British Association for American Studies


‘The Place, The Circumstances, The Remembrance’: The Performative Nature of Irish-American Civil War Memory and Memorialisation

In one of 2020’s notable moments, this November saw centenary commemorations at Westminster Abbey’s Unknown Warrior grave. Consecrated through the burial of an unknown British serviceman from World War One on 11 November 1920, the site has also come to represent the war dead of subsequent conflicts. In America, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will mark the centenary of its first burial next year in 2021, although unlike Britain, the crypt includes Unknown Soldier tombs from World War Two and the Korean War.[i] At the home of American military and civic memory in Arlington National Cemetery, the memorial is itself an object of interest, with frequent visitors observing in stony silence as Sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier keep watch and change guard come rain, shine, snow or terrorist disaster.[ii]


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is not the cemetery’s first, or indeed only, grave of its kind. Arlington is also the resting place of the Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns. This raised sepulcher, close to Arlington House at the top of the site, contains “the bones of two thousand one hundred and eleven unknown soldiers gathered after the war”.[iii] Dedicated in 1866 “for the noble dead, ‘Unknown’”, the tomb joined other graves buried at Arlington during the Union Army’s occupation of Robert E. Lee’s former residence.[iv] The Civil War Unknowns tomb was one of the first in a series of memorials erected in cemeteries after the end of the conflict, dedicated to the Union and Confederate dead. By the 1880s, a growing number of memorials also appeared on former battlefields. These sites remembered sacrifice and honoured all of those who fought in particular regiments, for particular units, at particular locations. They became commemorative markers across a war-torn nation.


One particular community understood that Civil War memorials held great importance as sites of remembrance to their military service and, crucially, representation of the historical narrative of that service. The sons of the Irish-American diaspora served in the Union Army from the war’s start: the Irish-dominated 69th New York State Militia was part of the initial immediate response to President Lincoln’s call for troops and fought at the First Battle of Bull Run. Over 180,000 first-born – and an even greater number of second/third-generation Irish-descended soldiers – served with distinction in their own Irish-ethnic regiments and within other Union military units. The most famous of these units was the Irish Brigade, who represented Irish communities from across New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.[v] While elements of the Brigade have been commemorated on large state-sponsored memorials, such as the New York State Monument on the battlefield at Antietam, Irish-American grassroots movements also helped to build their own public military memorials.[vi]


One particular monument was a “handsome…Celtic cross” dedicated to New York’s Irish Brigade units, unveiled in July 1888 during a series of events for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The World newspaper noted that during a series of three-day events, “Monuments…Rise in Memory of New York’s Brave Dead”, including one to the Irish Brigade’s three New York-based regiments.[vii] In their studies of Civil War commemorations, David Blight and Caroline Janney have focused on the reconciliatory events of the 1913 fiftieth anniversary events at Gettysburg, but the 1888 battlefield memorial constructions and unveiling ceremonies for the twenty-fifth anniversary also reveal much about the important immediate memory and memorialisation that took place in the decades following the war. These events highlight how communities used dedications to stress allegiance to the united postbellum nation. Commemorative events and memorials to Irish Union Army regiments articulated their established loyalty to the country at a time when hostility towards Irish-Americans in American society was still present. These memorials served as a solid reminder of their commitment to the Union cause and American nation. To reinforce this message, the Gettysburg Irish Brigade New York memorial included a bronze life-sized Irish wolfhound at the base of the Celtic cross, symbolizing devoted, faithful loyalty.


Moreover, there was deeper meaning to these events than monument construction, unveiling and figurative symbolism. On 2 July 1888 – marking the date when the Irish Brigade saw most of its fighting service at Gettysburg – veterans, their families, local politicians, monument subscription donators, and those closely associated with the Brigade’s war service gathered for the dedication service. This was the zenith of a series of anniversary events.[viii] Here, performative memorial dedications helped form the diaspora’s message of memory about their wartime service. One of the Irish Brigade’s former chaplains, Revered William Corby, included several chapters and a full “Programme of Memorial Ceremonies” in his post-war memoir, detailing the speeches, religious services, addresses, songs and poems heard at the unveiling. Noting how “the place, the circumstances, the remembrance” of the occasion led to such emotion that veterans and attendees were “obliged for a time to stop speaking”, Corby conveyed how the memorial was deeply personal to the Irish-American community.[ix] In Memory of the Fallen Dead of the Irish Brigade, a poem written specifically for the event, emphasised why such sites of commemoration mattered intensely: at Gettysburg, as at other Civil War battlefields, the Irish “pledge true fealty to the land…o’er which our banner waves”. Furthermore, “the Irish dead, who showed mankind the way to die, when Truth and Freedom led” had sacrificed their lives “to blot out Slavery’s stain”.[x] In his dedication, Corby stressed this point further by stating how Irish-American Civil War soldiers helped cement American unity as “patriotic, liberty-loving heroes”. This message was reinforced through the singing of American songs, concluding with The Star-Spangled Banner before the final benediction.[xi]



The Irish Brigade, 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Infantry Monument – a Celtic cross with a loyal Irish wolfhound dog at the base – was unveiled on the Gettysburg battlefield on 2 July 1888. The memorial remains unchanged to this day. This sketch appeared in New York’s ‘The World’ newspaper on 30 June 1888.


The Gettysburg twenty-fifth anniversary events began a continual Irish-American need to use memorial spaces as places to present intersecting messages about military service, citizenship, and the memory and meaning of their sacrifice for their American homeland. In May 1914, these views were enhanced further at the unveiling of a large statue to Commodore John Barry. Born in County Wexford, Barry commanded the Continental Navy during the American Revolution. His statue, positioned in Franklin Park close to the White House and the heart of American democracy, lauded him as an ardent American patriot.[xii] The memory of Barry’s American loyalty, combined with remembrance of Irish-American service to the nation in subsequent conflicts, was echoed by President Woodrow Wilson’s speech during the statue’s dedication ceremony. “This man was not an Irish-American; he was an Irishman who became American”, Wilson stated, presenting Barry as an exemplar foreign-born military figure that those in the Irish-American diaspora continued to emulate.[xiii] The same message was then expressed during the singing of The Irish Lads in Blue, a song composed specifically for the Barry monument dedication ceremony. Its lyrics, likes those in ballad poems at Gettysburg, stressed the Irish diaspora’s continued military commitment to the American nation – a sentiment made all the more prominent by the coming global conflict several months after the unveiling.[xiv]

Detail from the Irish Brigade memorial at the Bloody Lane, Antietam Battlefield.


While discussions about memorial removal are important, it is also vital to remember that the history of monument construction, dedications, and the public memories they commemorate are just as crucial for minority groups. Monuments to African American Civil War service, to the role of women in the conflict’s medical areas, and to ethnic war experiences all carry meaning. The Irish Brigade themselves were honoured in another specific memorial at the end of Antietam battlefield’s Bloody Lane in 1997, although overall markers to their war service are still rare and driven by grassroots campaigners.[xv] It remains to be seen if Joe Biden will make regular references to the past historical contributions of his fellow diasporic brethren over the course of his presidency, and whether the presence of an Irish-American in the Oval Office will enhance further historical commemorations, memorial building, public memory and memorialisation to the diaspora’s notable continued commitment to America.



[i] After DNA identification of the Unknown Vietnam Solider in 1998, this area of the crypt was re-designated as a vacant tomb to all American missing-in-action and prisoner-of-war military servicemen from the conflict.

[ii] Round the clock guard vigil of Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Sentinels of ‘The Old Guard’ of the 3rd U.S. Infantry began in 1948, but the presence of civilian and military guards at the site started in the mid-1920s.

[iii] Wording from the Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns, Arlington Cemetery, https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Monuments-and-Memorials/Civil-War-Unknowns.

[iv] ‘Unknown, by Zillah’ in Daily Union and American (Nashville, Tennessee), 11 September 1866. The line comes from a poem printed in the newspaper around the time the Arlington Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns was unveiled.

[v] From 1862, the Irish Brigade comprised of the 69th New York (developed out of the militia unit who fought at the First Bull Run), 63rd New York, 88th New York, 116th Pennsylvania and 28th Massachusetts (and briefly incorporated the 29th Massachusetts).

[vi] The Antietam New York State Monument was dedicated in 1920, commemorating “the Services of [New York State’s] officers and soldiers” at the battle. It lists all the military units involved in the fighting, their regimental commanders, and New York officers killed and mortally wounded on 17 September 1862, https://www.nps.gov/anti/learn/historyculture/mnt-ny-state.htm.

[vii] “On Gettysburg’s Fields – Monuments that Rise in Memory of New York’s Brave Dead”, The New York World (New York), 1 July 1863). While the New York-based paper focused on New York Union memorials, it also commented on other states’ commemorative events and monuments.

[viii] Events around the twenty-fifth Gettysburg anniversary lasted for more than the three days of the battle. The New York Tribune noted how “the last section of the Irish Brigade contingent to Gettysburg returned to the city” on 5 July, having been in the Pennsylvanian town for six days of commemorative celebrations, suggesting they were involved in more events than just the 2 July memorial unveiling, New York Tribune (New York), 6 July 1863.

[ix] William Corby, Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years Chaplin in the Famous Irish Brigade (Chicago: La Monte, 1893), 193. Corby himself received his own posthumous memorial at Gettysburg in 1910, with the unveiling of the Rev. Father William Corby Monument close to the famous location where he gave absolution and blessings to Irish Brigade and non-Catholic Union Army soldiers on 2 July 1863. A copy of this statue is also at the University of Notre Dame, where Corby worked and resided, https://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/monuments-to-individuals/father-william-corby/.

[x] William Collins, In Memory of the Fallen Dead of the Irish Brigade, quoted by Corby, Memoirs of Chaplain Life, 196-198.

[xi] Corby, Memoirs of Chaplain Life, 189. The Star-Spangled Banner did not become the official American national anthem until 1931, but it was heard frequently in nineteenth century military ceremonies. Irish-Americans often performed it at gatherings, and its lyrics were also incorporated into their own wartime ballads.

[xii] John Barry Statue, Washington, D.C., https://historicsites.dcpreservation.org/items/show/759. Other statues and memorials to Barry, his American patriotism, and his naval career can be found in other American cities, including Boston Common on a path leading to the Massachusetts State House.

[xiii] President Woodrow Wilson’s speech at the Barry Memorial unveiling, quoted in “An Irishman Who Was An American”, The Semi-Weekly Leader (Mississippi), 3 June 1914.

[xiv] John E. Lenahan, The Irish Lads in Blue (Rochester: John E. Lenahan, May 1914). A sheet-music cover of this ballad noted how the song was “Dedicated at the Unveiling of the Barry Monument”, and displayed its proud Irish-American loyalty with colourful illustrations of Barry (and other prominent Irish-American diaspora military figures) surrounded by a shamrock above the Stars and Stripes.

[xv] The Irish Brigade Antietam Memorial, https://www.nps.gov/anti/learn/historyculture/mnt-ny-irish-brig.htm

About the Author

Dr Catherine Bateson is a Lecturer and Tutor of American history at Durham University, where she teaches African America, Native America, slavery, political, social and cultural history. She specialises in the history and study of American Civil War song culture, particularly in relation to Irish American Civil War songs and music and their dissemination beyond the Irish American diaspora. She is also the Vice-Chair of the Scottish Association for the Study of America (SASA) and a co-founder of the War Through Other Stuff Society. Follow her on Twitter @catbateson.