Irish participation in the American Revolution helped make American independence a reality.
While tens of thousands of old Gaelic names of 17th and 18th Century Irish immigrants appear with astonishing regularity in completely verifiable colonial records, any reference to these people is almost totally omitted from our standard American histories, including the American Revolution.
The following documented facts is an example of Irish participation in the American Revolution.
- At the Battle of Lexington (April 19, 1775), 174 Irish were present.
- At the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775), 698 Irish were present.
- A prominent American, Joseph Galloway, also an English Tory told the English House of Commons, on October 27, 1779, that one-half of Washington’s Continental Army was Irish.
- On April 2, 1784, Luke Gardiner, afterward Lord Mountjoy, told the English Parliament, “America was lost by Irish emigrants … I am assured from the best authority, the major part of the American Army was composed of Irish and that the Irish language was as commonly spoken in the American ranks as English, I am also informed it was their valor that determined the contest …“
- Many Irish, banished by England, fought with Lafayette. At the Siege of Savannah, 637 Irish were killed.
Irish Immigration: 17th – 18th Centuries
According to the Dictionary of American History approximately 50,000 to 100,00 Irish (over 75% Catholic) came to the American colonies in the 1600s. During the 18th century, more than 100,000 additional Irish Catholics arrived, many as indentured servants. In the 1740s, nine out of ten indentured servants were of Irish origin.
Most colonial settlers coming from the Irish province of Ulster came to be known in America as the “Scotch-Irish“. They were descendants of Scottish and English tenant farmers who had been settled in Ireland by the British government during the 17th-century Plantation of Ulster.
An estimated 250,000 migrated to America during the colonial era. The Scotch-Irish settled mainly in the colonial “back country” of the Appalachian Mountain region, and became the prominent ethnic strain in the culture that developed there. The descendants of Scotch-Irish settlers had a great influence on the later culture of the United States through such contributions as American folk music, Country and Western music, and stock car racing, which became popular throughout the country in the late 20th century.
Irish immigrants of this period participated in significant numbers in the American Revolution, leading one British major general to testify at the House of Commons that “half the rebel Continental Army were from Ireland.”
Irish Americans were also signatories on such foundational documents of the United States as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Beginning with Andrew Jackson, many Irish Americans served as President of the United States.
The early Ulster immigrants and their descendants at first usually referred to themselves simply as “Irish,” without the qualifier “Scotch.” It was not until more than a century later, following the surge in Irish immigration after the Great Hunger of the 1840s, that the descendants of the Protestant Irish began to refer to themselves as “Scotch-Irish” to distinguish them from the predominantly Catholic, and largely destitute, wave of immigrants from Ireland in that era.
The two groups had little initial interaction in America, as the 18th century Ulster immigrants were predominantly Protestant and had become settled largely in upland regions of the American interior, while the huge wave of 19th-century Catholic immigrant families settled primarily in the Northeast and Midwest port cities such as Boston, New York, or Chicago. However, beginning in the early 19th century, many Irish migrated individually to the interior for work on large-scale infrastructure projects such as canals and, later in the century, railroads.
Irish Settlement in the South
During the colonial period, the Scotch-Irish settled in the southern Appalachian backcountry and in the Carolina piedmont. They became the primary cultural group in these areas, and their descendants were in the vanguard of westward movement through Virginia into Tennessee and Kentucky, and thence into Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. By the 19th century, through intermarriage with settlers of English and German ancestry, the descendants of the Scotch-Irish lost their identification with Ireland. “This generation of pioneers was a generation of Americans, not of Englishmen or Germans or Scotch-Irish.”
The relatively small number of Irish Catholics concentrated in a few medium-sized cities, where they were highly visible, especially in Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans. They became local leaders in the Democratic party, generally favored preserving the Union in 1860, but became staunch Confederates after secession in 1861.
Irish Participation In the American Revolutionary War
Irish and Irish-American soldiers (especially Scotch Irish) constituted between 1/4 and 1/3 of the American Continental Army. That included nearly 1,500 officers of Irish ancestry, among them 22 generals and more than a dozen sea captains. Shortly after the conclusion of the peace between England and the U. S., Lord Mountjoy spoke in Parliament of the reasons why England lost: “America was lost through the Irish emigrants…I have been assured on the best authority that the Irish language was commonly spoke in the America ranks.”
When the British Army had evacuated Boston on March 17, 1776, George Washington was unable to resist the temptation to recognize the day’s significance in the eyes of so many of his soldiers. He named John Sullivan the officer of the day and made “St. Patrick” the password for those on guard duty. To this day, March 17 is a state holiday in MA, though few of the residents seem to be aware that it is in commemoration of “Evacuation Day.”
Some Notables on the Patriot’s side
John Stark, a hero of Bunker Hill, born in Londonderry, NH in 1728, after his parents came from Ireland. His successful repulse of Burgoyne’s attempted retreat at Saratoga was a major factor in bringing about the British surrender.
Cantankerous Gustavus Conyngham of Donegal captured 60 ships for the patriot cause although he was not given a commission in the U. S. Navy and resumed work as a private sea captain.
Stephen Moylan born in Cork became the Continental Army’s first muster-master and later served as Washington’s secretary. A wealthy merchant active in shipping, he had cast his lot with the rebels and spent considerable amounts of his own fortune outfitting privateers to harass British ships.
Henry Knox, born in Boston to immigrants from Northern Ireland was proprietor of the London Book Store in Boston and joined a local artillery company. In 1775 he brought 50 cannon from captured Fort Ticonderoga, thus saving them from British capture. He was promoted to brigadier-general after he directed Washington’s famous 1776 Christmas night trip across the Delaware River. Appointed the first secretary of war under the U. S. Constitution, Fort Knox, KY, Knox Co. ME, and Knoxville, TN all bear his name.
John Sullivan born in Summersworth Parish, Maine, led an attack on Fort William and Mary to secure munitions for the rebel cause. He played a key role in defeating an allied force of Iroquois and Loyalists along the NY frontier. He later served as governor of New Hampshire.
John Barry, the “Father of the American Navy,” was born on Co. Wexford, Ireland. By the early 1770s he was a prosperous captain in the transatlantic trade. He distinguished himself by becoming the first Continental Navy captain to seizure a British ship (the “Edward”) in 1775. Statutes in Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Wexford, Ireland, commemorate the distinguished commodore’s career.
Richard Montgomery was born in Swords, Co. Dublin. His father, Thomas, was a baronet and member of the Irish Parliament. He joined the British Army in Canada in 1756, moved to NY in 1772 and married into the prominent Livingston family. He was second in command in the successful Montreal Expedition. He was appointed brigadier general by the Continental Congress in 1775, and was second in command in the successful Montréal Expedition. He joined forces with Benedict Arnold (not yet a traitor), and was killed leading an assault on Quebec City on the last day of December in 1775.
Sharpshooter Timothy Murphy of Pike Co. PA, was a member of Col. Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Corps, a fierce group of sharpshooters who were deadly accurate with their aim. His contributions are immortalized with a monument at Saratoga erected by the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Col. James Moore was born in New Hanover Co. North Carolina. He was given command of the rebel action to defend Moore’s Creek Bridge against an army of over 1,600 Loyalists. That successful engagement, the first major battle of the South, was a crucial factor in determining the early course of the American Revolution.
Privateer Jeremiah O’Brien of Maine led a raiding party including his four brothers and seized the British warship “Margaretta” in Machias, Maine. That event took place five days before the Battle of Bunker Hill and is considered the first naval battle of the Revolution. O’Brien and his brother John were commissioned as privateers, ship captains authorized to seize enemy ships.
Master Spy, Hercules Mulligan was born in Co. Derry, Ireland. When the British took over New York City during the American Revolution, he remained in the city as a secret agent, posing as a loyalist. He gathered vital intelligence by eavesdropping on British soldiers during their frequent meetings in his clothing store. Thanks to this gentleman, Washington received early notification of his proposed kidnapping by British agents and the British plan to invade Pennsylvania. Although some Americans accused him of loyalism at war’s end, Washington publicly praised him as “a true friend of liberty.”
Not all Irish-Americans Supported the Revolution
Not everyone of Irish descent supported the patriot cause. Many fought as soldiers in several of the Irish regiments in the British Army. Others were everyday colonists who enlisted in the King’s army. Two Irish regiments, The Volunteers of Ireland and The Roman Catholic Volunteers were comprised of Irish deserters from the Continental Army.
In the summer of 1776, as the British prepared to invade New York, Sgt. Thomas Hickey plotted to assassinate General Washington. When the plot was exposed, he was arrested along with Private Michael Lynch. The latter was acquitted, but Hickey was convicted of mutiny and sedition and hanged on the Bowery Road before a crowd of thousands.
Irish Regiments of the French Army
At the time of the America Revolution, the French Army contained three Irish regiments, named after their organizers as the Regiments of Dillon, Berwick, and Walsh. The Regiment of Dillon saw the most service on the American side of the Atlantic, though elements of Walsh’s regiment were the first to aid the American cause when they were assigned as marines to John Paul Jones’s Bonhomme Richard.
Two of these regiments (Dillon and Walsh) actively took part in the French attack on British-controlled colonies in the Caribbean. Lincoln sent word to the French commander for assistance in attacking British controlled Savannah. The French Admiral (D ‘Estaing) sailed north to Savannah with part of his fleet, leaving the rest to guard newly conquered Grenada and Guadalupe. Joining the French Admiral in Savannah were well over 500 eager Irish volunteers from the two Irish regiments.
Siege of Savannah
The siege of Savannah was a disaster for the attacking force. About 4500 French (including Dillon’s 500) and 2200 of General Lincoln’s Americans surrounded Savannah fortifications defended by 2500 English troops and Loyalist militia. A lengthy siege was ruled out because D’Estaing, fearful of hurricanes, would not commit to more than two weeks. Lincoln reluctantly agreed to a frontal assault. Dillon was second in command of the French and led one of the attacking columns, spearheaded by his Irish detachment. The combined French-American force was beaten back by grapeshot with some of the heaviest casualties of the war—637 French and 457 Americans killed or wounded, including 63 of Dillon’s regiment. Within days, D’Estaing had collected the survivors, loaded the ships, and sailed away.
The presence of Dillon’s regiment at Savannah, augmented by a portion of Walsh’s, is certain. Berwick’s regiment did not arrive in the Caribbean until 1782, and it missed both Savannah (1779) and Yorktown (1781). While some historians placed the Dillon and Walsh regiments at Yorktown there is no firm evidence of this. There were several Dillons at Yorktown, but they were officers in Lauzun’s Legion and probably from a different Dillon family.
O’Hara and the Sligo connection to the Surrender
While many Irish fought in the Continental Army, there were no all-Irish units. Nine of Washington’s generals were born in Ireland—two major generals and seven brigadier generals. Of these, only Brigadier General Edward Hand from County Offaly was at Yorktown. There was another Irish general at Yorktown but, ironically, he was serving with the British forces. General Charles O’Hara, the illegitimate son of British General James O’Hara, second baron of Tyrawley, was born in Lisbon, He was the third general in his family, his grandfather having been Sir Charles O’Hara, first baron of Tyrawley, who—although born in Co. Mayo—was said to have been of the Sligo O’Hara family. Charles, the grandson, was second-in-command to British commander Lord Cornwallis.
O’Hara had the dubious honor of representing Cornwallis at the surrender ceremony.
There were no all-Irish regiments in the British order of battle at Yorktown, though there were Irish among the rank-and-file. For example, the roster of the 76th Foot, a Scottish regiment that was at Yorktown, listed 114 Irish among its soldiers. During the 1780s, the Dublin government was funding a British military reserve of 12,000 soldiers, and Cork was the primary logistical base for the British forces in North America. The city of Cork exhibited its loyalty to the king by offering an enlistment bonus. The Roman Catholic citizens of Limerick also did, offering one guinea to the first 500 to enlist there. There was an all-Irish regiment serving in the British army in America, the 105th Foot–also called “The Volunteers of Ireland.” It was raised in the American city of Philadelphia by an Irish officer in the British army (Lord Rawdon-Hastings) and took part in the 1779 battle for Charleston, but it was not at either Savannah or Yorktown.
Three more Irish Regiments: Ultonia (Ulster), the Irlanda, and the Hibernia
Mention should be made of yet another group of Irish who were peripherally involved in the American Revolution in a manner that had an influence on the battle of Yorktown. Spain had an Irish brigade consisting of three regiments—the Ultonia (Ulster), the Irlanda, and the Hibernia. The Hibernia was in Cuba at the time of the American Revolution and, in May 1781, 22 officers and 588 men from it participated in the Spanish conquest of Pensacola, Florida. After the British surrendered, they were allowed to sail to New York. This reinforcement of the British garrison in New York influenced the American and French decision to march against Cornwallis at Yorktown, rather than lay siege to New York.
Irish Involvement in America’s Struggle for Independence
- General George Washington.
- Richard Irvine was born in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh. A surgeon by profession, after a period in the British Navy he set up practice in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was assigned command of the Pennsylvania regiment at Monmouth, NJ, and was later in command of Fort Pitt.
- Charles Thomson was Secretary of the Continental Congress during the Revolution, and was the author of the original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Born in Co Derry.
- Richard Butler came from Dublin and set up as an Indian agent. He rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army. After the war he returned to his Indian activities where he met his death.
- Matthew Thornton from Limerick, practiced medicine in Londonderry N.H., before taking several important State posts. He sat in the Continental Congress and was the signatory for Pennsylvania of the Declaration of Independence.
- Edward Hand, another medical man, practiced in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Born in Co Offaly, he rose to brevet Major General in the American Army and also sat in Congress.
- John Barry, ‘father of the American Navy’, is probably the most celebrated figure of all. He was born in Tacumshane, Co Wexford. He it was who captured the tender “Edward” — the first seizure of a British warship by a regularly commissioned American cruiser. As a commodore he became renowned as a trainer of naval officers.
- John Shee from Co Meath commanded the Pennsylvania Line, one of the most effective combat outfits of the Revolutionary war. These troops came largely from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, and included a large number of Irish volunteers.
- Stephen Moylan from Cork was Washington’s secretary and aide-de-camp, and later Quartermaster General of the Continental Army. With his red waistcoat, buckskin breeches and bright green coat he brought a touch of color to the cavalry.
- James McHenry from Ballymena, Co Antrim, left his mark as surgeon, military man and political figure, and is commemorated by name in Fort McHenry at Baltimore. He served as secretary of war under both George Washington and John Adams.
- Thomas Lynch (of Galway stock) was an Attorney and planter in South Carolina. He was a member of the Second Continental Congress and was the youngest signatory to the Declaration.
- John Sullivan who countersigned the Washington order was the son of a Corkman. The first President once wrote of him that he had “a little tincture of vanity but along with it military genius.”
- Charles Carroll of Carrollton signed for Maryland. Grandson of a Co. Offaly O’Carroll, he acquired huge land holdings and was active in canal and road construction. He died in 1842, the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence.
- Richard Montgomery was slain in the assault on Quebec in December 1775. Initially fighting with the British against the French, he was converted to the American cause and led the forces which captured Montreal. Montgomery County is named in his honor.
Reproduced courtesy of Ireland of the Welcomes
Vol. 25 no.1, January – February 1976