Fighting Irish: 5 Irish Generals of the American Civil War

Members of the Third Regiment of Michael Corcoran's Irish Brigade. Getty Images

The Civil War saw neighbors, brothers, and even fathers and sons take up arms against each other, each side believing completely in the Union or the Confederate cause. The bloodshed spilled during the Civil War was not confined to native born Americans. Many men from other countries fought for both North and South and gave their lives between the bloody years of 1861-1865. Perhaps most notable is the sacrifice of Irish Americans during the War Between the States.

The Great Irish Famine of the 1840s and and 1850s forced scores of Irish men and women to flee their native land in search of better opportunities, and many began new lives in the United States. When war threatened to rip the United States apart in 1861, Irish men eagerly signed up to fight for their adopted homeland. An estimated 150,000 Irish Americans fought for the Union during the Civil War, along with roughly 20,000 for the Confederacy. The Union ranks included 7 Generals born in Ireland, while Confederate forces were led by 6 natives of Erin’s Isle. Below are 5 of the men born in Ireland who rose to the rank of General during the American Civil War.

General Thomas A. Smyth. Wikipedia

Thomas A. Smyth

Smyth was born in Ballyhooly, County Cork on December 25, 1832. He was the son of a poor farmer, and he decided to make a new life for himself in American in 1854. The Irishman settled in Philadelphia, and labored as a wood carver and a carriage and coach maker.

Smyth was an adventurous young man, and he signed on as a mercenary for General William Walker’s expedition to Central America to search for fortune. The brash young adventurer traveled with Walker’s men through Nicaragua. He returned to Philadelphia three years later, married, moved to Delaware, and continued to work as a carriage maker.

In Delaware, Smyth helped establish an Irish militia known as the National Guards. When the Civil War erupted, Smyth enlisted with an all-Irish unit, the 24th Pennsylvania Infantry. He rose to the rank of Captain fighting alongside his countrymen in the early part of the Civil War. In late 1861, Smyth was commissioned as a major with the 1st Delaware Infantry.

Smyth fought in many bloody battles, including Antietam, Chancellorsville, and he was wounded at Gettysburg. He was promoted to Brigadier General during the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia in October 1864. For the next six months, Smyth commanded the 2nd Division of the Gibraltar Brigade, an infantry brigade in the Army of the Potomac. On April 7, 1865, General Thomas A. Smyth was shot by a sniper through the mouth near Farmville, Virginia. The bullet left Smyth paralyzed, and he was brought to a nearby tavern. He died two days later, on April 9, the same day General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union forces.


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    Listen to “Paddy’s Lamentation” by Sinead O’Conner.