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 the lives of immigrants during the Civil War Era. This year’s honoree is historian Tyler Anbinder.
Tyler Anbinder is the author of pioneering studies of New York’s immigrant Five Points neighborhood and the anti-immigrant Know Nothings in the Pre-Civil War North. His 1992 book Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s published by Oxford University Press is a classic work on the anti-immigrant movement’s near derailing of abolitionism and anti-slavery.
Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum published in 2001 provided a lively account of a tough neighborhood where successive waves of new immigrants found danger, discrimination, and a launching pad into a new life in the United States. The area where Manhattan’s Courts are now located was successively Irish, Italian, Chinese and an assortment of other immigrant groups. Modern Chinatown is still partially within the old Five Points.
Anbinder has also written scholarly articles looking at the Nativist views of people like Ulysses S. Grant and “Boss” Tweed as well as the real impact of the Civil War Draft on New York’s poor immigrants. He has studied who the Irish “Famine Immigrants” were, and how they helped save their families back in Ireland through remittances sent home.
The last year, however, saw Tyler Anbinder’s greatest achievement, the publication of his history of immigration to New York City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This massive book must be read by anyone who loves New York City and wants to know how it got to be the way it is. Based on years of research, it provides an intimate look into the lives of men and women from distant shores who came in pursuit of their own American Dream. Newly arrived, these immigrants not only had to learn how to cope with America, but also how to come to terms with the dozens of cultures they encountered in every borough of their new city.
While a quarter of the book covers New York’s immigrants during the Civil War Era, the story starts two centuries earlier with the many nationalities that settled in “Dutch” New Amsterdam and runs up to the settlement of new immigrants in the early 21st Century. The continuity is not the dominance of any one ethnic group, but the yearly evolution of new immigrant neighborhoods from every corner of the world and the constant coming to terms of the City with the next immigrant group arriving the day after everything seemed settled.
Anbinder has also deployed his historical scholarship to dispel the myth that modern immigrants are somehow inferior to those who came earlier. Anbinder concluded one essay on the subject that, while “Fear of new immigrants may be part of the American character, …so too is the ability to overcome that fear.”
For his scholarship in bringing the story of Civil War Era Immigrant America to life, I am happy to present this year’s The Immigrants’ Civil War Award to George Washington University History Professor Tyler Anbinder.