The Immigrants’ Civil War Award is given every year to an academic, author, public historian, scholar, or artist who has contributed to our understanding of immigrants during the Civil War Era. This year’s honoree is Damian Shiels. Mr. Shiels is an archeologist and historian who has written extensively on the Irish experience during the Civil War Era.
The work of Mr. Shiels would not have been possible before the Internet Age. Although his writing focuses on New York’s Five Points and the battlefields of Virginia, he conducts most of his research from his native Ireland. He has developed a unique transnational following based on his blog Irish in the American Civil War. Before he wrote his first book or gave his first lecture in the United States, Mr. Shiels was conducting electronic research into the pension files of Irish veterans and winning over thousands of readers through his web site Irish in the American Civil War.
Damian’s careful research in the pension files of the National Archives has uncovered hundreds of letters from soldiers and their families describing Irish immigrant military service in the Union army and navy. These provide insights into the lives and suffering of men who became too feeble through age or wounds to support themselves. Most poignant are those letters he has culled from the Widows and Dependents Pension Files. He writes that “In reading each one, I always do so in the awareness that the story ultimately did not have a happy ending- in every case the soldier died as a result of his service.” These are often tearful letters from homes in New York or Boston to men dying in Virginia hospitals. One letter from a New York Irish woman to her wounded son that Damian uncovered read;
Dear son i rote to you twice and i recieved no answer yet and if you are alive i hope you will rite to me_dear son aint you got any one to rite for you_dear son i expected you in New York the rest of your regiment came to New York that was wounded_for god sake dear son write to me
When she wrote the letter, her son was already two weeks dead..
Damian’s first book, The Irish in the American Civil War, is a lively yet scholarly account of Irish involvement in the Civil War as told through the individual life stories of Irish men and women. The book provides what Lincoln called the “annals of the poor,” the stories of ordinary men and women, as well as sketches of more prominent immigrants. It rescues from obscurity the immigrant voices that never seem to get heard in American history.
Last year Mr. Shiels began lecturing in the United States on the history of the Irish during the war. One historian called him a “rockstar,” another referred to him simply as “our Irish guy.” Through his tireless work, Mr. Shiels is exciting new interest in our shared immigrant history in the United States. Equally important, he is working in Ireland to raise awareness of the 19th Century Irish diaspora. Immigration, by its nature, always involves at least two countries. Immigrants, with feet in two worlds, are often forgotten by both.
For his passion for telling the story of a despised and discriminated against immigrant group thrown into the greatest crisis in American history, I am happy to present this year’s The Immigrants’ Civil War Award to Damian Shiels.
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.