Ulster Scots and the Lost Cause: The Scots-Irish Ancestry of Confederate Generals

How communities claim their diasporas can shape the ‘home’ community’s self-image. Who and what they highlight about the successes and failures (if they are acknowledged) of the diaspora tells scholars a lot about ideas of representation and engagement. Abby Wise, a MSc student in Nationalism Studies, explores how Ulster-Scots community groups approach the history of ‘Scots-Irish’ Confederate generals in the United States.


In the American Civil War, Scots-Irish soldiers were over-represented in both the Union and Confederate armies. Names like Grant, McClelland, Jackson, Stuart – all Civil War generals – sound like a passenger list on one of the earliest Ulster Scots migration ships. I want to explore what it means for Ulster-Scots today to single out Confederate soldiers – who fought ardently to defend slavery – as celebrated members of their diaspora?

Ulster-Scots immigrants were the largest single group crossing the Atlantic in the eighteenth century, second only to the forced migration of enslaved Africans. Yet, despite their large numbers, they quickly became “invisible”. The Scots-Irish, as Ulster-Scots became known in America, were famous for their ability to integrate with the dominant Anglo-Scots population, making it more difficult to identify their contributions to American society.[I] Similarly, the Ulster-Scots who remained in Northern Ireland became ‘invisible’, and it is only recently that they’ve become recognisable as a separate cultural group within the larger Loyalist community of Northern Ireland.

In the years immediately after the historic first wave of Ulster-Scots migration to America in 1718, the community  went relatively unnoticed by the British government.[ii] It was only with the Good Friday Agreement at the end of ‘The Troubles’ that the Ulster-Scots community gained legal recognition for the first time.[iii]  This paved the way for the establishment of cultural groups such as the Ulster-Scots Agency and the Ulster-Scots Community Network, who work to spread awareness of Ulster-Scots culture and history through community outreach programmes and publications on various topics important to understanding Ulster Scots history.

The Ulster-Scots Community Network provides dozens of free booklets on all sorts of Ulster-Scots historical artifacts and events. Booklets on such topics as a brief history of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, the history of the famous Lambeg drum, and biographies of famous Scots-Irish Americans such as Andrew Jackson, are all available for free to visitors of Belfast’s Discover Ulster-Scots Centre.[iv] A number of these pamphlets relate to the Ulster-Scots diaspora across the world – in Canada and New Zealand, for example. However, most information is provided on the American diaspora. To the modern Ulster-Scots community, the American diaspora is a “central motif” from which much understanding of the modern Ulster-Scots identity can be drawn for those both within and outwith the Ulster-Scots community.[v] A major focus of these pamphlets on the American diaspora is the American Civil War.

Benedict Anderson prioritized the power of “print-capitalism” in fostering community bonds across a nation. Widely circulated print material assists in raising awareness of one’s larger ethnic community, especially over time, given the permanence of print and its ability to be reproduced.[vi] Print-capitalism allows for the recording of a nation’s “heroic past” – something Ernest Renan argues was central to the establishment of the nation, as shared memory instills a commitment to preserve this past.[vii] As such, these pamphlets from the Ulster-Scots Community Network are par for the course. However, print-capitalism also tends to establish a selective narrative of a group’s history. As Renan continues, as important as it is for a nation to remember, it is also crucial for it to forget certain brutalities and hardships if a nation is to survive.[viii]

Scots-Irish Confederates are overrepresented in Ulster-Scots Community Network literature. Not only is there a special “Confederate Generals” pamphlet, but other pamphlets, including one titled “Ulster & Tennessee” include Confederate figures who hailed from the states which formed the Confederate States of America. “Confederate Generals” includes biographies of Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson – the most famous names in the Confederate Army, while the “Ulster & Tennessee” pamphlet includes General Nathan Bedford Forrest.[ix] Nowhere within these biographies is mention of the generals’ ownership of slaves. Similarly, the biography of Forrest does not mention that he instigated the brutal Fort Pillow Massacre where Confederate soldiers fired on a mostly African American contingent of Union soldiers who were surrendering to Forrest’s troops.[x]

The biography of Stonewall Jackson contains a famous anecdote of the Lost Cause – a literary and social “sanitation” movement intended to absolve the Confederacy of its sins and to argue that slavery did not cause the war.[xi] The “Confederate Generals” pamphlet includes a vignette about Jackson after the first battle of Bull Run/Manassas. After the Confederate Army shocked Union forces with a decisive rout, Jackson sent a letter to his minister.[xii] While the minister may have been expecting a first-hand account of the battle, he found enclosed in the letter Jackson’s personal contribution to the fund for the congregation’s “colored Sunday school”. He had forgotten to mail it on the day of the battle.[xiii] Stories such as this establish the character of these Confederate generals in the humble and devout Presbyterianism of the Scots-Irish diaspora, showing the community’s influence on some of America’s most important historical events.

These are examples of selective memory employed by the Ulster-Scots community today. Referring to it as selective is not meant to be pejorative. Every society employs some level of selectivity in remembering its past depending on community-specific circumstances. Unlike in the post-Civil War American South, Ulster-Scots identity today doesn’t require a defense of slavery, so it is left out of their community’s narrative. Interestingly, even though they diverge on the role of slavery, the Ulster-Scots’ recent work to define their identity is similar to the Lost Cause movement. After the Good Friday Agreement outlined greater legal protections for Northern Irish Catholics, some Protestants began to feel disenfranchised.[xiv] Working to establish Ulster-Scots connections to America was a way for Protestants to reclaim their “collective ethnic dignity”.[xv] At a time when some have felt their social status faltering, Ulster-Scots can claim responsibility for the successes of one of the most powerful countries in the world.[xvi]


Abby Wise is a candidate for a MSc in Nationalism Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She received a Bachelor of Arts in both Politics and Religion from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA in 2015. There, she became interested Ulster Scots history and culture, writing her undergraduate thesis on the Ulster Scots community’s reaction to the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. She can be followed on Twitter @abbswise, or contacted on s1363023[@]ed.ac.uk


[i]Griffin, Patrick, 2001. The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey.


[iii]Radford, Katie 2001. “Creating an Ulster Scots Revival”. Peace Review. Vol. 13 (1).


[v]Gardner, Peter Robert, 2017. “Diaspora, defeatism and dignity: Ulster Protestant reimaginations of the self    through Ulster-Scots Americanism”. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 41 (11).

[vi]Anderson, Benedict. 2006.  Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, New York, New York. Revised.

[vii]Renan, Ernest, 1882. “What is a Nation?” La Sorbonne, Paris. 11 March.


[ix]Ulster-Scots Community Network. “Ulster & Tennessee: The Ulster-Scots Contributions to the Making of ‘the Volunteer State’”. Belfast, United Kingdom. Available online at http://www.ulster-scots.com/uploads/USCNUlsterTennessee.pdf

[x]Glaze, Robert L. “Fort Pillow Massacre”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online]. Available: https://www.britannica.com/event/Fort-Pillow-Massacre [14 August 2018].

[xi]Gallagher, Gary W, 2010. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.

[xii]Ulster-Scots Community Network. “Confederate Generals: Lee’s Ulster-Scots Commanders”. Belfast, United Kingdom. Available online at http://www.ulster-scots.com/uploads/ConfederateGenerals.pdf


[xiv]Gardner, Peter Robert, 2017. “Diaspora, defeatism and dignity: Ulster Protestant reimaginations of the self    through Ulster-Scots Americanism”. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 41 (11).



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