Saturday, February 25, 2012

January 1864 – At the Nexus of Black and Irish History

By James Francis Smith

As February’s Black History Month fades into memory and March Madness for the Irish begins its ascendancy, there’s a brief moment where the black takes on a tinge of green. 

(A cartoon claiming similar physical features for blacks, on the right, and Irishmen, on the left, both different from the Englishman in the middle. From a drawing by: H. Strickland Constable in, "Ireland from One or Two Neglected Points of View," 1899.)

Few realize that these two ethnic groups, African-Americans and Irish-Americans, who together make up one-quarter of the U.S. population, have aL historical connection that dates back to the Civil War. 

Dennis O’Kane and his 69th Pennsylvania 
Volunteers  at Gettysburg, PA by Don Troiani.

At this point in our tale, we could venture off in great detail about the heroics of the Irish Brigade under the fervent prayers of Notre Dame’s Father William Corby at Fredericksburg (and Gettysburg). Or bring up Patrick O’Rorke and the 140th New York Infantry regiment saving the Union left on Gettysburg’s Little Round Top. Then there’s Dennis O’Kane and his 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers (of the renowned Philadelphia Brigade) preventing Lewis Armistead’s brigade from taking Bloody Angle on Cemetery Ridge. 

Important to note that, for the 150,000 Irish who wore the Federal blue, the cause, by and large, was not freedom of the slave, but rather preservation of the nation. I’d like to highlight here heroism of a different kind, off the battlefield, exhibited by an Irishman who also distinguished himself with his intrepidness on many Civil War battlefields. This was Confederate Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, born in Ovens, County Cork.

In January 1864, Cleburne, along with 13 other officers, petitioned the Confederate Congress to offer emancipation to any slave who would volunteer to serve in the Confederate military. It would emancipate the slave’s wife and children, as well.

The final, tragic, moments of Patrick Cleburne at
the Battle of Franklin
, as painted by artist Don Troiani
This request was considered a sacrilege by the Confederate leadership. And Cleburne sacrificed his here-to-fore unlimited prospects for advancement into the highest echelon of the army as a result.

Cleburne’s proposal would eliminate the one moral issue used to justify slavery. Southern whites would have to accept the black man as their equal … one culturally advanced enough to serve in the army. Cleburne recognized that the Southern soldier was “sinking into a fatal apathy, growing weary of hardships and slaughters,” and proposed a dramatic solution. 

Cleburne, an attorney in Helena, Arkansas, never owned a slave, but volunteered to preserve the right of a state to determine the laws for its people. A brilliant commander, christened “Stonewall of the West,” Cleburne gave his life at Franklin, Kentucky, on November 30, 1864, his farseeing, controversial proposal unacknowledged publicly for decades.

Editor’s Note: These stories can all be found for the bargain sum of 99 cents (US) in James Francis Smith’s Kindle novel “Western Civilization.” 

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