born in Kilcullen in 1826 and another born in Naas in 1827. It is unknown which of these is the James Valentine of the 6th Louisiana, but the Naas James Valentine was the son of a soldier, which might mean he followed in his father's footsteps.
As many soldiers died from sickness and disease as did in battle during the American Civil War and the other two Kildare rebels, Thomas Cleary and James Farrell, bear testament to this. Again a search in Co. Kildare birth records show that there are no James Farrells born in Co. Kildare in 1828 – the year of James Farrell’s birth based on his age in 1862 – but there are nine James Farrells born in 1831 and four in 1832, mainly in the south of the county. The Louisiana James Farrell could be any of these. In the case of Thomas Cleary the results are easier to make sense of. Again based on Thomas Cleary’s age given at the time of his death, which would show him born around 1828, there are two Thomas Clearys, both born in Co. Kildare, in 1827, one in Monasterevin and one in Castledermot. Either of these could possibly be the Louisiana Thomas Cleary.
The Irish in the South, like those in the North, fought with the state to which they felt they owed their first allegiance to – the community which took them in and gave them a new start as Americans. The Confederate Irish and the 6th Louisiana fared badly during the Civil War. By the time the proud 6th Louisiana reached the trenches of Petersburg in the late winter of 1864, its original complement of almost 1,000 men had been whittled down to less than seventy-five soldiers. About two dozen men were left when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. A total of 1,146 men were enrolled with the 6th Louisiana during the war – 219 were killed in battle, while another 109 men died of disease, accidents or other non-combat causes, to give the regiment a fatality rate of 29 percent.
As victors and vanquished made their way home after Appomattox, they faced contrasting prospects. Union soldiers returned to a buoyant and prosperous land, while Confederate soldiers went home to a ruined and desolate South. Here the trail of James Valentine goes cold, as we do not know what happened him after the civil war had run its course. Did James Valentine stay in the North after his release or did he return to the South, or eventually return to Ireland? Anybody with any information please contact: localhistory@kildarecoco.ie

Several natives of Co. Kildare fought with the 6th Louisiana Infantry Regiment in America's Civil War

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