A total of 16 Irish-born men reached the rank of either colonel or general in the Confederate forces during the American Civil War. What was these men’s relationship with and investment in slavery, if any?
The most famous slavery-related incident involving an Irish Confederate officer was Major-General Patrick Cleburne’s 1864 proposal to arm the slaves. Cleburne did not own any slaves, but in order to find out if this was true of the others I took to the 1860 census and slave schedules, hoping to find out a bit more about these men and any people who found themselves in bondage to them.
I decided to take this brief look at slave-holding among senior Irish-born Confederate officers as this month is both Black History Month in the United States and also marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee. Olustee was the biggest American Civil War battle fought in Florida, and resulted in a Confederate victory.
The commander of Rebel forces there was Brigadier-General Joseph Finegan of Clones, Co. Monaghan- Finegan had been a delegate at Florida’s secession convention and was a slave-owner. His victory at Olustee was blighted by the execution by Confederate soldiers of some of the wounded and captured African-American Union troops following the engagement.
The majority of Irish-born Confederates were not slave holders, and the same holds true for those who were Colonels and Generals. Of course, the fact that not all of them owned slaves provides no indication as to their personal views regarding slavery, but it is probable that all of them supported the institution.
Slavery was never regarded as a major moral issue by the majority of Irish in the United States, even among the large numbers who fought the war in Union blue. The list below looks at each Confederate officer in turn and also provides the details of those who were held in bondage by them.
William Montague Browne. Born in Dublin in 1823. Appointed Brigadier-General by Davis on 11th November 1864, nomination rejected by Confederate Congress on 18th February 1865. In 1860 worked as an editor and lived in Ward 2 of Washington D.C. No slaves identified. (1)
Patrick Cleburne. Born in Killumney, Co. Cork on 16th March 1828. Major-General in the Army of Tennessee, Killed in Action at Franklin, Tennessee on 30th November 1864. In 1860 lived in Helena, Arkansas where he was recorded as a lawyer. No slaves identified. (2)
Joseph Finegan. Born in Clones, Co. Monaghan on 17th November 1814. Commissioned Brigadier-General on 5th April 1862. VIctor of Olustee, commanded Florida brigade in Virginia in 1864-5. In 1860 he lived with his wife and four children in Fernandina, Nassau, Florida.
A planter, a total of 12 slaves were recorded with the family at their home, including 3 children. These were a 60-year-old black man, a 50-year-old black man, a 40-year-old black man, a 35-year-old black man, a 30-year-old black man, a 28-year-old black man, a 26-year-old black man, a 25-year-old black man, a 50-year-old black woman, a 13-year-old black girl, a 13-year-old black girl and an 8-year-old black girl. (3)
William Grace. Born in Ireland, c. 1830. Colonel 10th Tennessee Infantry, 12th May 1863. Mortally wounded at Jonesboro, Georgia in 1864, died 1st September 1864. In 1860 lived in Humphreys County, Tennessee where he was engaged in railroading. No slaves identified. (4)
James Hagan. Born in Co. Tyrone, 17th June 1822. Colonel 3rd Alabama Cavalry, 1st July 1862. Commanded brigade in 1864-5. Promoted to Brigadier-General in the final days of the war. In 1860 lived in Mobile, Alabama (Ward 4) with his wife and three sons and was recorded as a planter.
He had with him six slaves, three adults and three children. The adults were recorded as a 44-year-old black woman, a 38-year-old black woman and a 26-year-old mulatto woman. The children were described as a 12-year-old mulatto girl, a 10-year-old mulatto girl and a 5-year-old mulatto boy. James Hagan’s uncle was a planter and also owned slaves. (5)
Former slaves in Beaufort, South Carolina shortly after Emancipation (Library of Congress)
Former slaves in Beaufort, South Carolina shortly after Emancipation (Library of Congress)
Robert A Hart. Born in Ireland, c. 1837. Colonel 30th Arkansas Infantry, 12th November 1862. Mortally wounded at Helena, Arkansas, died in Memphis, Tennessee on 6th August 1863. In 1860 he lived in Memphis Ward 4 and worked as a bookkeeper. No slaves identified. (6)
Walter Paye Lane. Born in Co. Cork on 18th February 1817. Commissioned Brigadier-General on 17th March 1865. In 1860 lived at Beat 5, Harrison, Texas where he worked as a merchant. He does not appear to have owned slaves directly although his family in the same household did, including a woman and five children; these were a 25-year-old mulatto woman, an 11-year-old black girl, a 9-year-old black boy, a 6-year-old mulatto girl, a 6-year-old mulatto girl and a 5-year-old mulatto boy. Another nearby slaveowner was also almost certainly a relative- they owned 26 slaves, including 18 children. (7)
James John MacMahon. Born in Annahilla, Co. Tyrone on 10th December 1825. Colonel 63rd Virginia Infantry, 24th May 1862. In 1860 he was a Presbyterian Minister in Marion County, Virginia. No slaves identified. (8)
Michael Magevney Jr. Born in Co. Fermanagh, 1835. Colonel 154th Tennessee Infantry, 30th August 1862. In 1860 lived in Ward 5 of Memphis, Tennessee and worked as a bookkeeper. No slaves identified. (9)
Robert McMillan. Born in Co. Antrim on 7th January 1805. Colonel 24th Georgia Infantry, 30th August 1861. In 1860 lived in Habersham, Georgia with his wife Ruth Ann and six children. Worked as an Attorney at Law. He owned 12 slaves, made up of five adults and seven children.
These included a 50-year-old mulatto man, a 45-year-old old black woman, a 32-year-old black woman, a 30-year-old mulatto woman, a 21-year-old mulatto man, a 13-year-old mulatto girl, an 8-year-old black girl, a 6 year-old mulatto boy, a 5-year-old mulatto girl, a 4-year-old mulatto boy, a 3 year-old mulatto boy and a 2 year-old mulatto boy. (10)
William Monaghan. Born in Ireland in 1817. Colonel 6th Louisiana Infantry, c. 7th November 1862. Killed in Action 25th August 1864, Sherpherdstown, Western Virginia. In 1860 lived in Ward 1 of New Orleans, Louisiana where he was recorded as a laborer. No slaves identified. (11)
Patrick Theodore Moore. Born in Galway on 22nd September 1821. Promoted Brigadier-General on 20th September 1864. In 1860 he lived in Ward 2 of Richmond, Virginia with his wife and four children where he was a merchant. They owned 5 slaves- a black woman recorded at an unlikely 115-years-old, a 58-year-old black woman, a 38-year-old black woman, a 21-year-old black woman and an 18-year-old black woman. (12)
John G. O’Neil. Born in Co. Kerry in February 1841. Colonel 10th Tennessee Infantry, 27th September 1864. In 1860 lived in District 7 of Humphreys County, Tennessee and worked as a farmer. No slaves identified. (13)
Frank P. Powers. Born in Ireland c. 1836. Led 14th Arkansas Infantry, May 1862, organized Power’s Regiment of Cavalry in 1864. Not identified in 1860 census but according to Allardice (1987: 312) was a laborer, and so is unlikely to have owned slaves. Recorded as a violent opponent of reconstruction. (14)
Henry B. Strong. Born in Ireland c. 1827. Colonel 6th Louisiana Infantry 27th June 1862. Killed in Action Antietam, 17th September 1862. In 1860 worked as a coffee maker in Ward 3 of New Orleans, Louisiana. No slaves identified. (15)
Jack Thorington. Born in Co. Armagh on 3rd August 1810. Colonel of Hilliard’s Legion, 1st December 1862. Lived in District 1 of Montgomery, Alabama with his wife and four children, where he worked as a lawyer.
Owned 33 slaves, including 21 children. These were a 60-year-old black man, a 50-year-old black man, a 45-year-old black man, a 38-year-old black woman, a 35-year-old black woman, a 34-year-old black woman, a 30-year-old black man, a 26-year-old black man, a 26-year-old black woman, a 26-year-old black woman, a 21-year-old black woman, a 19-year-old black man, a 12-year-old black boy, a 12-year-old black girl, an 11-year-old black girl, a 10-year-old black girl, an 8-year-old black girl, a 7-year-old black girl, a 7-year-old black girl, a 7-year-old black girl, a 6-year-old black boy, a 6-year-old black boy, a 5-year-old black girl, a 4-year-old black girl, a 4-year-old black boy, a 4-year-old black girl, a 3-year-old black girl, a 3-year-old black girl, a 3-year-old black boy, a 2-year-old black girl, a 2-year-old black boy and a 1-year-old black girl. (16)
Of the sixteen men, the 1860 Census and Slave Schedules suggests six of them had direct links to slaves- five as owners and one with large slave ownership in his immediate family. This is perhaps not surprising given that at least two of the men had direct links to plantations.
Unfortunately we have precious little detail regarding the lives of the 68 slaves recorded directly with their Irish masters in the 1860 census, nor do we know how many of them survived to enjoy emancipation. It should be remembered that looking at the slave ownership of these high ranking Irish Confederate officers is a somewhat arbitrary demarcation and does not reveal a great-deal about the wider Irish attitude to slavery in the South. However it does serve as an important reminder that when the opportunity for slave ownership existed, many Irish were willing to grasp it.
For more information and references visit irishamericancivilwar.com.
* Damian Shiels is an archaeologist and historian who runs the IrishAmericanCivilWar.com website, where this article first appeared. His book 'The Irish in the American Civil War' was published by The History Press in 2013 and is available here.