Skip Navigation

West Virginia
Historical Society

Membership Information

January, 2001



(Continued from Vol. XIV, No. 4)

The Irish were the "rough-and-tumble" immigrants who enlisted to fight for the Confederate States. The Irish have also been an oppressed people (under English rule), and disliked the upper classes. They had their own reasons for fighting which had nothing to do much with the mainstream white populace. The Irish did not understand sectional issues and as immigrants were part of America's poorest class, and held fast to the traditional European hostility toward the wealthy upper classes, like the well-to-do Southern slave-owners.22 The general reason many enlisted "was Irish pride," which was "the idea that the Irish men were as good as anyone when it came to toasting company spirit, banging on drums, blowing into bagpipes, parading around with flags and fighting the enemy".23 The Irish felt a need to prove themselves to be equal to the upper classes, and of course, better than the African-Americans. That was unfortunately the way things were back then. And of course, the Irish loved a fight.24

One Irish immigrant who did have an idea of what he was enlisting to fight for was Patrick R. Cleburne. A veteran of the British Army, he came to the United States "in 1849 and prospered as a druggist, then as a lawyer and landowner in Helena, Arkansas, for a decade before the war".25 He believed in States' Rights, but was opposed to slavery. He rose to the rank of Major General in command of a division in the Army of Tennessee, and he was known as the "Stonewall of the West." He was highly regarded as a general and as a person of great character, and his position gave him influence to later suggest a measure that was ahead of the thinking at that time, and very controversial.26 That idea will be discussed later on.

The English who volunteered seemed to think of the South's "cause" (from whatever view point that may have been), was a "holy war" against tyranny, and for those who came over when Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia in mid-1862, "to join as honorable volunteers, the standard of the bravest lance in Christendom, that of the noble, peerless Lee"!27 In other words, they felt they were knights in shining armor, coming to save the South from Yankee oppression. The English, as well as the French, always seemed to be so noble (and wordy!), about their intentions!

The Scottish also had a few immigrants sign up to fight, and one at Baton Rouge stated "I was much opposed to the secession movement and would have done anything I could to have prevented it. But when the North declared war, I was in a position that I could not well withdraw from, and I served my time in the Confederate Army".28 Again, many joined up just because it seemed like the only thing to do, or had not much choice in the matter.

Canadians also enlisted to fight for the C.S.A. No clear reasons were given, but they are probably similar to many of the reasons given by the others. No exact number has ever been given, but the claim has been made by Canadians that they had 40,000 men in the Confederate ranks. Historian Ella Lonn stated that this is probably an exaggeration, but a few thousand is believable.29

All of these foreign recruits made up a somewhat significant portion of the Confederate forces (as far as popular image is concerned.) "There was one brigade of Irishmen, several German regiments, as well as a Polish 'legion'. A European brigade of mixed nationalities came from Louisiana, and was commanded by the resplendent French Count Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac." His men abbreviated that considerably, and simply called him 'Polecat'.30

Some more interesting nationalities were represented, but the reasons for enlisting are not clear. They are worth mentioning because they are very surprising and interesting to wonder about. Historian Ella Lonn wrote, "an Austrian, a Chinaman, a Pole, a Russian, a Greek, a Belgian, and a Hollander attract attention by their infrequency". And "a Cuban or a Peruvian is less striking than an Egyptian or Syrian. Several of the West Indian islands were represented: Cuba, St. Thomas, Jamaica and Martinique".31 These are extremely fascinating, for they are not immigrants who would come to mind in enlisting to fight for the Confederate States (or the United States, for that matter). It could be speculated that (other than ideological motivations), they were soldiers of fortune (and a few of previous mentioned nationalities had representatives that definitely were also).

One group of men who enlisted could be grouped either as native or foreign were the Mexicans. Since the Mexican War ended a little over a decade before the Civil War, many who lived in what was previously Mexican territory still considered themselves to be in part of Mexico, even after the territory was brought into the U.S. by force. Many did not consider themselves American citizens, or even Texans (in reference to the War for Texan Independence). No motivations were clearly stated in any of the research, but it seems to come from anger against the U.S. government in Washington, D.C. Horace Greely stated (in reference to the territory of New Mexico), that "her delegate in Congress, Miguel Otero, had issued (Feb 15, 1861) and circulated an address to her people intended to disaffect them toward the Union, and incite them to favor the Rebellion".32 This was the only good reason given for enlisting since they had "no particular affection for American institutions, whether Unionist or Confederate".33 Many enlisted in the army to become scouts.34 A group of Mexican- Americans soldiers were put in charge of helping to defend Austin, the capital city of Texas. The 33rd Texas was led in part by Refugio Benevides.35 Austin never fell to Union forces during the entire war. It was an exceptional feat. Perhaps they believed in the "cause" or they, like the Irish, wanted to prove that they were equal.

Another interesting group of soldiers were the Native-American allies of the Confederacy. "At least 15 regiments and battalions were enlisted from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Osage, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminoles of the South." Many "often enlisted for private reasons of their own which had nothing to do with the Confederate cause".36 There was a significant number of them enlisted in the service. It is estimated that as many as 12,000 Indians served the Confederacy, of whom most were members of the Five Civilized Tribes living out in the Indian Territory (now present-day Oklahoma). Also, they came from many more tribes scattered throughout the Confederacy, serving in North Carolina and also in segregated units with whites in North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.37 Why did Native-Americans enlist to fight for the Confederacy?

In the Indian Territory, the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast (their origin before removal in the 1830s by the U.S. government)-the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee-were in a dilemma at the outbreak of the Civil War. They were torn between the North and South. Neutrality was difficult to keep, and sides were to be taken. "They were dependent peoples as a result of American wars of conquest, treaties, or economic, political, social, and religious changes introduced by the 'Long Knives'".38 The Choctaw and Chickasaw sided with the Confederate government. There surely was a distrust between these two tribes and Washington, and that was probably a good enough speculation for them joining the South. The three remaining tribes had more complex reasons.

The Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee all had similar reasons for choosing sides. All three had splits that consisted of two parties, which were treaty and non-treaty factions. The reference to treaties refer to the ones signed (or refused to be signed) by the various tribes with the U.S. government for removal to what was to become the Indian Territory.39 The Creek division seemed to date back even farther because "the split among the Creeks was an ancient one. At the time of removal from Georgia, it almost flared into open warfare".40

The Southern side in every divided tribe was always the treaty faction. The largest (and considered the most significant) of the Five Tribes was the Cherokee. Stand Watie led the Southern (and slave-holding faction) of the Cherokee. John Ross led the Northern faction that consisted of mostly abolitionists (ironically, Ross was a major owner with about 100 slaves), and he was also the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.41 Most of Watie's relatives were assassinated by Ross's followers after the relocation treaty, and Stand Watie himself survived numerous attempts on his life. He was the last remaining member of the four Cherokees who signed the treaty. To survive "he organized his own military force at Beattie's Prairie and Old Fort Wayne in Indian Territory which protected him and his followers".42 Many of these men followed Watie into the Confederate service.

What is not well known (besides the fact that the Cherokee were slave owners), was that both parties signed the Treaty for Allegiance with the Confederacy, but only one had the intention of honoring it. How appropriate that the Union fraction emulated what the Washington government had been doing for years to them, and that was to sign a treaty with no intention of following its terms! Watie's followers viewed Ross's faction in the same way they viewed the U.S. government, which was through dislike and suspicion and this incident increased those feelings.43 The Confederacy did a better job than the Union in honoring its promises to the Native-Americans. "As a symbol of the Confederate commitment to the Indians, the treaty also provided that the Cherokee were to be allowed a delegate in the Confederate Congress at Richmond".44

The Eastern Band of the Cherokee were located at Quallatown, North Carolina. They had remained by co-operating with the state and national governments. Their main reason for enlisting was to follow a white man who was adopted by the Cherokee at a young age and had worked constantly with the North Carolina state government to give concessions to let the Cherokees stay in Quallatown indefinitely.45 The man was William Holland Thomas, and to the Cherokee he was Wil-Usdi.46 The Cherokees' belief in him was indeed strong, but there were other than sentimental reasons for this attachment. They had "an anomalous legal and political status, claiming to be Citizen Indians, yet not have their person or lands protected under state and federal laws." Also, "their desperate economic condition and their inability to purchase land for themselves because of racial restrictions made them overtly dependent on Wil-Usdi, their patron saint and benefactor".47

The Eastern Band of Cherokees main motivation for enlisting to fight for the Confederacy and North Carolina, being to stay in Quallatown, was actually honored by the state. "On February 19, 1866, the North Carolina General Assembly granted a specific affirmation of the Cherokees' right to residency in the state".48 Sadly, Thomas' luck declined rapidly after the war, and he died at the age of 88, on May 10, 1893, in an insane asylum.49

The Catawba Indians of South Carolina loyally served the Confederacy. They were a small tribe of only 55 people at the out-break of war and only 19 of them were fit for service.50 One reason for their enlisting was that "to prove oneself in war was the highest manly virtue and a requirement for political leadership".51 It could be stated "for the Catawba, as well for many white southerners, combat was a proving ground for manliness." The Confederate $50 enlistment bounty was another significant motivation. Being relied upon by the planters to be slave catchers also had something to do with enlisting.52

As can been seen, the Native- Americans enlisted for many reasons, from the distrust of the Federal government, to distrust between themselves. They were dependent on whites for survival, but would fight for and against them to assert the time honored right of any proud people, that being pride in who they are. Individual Indians may have had many differing motivations for enlisting in the Civil War, but they all shared that sense of pride.

If Native-Americans would enlist to fight for the South, what about African -Americans, an idea which is difficult for the twentieth century public, which was raised on the over- simplified reason that slavery alone was the main reason the War Between the States was fought, to comprehend. It is indeed a controversial subject to deal with. What prompted African- Americans to enlist to fight for the South? "It is often forgotten that while slavery was the major underlying cause of the Civil War, its abolition was not the original objective of the U.S. government".53 The slaves had nothing to gain from a Union victory at that time for their status would have remained the same. The North was a racist as the South in many respects, due to the fact that many Northerners had never seen an African-American. Faced with these "hostile invaders", many free blacks "volunteered to defend their homes against the new threat from the North." Sadly, "no accurate record has been kept of black units that served the South, since most of them were state militia and never mustered into the Confederate Army".54 Many free blacks and slaves were accepted into the Confederate Army as laborers, teamsters, and cooks.

African-Americans were allowed to serve in military bands, and "according to an Act of 15 April 1862, Confederate black musicians were to receive the same pay as white musicians".55 The Confederate government could not accept the idea of letting slaves or free blacks officially fight for the South. The Confederate Navy (always independent in thought from the Confederate government), "never hesitated to enlist black sailors", serving as crew members on ships like the C.S.S. Chicora, and the C.S.S. Alabama.56

There were a few incidents reported by the Union military on encountering black Southern combatants in the deep South, interestingly enough.57 The reports by Union soldiers told of black gun crews commanded by white officers during the Vicksburg campaign; to incidents of blacks being used as sharpshooters by the Confederate Army.58 They were not officially soldiers, but some illuminated whites were not going to wait for the politicians to decide when to do something about boosting the military's manpower by suggesting to free and arm the slaves, which meant eliminating the scourge of slavery. Major General Patrick R. Cleburne, the Irish immigrant who came to America and settled in Arkansas in 1849, was commanding a division in the Army of Tennessee by early 1864, and he suggested in turning the tables on Lincoln, by freeing the slaves and letting them fight as Confederate soldiers.59 Cleburne apparently believed that every person who was rational would place the independence of the Confederate States ahead of the outdated and morally suspect system of slavery. However, the politicians who made up the Confederate government were not known for being rational and put the subject on the back-burner for too long until it could not be repressed any longer during the last desperate months of the war.60

The politicians and the Southern public raised a howl about the proposal when it was finally known. Its distinguished author had been killed at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864, in a suicidal assault on grander scale than the immortal Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 (the comparative numbers were for about 20,000 men at Franklin to 12,000 men at Gettysburg). Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and John C. Breckenridge supported the proposal, along with a host of others who felt that keeping slavery was not as important as Southern independence. Unfortunately, the Confederate Congress bickered and stalled, therefore the resolution did not pass until February 18, 1865 (and with no mention of emancipation by the Confederate government, for which it had decided to leave in the hands of the individual state governments). On March 23, 1865, the Southern army accepted black soldiers as equals (this little known fact was an important development of monumental proportions). The order issued that day (by General Robert E. Lee, who personally detested slavery), stated that the black Confederates were to "receive the same rations, clothing, and compensation as allowed other troops in the same branch of service".61 The Union Army could not claim that it treated its black soldiers in the same equal fashion. African-Americans soldiers in service for the Union received approximately eleven dollars a month, compared to thirteen dollars a month for the white soldiers. In the Confederate service, it was eleven dollars for both the black and white soldiers (but, it must be stated that do to high inflation, Confederate money was really not worth anything, so many soldiers for the Confederacy late in the war never received pay of any kind).62

African-American units were being formed all over the South, and Major General Ulysses S. Grant became very alarmed. He wrote to Major General Edward R.S. Canby stationed at Mobile, Alabama, to get as many of the slaves as he could "before the enemy puts them into their ranks".63 A regiment of three black companies and two white companies under the command of Majors Pegram and Turner paraded through the streets of Richmond on March 24, 1865 in full uniform, and gave an impressive display, even though bums threw mud at them (who knows why these wonderful individuals were not in the Confederate service is anybody's speculation).64 These African- Americans would be the only known black companies to apparently see combat as official Confederate soldiers by guarding the wagon trains at Amelia Court House, on the retreat from Richmond to Appomattox. They repulsed a Federal Cavalry charge before being overrun. Confederate Private R.M. Dosewell, a courier, was a witness to this event.65

Would slaves fight as slaves in the Confederate Army? Not realistically. Most slave owners (of some who were actually free blacks in the State of South Carolina), who let their slaves enlist to fight freed them as part of this action. The Union already offered the option of freedom, so it was deemed necessary.66 It was also the right thing to do. General Lee could have also used his awesome power as the Commander-in-Chief of all Confederate military forces, and freed them through martial powers as a military necessity, which could be speculated on as a possibility, but no records have been found on this. The Southern blacks who enlisted to fight did not do so "for their own enslavement but sincerely believed that their ultimate freedom, and destiny lay south of the Mason-Dixon line".67 They wanted to be given freedom by the South because that was where they lived and called home. The amazing thing is that it almost happened on a wide scale. What was happening was the abolishing of slavery by the Confederacy, and it only needed more time, or earlier action, to have successfully taken place. Freedom did not have to have been "solely in the gift of the Federal armies, Lincoln, and the Thirteenth Amendment".68 The course of history could have been very different, let alone today's political and social conditions.

The "Rebel" army was obviously a melting pot of different cultures, races, religions, and nationalities. It was not the homogeneous "white fighting machine" that it has commonly thought to have been by today's society. As with prejudice, generalization can be a very unfortunate simplization of an event or person, or groups thereof. Diligent research of any subject can give a much clearer and fuller understanding and appreciation of what it is about, or was like. That is basis of historical research.

Therefore, the purpose of this study was to find some historical truth in what was the Confederate Army and what characterized the "rebel soldier." It was realized that slavery was not the only motivation, or even one at all, for the common white Southerner. Also, that not all of the Confederate soldiers came from the South, but the North as well. Many were of foreign-birth, or from minorities within the Confederate States of America. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans enlisted, as well as Native-Americans, and even African-Americans. Many unusual nationalities, such as Egypt and Syria, were represented on the Confederate enlistment rolls, and all of these groups made the Southern military a more interesting and diverse fighting force. The Confederate soldiers were indeed more varied in backgrounds and motivations than what is commonly portrayed today. In peace, as in war, all men, all races, all people, are truly equal. The way it should always be.


22. Ed Gleeson, Rebel Sons of Erin: A Civil War Unit History of the Tenth Tennessee Infantry Regiment (Irish) Confederate States Volunteers (Indianapolis: Guild, 1993), 11.

23. Ibid., 11.

24. Lonn, 55.

25. Robert F. Durden, The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation (Baton Rouge: LSU, 1972), 53.

26. Ibid., 53.

27. Lonn, 45.

28. Ibid., 57.

29. Lonn, 209.

30. Davis, Fighting Men, 21.

31. Lonn, 210.

32. Ray C. Colton, The Civil War in the Western Territories: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah (Norman U. Of Oklahoma, 1959), 10.

33. Lonn, 33.

34. Ibid., 127.

35. Davis, Fighting Men, 22.

36. Ibid., 246.

37. Ibid., 22.

38. Lawrence M. Hauptman, Between Two Fires: American Indians in the Civil War (New York: The Free Press, 1995 ), xii.

39. Jay Monaghan, Civil War on the Western Border 1854-1865 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1955), 219-20.

40. Ibid., 219.

41. Hauptman, 45.

42. Ibid., 44.

43. Ibid., 48.

44. Ibid., 48.

45. Ibid., 107.

46. Ibid., 107.

47. Ibid., 108.

48. Ibid., 120-21.

49. Ibid., 121.

50. Ibid., 92.

51. Ibid., 92.

52. Ibid., 92-93.

53. Charles Rice, "The Black Soldiers Who Served in the Confederate Army are the Real Forgotten Men of the Civil War" America's Civil War, Nov. 1995, 8.

54. Ibid., 8.

55. Katcher, 171.

56. Charles K. Barrow, J.H. Segars and R.B. Rosenburg, Forgotten Confederates: An Anthology About Black Southerners (Atlanta: Southern Heritage, 1995), 47.

57. Ibid., 44.

58. Ibid., 43.

59. Rice, 85.

60. Ibid., 85.

61. Ibid., 85-86.

62. Barrow, et al, 4.

63. Ibid., 88, 90.

64. Ibid., 88.

65. Ibid., 8.

66. Barrow, et al, 154.

67. Ibid., 4.

68. Durden, viii.

West Virginia Historical Society

West Virginia History Center

West Virginia Archives and History