The Irish have become the forgotten players of America's struggle for independence

A mythical portrayal of America's struggle for survival has overlooked the Revolution's most important players

Published March 17, 2020 6:59AM (EDT)


Excerpted with permission from "How the Irish Won the American Revolution: A New Look at the Forgotten Heroes of America's War of Independence" by Phillip Thomas Tucker. Copyright March 17, 2020 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

One of the greatest mysteries of American history has revolved around the intriguing question of how General George Washington and his revolutionaries could have possibly prevailed over a mighty British empire at the height of its power and prosperity. Many explanations have been offered to explain this enduring mystery throughout the past, but none are entirely satisfactory for a variety of reasons. Can a more accurate and correct answer be found at this late date to better explain how and why England lost its thirteen colonies forever to change the course of history? Fortunately for America, it possessed a large population of colonists who were already militants, agitators, and rebels before they ever migrated to the New World.

For more than two centuries, what has been most forgotten about America's stirring creation story were the crucial and disproportionate contributions that the Irish people, especially the more numerous Scotch-Irish (compared to Irish Catholics) from Northern Ireland, played in the winning of the American Revolution. Largely because of Ireland's dark legacy of early subjugation by England and difficult economic times that caused a mass exodus of immigrants to colonial America, the Irish people became not marginal, but the leading players in America's struggle for liberty and creation.

While the importance of the role of the Celtic-Gaelic people in leading America's westward expansion has been widely acknowledged by historians, the comparable leading role of the Irish and Scotch-Irish (lowland Scots who had settled in Ulster Province, Northern Ireland) in serving as the vanguard of America's resistance effort throughout the War of Independence, as known in Europe, from 1775 to 1783 has been generally unrecognized or unappreciated. Even more, the Celtic-Gaelic people also made fundamental contributions in shaping the very essence and character of America: a classic case of the past dictating the future in a variety of significant ways. Therefore, to a surprising degree, even some of the struggle's most basic complexities and truths have been left unexplored, leaving gaps that need to be filled at this late date.

Unfortunately, this sanitization of the historical record has resulted in the popular New England-based stereotype of the yeoman farmer-soldier of British descent, or Anglo-Saxon, having led and won the Revolution largely on his own. This mythical portrayal of America's struggle for survival has overlooked the Revolution's most important players who were more responsible for leading the way in agitating for independence, sustaining the war effort, and leading the way to decisive victory than any other ethnic group in America from beginning to end. Therefore, as seen in every nation that defined its origins, what has been created is a highly romanticized view of America's creation story that is excessively congratulatory and self-aggrandizing.

The Irish and Scotch-Irish actually fought in more disproportionate numbers compared to colonists of British descent and served as the longest-lasting and most sturdy core foundation of General George Washington's Continental Army, especially during crucial periods, as well as important contributors on the political and economic fronts. Nevertheless, the Irish have become the forgotten players of America's struggle for independence as no other distinctive group of white colonists in America.

Occupying a rung of America's social ladder far lower than the stereotypical middle-class yeoman farmer-soldier, the mostly illiterate Irish Catholics were primarily members of the indentured servitude class, while the Scotch-Irish were only slightly socially and economically more elevated because of their greater literacy and Protestantism. These Emerald Islanders were motivated to overturn an inequitable hierarchical society because of harsh economic, social, and cultural realities that had long existed on both sides of the Atlantic.

Luckily for America's fortunes, the height of Irish immigration to America reached its peak during the first half of the decade of the 1770s to set the stage for the dramatic bolstering of the ranks of a new generation of highly motivated fighting men for America. A large percentage of Irish and Scotch-Irish common soldiers along with officers, including Washington's top generals, served as the reliable backbone of America's resistance effort, especially in Washington's Army, from beginning to end.

The standard interpretations of America's revolutionary struggle and the endless romance of the mythological American Revolution have obscured the undeniable truth of the all-important contributions of the Irish and Scotch-Irish people. Unfortunately, leading British, Irish, and American historians have not focused on the pivotal roles (military, economic, and political) played by the Irish and the Scotch-Irish primarily because of the scarcity of documentation and records of a diasporic people. Even Revolutionary War historian Thomas J. Fleming admitted as late as 2005 of a much-belated personal revelation that the "most surprising thing about the soldiers" at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, during the winter of 1777–1778, was the high percentage of Irish soldiers (both Catholic and Scotch-Irish) who served in Washington's Army. So many Celtic-Gaelic soldiers filled the Pennsylvania Continental Line that it was widely known as the Line of Ireland at the time: one of America's largest and most distinguished combat units, which served as a solid foundation for the army.

This significant Irish and Scotch-Irish contribution has also been long obscured because the mythical revolution has presented America's struggle for liberty as primarily an Anglo-Saxon triumph won by colonists of English descent without Irish roots or contributions. The Founding Fathers have garnered the lion's share for almost singlehandedly bestowing the enlightened concepts of liberty upon the less-educated common people (including hundreds of thousands of Irish and Scotch-Irish) as if they possessed no revolutionary heritage and egalitarian legacy of their own. In truth, the revolutionary tradition of rising up against abusive centralized authority was already deeply embedded in the hearts and minds of the average Irish immigrant who never needed to read Age of Enlightenment philosophers or pamphleteers to become fiery revolutionaries against the British in either Ireland or America.

Unfortunately, what traditional historians have presented to us has been basically an inverted and severely distorted interpretation of the American Revolution from the top down. Compared to the upper-class elites, the lowly Emerald Islanders, including those who still spoke Gaelic and worked in the gentry's expansive fields (including those owned by Founding Fathers) were the ones who actually made the most sacrifices for independence. However, the Irish have been long seen in America through the lens of negative stereotypes and ugly caricatures, including even distorted comic figures perpetuated for entertainment purposes. Therefore, any serious consideration of meaningful Irish contributions to America's creation story was almost entirely incomprehensible as it would have diminished a much-celebrated American exceptionalism and nationalism.

At the time of the American Revolution, thousands of Irish soldiers took considerable pride in their distinctive culture and heritage. Across the thirteen colonies, many recent immigrants still spoke their native Gaelic or with thick Irish brogues (including the Scotch-Irish from Northern Ireland) barely understandable to their non-Irish peers. These transplanted Irish still viewed the Emerald Isle as their true homeland and motherland, especially in cultural and social terms, rather than America. Because hundreds of thousands of these immigrants were far more Irish than American by 1775, it was precisely these distinctive qualities and legacies that created the most ideal, natural, and die-hard revolutionaries in America.

The significant contributions and influences of the "mob" (or the common people who shaped the revolution's course) have been minimized by traditional scholars, especially historians of the New England, "republican," and "ideological" schools. Besides ethnic and cultural biases, an almost exclusive focus on Anglo-Saxon revolutionary contributions developed because American historians, themselves mostly Anglo-Saxon, were naturally motivated to promote not only a stronger national identity, based upon the Anglo-Saxon model, but also to rationalize expansion and imperialism, defined as Manifest Destiny by the 1840s. In this way, they transformed these historical developments into a righteous, moral crusade of God's chosen people, who were not Irish and definitely not Irish Catholics, in America's Protestant eyes to conform with self-serving racial, cultural, religious, and national priorities.

After having migrated thousands of miles to remain still largely marginalized outside the bounds of colonial society, especially the aristocratic world of the elites, the majority of Irish soldiers, especially recent immigrants, were most often without land, education, prospects, or titled property. Instead of a free society of yeoman farmers, as Thomas Jefferson envisioned for the ideal America, large numbers of Emerald Islanders had labored as indentured servants on American soil for wealthy landowners like peasants of their oppressive feudal society back in Ireland. Unlike the colonist of British descent, the typical Celtic-Gaelic soldier in Washington's ranks possessed relatively little, if any, land or political, social, and financial means by 1775.

Generations of Americans never understood a fundamental reality that without the important contributions of the Irish and the Scotch-Irish throughout the American Revolution's tortured course, a new nation conceived in liberty would have almost certainly succumbed to an early death. For the first time and for this fundamental reason, my new book "How the Irish Won the American Revolution: A New Look at the Forgotten Heroes of America's War of Independence" will present a more accurate and fresh look at the American Revolution without the romantic myths, legends, or stereotypes: how the Irish and Scotch-Irish, the most independent and rebellious settlers in America, made significant contributions to America's victory on a scale not fully appreciated by historians.

The overall purpose of this work is not only to expose the core fallacies and romantic stereotypes of the mythical American Revolution but also to present a new understanding about a central forgotten truth of America's creation story while giving fuller recognition and credit where it is long overdue. The Irish and Scotch-Irish were the very heart and soul of America's resistance effort from beginning to end, making the greatest dream of the Founding Fathers come true by what they accomplished both on and off the battlefield. With the untold story of the Celtic-Gaelic people in America's struggle for independence, therefore, this work is not a traditional campaign history and conventional analysis. After all, generations of American historians have long focused on the most famous military and political leaders instead of the lowly common soldiers, especially the Irish and Scotch-Irish, who fought and died for American independence.

Unfortunately, the stereotypical view of the Irish soldier has been that of the mercenary because so many Irish served in foreign armies, especially in the British Army and during the Napoleonic Wars. England's early conquest of Ireland ensured that impoverished Irishmen eventually fought in British military service as the only means to support families: essentially, cannon fodder made available by severe economic conditions and political frustration. But the Irish and Scotch-Irish role in the American Revolution was the antithesis of the stereotypical Irish mercenary. In overall percentage terms, the average Irishman, the most ordinary common man and the lowest-class member of white colonial society, was in fact America's patriot second to none.

The disproportionate Irish contributions during the American Revolution shattered the popular mercenary stereotype because for the first time tens of thousands of Emerald Islanders did not battle under a foreign flag of the eighteenth-century major European powers (especially France, Spain, and then England) as mercenaries. Instead, they fought as free men for egalitarian, social, and political ideals with the loftiest of republican goals in mind: a new republic conceived in liberty. Throughout the Revolution's course, therefore, these forgotten Irish soldiers no longer fought and died under the flag of another nation, for another people, or in a foreign army, but under the Stars and Stripes of a new nation.

This invaluable Irish contribution to America's salvation has been forgotten today because the American Revolution's story has been so thoroughly reinvented, romanticized, and mythologized. Consequently, this work has been dedicated to providing a more honest view, a corrective analysis, and a truer perspective of America's difficult birth while exploring in detail the most overlooked reason explaining how and why America ultimately won its struggle for liberty. It is not a strictly chronological history of the American Revolution, but an analytical history of the forgotten Irish Revolutionary War experience. An additional purpose of this book is to tell the long-overlooked story of the common Irish soldier, who sacrificed so much for the great dream of America, as much as possible: a new approach in looking at America's struggle for life from below and from a more personal perspective. Consequently, this book will present a forgotten, unexplored dimension of America's struggle to illuminate one of the best remaining untold chapters of the hidden history of the American Revolution: how the Irish and Scotch-Irish played not only a leading but also a decisive role in winning the American Revolution to change the course of history.

By Phillip Thomas Tucker

Phillip Thomas Tucker, Ph.D., has authored more than 120 works of history, both books and scholarly articles. Presenting vibrant, sweeping historical narrative, he was written nearly 65 highly-original books of unique distinction in a wide variety of fields of history, allowing readers to view history from entirely new and fresh perspectives. The author's iconoclastic books are widely-known to be as hard-hitting as they are groundbreaking. After earning his PhD in 1990, he took a position as civilian historian with the Department of Defense and specialized in air force history. He lives near Washington, DC.

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