- Irish American Ethnicity and the Confederate Experiment
The American Civil War was a pivotal and centripetal point for the Irish in America. No one knows this better than David T. Gleeson, who has emerged as the expert on Irish-Southern ethnicity. Irish participation in and reaction to the war provided accelerated mechanisms for the Irish to succeed, assimilate, and gain acceptance in America. With their strongly established fighting reputation, improved community unity, organization, infrastructure, and shared history, the Irish found their hopes and prospects for opportunity increased in post–Civil War America.
Focusing on the South, Gleeson’s well-researched work offers a compelling challenge to the conventional wisdom of Irish participation in the Confederacy. Most modern books concentrate only on the fighting spirit and battle accomplishments of the Irish. Irish-Southern participation in the Civil War is complex and is an imperfectly understood element. In this ambitious book’s deep examination of the Irish-Confederate experiment, Gleeson argues that the conflict and its aftermath were crucial to the integration of Irish Americans into the South (p. 1). Taking a comprehensive view of the subject, Gleeson considers the role Irish Southerners played in the political debates of secession and in the formation of the Confederacy, as well as considering their fighting prowess for rebel causes, the effects of the Confederate defeat, subsequent occupation/reconstruction, and the emerging ethnic identity that embraced the Lost Cause ideology. As Gleeson’s analysis unfolds, the “Lost Cause” ideology becomes the means for Irish social acceptance, assimilation, and Catholic preservation among the emergent nativists and Confederate ideologues. Gleeson’s numerous examples and analysis are persuasive.
Those Irish who lived in the eleven Southern slave states that seceded from the Union had to adjust to a third identity: that of Confederates. Though few had direct involvement with slavery, thousands supported the new republic that preserved the institution. In an era of weak national identity, the post-Reconstruction [End Page 70] South emerged with a stronger Confederate identity than at any time during the actual war.
This research is significant, because there is conflicting information about the impact the Irish had on the Civil War and of the impact the Civil War had on the Irish, both North and South. This is one of the major discontinuities in Irish American studies. “One of the marks of maturity in the Irish historical studies has been a growing interest in pinpointing discontinuities rather than ironing out elisions.”1 Michael Costello, in his chapter “The Irish and the American Military Tradition,” from the book America and Ireland, 1776–1976: The American Identity and the Irish Connection (1976) points out another large discontinuity in Civil War studies. He concludes that the Irish role in the Civil War had been minimized by U.S. historians but has been generously acknowledged by the best British historians of the period.2 Gleeson’s research helps to fill this void.
Much has been written on the New York Irish brigade, and more recently on the New Orleans Irish brigade, but little has been written on the role of ethnicity on Irish units or on the consolidated efforts of the Irish in both the Union and Confederacy. Most modern books again concentrate on the fighting spirit and accomplishments of the Irish. Historical evidence and records are more abundant on the Irish brigade’s regiments. Particularly unique to the Irish soldiers in the Civil War were their Irish Nationalist “Fenianism” and their Catholicism on the battlefield. In addition, only the Irish tended to view themselves as exiles instead of immigrants, and the Irish in the North did a dramatic turnaround in terms of political views. Originally, they were strong supporters of the Southern cause, but after the first shots on Fort Sumter, the Irish in the North were solidly behind the Union cause.
Beyond Gleeson’s work on the Irish in the South (“Irish in the South,” Ph.D. diss., University of Mississippi, 1997) and...