WashCo Dems op-ed article

OP-ED: Our Irish Immigrant Story

by John Maelan, Washington County Democrats Communications Committee Member

The United States was at war. In fact, it was the largest and most consequential war we’d ever fought thus far. Every day, thousands of Americans died and the grim total would be north of 360,222 lost lives by the time the last angry shot was fired. And what was worse was that, in the beginning, America looked sure to lose this one unless we could quickly raise a large, professional army to overwhelm the enemy.

Now, imagine yourself an immigrant just arriving upon our shores. You come from a nation of starvation and oppression and are desperately looking for a new life in this new land. You speak with an accent—If you speak English at all—and certain Americans have made it very clear they don’t want your kind here. So, what do you do? You join the United States Army and fight for your new land in some of its bloodiest battles. Why? Because it’s the American Civil War, and you are a member of the US Army’s Irish Brigade!

Formed early in the war, this Infantry unit recruited almost exclusively from Irish immigrant communities and saw action in some of the war’s most gruesome fights. In fact, at the first battle of the war, Bull Run, these Irish soldiers were one of the few groups to retain their cohesion after the defeat, despite the wounding and capture of their colonel by Confederate forces! They then served as the Army of the Potomac’s rear guard during the disorganized retreat to the defenses of Washington.

Other battles would follow, to include Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, The Battle of the Wilderness, The Siege of Petersburg, and The Battle of Appomattox Court House. And, believe me, I kept this to only the more well-known fights for brevity’s sake (Google the whole list if you like). Through it all, the US Irish Brigade suffered more causalties than any other American Army unit, save the Iron Brigade of Minnesota. And all this for a country whose anti-immigrant faction would happily see them forced to swim back to Ireland at the drop of a hat.

American anti-immigrant sentiment? Against Irish people? Yes, I’m afraid that was exactly the case.

The discrimination faced by the potato famine refugees was obvious in the newspaper classifieds that read “No Irish Need Apply.” And the image of the simian Irishman was given life by the pen of Thomas Nast, which dripped with prejudice as he sketched Celtic ape-men with sloping foreheads (Nast, by the way, was the Republican cartoonist who first portrayed the GOP as an elephant and the Democrats as a donkey).

But, sadly, the discrimination was not limited to silly cartoons. As early as 1849, a society of native-born Protestants called the “Order of the Star Spangled Banner” formed in New York. Bound by sacred oaths and secret passwords, they demanded a return to the America they once knew, a land supposedly chock-full of “Temperance, Liberty and Protestantism.” Similar secret societies with menacing names like the “Black Snakes” and the “Rough and Readies” sprouted across the country, all intending to make America great again by driving out the immigrants.

Eventually, these societies coalesced around an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant “American” party, called the “Know-Nothings” (because their members claimed to “know nothing” when asked about their politics). But to me, the sad story isn’t the history that Americans once discriminated against the Irish who fought so bravely in our Civil War… but that we have learned so little since.

Sure, the Irish are no longer discriminated against in any meaningful way, and we even celebrate St Patrick’s Day across the land. But what about the El Salvadorians? The Mexicans? The Indians? The Chinese? The Filipinos? Or the Koreans? Personally, I have served in the US military, and I’ve met many an immigrant wearing the same uniform as I, who served in places such as The Persian Gulf, Iraq, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. That’s right, there are still immigrants willing to die for our country while many of us would just as soon see them deported. Of course, I hold that these brave folks are no different than those of the gallant Irish Brigade who shed their blood for America 149 years ago.

Face it, immigrants are part of the fabric of America and always have been. But unfortunately, so is anti-immigrant hate. And no, I will not buy the rationale that since my ancestors were treated like garbage when they arrived, I should do the same to others in my time. Similarly, I will not buy the argument that today’s immigrants are functionally any different than yesterday’s. Any quick read through the arguments of the Know Nothings and the Order of The Star Spangled Banner will show that the same fears inspired the same hate that MAGA manifests today.

So, as we celebrate our fine Irish immigrants this blessed St Patrick’s Day, I must beg the question… when will we celebrate the rest of them?

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