Review: Chicago’s Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War

Swan, James B. Chicago’s Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War. Southern Illinois University Press (2009). 306 pages, roster, notes, maps, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-8093-2890-1 $32.95 (Hardcover).

What was life like for western Irish volunteers in the American Civil War? Historian James B. Swan attempts to answer that question in Chicago’s Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War, the first full length regimental history of that unit. The 90th Illinois (aka “Chicago’s Irish Legion”), the second Irish regiment raised in the state, saw more hard marching than bloody fighting, but was in the war until the end and played its role.

Author James B. Swan is a retired professor of agronomy, which he taught at Iowa State University. Swan is an independent historian, and like this reviewer, a native of Illinois and lifelong student of the Civil War. Although Swan does appear to have had a relative in the regiment, Corporal Simon Swan of Co. G, his real inspiration to write this regimental history was his wife Pat’s excitement over an account of the regiment’s attempt to establish camp near the Big Black River during the Vicksburg Campaign.

In an introduction, Swan covers the Irish experience in America in the years leading up to the Civil War, including the perception that Irish Catholics were not loyal to the Union cause, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation. It was to refute this perception that Father Denis Dunne decided to raise a second Irish Illinois regiment for the Union cause, the 23rd Illinois “Irish Brigade” already being in the field. Unfortunately for Dunne, the regiment was raised in mid to late 1862, long after initial enthusiasm for the war was gone. The regiment initially had trouble filling its ranks, but thanks to the efforts of Dunne and other influential Illinois Irishmen, it was able to muster in on September 7, 1862. After muster in, however, all was not well. The regiment suffered from a high rate of desertion, 38%, which compared very unfavorably to the Union average of 8%. Owing partly due to the time of organization, the men were on average four years older than the average age of Illinois soldiers as a whole. The vast majority of the 90th Illinois’ soldiers were laborers or farmers. The Irish Legion was lucky in that they had a capable leader in Colonel Timothy O’Meara, who led the regiment until his death at Missionary Ridge in November 1863.

As mentioned in the introduction, the Irish Legion saw few large-scale battles during their time in the Western Theater. Their first pitched battle was at Coldwater Station, in north central Mississippi, guarding Grant’s supply line during his abortive overland approach to Vicksburg in late 1862. As Drew Wagenhoffer points out in his review of the book, the author should be complimented on adding a detailed account of this sharp little fight, about which little has been written. Much of early 1863 was spent guarding railroads east of Memphis during the Vicksburg Campaign. After Vicksburg was invested, the 90th Illinois was part of the reinforcements being rushed to the area. The Irish Legion arrived too late to do much in the siege proper, but they did participate in the advance on Jackson after the fall of the important river city. The bloodiest experience of the Irish Legion during the war occurred at Tunnel Hill on November 25, 1864, during the Battle of Missionary Ridge. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee soldiers, including the 90th, were severely bloodied while attempting to dislodge Patrick Cleburne’s crack Confederate division from Tunnel Hill and the surrounding area. In addition to the loss of their popular Colonel O’Meara, the 90th suffered 117 casualties during the ill-fated attack. This was the battle that would define the regiment, so much so that long after the war the regimental association would meet at Lt. Col. Stuart’s widow’s house every November 25. Although the Irish Legion saw some action in the Atlanta Campaign (at Resaca, Dallas, Atlanta, and Ezra Church), they were mainly serving as wagon train guards during a significant portion of the campaign. The Irishmen also participated in Sherman’s March to the Sea all the way to Savannah. As a part of Hazen’s division they successfully assaulted Fort McAllister, opening the way to an army connection with the U.S. Navy standing by off the coast of Georgia. According to the author, the 90th Illinois was one of two Irish regiments in the Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea. The men of the Irish Legion closed the war by participating in Sherman’s march through the Carolina’s, and participated in the Grand Review of the Union armies in Washington, D.C.

The maps in Chicago’s Irish Legion have their strong points and some shortcomings. First, and most importantly, the maps literally track where the regiment itself went during each of its campaigns. Too often, regimental histories use generic maps which give the reader no clue as to where the regiment in question was. Not so in this book, as James Swan made the maps fit the topic he covered. The maps are in many cases oriented with true north in a position to make the map best fit onto a page. This was at first a bit disorienting but the repeated use of this tactic as well as clearly marked arrows showing which direction was north helped to lessen this feeling. There were 17 maps in all, and in a helpful touch, Swan often indicated which map to refer to in the text itself.

There were 25 pages of notes and an impressive list of primary sources, including numerous newspapers and letters written by members of the regiment. As a wargamer, this reviewer greatly appreciated Appendix 1, which included monthly PFD totals for the regiment throughout the war. In addition, the author was diligent in providing strength and armament information where known in the text. Appendix 2 consists of a regimental roster listing the names of every man who served in the 90th Illinois throughout the war.

Chicago’s Irish Legion was a good read despite the lack of battles. Swan clearly knows this regiment and relished the opportunity to tell their tale. The ethnic origin and later formation date of the 90th Illinois makes the tale of this regiment quite different from the average Union regiment. The book is an excellent addition to my growing library of regimental histories, and will be of particular interest for students of the later western campaigns of the Civil War and those interested in the experiences of ethnic regiments. The author is to be commended for giving readers as much information as possible on this interesting unit while keeping their story compelling and enjoyable. Highly recommended.

I would like to thank James and Pat Swan for their assistance in sending me a copy of Chicago’s Irish Legion.

Disclaimer: A copy of the book reviewed was provided gratis.

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