America's Celtic Warrior Roots

It has been, warrior James Webb writes, a 2,000-year journey. From Hadrian’s Wall on the border of England and Scotland to the jungles of Vietnam, the Celts made their mark, first as Scots, then as the Scots-Irish who came to America.

Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America is Webb’s affectionate tale about the long trek across time, the ocean and the land, by which the cultural and religious treasures of this hardy people came to dominate a new nation. An English aristocracy conceived America, but a Scots-Irish peasantry built and defended it.

Webb’s theme is simple: The cast-iron Scots-Irish were as vital to the maturing Republic as the English intellectuals and aristocrat planters who penned its primordial documents and laws, and the unique but unheralded Scots-Irish contributions shaped the American cultural, political and religious landscape.

The Old Country

This fine writer, a Vietnam war hero and former Navy Secretary, sets up his tale by introducing his family from southwest Virginia, the heart of Scots-Irish Appalachia. Throughout the book, he visits long-dead ancestors in such rustic shires as Big Moccasin Gap, Va., while taking the reader back to Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans in 122 A.D. On the north side of it were the rudiments the Scots-Irish: four tribes, three Celtic and one Germanic, the Picts, Britons, Scotti (Irish) and Angles, who melded to resist English suzerainty.

Neither the Romans nor English conquered these mettlesome clans, who fought for blood and honor and land and liberty. Unsurprisingly, Webb titles one chapter “Braveheart,” after William Wallace, who killed the men who murdered his father and wife and began the Scottish rebellion against the rule of Edward Longshanks. He crushed the British at Stirling Bridge, and although captured, hanged, and drawn and quartered, planted the seeds of the future. Robert the Bruce threw off the yoke of England’s king at Bannockburn.

As the English go, Webb provides an easy line of succession that tracks their unremitting, brutal effort to subdue Scotland and culminates in reunion and the development of the “Ulster Plantation,” England’s effort to master Catholic Ireland with English and Scottish Protestant settlers.

In addition to their ferocity, the Scots’ resistance to English rule lay in “what would become the Scots-Irish character: the mistrust of central authority, the reliance on strong tribal rather than national leaders, and the willingness to take the law into one’s own hands rather than waiting for a solution to come down from above.”

This last trait is rooted in the Celtic preference of organizing society bottom up, democratically, in fiercely loyal communities of kith and kin. Opposing them were anti-democratic, top-down hierarchies, the English monarchy and Catholic Church. The latter, plagued by corruption and scandal, was tossed off in the 16th century to be replaced by the Presbyterian Scottish Kirk, which “would have the power to organize religious activity at the local level [and that] Scots had reserved the right to judge their central government according to the standards they themselves would set from below.”

Religion aside, “the typical lowland Scot,” Webb writes, “was bound to a complicated set of loyalties to his clan and willing to serve his laird, but he answered in his honor to no one.” Above all he valued family and martial valor. His was the warrior ethic.

The New Country

These were the hardscrabble characters who, weary of the turmoil in Ulster, left in groups of families and landed in four great waves from the 1720s to 1775. Nearly 500,000 Scots-Irish settlers landed mostly in Philadelphia and Chester, Pa., or New Castle, Del., and from there, spread out to Lancaster, and down through the Shenandoah Valley into Virginia and the Carolinas.

Though unwelcome in New England and among high-born English society in Virginia, the Scots-Irish had one indispensable quality: When attacked, they would “strike back twice as hard.”

    [T]he entire family structure had been shaped by a millennium that spanned the formation of the Scottish nation, the centuries of border-warfare between England and Scotland, and in the case of the Scots-Irish, the decades of unrelenting tensions in Northern Ireland. The families from the north of Britain accepted, and actually expected, that their lives would at some point include harsh and even bloody conflict.

    The men expected to fight, and every able-bodied man was automatically a member of the local militia. The women expected their men to fight, and sometimes their homes to be invaded. Strongly independent, these women understood also that they would be required to run households and farms when their men were away, and to be at risk from raiding parties in the home communities. The children grew up playing constant games of physical challenge, wrestling, racing and becoming familiar with weapons. Young boys began hunting wild game with their fathers at an early age, knowing that it was only a matter of time before they would be expected not only to hunt but also to fight.

So “nowhere were these skills more needed than along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains.” The eastern planter aristocracy needed the “hard-faced, thick-palmed” Celtic tribe of Scotland to protect them from the Red tribes of America. Thus did the Virginia’s English overlords, for instance, grant religious freedom to encourage Scots-Irish immigration into the western reaches of the state, at that the time the Blue Ridge Mountains and beyond.

Unsurprisingly, the roots of this clannish people grew deeply and wide throughout the South. So profound was their influence in the colonies that a Hessian officer during the Revolutionary War observed, “call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.” The officer believed so with good reason. Webb estimates that about 40 percent of the Continental army was Scots-Irish.

Whatever the Virginia and Boston elites gave the country in brains, the warriors descended from Wallace and Bruce gave in blood.

Jackson’s Influence

One was Andrew Jackson, whose mother, another biographer reported, was descended from Robert the Bruce. Webb devotes a chapter to Jackson’s life and how his military career and presidency changed the nation.

An orphan at 14, Jackson was a prisoner of the British who survived a 40-mile march after he was exchanged, and had survived an attack from a British officer when Jackson refused to shine the man’s boots. This man-at-arms who adorns the $20 bill was the quintessential Scots-Irishman: a born fighter, a man who defended the honor of himself and kith and kin no matter what. At 21, Jackson fought his first duel, and in another felled the best shot in Tennessee, Charles Dickinson, after Dickinson shot him in the chest. In 1813, he fought the Benton brothers in a barroom brawl, taking slugs in the arm and shoulder.

Ailing from these wounds, Jackson rose from his sickbed to fight the Red Stick Creeks, with Sam Houston and David Crockett under his command. In 1815, his army outnumbered, Jackson defeated the British at New Orleans and became a national hero. His veto of the Second National Bank was called the most important in American history and the “most courageous act in our political history.” It pitted Jackson against the moneyed elites of the east, but Jackson, knowing “how aristocracies are built up through the instrumentality of the state … would put a stop such practices.”

Jackson also confronted the smoldering tensions between North and South in Sen. John C. Calhoun’s Ordinance of Nullification, which declared the Tariff Acts of 1828 and 1832 null and void and forbid enforcement and collection of duties in South Carolina. The law also threatened secession, but a national crisis was averted when Jackson declared he would enforce federal law when and where necessary.

Ironically, Jackson’s presidency had the negative consequence of “centralizing power into the hands of lesser men,” who would not wield power with Jackson’s prudence. Still, “Old Hickory brought the core values of the Scots-Irish to the center of American politics…. In the process, he forever changed the face of the American system,” with later presidents trying to emulate him.

The War Between the States

Jackson may have stopped a sectional explosion before 1860, but his influence did not endure. When war finally came, the rebels in this second American Revolution were more thoroughly Scots-Irish than those of the first. The bulk of the Confederate Army and most of its leaders, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest among them, were Scots-Irish. They accounted for 70% of the killed and wounded. The Confederate battle flag was drawn from St. Andrew’s Cross of Scotland, and even Robert E. Lee, it was written, descended from Robert the Bruce. Lincoln’s winning general, Ulysses S. Grant, was also Scots-Irish.

Here Webb puts away the idea that the average Southern soldier–again, a Scots-Irishman–fought for slavery. Less than 5% of Southern whites owned slaves, and most slave owners held less than 20. They were not the rich planters depicted in fiction. So why, Webb asks, did the average Southerner fight?

“Because, on the one hand, in his view he was provoked, intimidated and ultimately invaded, and, on the other, his leaders had convinced him that this was a war of independence in the same sense as the Revolutionary War.” In short, these clansmen fought against the Yankee invaders for the same reasons Wallace and Bruce fought against the English: for home and hearth. Even the way the war was fought reflected the cultural difference between North and South: “The Northern army was driven from the top like a machine. . . . By contrast, the Southern Army was a living thing emanating from the spirit of its soldiers. . . . The Northern Army was most often run like a business, solving a problem. The Southern Army was run like a family, confronting a human crisis.”

What was past – the Scottish preference for bottom-up organization built around ties of kinship, versus the English preference for magisterial dominion from above – was prologue. The war lasted four years because the Confederate Army, composed of men of “unbending ferocity,” was “so wildly and recklessly Celtic that it did not know when to stop fighting.”

The Scots-Irish Made America

Webb adroitly brings the Scots-Irish story up to the present, concluding that their culture “has more power than it understands” because of its contributions, but is weakened, vis-a-vis the claimants to official victimhood, because of its individualism.

The book disappoints on one count. After his treatment of the Civil War, one eagerly awaits a disquisition on the Scots-Irish migration to and influence in the American West, a theme historian Jimmy Cantrell has explored in his writings on the Celtic origins of Western literature. Having mentioned novelist Larry McMurtry, for instance, Webb never tells us anything about the real men on the novelist based Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call in “Lonesome Dove.” I would like to have read more about men such as Kit Carson, the pioneers and the cowboys who tamed the West. Many of them were, after all, Celts.

Webb does tell us, quoting the old adage, that you can’t fire an arrow into the air in the South without hitting a soldier, musician or writer. Some of the most interesting points in his book are names and numbers … Scots-Irish names and numbers. During World War I, soldiers from the old Confederacy received 38 of 118 Medals of Honor. The Marine Corps’ most honored leaders have been Southerners, including Chesty Puller and Raymond Davis, the most highly decorated Marine of the Korean War. Medal of Honor recipients Alvin York and Audie Murphy, who fought in World Wars I and II, were Scots-Irish Southerners. During Vietnam, the South’s casualty rate was 32% higher than the Northeast, and the “Scots-Irish stronghold” of West Virginia had the highest rate of any state.

From the Scots-Irish we get Boone and Crockett, Lewis and Clark and the two Jacksons, OId Hickory and Stonewall. They gave us men such as Houston, Pershing and Patton.

When they aren’t fighting, the Scots-Irish are entertaining us. Their names are Poe and Twain and Mitchell and McMurtry. Country music is a gift of the Scots-Irish mountaineers, while NASCAR developed from the Appalachian moonshine runners. Actors? Try Ava Gardener, Jimmy Stewart, Tallulah Bankhead, John Wayne and George C. Scott, the man who played Patton. Try Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned president.

Webb’s book will have a special appeal for millions of Americans, this writer included. The Kirkwoods were Ulster Scots who landed in Delaware about 1710. One of my collateral ancestors, Capt. Robert Kirkwood, fought at Brandywine and Germantown, escaped capture at Camden in 1780, helped defeat Tarleton at Cowpens and fought with Francis Marion at Eutaw Springs. Granted nearly 2,000 acres in what is now Ohio, Kirkwood died fighting Indians at the battle of Miami, his 33rd engagement. “There, resting beneath a tree,” a witness wrote, “lay old Kirkwood scalped, his head smoking like a chimney.”

With an artfully wielded literary brush, Webb dips into a monumental palette of Americans, from his people to mine and possibly yours, to paint a panoramic canvas. Stepping back to take it all in, one rightly sees that his potent portrait modestly understates his case. The Scots-Irish didn’t merely shape America. We made it.