- Shades of Green: Irish Regiments, American Soldiers, and Local Communities in the Civil War Era by Ryan W. Keating
In recent years, the study of the Civil War era has benefited from a number of fine works on Irish Americans in the Confederate and Union armies. Scholars such as Susannah J. Ural, David T. Gleeson, William B. Kurtz, and Christian G. Samito have expanded historians' understanding of how members of this immigrant group fought for their adopted nation—a nation that had too frequently welcomed them not with open arms but rather with nativism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-immigrant violence. Ryan W. Keating's Shades of Green: Irish Regiments, American Soldiers, and Local Communities in the Civil War Era represents a worthy addition to the literature on Irish soldiers in the Union army. Keating offers a persuasive, original argument tying together dual nationalisms, localism, and ethnicity, while adding needed nuance to the scholarly conversation on this important nineteenth-century immigrant group.
Keating notes that previous works on the Irish in the Civil War have tended to regard these individuals as members of a singular "Irish America" (p. 13). Instead, the author argues, scholars should conceive of the Irish of the Civil War era as living in the much more complex, plural "Irish Americas," a term that accounts for local variations among Irish Americans in different cities and states (p. 13). Rather than analyzing the Irish soldiers of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—the typical settings of scholarship on the subject—Keating shifts his focus to three less-studied regiments: the Ninth Connecticut, the Twenty-third Illinois, and the Seventeenth Wisconsin. The author rightly calls for more attention to be paid not only to other predominantly Irish units of the war but also to the ongoing interplay between soldiers and their local communities, which had decisive roles in shaping Irish Americans' conceptions of the American nation and in weakening the forces of nativism over the course of the war.
The book is built on a remarkable database that Keating produced, which provides insights into the wartime and postbellum experiences of more than five thousand soldiers in the three regiments. Keating's demographic and quantitative analysis in the book's first three chapters is superb. The principal takeaway from this opening section is just how important local circumstances were in influencing how Irish soldiers experienced the war and how the home front interpreted their sacrifices in service of the nation. In many cases, antebellum nativism gave way to positive stereotyping of Irish soldiers as heroic, fierce warriors demonstrating "ethnic bravery" on the battlefield, even though the same soldiers "rarely appeared to think of their time in the army and, in particular in battle, through ethnic lenses" (pp. 107, 110-11). Chapter 6, which deals with Irish soldiers' reactions to the New York City draft riots of 1863, is especially effective. Because Keating so successfully integrates diverse Irish American experiences into his analysis, readers come away from the book with a new understanding of Irish loyalty during the war. When New York City's Irish population is conflated with the totality of Keating's Irish Americas, scholars might assume that all Irish immigrants turned against the war in the [End Page 455] wake of the draft. To the contrary, Keating demonstrates, there was no unified Irish response to the draft. Irish soldiers from Connecticut, Illinois, and Wisconsin continued to serve with distinction throughout the war, and their local communities likewise expressed fervent support for the Union cause up to and beyond the draft riots.
Somewhat less successful are the book's final two chapters on the home front and soldiers' efforts to reintegrate into northern society after the war. The research, as in the rest of the book, is strong, but the chapters do not offer as much of an original argument. Although Keating focuses on three...