Faugh a Ballagh: The Gateway City’s Irish Soldiers

By the outbreak of the war, St. Louis – the Gateway to the West – was a thriving and diverse, yet divided border town. Unlike many cities in the slave states, St. Louis was home to a growing community of European immigrants. By 1860, over half of the city was foreign born, most from the German Confederation or Ireland. The Germans were, by far, the most populous and influential ethic group in St. Louis. With 50,000 in St. Louis alone and united over the divisive issues of slavery and secession, they made a tremendous impact on the Union war effort in the city and their new home state. Just second to the Germans were the Irish, who accounted for nearly 30,000 (or 20%) of the city’s 161,000 residents. Missouri’s Irish – totally over 43,000 – was the highest population of Irishmen in any state in the South.[1] Typically overlooked compared to the Germans, the Irish were more-so divided over the tense issues encapsulating their community. Their impact on the Civil War in St. Louis deserves more attention and further study.

A St. Louis-style St. Patrick’s Day in 1874 shows the gathering of  the Irish immigrant community. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

Like most Irish immigrants who arrived in the mainland United States, St. Louis’ Irish arrived in the 1830s. Since the signing of the Act of Union, many Irish at that time grew tired of the British Crown, hoping to someday have home rule over their people, culture, and country. To add, the Irish suffered horrifically in the Irish Famine, forcing many of Ireland’s surviving citizens to flee and seek freedom elsewhere. The Crown’s lack of concern for the Irish during the famine further inflamed the tensions. As expected, the Irish frustration with the British government impacted their views of the secession movement in their newfound home in the United States.

In St. Louis, many of the Irish immigrants settled in present-day Dogtown, the Kerry Patch, around St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, and in the proximity of St. Bridget of Erin Parish. With limited skill labor and mostly impoverished, the Irish immigrants largely worked in manufacturing, railroads, and other laborious jobs. According to historian Rev. William B. Faherty, “Though most of them were unaccustomed to city living and had few urban skills, they brought energy, resourcefulness, a willingness to learn, and—unique among immigrants of the time—they spoke English.”[2]

A politcal cartoon mocking the German and Irish immigrants. Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine.

Sadly, the Irish were victims of harsh nativism by native-born Americans. Many were looked down over their socioeconomic statuses, accents, and impoverished housing situation. Just seven years prior to the Civil War, anti-Irish riots over the gubernatorial elections broke out in the city, leading to multiple deaths and the destruction of nearly one hundred home and businesses of Irish immigrants. Unlike many other American cities, however, the Irish were able to form relationships with the French settlers, specifically over their common Catholic faith. By 1861, St. Louis was home to several major parishes, showing the size and influence of the Irish community: St. Patrick’s, St. Michael’s, St. Bridget of Erin, St. Lawrence O’Toole, and St. James the Greater.

St. Patrick’s Church in St. Louis, circa 1930. Catholic Churches were pillars of the Irish community in St. Louis. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Unlike the Germans, who were dominantly pro-Union and anti-slavery, the Irish were more divided over the central issues of the mid-19th century. Many united by principles of home rule and freedom over tyranny, the Irish saw either side as fulfilling their respective causes. Seen strikingly in Missouri, the Irish – though many times ostracized by nativists – established ties to their newfound homes and participated in their community’s politics, leadership, religious institutions, and militias.

Joseph Kelly served in the Missouri State Guard and then the Confederate Army. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

One example of this divided nature were the soldiers of the Washington Blues militia company. Grocer, militiaman, and devout Catholic, Joseph Kelly arrived in St. Louis in 1850 from Dublin, Ireland. He helped organize the Washington Blues in 1857. Like many militiamen in Missouri, Kelly was a pro-secessionist and would soon join the Missouri State Guard in response to the Camp Jackson Affair in May 1861. Patrick Emmett Burke, originally from County Tipperary, moved to St. Louis in his youth with his family. A Catholic, Burke attended seminary in Perryville, Missouri, but eventually pursued a career in law and politics. He was elected to the Missouri General Assembly as a Democrat in 1855. Burke served with Kelly in the Washington Blues, but resigned from the militia company to the First Missouri Infantry (US). These two soldiers showcase the divisive nature within the Irish community of St. Louis.

For pro-Southern Irish, they “had already negotiated their Irishness with an American national identity, and now they faced adapting to a Confederate one.”[3] The pro-immigration and pro-bourgeois rhetoric of the Democratic Party attracted many Irish, even tying them closer to the institution of slavery. Irish Southerners also saw the ideological connections between Northern abolitionists with their British counterparts. The inherent ties with their former adversaries made Irish Southerners reluctant to support the Union. The Irish were certainly not advocating for secession, but “ultimately did abandon the United States for the new Confederate States of America.”[4]

In Missouri, any Irishman on the fence about secession was quickly forced to choose a side after the Camp Jackson Affair. Several Irishmen were killed during the altercation with Lyon’s troops. As a result, many prominent St. Louis Irish enlisted in the Missouri State Guard or Confederate volunteers. St. Louis’ Father John Bannon joined the First Missouri Brigade as chaplain. Founder of the McDowell Medical College in St. Louis, Joseph McDowell, of northern Irish heritage, joined the Confederate Army and served as Medical Director in Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s force. In total, approximately 1,000 Missouri Irishmen joined the Confederate service.

Florence Cornyn of Irish heritage, who served the United States as a surgeon and officer. Courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield.

The majority of St. Louis’ Irish served in the Union armies and navies. Rallying around the United States flag, the Irish enlisted quickly in various Union regiments and even formed their own all-Irish units. For example, the 7th Missouri Infantry was known as the “Irish Seventh” for its St. Louis Irish make-up. Same can be said for the 30th Missouri Infantry, which was named the “Shamrock Regiment.” With both regiments from the St. Louis area and served with each other in the Western Theater, they operated as a small “demi-brigade” known as the “Missouri Irish Brigade.” These two regiments, according to historian Damian Shiels, sustained some of the highest fatality rates among fellow Irish units. The Shamrock Regiment lost the highest percentage loss caused by disease of all Irish Union regiments.[5] With their high casualty rates, there was no doubt that St. Louis’ Union Irishmen were willing to lay it all on the line for their newfound home in the United States.

Who were some of St. Louis’ Irish Union soldiers? Patrick O’Reilly, of County Cavan originally, served as regimental surgeon for the Irish Seventh Regiment, and later became coroner of St. Louis. From County Derry was J.K. Cummings, who was in the Missouri State Militia at Camp Jackson, but resigned to join the Irish Seventh. The same happened to Florence Cornyn of Irish heritage, who served in militia and left to join the Union Army. He served as a surgeon in the First Missouri Infantry and later organized the 10th Missouri Cavalry. Sadly, Cornyn was murdered by a fellow officer during a court martial hearing in Corinth, Mississippi. His funeral was apparently the largest in St. Louis history up to that time.[6]

The topic of St. Louis’ Irish participation in the Civil War has not nearly been covered as much as it should be. While this post covers a general history of the community, there is still much more to be researched and analyzed. Soon, there will be many more blog posts on this overlooked community.


[1] David T. Gleeson, The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 8.

[2] William Barnaby Faherty, “How the Irish Found Gold in St. Louis,” History Happens Here, Missouri Historical Society, March 17, 2017, accessed September 10, 2019, https://mohistory.org/blog/how-the-irish-found-gold-in-st-louis/.

[3] Gleeson, The Green and the Gray, 8.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Damian Shiels, “The Losses of 21 Irish Regiments During the American Civil War,” Irish American Civil War, March 11, 2013, https://irishamericancivilwar.com/2013/03/11/the-losses-of-21-irish-regiments-during-the-american-civil-war/.

[6] “Florence Cornyn,” Mound City on the Mississippi, accessed September 17, 2019, https://dynamic.stlouis-mo.gov/history/peopledetail.cfm?Master_ID=1236.

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