How the Irish saved the War of American Independence

Did you know that during the War, St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated on the orders of General George Washington? Washington also forbade the celebration of Guy Fawkes’ Day among his troops. At the time in England, that was celebrated throughout the country with anti-Catholic demonstrations – but it never became an American custom, thanks to Washington’s sympathy with his Irish troops.

The American War of Independence could not have been won if it were not for the Irish. It is certain that Irish soldiers constituted two-fifths of the Continental Army by the time Washington reached Valley Forge in 1778. That proportion grew as time went on.

Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, wrote: “Ireland furnished one hundred men to any single man furnished by any other foreign nation.”

At that time, “Irish” meant anybody who sailed from a port in Ireland. According to historians, overall total Irish immigration might have been as high as 500,000 – or roughly one-quarter of the estimated two million population in America at the time of the American War of Independence.

Irish immigration to America reached its peak during the first half of the decade of the 1770s. By 1776, one-quarter of the entire population of North America was Scots or Scots-Irish.

Actually, probably 300,000 of those “Irish” were what today would be called “Scots-Irish,” namely descendants of mostly Presbyterian settlers from Scotland living in Ireland’s northern province of Ulster. Catholics from Ireland had come over earlier because, by 1770 in Ireland, only 5% of the land was owned by Catholics – who were 90% of the population.

The imported Scots had a difficult time in Ireland. First, they were caught in the middle of the Irish wars against England and then the English Civil War. It’s estimated that 100,000 Scots settlers died in the English Civil War – along with more than 500,000 Irish Catholics.

But it didn’t get better. In 1703, Queen Anne signed the Test Act. This decreed that Presbyterian ministers could not legally marry, baptize, or bury anybody. Presbyterians who did not marry in Anglican churches were legally considered fornicators and their children bastards! Presbyterians were not allowed to teach school or serve as officers in the militia – religious restrictions similar to those against Catholics.

In 1718, the first ships of Scots-Irish arrived in Boston to a chilly welcome. One group was led by the Rev. James McGregor, who delivered a farewell sermon before departure. They were fleeing Ireland, he said, “to avoid oppression and to have an opportunity of worshipping God according to the dictates of conscience and the rules of His Inspired Word.” But Boston didn’t want them. Only two years later, Boston passed an ordinance ordering “families arriving from Ireland” to move on. And move on, they did.

Scots and Irish, like the Welsh and Cornish, are Celts – not Anglo-Saxons, like the English. They were not tame city dwellers; they were (and still are!) known as intensely loyal to their clan and more obedient to their chief than to any written law. They are fierce fighters who would die rather than surrender. They became the quintessential American frontiersmen.

William Penn was a Quaker, a man of peace. He didn’t want the fractious fighting Irish in his City of Brotherly Love – but he knew they might be useful elsewhere. There were Indians west of Philadelphia, and Penn thought the Irish would be a good buffer between him and the Indians – so he allowed them to settle west of Philadelphia.

If you drive along the I-81 in Pennsylvania, you will see exits named Letterkenny and Antrim – both towns in Ulster, relics of those first settlements. And if you head south, where do you get? The Shenandoah Valley.

The Western frontier of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania contained the largest Irish populations.

This did not bode well for England — because the Irish and Scots, Catholic and Presbyterian, arrived on these shores with a deep hatred of England and the crown. They didn’t need to be persuaded by Tom Paine and Patrick Henry that the King didn’t have their best interest at heart – they knew it firsthand!

Those stirring tracts were written to convince the original settlers, who considered themselves loyal sons of England, not to trust the King or Parliament. Remember: most of the first English settlers in America thought of themselves as loyal subjects of a benevolent king who ruled by the Divine Right of Kings; those English settlers had to be convinced to break away from England.

The Scots-Irish Presbyterians were ferocious advocates of Independence: King George III, based on information he received from his military reports, denounced the conflict in America as that “Damned Presbyterian War.” He referred to “Those pestiferous Presbyterians [who] are always in unrest and will be until they are wiped out.” Presbyterian ministers were known as the “Black Regiment” because of the black robes they wore when they preached – not only the word of God but also rebellion against the King.

The War of Independence got off to a rocky start. When the first enlistments were up, those New England boys, aka summer soldiers and sunshine patriots, headed back to the farm. The Continental Congress was not very happy with the Scots-Irish army: as English gentlemen, they had inherited contempt for the Scots and the Irish and didn’t think they would be able to fight. So they took their time to send funds.

Early on in the war, George Washington knew he was in trouble – and good leader that he was, he made plans for what if the worst came to the worst.

In November 1776, after the loss of New York and Long Island, he confided to his aide-de-camp Col. Joseph Reed that he might have to withdraw his reeling army first to the Shenandoah Valley, then farther west beyond the Allegheny Mountains to keep the ‘flames of revolution’ alive. He knew the Scots-Irish western frontier would provide “an asylum” for his rebel army.

Washington never needed to escape to our Valley, but it’s good to know that he thought so highly of our loyalty!

But the Irish re-enlisted, and more enlisted. When General Charles Lee was captured in 1778, he told the British that Washington’s army was half-Irish. Joseph Galloway, a member of the Continental Congress who defected to the British, later reported to the House of Commons that the Continental Army was ¼ native-born Americans, ½ Irish, and ¼ English and Scots.

In any case, the Irish were there in time to fight in the war’s major turning points: Trenton in December 1776, Princeton in January 1777, Saratoga in October 1777, Kings Mountain in October 1780, and Cowpens in January 1781.

When the British took Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, SC, 5,500 Continental soldiers surrendered in Charleston on May 12, 1780. English general Henry Clinton announced that “the most violent Rebels are candid enough to allow the game is up” and sailed back to New York to rest on his supposed laurels, leaving his second-in-command Lord Cornwallis in charge.

What Clinton didn’t know was that the Americans had only begun to fight. The great majority of the population of the Carolinas was in the mountains – and they were Scots-Irish, whose fighting skills had only improved with a generation or two of dealing with Indians.

The British thought they would advance on three fronts: the coast, the center, and the mountains. British Major Patrick Ferguson sent a captured prisoner back home across the Blue Ridge Mountains with the message to “desist from their opposition to British arms, or he would “march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay waste their country with fire and sword.”

Guess again, Major! Those were fighting words to the Celts – and rather than being intimidated, their resolve grew stronger. In the words of one British officer, the Scots-Irish mountain men were “more savage than the Indians.” The Kings Mountain battle in North Carolina defeated the British – Americans annihilated 1,100 Redcoats with only 28 killed and 62 wounded Americans.

That success solidified resistance to the British throughout the South. Six months later, in January 1781, came the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina. The British saw nine-tenths of their force killed or captured there, while the Americans had 12 killed and 60 wounded. In Col. William Thompson’s South Carolina Rangers, the Irish immigrants outnumbered the South Carolina-born men.

On October 19, 1781, Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

Washington could not have won the war without his foot soldiers. At least two-thirds and possibly three-fifths or more of them were Irish. So indeed, the Irish saved the American War of Independence.

In the words of George Washington Parke Custis: “Who felt the privations of the camp, the fate of the battle, or the horrors of the prison ship more keenly than the Irish? Washington loved them, for they were the companions of his toils, his perils, his glories, in the deliverance of his country.”

So this year, on Saint Patrick’s Day, celebrate not only Ireland – but also Ireland’s first gift to America: victory in the War of Independence.


 Connie Marshner. This article has been published by permission of the author. This article was originally published in the Royal Examiner, in Front Royal, Virginia, which is at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley referenced in the article.

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