Working towards a Long Island that’s working for everyone,
immigrant and native alike.

Facebook Twitter RSS
The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

November 26, 2012   View Discussion

The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

Patrick Young, Esq.

by Patrick Young, Esq. - Blogger

Join The Immigrants’ Civil War on Facebook

George B. McClellan commanded the Union’s Army of the Potomac. His victory at the Battle of Antietam made Lincoln’s issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation possible. McClellan was a Democrat who fought his war against Confederate armies, but he refused to fight a “hard war” against Southern civilians and he opposed using the army to end slavery. His constant fights with the Lincoln administration, his slowness in following-up his Antietam victory, and his conservative politics led to his dismissal after the 1862 Congressional elections. McClellan’s battlefield victory helped create the conditions necessary for his own removal.1

McClellan would be missed by many soldiers, but his departure was particularly traumatic for the men of the Irish Brigade. According to one immigrant veteran, McClellan “was a great favorite” of the Brigade. McClellan was, recalled one Irish soldier,  “mild and pleasing in manner, and could easily be approached by any of his men.” His successor, Ambrose Burnside, by contrast “had a dark frowning, face,” the same man said, adding that “the common soldier was afraid to approach him.” The news that Burnside was in and McClellan was out “was indeed a sad and heavy blow,” he reported.2

George McClellan (left) and Abraham Lincoln sqaure off after Antietam.

Irish soldiers were likely to see McClellan as a fellow Democrat deposed by jealous Republicans. McClellan’s caution in battle seemed like a virtue to common soldiers who felt that it indicated that he wanted to preserve their lives as much as he wanted to preserve the Union. They also saw him as an advocate for their interests, insisting that his men be well-fed and well-supplied. His limited war aims were applauded by some of them as more likely to lead to an early reconciliation with the South and an end to the war. A soldier recalled after the war that when McClellan’s farewell address was read to the Irish Brigade “It created…universal feelings of the most profound sorrow, sadness, and gloom.”3

On Nov. 11 the Army of the Potomac was drawn up to say farewell to McClellan. “Cheer upon cheer rent the air as he bid us goodbye with…cap in hand” wrote Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade. After McClellan passed by and the Irish Brigade was ordered back to camp “The return march bore more resemblance to…a soldier’s funeral…. All appeared dejected, lonely, and lost,” McCarter recalled. He wrote that “In losing General McClellan, the Army of the Potomac lost its best commander [and] the common soldier lost his best and most faithful army friend.”4

Feelings in the Irish Brigade ran so high that several officers resigned. The Brigade’s commander Thomas Francis Meagher refused to accept the resignations, saying the Irish had enlisted in support of a cause, not in loyalty to a single man. This did not mean that General Meagher agreed with the firing. A letter from him that was published in the New York papers branded the removal as criminal and said it would not be forgiven by the army.5

The army’s new commander Ambrose Burnside soon began moving the Irish Brigade towards its greatest disaster at Fredericksburg.

Video: Michael Burlingame on Abraham Lincoln


1. The Civil War Papers Of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865 Edited by Stephen W. Sears published by De Capo Press (1996); George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears published by Ticknor (1988); McClellan’s War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union by Ethan S. Rafuse published by University of Indiana Press; Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson published by Penguin Press (2009)
2. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by David Power Conygham published by Fordham University Press (1994) p. 323; My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private Willam McCarter Edited by Kevin O’Brien De Capo Press (1996) Kindle Locations 943, 1007.
3. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private Willam McCarter Edited by Kevin O’Brien De Capo Press (1996) Kindle Locations 994.
4. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private Willam McCarter Edited by Kevin O’Brien De Capo Press (1996) Kindle Locations 954-1000.
5. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by David Power Conygham published by Fordham University Press (1994) p. 324; George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears published by Ticknor (1988) pp. 342-343; Thomas Francis Meagher: An Irish Revolutionary in America by Robert G. Athearn published by Arno Press (1976) pp. 118-119.

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that will examine the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear monthly between 2011 and 2015, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War - Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America - Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist- A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. ...And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?- The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did new Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”- A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

66. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan


Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

Blog Posts

Why I’m Writing The Immigrants’ Civil War

Free Yale Course with David Blight on the Civil War

Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War
New Immigrants Try to Come to Terms with America’s Civil War

Important Citizenship Site to be Preserved-Fortress Monroe

Should Lincoln Have Lost His Citizenship?

The First Casualties of the War Were Irish-Was that a Coincidence?

Civil War Anniversaries-History, Marketing, and Human Rights

Memorial Day’s Origins at the End of the Civil War

Germans Re-enact the Civil War-But Why Are They Dressed in Gray?

Leading Historians Discuss 1863 New York City Draft Riots

The Upstate New York Town that Joined the Confederacy

Civil War Blogs I Read Every Week

Book Reviews

The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861 to 1865 by Susannah Ural Bruce

Jews and the Civil War: A Reader Edited by Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn

Civil War Citizens edited by Susannah Ural Bruce

Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich

A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War By Amanda Foreman

Irish Green and Union Blue by Peter Welsh

Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites

Fort Schuyler- Picnic where the Irish Brigade trained





Stay Informed
Monthly Archives
News Sections
Upcoming Events
December 1, 2016 CARECEN Annual Gala Dinner