Green With Service
Irish Americans in the American military
March 17, 2015 by Mark Dye
Irish Americans have been serving in the American military since before there was even an actual “America” for which to fight. From the Revolutionary War, through the Civil War, all the way through modern times, numerous individuals can claim the Emerald Isle as their ancestral home. To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and all things Irish, we take a look at a few of the notable ones.
The story of “Molly Pitcher” is one mixed with both history and folklore. In reality, “Molly Pitcher” was simply a nickname given to the women who carried water to troops during the Revolutionary War. But the most famous—and the one to which the name is commonly applied—was an Irish-American woman named Mary Ludwig (later Hays), who was a “campfollower” with her husband during the Philadelphia Campaign in late 1777. Her claim to fame was standing and working with her husband at a cannon battery during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, including having an enemy cannon ball go between her legs and take off her petticoat. (A contemporary account says she merely looked “with apparent unconcern” and continued helping her husband.)
George Gordon Meade
Major General George Meade had perhaps the most circuitous route to his American military service—his parents were of Irish decent, but he was actually born in Spain in 1815. His father, serving in Spain as a naval agent for the U.S. government, lost the family fortune by backing Spain in the Napoleonic wars, so the family moved back to America in 1817. Meade was accepted into the U.S. Military Academy in 1831, partly due to this financial situation, but didn’t see combat until the outbreak of the Civil War, where he eventually found himself in charge of the Army of the Potomac. Despite being new in command, he held back the attacks of the Confederate Army for two days during the battle of Gettysburg, finally driving General Lee and his soldiers back into Virginia. The U.S. Army's Fort George G. Meade in Fort Meade, Maryland, is named in his honor.
Alfred Thayer Mahan
The son of a West Point professor, Admiral Mahan attended the Naval Academy, graduating in 1859 and quickly seeing action during the Civil War. While he served with distinction, it was the post-war period when he made his impact. He lectured on naval history and tactics at the newly-created Naval War College, and his book The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, had an immense impact on the future of the U.S. Navy. It argued that naval superiority had been instrumental throughout history and that the same would be true in the future (a belief that wound up being prophetic, as the U.S. showed during World War II).
Sergeant Audie Murphy was the most decorated combat soldier of World War II, receiving (literally) every single American combat award for valor available at the time. In fact, his tales of heroism were so impressive that he wound up becoming a successful actor in military films, some of which were based on his exploits (To Hell and Back perhaps being the most famous). His legacy still lives on today through a memorial dedicated to him, and through local Sergeant Audie Murphy Clubs, which are groups of elite non-commissioned officers who “lead from the front” by giving back to their communities.
While not as well known as other Irish Americans on this list, the career of Rear Admiral O’Kane was equally amazing. As the commander of the submarine Tang, O’Kane sunk a total of 33 ships during five war patrols. The last two engagements—on back to back days—were the stuff legends are made of, with the sub all but destroying the entirety of two different supply convoys. Sadly, the last battle was the Tang’s final, as it was sunk during the fight. But O’Kane and several others made it to the surface and survived. He earned both a Purple Heart and the Medal of Honor for his heroism in the face of incredible odds.
Brigadier General McAuliffe’s military career started when he graduated from West Point in 1918. He served in various field artillery units during the 1920s and 1930s before parachuting into Normandy on D-Day despite never having had training in it. But it was a single word uttered during the German’s siege of Cologne, Belgium, that made him famous. The Americans had pulled back to the town after a surprise German offensive, and found themselves surrounded. When this happened it was normal for the besieged army to surrender, so the Germans sent a small delegation to see what terms the Americans would consider. Gen. McAuliffe, however, had no intention of surrendering and replied with a single word: “Nuts!” (In reality, he had said "Aww, nuts" to one of his officers when told of the Germans' request. When he asked them what he should tell the Germans, one of the officers reportedly said, "Well, that first remark of yours would be hard to beat.") It is still one of the most famous utterances in American military history.
Have a wonderful and safe St. Patrick’s Day!