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Sons of Garibaldi in Blue and Gray: Italians in the American Civil War By Frank W. A ...

Chapter 1:  The Early Italian American Experience
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Sons of Garibaldi in Blue and Gray:

two million escaped the oppressive conditions in Ireland by migrating from their native country, many coming to the United States.2

The Irish who came to America before the Civil War were mostly poor, unskilled, and Catholic. Having forsaken a rural lifestyle, these refugees from the famine tended to settle in the industrial cities of the Northeast such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, where rents were cheap and low paying factory jobs plentiful. Like most immigrants in the American experience, they occupied the lowest social and economic positions in society and faced intense nativist hatred. With few resources, they were typically relegated to the slums of the great industrial cities and lived in miserable conditions. Yet within a few decades, the Irish in America gradually climbed the socio economic ladder. Many became public employees, and in some cities the Irish dominated the police, fire, and public works departments. In cities across the industrial Northeast they also formed potent voting blocs and elected many sons of the Emerald Isle to public office.3

When the Civil War began in April 1861, many Irish Americans living in the North initially supported the aims of the Lincoln administration to preserve the Union from secession. The alliance between the Republican government in Washington and the Irish immigrant, however, was precarious at best. First, the Irish were fearful that the Civil War might be used as a vehicle for African American emancipation, which they feared would lead to social and economic equality. The Irish worried that newly emancipated slaves would flock to the northeastern cities and compete for their menial jobs. Secondly, the Irish were staunch Democrats. In an era before social programs, Democratic machines provided the Irish poor with the basic necessities of life.4

Prior to the war some Irish leaders, including the flamboyant New York lawyer and newspaperman Thomas Francis Meagher, expressed sympathy toward the South.5 The same was true of the colorful Michael Corcoran, a former member of the Irish constabulary who was active in the state militia and also living in New York. Once hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy began, however, Corcoran was compelled to write a special dispatch to the New York Tribune confirming the loyalty of his regiment, the Sixty-ninth New York State Militia: