Irish-Americans Remembered On The Battlefields

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and it only seems right to nod the kepis respectfully to the Irish-Americans who fought on both sides during the American Civil War.

From the Emerging Civil War editors’ photo collections, here are a couple photos of the Union Army of the Potomac’s Irish Brigade memorials at Antietam and Gettysburg. Let us know if you have a favorite Irish-American memorial on a battlefield, and we’ll try to get a shot the next time we’re in the fields.

Best of luck to you and yours this fine day, and don’t drink too much whiskey before the horse race! (If you’re not familiar with the 1863 St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the Army of the Potomac, you can find the details here on Irish-American Civil War.)

Images displayed as a gallery; click on a photo to enlarge.

Looking for some additional historical posts about the Irish and the American Civil War? We’ve got a few from our own archives:

Thinking About The Irish Brigade At Antietam

“Oh It Was A Terrible Day”: The Irish Brigade At Fredericksburg

My Favorite Historical Person: Thomas Francis Galwey

Gone For A Soldier: Journeys Of Irish American Music & Patriotism

Thinking About These Photographs

Compared to the number of Civil War photographs of soldiers, civilians, camps, and battlefields, posed photos of horses are rare. Clicking through Library of Congress’s online archives, though, I found some real photographic gems in this category.

Looking closer at these photographs, I noticed some of them had one thing in common. In about half of the posed equestrian photos, a black man or boy controlled the horse or sat aside the animal. Honestly, I felt a little uncomfortable when I first made the observation. Was it a reminder of the racism and evolutionary comparisons plaguing the country that these men and boys were photographed with the animals?

However, as I continued thinking about this troubling subject I came to several conclusions as a researcher.

Labeled as Captain Beckwith’s Horse, 1863 (LOC)

First, horses – particularly in the military setting prior to the mechanized age of war – were considered noble and magnificent animals. Warriors and generals liked to be depicted on war steeds in classic military art and photography. (Just look up some paintings of Napoleon or other famous commanders to see what I mean). These photographs are posed. These are magnificent animals on display for the camera, and in three of these four photos there isn’t a white officer in the foreground.

Which leads to the next points…

An 1863 photo by Matthew Brady (LOC) Note: There are white officers in this photo, but the horse “on display” is controlled and steadied for the photograph by two African American men in the foreground.

Second, these photographs show Union officers’ horses. Thus, it is a reasonable conclusion that the men and boys caring for these horses were freedmen, possibly even Contrabrand (escaped slaves who took refuge in Union lines) who were able to find steady work as horse grooms. On some of the Southern farms and plantations, some slaves were skilled horse trainers, talented riders, and careful horse grooms. It would be natural for an escaped slave who had equestrian experience with horses to seek a job looking after horses, and a Union officer might be pleased to hire someone to look after his animal(s). Still, it’s in only one photograph that I found that a Union officer decided to officially get in the photo with his horse and groom.

Third, as a historian I’m not blind to racist attitudes prevailing during the Civil War era. However, I think an argument can be made: why didn’t the Union officer have his hired man prepare the horse for portrait and then come take the reins for the grand photographic moment? Answers likely vary in each situation. However, drawing on the projected images of warriors on horseback, that type of posed photograph might have appealed to the officer. And yet – the groom or trainer – stands or rides in the photographs…

Colonel M. Miller, 18th Missouri Infantry with his horse and horse groom (LOC) This is the “exception photo” in this set where an officer is prominently posed with the horse.

Fourth, there is nothing humiliating about the stances and poses of these freedmen. They stand proudly beside or in front of these horses, exerting a firm power over the animal. They aren’t crouching or tucked behind the animal. Likely, they groomed the animal for the photograph session. Animals – horses especially – often have a way of winning human friendship. Perhaps in a fast-changing and often cruel world, these horses were a steady friend and un-answering listener to these men and boys.

The young man who rides the horse takes a warrior’s stance. No, he doesn’t gesture grandly the way Napoleon does in the paintings. Rather, he is calmly in control, exerting his independence by working and managing the horse. In the photograph, this young man seems ready to take on the world and conquer his future.

General Rawlins’s horse taken at Cold Harbor, Va. LOC

Fifth, there is a strong possibility that these photographs of freedmen with the horses are the only images of these men. There is something wonderful about that. Their work was with the horses, and just like others, they were photographed proudly doing their jobs. At least we have photographs of these brave souls. If only we knew their names, where they were from, what struggles they had overcome, what challenges lay ahead of them… Some of the questions might be answerable with considerable research. Too often, the answers are forever lost, but at least we see their faces.

I don’t know what the photographer’s original thoughts or feelings were, but I know how I feel. Thinking it through, I’m glad we have these photographs. Without them, it would be easy to forget the incredible stories of freedmen and contraband who found work alongside the Union armies. Paid for their labor, these men cleaned, brushed, fed, watered, and saddled these horses. And one fine day they led the horse in front of the photographer’s camera. Perhaps they were surprised to be included in the image. Perhaps they expected a white officer to come and take the place of honor beside or astride the horse. Instead, they stayed and were photographed with the steeds, creating an image of men who worked hard and confidently hoped to take a traditional place of honor alongside the fabled military horses – ever ready to conquer life’s struggles and build a better world.

Year In Review 2017: #6

Analysis of Civil War photographs and the era’s changing attitudes toward death are addressed in this informative and reflective blog post. Using some well-known photographs from Gettysburg battlefield, the author discusses the history surrounding the images.

It was the most-read blog post #6 in 2017: Alexander Gardner and the Good Death, by James Broomall, published on May 19, 2017.

Be of Good Cheer!


I regularly inspect caches of images concerning the Civil War. It is in this way that I have made some amazing finds, most of which are eventually shared here at ECW. In a historic period where it took a few minutes to successfully capture an image, getting one with a natural look was difficult.

Digitalization and coloring have helped make these subjects seem more personable, but rarely is there an image of anyone having a good time. Someone did it, however–perhaps four someones. Every time I look at this assemblage, I smile. I hope you do as well.

Merry Christmas!

Book Review: “Shooting Lincoln: Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century”


Across the street from Ford’s Theatre and next to the Petersen House in Washington, D.C. there’s a museum dedicated to Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. The centerpiece of that museum is a three-and-a-half story tower of books written about the 16th president of the United States. Amongst the already massive historical studies of the American Civil War, Lincoln biographies and monographs stand above all else in number of studies done. Into that field of study comes a new book about the Lincoln Assassination—told not through Lincoln’s final hours, or the killer, or the people in the theatre, but rather, through the lenses of those who sought to show the world how those events unfolded.

Nicholas Pistor’s book Shooting Lincoln is a good book for those new to the study of Civil War photographers, and those who wish to look at the assassination in a way they may not have yet. Pistor’s book zooms in on the two most prominent photographers of the day: the famed Mathew Brady and his protégé turned rival Alexander Gardner.

Shooting Lincoln totals just about 200 pages of narrative, and about half of that covers the careers of Brady and Gardner before April, 1865. Some may think that that is a little too much backstory, but the exposition certainly helps explain how and why Brady and Gardner were so intent on one-upping each other and getting the better photographs. Pistor’s early chapters discuss a great exhibition in London that seriously introduced the new study of photography, as well as the beginning of the war and Gardner’s famous excursions to Antietam and Gettysburg.

Pistor’s work does not break much new ground—his bibliography is full entirely of secondary sources and easily accessible primary sources, with nothing represented from unpublished manuscripts. But the story is still told well, and Pistor brings alive the struggle between Brady and Gardner, plus other associates that have come down through history like Timothy O’Sullivan. The constant narrative thread is how Brady and Gardner consistently found themselves at odds—first, when Gardner worked for Brady yet received little to no credit for his work, and then to when they were rival photographers both looking for the best scoop.

The best part of the book comes from the inclusion of plenty of photographs, which is paired with Pistor’s narrative. In that sense, one reads about the work done by Brady or Gardner to get the photo, and then they see the finished result amongst the page breaks. Through that purview, they become more than just downloaded scans from the Library of Congress, but now have full-fledged back stories to them. Pistor’s narrative goes through the battlefields of the Civil War, to the stage at Ford’s Theatre, the deck of the USS Montauk, and to the gallows at the Washington Arsenal.

Shooting Lincoln is the ideal version of popular history—a story told well that is very accessible to newcomers who may be seeking an introduction to the major players surrounding photography and the Lincoln Assassination. What Pistor makes abundantly clear with his closing pages is that the advances in photography and innovations pushed by people like Brady and Gardner continue to help us today. Even amongst the modern hustle and bustle of constant news, it all comes back to the photographers who lugged their heavy equipment around, carefully treated their wet plates, and waited for the best shot.

Nicholas Pistor, Shooting Lincoln: Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner and the Race to Photograph the Story of the Century.

Da Capo Press, 2017.

272 Pages, Endnotes, Bibliography, Index.