Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas
The Irish-American experience in the American Civil War has been the subject of numerous studies and "histories" since the smoke drifted from the battlefields in 1865. Nearly all of them, with the possible exceptions of Ella Lonn's Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy (1950) and William Burton's Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union's Ethnic Regiments (1998), have dealt with isolated aspects of that experience or individual regiments. Although valuable, Lonn, Burton, and the more circumscribed works fail to accomplish individually what Susannah Bruce achieves in one well-written and tightly argued book: an analytical chronicle of Irish immigrants' service in the war. Her tome, however, is much more than simply a compilation of earlier authors' material on the Irish Brigade, its famous leader Thomas Francis Meagher, the Fenian leader Michael Corcoran, and their exploits in the Army of the Potomac. Instead, utilizing previously untapped sources from both North American and Irish archives, Bruce creates a lively narrative about the soldiers, their communities at home, and their interaction in the greater political and social milieu that comprised the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. The battles of First Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg—where the Irish brigade and other prominent units such as the 69th Pennsylvania figured prominently—serve as informal focal points for the chapters, but political issues such as emancipation, the sacking of George B. McClellan, the New York City Draft Riots, and the 1864 presidential election receive equal, if not more compelling, coverage.
Bruce argues that Catholic Irish-Americans possessed a dual loyalty during the war, "an identity that was both Irish and American" and one that by [End Page 1211] the end of the conflict "no longer favored one ethnicity over the other"(p. 262). Beginning with a background chapter about antebellum Irish immigration and nativist reactions, Bruce proceeds through the major events of the war that most significantly affected the Irish in the North. Very supportive of the Union war effort initially, the Irish neighborhoods of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago sent thousands of eager volunteers to defend the flag in 1861. That early enthusiasm, however, strongly dissipated as the casualty reports of 1862 were published, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and Anglo-Americans failed to acknowledge Irish sacrifices. Already strongly Democratic, Irish-American soldiers and civilians alike rejected Republican war aims as the conflict transformed in 1862–63 from a war to preserve the old Union to one that would create a new republic. The draft riots in New York and other cities, Bruce explains, were not explosions of Irish disloyalty—as Anglo-Americans perceived—but rather demonstrations of Irish frustration with a war that forced them to choose between their Irishness and their Unionism. Most chose not to forsake their Irish roots, and in the process earned the enmity of their nonethnic neighbors. By war's end, the Irish immigrants' experiences both on and off the battlefield bolstered the creation of a unique identity that was at once American and Irish. That identity persisted into the postwar period as Irish-Americans gained political power and used an embellished memory of their Civil War service as a means to rise up the social ladder.
Bruce has provided us with an important, comprehensive book that clarifies a number of the misconceptions about Irish-American soldiers and civilians. It is eminently readable, well-structured, and impartial in its analysis. Scholars and general readers looking for lively battle narratives will be disappointed—the word "slam" appears far too many times in the Antietam section, for instance—as will...