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For many years, the history of the Irish during the American Civil War has been largely focused on the Union, with few publications addressing the Irish experience in the Confederacy. What is more, the few works that do deal with the Confederate Irish have been produced by filiopietistic authors whose accounts are of battlefield glory and unflinching devotion to the southern cause.
However, David T. Gleeson’s The Green and the Gray is an important addition to the scholarship. Gleeson attempts to remedy the shortcomings in the existing literature with a sophisticated and analytical narrative, painting a more nuanced portrait of the Irish in the Confederacy. According to Gleeson, the Irish experience in the Confederacy was complex, if contradictory at times. Indeed, the shallow loyalty of the largest immigrant group in the region transitioned from ambiguous in the prewar years, to ardent and then treasonous during the war, to passionate and flag-waving in the postbellum years.
To construct his account, Gleeson supplements his synthesis of the secondary literature with an array of archival sources: letters, collections of family papers, Catholic and secular newspapers, and election and census data. For his subjects, Gleeson also narrowed his focus to either immigrants or descendants of Irish immigrants who displayed an ethnic awareness—an intelligent approach given the abundance of antebellum southerners with Irish Catholic surnames who did not consider themselves Irish.
In a largely chronological narrative, Irish southerners are addressed in the prewar, wartime, and postwar periods. During the antebellum years, the Irish in the South looked much like their northern countrymen; most lived in urban areas, worked menial jobs, and supported [End Page 681] the Democratic Party. Although few owned slaves, Gleeson points out that, nevertheless, the Irish adopted the white-supremacist ideology of the region, defending the institution of slavery and even targeting free blacks. Yet, until late in 1860, most Irish immigrants in the South did not support secession, seeing it as detrimental to the well being of the United States, a country they viewed as a refuge where Irish immigrants and their descendants could enjoy political, social, and economic stability.
What shifted Irish opinion was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860—only then did they heed southern nationalists that no solution other than secession existed. Gleeson points out that the Irish community embraced the southern cause not simply to uphold slavery, but to ensure Irish social, political, and economic security, and to demonstrate their loyalty to the newly created Confederate States of America. Irish militias drilled and trained, preparing for a conflict with the North, and after Fort Sumter, Irish southerners enlisted in droves.
Although twenty-thousand Irish immigrants served in the Confederate armed forces, Gleeson notes that despite numerous accounts of “unfailingly brave” Irish warriors, their war record was a bit murkier. To be sure, the Irish did earn a reputation as hard fighters. However, as wartime privation set in at home, family members urged their loved ones to leave the front, resulting in huge desertion rates among Irish soldiers. At the end of the war, federal occupation finally demonstrated the shallow, equivocal nature of Irish Confederate identity, as the Union soldiers were accepted and welcomed by the community.
In the postwar years, the Irish overcame their less-than-glorious war record and became ardent southern nationalists. Here, the steadfast, wartime support of the Confederacy by the Catholic Church, even when Irish soldiers and civilians withdrew theirs, allowed the Irish to embrace the Lost Cause myth. Gleeson notes that for Irish southerners, their commemoration of the Civil War was actually more important than their participation in the war itself. By positively inserting themselves into Confederate memory, they ensured their place in the racial hierarchy of the New South. [End Page 682]
Although Gleeson adeptly uses a wide variety of sources to support his points, he too often relies on the letters and recollections of people who might not necessarily represent a majority among Irish-Catholic southerners...