Last year we had an appeal on the site asking readers to consider proposing Irish involvement in the American Civil War as an appropriate topic to be covered in An Post’s (the Irish postal service) 2015 stamp programme. A number of you did so. An Post were in touch last week to say that the suggestion is not one that will be recognised. This is disappointing given that two of the criteria for selection are ‘anniversaries and commemorations of national and international importance’ and ‘contributions by Irish people to international affairs’ (see full list here).
I have written many times on this site about how I feel Ireland is largely ignoring the history of her emigrants, as typified by the lack of interest and recognition in the American Civil War. I am not going to go over those arguments again (if you are interested, they can be found here and here), but I must admit to becoming somewhat despondent about the continued neglect of this area, particularly given the failure of previous efforts to see it recognised.
A number of years ago, before the 150th anniversary commemorations of the American Civil War commenced, I wrote directly to the Arts & Culture spokespersons of all Ireland’s political parties. Highlighting the scale of Irish involvement, I suggested they might look into the potential of making the flag of the 69th New York Infantry more accessible to the public for the duration of the sesquicentennial. The flag, presented to the people of Ireland by President Kennedy in 1963, is currently held in the Irish parliament where it’s viewing is restricted. I received only one response, and nothing came of the suggestion. With the advent of the sesquicentennial I attempted to interest some of the national media in the huge Irish involvement in the events of 1861-65. Again no response could be garnered from newspapers such as The Irish Times and Irish Independent, although the Irish Examiner did run a piece on the Irish at Gettysburg last year, one of only a tiny number on the Irish in the American Civil War in the last three years. Another rare exception is thejournal.ie, which has carried two pieces (here and here) and RTE Radio 1’s History Show, which has covered a number of topics relating to Irish involvement. In general though, the lack of interest has been stark.
With the publication of my book on the Irish in the American Civil War in early 2013 I wrote to President Higgins, of whom I am a great admirer, to highlight the scale of Irish involvement and pass along a copy of the book. I had hoped it might provide a spark leading to some recognition of the Irish experience, but to date this has not proved to be the case.
I still believe that the main reason for a failure of Irish people to engage with this history results from a lack of knowledge regarding the true impact of this conflict on Irish emigrants. I know of no clearer example of this than the speech delivered by President Higgins at Faneuil Hall in Boston on 5th May 2012 to mark that year’s Famine Commemoration. Entitled ‘Reflecting on the Gorta Mór: the Great Famine of Ireland, Some narratives, their lessons and their legacy’. The President noted ‘That we are here today, of course, I remind myself, not only to commemorate the victims of the Great Irish Famine but also to celebrate the lives that those who emigrated, forged in this city from adversity, and their achievements in creating the enduring links between our two countries which live on today.’ The speech goes on to describe the experience of the Irish in Boston after their emigration, but throughout the extensive talk not even a passing reference was made to the American Civil War, a conflict in which thousands of Irish Famine emigrants who lived in Boston fought. This omission was all the more stark as Faneuil Hall itself witnessed large Irish meetings to support the war effort- indeed the venue where the President spoke had been used as a temporary barracks by the Irish 9th Massachusetts Infantry in 1861. A little more than a month after President Higgins spoke at Faneuil Hall marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, where the 9th Massachusetts suffered higher casualties than any other Union regiment- many of those who fell were Famine emigrants.
The failure of the State to engage with Irish participation in the American Civil War has had a major influence on the lack of activity surrounding this history in Ireland. However we may like to think otherwise, State funding plays a large role in driving historical engagement and even historical study- this can be seen with Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries, with many conferences and other events receiving financial assistance and support from Government. This failure in engagement has further repercussions; despite the fact that the American Civil War saw more Irishmen in uniform than any other conflict barring World War One, virtually no historians in Ireland study it. Although a number of U.S. historians work in this area, there remains a wealth of virtually untapped research potential (as evidenced by the ease with which the research that drives this blog can be carried out).
The correspondence from An Post was just the latest in a long line of disappointments with regard to recognition and engagement with this aspect of our history. The sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is beginning to wind down and all eyes are now on the anniversaries of World War One and the 1916 Rising. It seems that the opportunity for Ireland to do something to remember and examine the 170,000 Irish who fought and the hundreds of thousands more who were impacted by the American Civil War has passed. That in itself tells its own story about how Ireland engages with the history of its diaspora.