With the end of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in June, 2015, it is a good time to look back at some of the books published during the 150th Anniversary Commemoration that help us to understand how immigrants lived throughout the era. These books cover offer new approaches to a story that was ignored by many earlier historians.
The Irish in the American Civil War by Damian Shiels is rewarding for both experts on the Civil War and for those new to the subject. Shiels presents the Irish experience during the war through two dozen stories of Irishmen and women great and unknown during the war years. Along the way, he provides insights into Irish communities both North and South. If you like taking in your history through stories, you will enjoy this volume. I heartily recommend it for everyone.
Another popularly written book on immigrants in the war is Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War. This book is published by the National Park Service and is similar to the guides that are available at many Civil War battlefields. It is beautifully illustrated, and because of its high graphic content it is very accessible for middle school and high school students, but it will not disappoint adults.
Readers who think that Asian immigration is a new phenomenon will learn about the thousands of Chinese in the United States at the start of the Civil War, including the Chinese men in New York who married Irish immigrant women who came from the opposite side of the world.
There are also revelations about race here. Because the racial codes of American society had difficulty classifying anyone who was not black or white, the Union army recruited Asians at a time when it barred blacks from service.
This is a neat book for anyone studying the Civil War.
While nine-out-of-ten immigrants who fought in the Civil War served in the Union army and navy, there were still many who lived in, and fought for, the Confederacy. David Gleeson’s recent The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America is a scholarly study of the 20,000 Irish immigrants who fought for the Confederacy, as well as the civilian Irish who supported the secessionist cause.
There was a large Irish community in New Orleans at the start of the war and smaller communities in several urban areas of the South. Irish in these enclaves enlisted in the Confederate army at rates similar to their native-born counterparts. However, Gleeson found that as the Confederacy began to collapse, the Irish were more likely than the native-born to abandon their Confederate identity and resume their place as United States citizens.
Civil War Citizens: Race Ethnicity and Identity in America’s Bloodiest Conflict is edited by Susannah Ural. She is a well-known Civil War scholar who had a previous volume of her own on Irish volunteers in the Union army. The book collects scholarly essays on immigrants, Native Americans, and blacks in the Civil War. As with any such collection, this is likely not a good first book on the subject. However, if you have some familiarity with the subject, you will be treated to separate essays on both Irish and Jewish Confederates. There is an essay on the German communities of Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans. Ural herself has an essay on Irish participation in the Northern war effort.
Jonathan D. Sarna teaches the history of Jews in America at Brandeis University. During the Sesquicentennial he published two new books on Jews during the Civil War. His When General Grant Expelled the Jews is the expertly told history of Grant’s notorious order expelling Jews from areas under his military command. His brand new book, Lincoln and the Jews: A History, traces the president’s relationship with individual Jews and the national Jewish community through primary source documents. In spite of the title, this is more of a coffee table book than an in-depth history.
Alison Clark Efford’s new book German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era is an excellent contribution to the study of German immigrants during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Professor Efford traces the evolution of German immigrant views of the citizenship of immigrants and blacks. Germans began as among the most vocal advocates of citizenship rights for blacks. Efford traces the path these liberal immigrants took towards increasingly tepid support for equality. This is really an amazing book. You will gain new insights on every page.
Joseph R. Reinhart has made a big contribution to the understanding of German immigrant soldiers by translating their letters into English. Too many Civil War historians have made broad pronouncements about the era’s immigrants without ever reading their own letters. Joe’s latest volume of letters came out during the Sesquicentennial. Entitled Yankee Dutchmen under Fire: Civil War Letters from the 82nd Illinois Infantry, it gives first-person soldier’s eye views of the conflict.
Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era by Christian Samito describes how the struggles of African Americans and Irish immigrants helped to change the definition of citizenship during and immediately after the Civil War. This is a dense and at times difficult work of both legal scholarship and the history of social movements.
Immigrant history is finally attracting the scholarship it has always deserved. Pick up one of these new volumes to learn about one of the most important elements in the development of the modern United States.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.