The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 is a time for reflection about Irish heritage in the United States, as well as here in the state of Delaware. The U.S. lays claim to some 60 million people of Irish descent – a figure 10 times the population of Ireland itself. While the cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia are well known for sizable Irish communities, for the past two centuries the Irish have also settled in Delaware, and their customs and tradition have become an integral part of the culture.
The Scots-Irish were the second largest group immigrating to Delaware after the English during the Colonial period. They landed at New Castle and settled near Wilmington. Some came as indentured servants, in order to pay for their passage to the colonies. They would serve their master until the debt was paid.
The Irish patriot Theobold Wolfe Tone paid a visit to Wilmington in 1795 to speak for freedom in Ireland. He had been exiled to America for what were considered treasonous political activities.
Around the turn of the 18th century, Irish immigration increased in the New Castle County area, and many settled in the Brandywine Valley. They found jobs in the mills and were particularly welcome at the duPont Powder Works.
E.I. duPont established a loyal Irish workforce by building homes for them, sponsored transport of family members and friends from Ireland, offered medical services, provided garden plots to farm, paid pensions and offered housing to widows of men who were killed in the frequent powder-mill explosions. Generations of Irish workers remained at the mills until they closed in 1921.
The greatest influx of Irish immigrants prior to the Civil War took place in the 1840s and 1850s, as a result of the Great Famine in Ireland. The Irish helped build the canals, turnpikes and railroads of the 19th century. During that period, the Irish were the largest foreign group in Delaware, followed by English and Germans.
A variety of social groups had their headquarters at Irish Hall near Sixth and French Streets in Wilmington. At the time of the Civil War, Catholic churches were built mainly to serve Irish immigrants. Later, the Irish began moving into Wilmington to a neighborhood called “Forty Acres,” bounded by Lovering and Pennsylvania avenues and DuPont to Union streets. This was northwest of downtown, just south of Brandywine Creek.
Politically, the Irish in Delaware were primarily pro-Union Democrats and threw their support behind the Democratic senator from Illinois, Stephen Douglas, in the 1860 presidential election. There also were some who supported the South in its desire to separate from the Union. A Smyrna Irishman was arrested and sent to prison at Fort Delaware when overheard making pro-Confederate comments.
Prior to the national conflict, Wilmington Postmaster A.H. Grimshaw formed a company of militia called the “National Guards,” made up of Irishmen. Once the Civil War began, however, these militiamen refused to serve the federal government and were soon disbanded.
Notwithstanding the fate of the National Guards, most Irishmen who fought during the Civil War joined the Union ranks and served in Delaware regiments. At least some Irish were known to have travelled the “reverse Underground Railroad” through Southern Delaware and across the Chesapeake Bay to reach Richmond, in order to join the Confederate army.
It was not unusual for families to see several of their loved ones go off to war. An Irishman from the Wilmington area, John Armour, and two of his sons served in the 7th Delaware Regiment, and another son served in the Union cavalry. Glenn Layton, a descendant of the Armours and a resident of Wyoming, Del., carries on the family tradition by currently serving as the captain of a reenactment group, the 2nd Delaware Volunteers.
One renowned Delaware Irishman was Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Smyth, who was born in Ballyhooly, County Cork, Ireland, and came to America at age 22 in 1854. He eventually settled in Wilmington, as a coach maker. He joined the Union army after the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, and commanded the 1st Delaware Regiment.
Smyth fought at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, where he led a brigade in the Second Corps, and was promoted to brigadier general for gallantry. Sadly, he had the misfortune of being the last Union general officer killed during the Civil War. He was mortally wounded at Farmville, Va., on April 7, 1865, and died on April 9 – the same day that Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, essentially bringing the war to a close.
In celebrating Irish heritage, we recognize the contributions of the Irish to Delaware’s society and culture over the past 200 years and the sacrifices they willingly made during the Civil War’s four long years of bloody conflict.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War author and speaker and former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.