Irish Cockades in the American Civil War

With St. Patrick's Day coming in a few weeks, I thought it would be fun to highlight an Irish cockade.

This lovely green badge belonged to U.S. Colonel Denis Burke. It is currently on loan to the Virginia Historical Society by its owner Joseph Maghe. You might wonder why an Irish gentleman was serving in the United States Army and wearing a green cockade. Well, we don't know all the details, but the little we do know leads to a fascinating story about the Irish in American armies.

Denis's Story
Denis was born in 1840 in County Cork, Ireland. In the aftermath of the Irish Potato Famine, Denis landed in the United States at the age of 17. Four years later, the American Civil War broke out and Denis - a good fighting Irishman! - enlisted in the New York State Militia, eventually winding up in the 88th New York Volunteers. He was evidently a talented man of battle because he rose through the ranks during the war and mustered out in 1865 as Brevet Colonel.

The story is that Denis wore this green cockade during the war, but the reason why he wore it was not handed down. However, in 1865 Denis's story gets interesting and provides a clue. In 1865, Denis was sworn into the Fenian Brotherhood.

Ever heard of it? I hadn't either, until I saw Denis's cockade and "met" Denis in the pages of history.
The Fenians' Story
Fed up with British mismanagement during the Potato Famine, two Irishmen named John O'Mahony and Michael Doheny began to organized a party of resistance. However, before they could get fully underway, the British clamped down on the resistance and the "Young Ireland" rebellion became just another failed revolution of 1848.

Except that Doheny and O'Mahony escaped. Eventually arriving in New York, they not only went to work (in the law and the military respectively) but also joined every Irish organization they could find. Thus it was that if Denis didn't know them previously in County Cork, he most certainly ran into them years later in New York.

Still smoldering over their frustration with British tyranny back in Ireland, Doheny and O'Mahony formed the Fenian Brotherhood in 1858. Its purpose was ultimately the end of British rule in Ireland. But one of the steps to achieving that purpose was to train its members in warfare and battle tactics. So many Fenian Society members joined state militias in order to train.

And that's when our American Civil War broke out. Why did the Irish fight in the American War Between the States? History tells us that 180,000 of them enlisted in the armies on both sides. One highly probably reason was a desire to gain battle experience that would later be used against their oppressors on the other side of the ocean.

And so we can guess what Colonel Denis Burke's cockade stood for: Irish solidarity. It's interesting to note that he is not the only one who wore that green cockade during the war. Here is a picture from the Library of Congress showing Irish Brigade commanding staff. Note the cockades on their sleeves.

A closer view. 

Another interesting picture shows Captain John H. Donovan of the 69th New York (the first regiment in the Irish Brigade) wearing his Irish badge.

So did Colonel Denis Burke ever use his military training in Ireland? As the American war ended, Irish revolutionaries filtered back into Ireland to make another attempt for freedom. But things began to go badly as British official discovered their activities. Divisions in the Fenian Brotherhood leadership back in America didn't help things either.

In 1866, Denis Burke was jailed at Mountjoy Jail & Kilmainham for seven months. Temporarily defeated, he was returned to the United States and became a battler of the pen as the publisher of the "Emerald" and "The Irish People," the Fenian Society's journal. He died in 1893, a proud warrior and determined freedom fighter. His cockade survives, vibrant green and sparkling spangles attesting to an Irish spirit that is never conquered.

The entire story of the Fenian Society (including President Johnson's involvement and an attempted invasion of Canada!) can be found in this fascinating article.

Naturally, I was inspired to create Irish cockades for my shop. I wanted something as vibrant as Burke's cockade with a clear symbol of Irish patriotism. I'm pretty happy with the result. See below!

If you'd like to order this in bulk for your group, let me know and I'd be happy to give you a group discount.

To wind up with a spirited poem from the era, here's the last verse of a famous Irish song, "The Wearing of the Green."
Oh, Erin! Must we leave you,
Driven by the tyrant's hand?
Must we ask a mother's welcome
From a strange but happy land?
Where the cruel cross of England's thralldom
Never shall be seen
And where in peace we'll live and die
A-wearing of the green.


  1. What a grand post! Thanks for honoring Colonel Burke's memory.

  2. Hi,
    I'm trying to find a source for the image of Captain John H. Donovan. It lists the Martin L. Schoenfeld Collection. I was wondering if you know how I might get in touch with them about use of the image. Thank you!

    Day Al-Mohamed

    1. I think I got the image from Joe Maghe (see the comment above yours) so he may be able to help you track it down. I also saw it on this website:

      And it in turn references this website:

      Hopefully somebody among all those should be able to help you!