For our latest post we are delighted to welcome back Aled Jones of Swansea University. An expert on Welsh participation in the Civil War, Aled previously contributed two articles to the site on Welsh native Joshua T. Owen, who led the Irish 69th Pennsylvania during the conflict (you can read them here and here). This time Aled discusses a debate that played out between some of the Welsh and Irish iafter the conflict, in which they argued over each other’s relative attributes and contribution to the war effort. Aled takes up the story:
For thousands of hyphenated Americans, the Civil War was an opportunity to demonstrate the legitimacy of their citizenship by trial of arms. The Irishmen who fought for the Union are a prominent example, but perhaps less well known are the thousands of Welsh-Americans who thrust themselves into combat, determined to earn their status as patriotic veterans.
An interesting piece of evidence showing how the Welsh had fought for social acceptance and cultural citizenship can be found in the months following the cessation of hostilities. A prime example of this clamouring for national recognition came in the form of a letter from a Welsh soldier written to the Chicago Daily Tribune, entitled ‘The Welsh Nation in America and the War.’ The soldier correspondent, H.O. Rowlands of Waukesha, Wisconsin, began his letter alluding to the obscurity of Welsh contributions to the war effort, largely due to their lack of unit cohesion, instead being scattered throughout the army:
The scarcity of the Welsh in the United States has prevented them from having a conspicuous character as the defenders of the “Old Flag.” They were not selfish enough in the beginning of the war to make an effort to constitute a brigade, or a regiment, thoroughly Welsh, to sustain the Union, and whilst their leaders were agitating such a movement, the young heroes of the nation rushed intrepidly to the salvation of their adopted and beloved country, and the blood of hundreds of them has consecrated the altar of Freedom. (1)
It was certainly true that the Welsh didn’t form a distinct regiment let alone a full brigade, which was a source of lamentation for some, but the key detail in his opening paragraph is how the author interpreted the scattered nature of Welsh volunteers. Rowlands viewed this not as a sign of their scarcity in numbers, but rather as a testament to their patriotism for the North and the Union, rushing enthusiastically into any regiment rather than waiting patiently to organize themselves into a Welsh unit. These men he referred to as young heroes, with himself part of that cadre of patriots.
The rest of the letter should be addressed with a certain degree of scepticism, as Rowlands claimed that, ‘Their heroism and bravery is to be determined by the promotions of many of them, from company officers to Majors, Colonels and Generals in the Union army.’ Only a handful attained high rank, so this letter was almost certainly intended as a piece of Welsh propaganda, aligning the Welsh to the successful Republican regime. His next words reinforced this clearly:
Politically, the Welsh are almost unanimously Republicans, in that they are religiously dedicated to such principles; of the 70,000 Welsh voters in the United States, 99 per cent of them vote the Republican ticket. In Wisconsin there are about 9,000 Welsh voters, so the victory of the Union ticket depends wholly on them.
It is not clear where his assertion of 70,000 voters came from, although given Alan Conway’s estimation of 120,000 Welsh speakers living in the North prior to the Civil War, this number is not too far-fetched. (2) The fact that he then claimed that the Welsh were responsible for securing Union victory in the Wisconsin elections reinforces how the public perception of the Welsh population as zealous Republicans was continued after the war, further solidifying their legitimacy in the post-war North.
The next section of his letter became more inflammatory, however, providing an insight into the competitiveness between Welsh and Irish. Rowlands stated that, like the Welsh, the Irish fled from their native country to avoid the oppression of British aristocracy, but they ‘bound themselves soul and body to defend, to sustain and abet, in their votes and sentiments, the most damnable atrocious and fearful oppression that ever polluted our planet with its heaven-cursed and diabolical principles, to-wit; Southern Slavery.’ (3) Rowlands claimed that there were exceptions, of course, such as the Sheridans, Mulligans and Corcorans, but the rest had been the leaders of the New York riot, harboured traitors and deserters, and disgraced the Union with the manifestation of their treacherous designs. (4)
In a clearly hostile tone, the Welsh soldier evidenced a bias towards the Irish nation as being Copperheads, ergo traitors to the Union, barring those Irish soldiers who served with distinction. He was perhaps influenced by his experiences on active campaign, sharing with many other Union soldiers a hatred of those who opposed an early end to the war, rendering their sacrifices up to that point moot. It also shows how their apparent condoning of slavery was the final nail in the coffin in his view of the Irish, for the true Welsh volunteer was expected to be publicly devoted to the cause of anti-slavery. Furthermore, it highlights an interesting phenomenon of the evolution of hyphenated-identity in something that resembled a competitive citizenship, with Rowlands portraying the Welsh as true Americans because they fought for American principles, whereas he denounced the Irish as mere immigrants.
Unfortunately, yet nevertheless fascinatingly, a few more documents reveal that Welsh hostility to Irish-Americans was not uncommon. For example, a particularly offensive joke appeared in the Dodgeville Chronicle on 10th December 10th 1863:
A soldier’s letter from the Welsh language publication Y Seren Orllewinol (The Western Star) gave another insight as to the bias felt against the Irish. Henry Davis, writing from Baltimore to his brother Edward, described how:
‘The greatest fear upon us is that of the Irish. That nation is often found in this place, and as you know they are a deceitful tribe. Last Saturday night they were hurling rocks at us Northern soldiers, but no one was injured. This bodes poorly for the Welshmen in Canton these days.’ (5)
Another prejudice was revealed in a letter received by the Drych (The Mirror) in 1870, where the correspondent was describing the proclivity of Welsh drunkenness in Scranton, Pennsylvania:
‘On Main Street there are Welshmen who keep a bar in every other house…Welsh grogshops, whisky holes, gin mills, rum cellars and so on, go to Lackawanna Avenue, Main Street and Hyde Park. There you will see…Welsh singing to shame even the half-civilized Irishmen!’ (6)
Evidently, it was clear that despite holding themselves as liberal, high-minded citizens who fought for the freedom of oppressed negroes in the South, some Welsh-Americans did not share their fraternalism with their Celtic cousins.
Two weeks later, the Tribune published two letters responding to Rowlands’s fire branding, both of which were from anonymous Irishmen. The first proved to be a fairly balanced and surprisingly calm response to Rowlands’s anti-Irish writing. The response immediately tackled Rowlands’s claim that the Welsh were finer patriots due to not forming Welsh regiments, writing: ‘While the Irish were selfish enough to form themselves into regiments, brigades and divisions, and fight for their adopted country.’ (7)
This was a subtle yet clear reminder that the Irish vastly outnumbered the Welsh in the army and that they also endured great sacrifices while fighting for their adopted country. Concerning Rowlands’s allegations against the Irish as a nation of secessionists, it was firmly denied, and while acknowledging that there were more ‘Secesh’ in proportion to their numbers in the country, their service in the army for the Union cause far outweighed those malcontents, concluding his letter with: ‘I would advise the gentleman before he tries to hit the Irishman again, to study the history of the war.’ (8)
In precisely the same manner as the Welsh, the Irish had fought for their adopted country, and earned the same legitimacy of military citizenship. The next correspondent was not so balanced, however, and vehemently counter-attacked Rowlands’s hostility to the Irish nation. Indeed, his words reveal a degree of cultural hostility between Irish and Welsh immigrants that has not been evident in most soldiers’s letters:
‘Mr Rowlands’ attack on the Irish people was uncalled for and unmerited. He writes like a true Welshman. I never yet met a Welshman who did not think that the Welsh people were the greatest in the world. I have, as neighbours, a number of Welshmen, most of whom I esteem very much, but they are the most conceited people in America.’ (9)
His words are full of contradictions. He claimed that he admired his Welsh neighbours in Racine County, where we know there was a sizable population of Welsh speakers, but then described them as the most conceited people in America. It is fascinating to be given an outside perspective of Welsh-Americans, for correspondence from Welsh volunteers has so far shown them to be near immaculate citizens fighting for liberty and an end to slavery. Perhaps this high-mindedness was not an admirable trait to those that lived alongside them. The Irishman’s next words highlight the obscurity of Welsh involvement in the army: ‘They tried to fill one company in this county but failed to do so. I have not heard of any Welsh regiments, and I am certain there has been none.’ (10)
Given the proportion of Irish regiments in the Union armed forces and their notoriety in the press, it is understandable how Irish-Americans could be suspicious or unbelieving of Welsh claims to be better patriots, especially after Irish sacrifices at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Despite his lack of awareness of the extent of Welsh contributions to the war, the writer lauded those ‘few Welsh that did volunteer’ who ‘fought as well as other American soldiers’, but reminded Rowlands of the greatest traitor to his nation, the ex-president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. (11)
This small excerpt of post-war correspondence is a highly insightful glimpse into how different cultural groups competed with each other about whose involvement was more important – showing how fundamental military service was in creating a heightened American nationalism.
(1) ‘The Welsh Nation in America and the War – Letter from a Soldier’ in The Chicago Daily Tribune July 11 1865.
(2) Alan Conway, ‘Welshmen in Union Armies’, Civil War History 4 (1958), 143. 143-174.
(5) ‘Llythyr o Baltimore’ in Y Seren Orllewinol August 1861.
(6) (Y Drych 1870) in Russell Davies, People, Places and Passions: “Pain and Pleasure”: A Social History of Wales and the Welsh, 1870-1945, (Cardiff, 2015), p.193.
(7) ‘The Welsh and Irish in the War’ in The Chicago Daily Tribune July 27 1865.
(9) ‘Another Letter on the Same Subject’ in The Chicago Daily Tribune July 27 1865.