Book Review: Civil War Citizens- Race, Ethnicity and Identity in America’s Bloodiest Conflict

The Irish experience of the American Civil War was not necessarily the same as that of the native-born white American majority who bore witness to the conflict. As a distinct ethnic grouping within 19th century America they often had different motivations for engaging (or disengaging) with the war, which tended to be grounded in their experiences prior to 1861 and their hopes and aspirations for what might be achieved following the conflict’s conclusion. The Irish were not the only such group, however. Other communities such as the Germans, Jews, Native Americans and African Americans also had much at stake, and had to make decisions on how best to navigate their way through the turbulent war years. Civil War Citizens examines the Civil War experiences of a number of these different communities, drawing them together for the first time in this edited volume.

Seven different scholars have provided papers for the book, with each focusing on a different aspect of the experience of one of these ‘outside groups’. It is edited and introduced by Susannah J. Ural, Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Mississippi and a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of War and Society. Professor Ural has previously authored The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861- 1865, an excellent study of the motivations and experiences of the Irish community in the North during the Civil War.

The first two chapters concentrate on the German experience of the war, North and South. Even though more Germans fought in the American Civil War than any other immigrant group, there is surprisingly little written about their involvement, and it is informative to compare their war with that of the Irish. Stephen D. Engle explains how German communities in the North often grouped together in ‘Kleindeutschlands’ (Little Germanies), and formed organisations such as the German American Turnvereine; these ‘Turners’ were some of the first to mobilize for the war. Despite their commitment to service, German troops often endured extreme prejudice from comrades, a problem which became particularly prevalent following the rout of the largely German 11th Corps at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The Germans in the South often had markedly different experiences of the war dependent on where they lived, as Andrea Mehrländer discusses. While many Germans in Charleston were in a position to establish themselves in Southern society through business activities such as blockade running, those in Richmond struggled with being branded traitors and collaborators due to their close ties with German communities in the nearby North and the compassion they demonstrated towards wounded and captured German Federals.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the Irish experience. From a Northern perspective, Susannah Ural examines the motivations behind Irish enlistment in Union armies and concludes that many exhibited a dual loyalty to both Ireland and the United States. For example, some were Fenians who joined up to gain military experience for a future attempt to free Ireland, while others sought to preserve the United States as a refuge for Irish immigrants. The Irish in the North remained staunch supporters of the Democratic Party throughout the course of the conflict, and often distrusted Republicans and Abolitionists who they associated with the Know Nothing movement. Terrible casualties during the battles of 1862, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the Draft combined to cause a dramatic reduction in Irish support for the war, which manifested itself in outbreaks of violence such as the 1863 New York City Draft Riot. This opposition to the Republican Party and the Lincoln administration was remembered following the war, and was exacerbated by Lincoln’s assassination. David T. Gleeson, the author of the landmark work The Irish in the South, 1815- 1877, discusses the Irish presence in the Confederate military and the contribution of notable units and individuals during the war, including members of religious orders. The Irish did not perform uniformly well for the Confederacy, however. Information suggests that Irish formations suffered from high desertion rates and that when captured they often chose to take the Oath of Allegiance rather than be exchanged. After the war, many Irish resented the added competition in the labour market caused by recently freed slaves, and some became actively involved in the ‘Lost Cause’ movement; Gleeson argues that it was this as much as their service during the war that aided Irish integration in the post-Civil war South.

The final three papers discuss the Jewish, Native American and African American experience of the Civil War. Robert N. Rosen discusses how Jews in the South generally integrated well in pre-war society. Although they tended not to form themselves into distinct ethnic units, many did see their service as a necessary act to show that those of the Jewish faith were loyal and willing to fight. William McKee Evans uses three case studies to examine the Native American experience of war. These are the Western Cherokees, the Eastern Cherokees and the Lumbees. No matter who these tribal groups supported, Union or Confederacy, they were destined to end up as losers, and none of the groups fared particularly well after the conflict. The African American experience in the North is related by Joseph P. Reidy in the book’s final paper.  It examines the pre-war views of the African-American community and the run up to the Emancipation Proclamation, before focusing on the struggle for equal pay and equal citizenship rights to which African American soldiers felt entitled having taking up arms to fight for the Union.

Civil War Citizens is a revealing and informative work. The term ‘outside group’ coined by the editor to describe these communities is an apt one; each had to deal with particular prejudices and discrimination as they sought to increase their citizenship rights through participation in the war. Their own situation did not prevent them from displaying prejudice and discrimination towards other ‘outside groups’, and within each community there were a complex set of circumstances which dictated how they viewed themselves and others. Bringing these papers together in one volume allows the reader to compare how these communities dealt with the war, and explore the similarities between what each ultimately hoped to achieve. Not only does it provide the reader with two excellent papers on the Irish experience of the Civil War, it also places the Irish community in its wider context with recourse to other racial and ethnic groups. Civil War Citizens is compulsory reading for anyone who wants to move beyond the battlefield and campaigns and learn what motivated these communities to make the decisions they did during America’s bloodiest conflict.

For those who would like to find out more about the book they can read an interview on the Bull Runnings blog with editor Professor Susannah Ural here. A previous post on this site provided a link to a lecture on Irish volunteers in the Union Army given by Professor Ural at The U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center which can be accessed and viewed here.

References

Ural, Susannah (ed.) 2010. Civil War Citizens: Race, Ethnicity and Identity in America’s Bloodiest Conflict. 236pp.

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Categories: Book Review, Books

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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  1. Discussion and Debate: A Response to ‘On Stereotyping Irish Soldiers’ | Irish in the American Civil War - August 11, 2011

    [...] Race, Ethnicity and Identity in America’s Bloodiest Conflict (for a review of this book see here). She has kindly agreed to give her thoughts on the piece, and also brings news of some exciting [...]

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