Immigrants in the Civil War

Brought Forth on this Continent:

It is estimated that over 15,000 books have been written on Abraham Lincoln. Just when you think that all topics related to the 16th President have been covered, a historian produces a new perspective. The latest book examines the topic of Lincoln and immigration by historian Dr. Harold Holzer entitled Brought Forth on this Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration. Our CEO Jeffrey Nichols will interview Dr. Holzer about his book at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 6 at The Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, PA.

Brought Forth on this Continent Book Cover

Approximately 25 percent of the men who served in the United States Army and Navy during the Civil War were foreign born. Another 18 percent of the soldiers were children of immigrants to the United States, and about 5 percent of the Confederate Army’s soldiers were foreign born. Today, only about 5 percent of all United States military personnel are foreign born.

The two largest groups of men to serve in the U.S. military were from Germany and Ireland. In total, approximately 500,000 soldiers were born overseas, including 175,000 men from Germany and 150,000 of Irish descent.

Dr. Holzer shares the story of Irish-born Colonel Michael Corcoran, the first commander of the 69th New York Volunteers. Col. Corcoran led the 69th into battle at First Bull Run. Dr. Holzer wrote “Toward the end of the battle, ‘standing like a rock in the whirlpool’ while bearing the regimental colors, he fell into Confederate hands.” He goes on to share that “From captivity, he issued a stirring message that sounded at once pro-Union and pro-immigration: ‘One half of my heart is Erin’s, and the other half is America’s. God Bless America, and ever preserve her as the asylum of all the oppressed of the earth.’”

Colonel Michael Corcoran

In the NCWM collection we have several documents related to two U.S. Army soldiers of Irish descent. Patrick McGinnis who served in Company A, 5th United States Artillery from July 1861 through July 1864. After the war, he applied for citizenship, and it was awarded on February 26, 1866. Below you will see his citizenship papers that were donated to the museum in 2016.

Patrick McGinnis Citizenship Certificate

Patrick Dougherty was also born in Ireland and became a citizen in 1856. He served in the U.S. Army during the war. He was given a second citizenship document in August 1864. That same week he received a passport. It is reasonable to deduce that he needed proof of citizenship before receiving his passport. The new document was drawn up for that purpose. This is speculation, but we know that government officials like their paperwork!

Patrick Dougherty Citizenship Certificate (1856)

Patrick Dougherty Citizenship Certificate (1864)

Patrick Dougherty Passport (1864)

Discover more about the rich history of the Civil War and explore our museum’s exhibits further by visiting our home page here.



Michael Corcoran Photo caption: Currier & Ives. Brig.-Genl. Michael Corcoran – of the Irish Brigade late colonel of the gallant N.Y. “Sixty Ninth”. United States New York, [N.Y.: Published by Currier & Ives, 152 Nassau St., 186] Photograph.