Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?


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Brooks Simpson is a respected Civil War historian and biographer of Ulysses S. Grant. He also has one of the most visited Civil War blogs on the net. Cat Mercado, one of his students, has started her own blog on the war called civilcat. She recently wrote about news reports on the creation of 3-D sonar images of a Union ship sunk in the Gulf of Mexico during the Civil War.

The USS Hatteras went down after a fight with the Confederate cruiser CSS Alabama off of Galveston, Texas. New press reports note that two members of the ship’s crew were believed to have gone down with the ship. They were both immigrants.

Ms. Mercado writes of the discovery:

Who were the two men that died, assumed “entombed in the wreck”? William Healy and John Cleary – two Irishmen. It seems as though men of many nationalities and ethnic backgrounds participated in the Civil War; however, I don’t often find information on other groups without actively seeking it. This article hardly makes a mention of the two, aside from “two of those guys paid the ultimate price”.

I wonder how many more minorities served our nation, seemingly without much recognition?

Mercado, an Arizona State University student, lives in a state where the immigration controversy is the daily bread of television news, yet as she astutely observes, almost no real immigration history is known. This was not just an oversight in her own education, most Americans go through years of schooling with almost nothing taught to them about the history of immigration and the lives of immigrants. Americans can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the issues around immigration today are new because most of us have so little background on the subject.

In fact, in the past, immigration and attempts to restrict it, have been a recurring feature of the American debate. With the Alien and Sedition Acts, John Adams tried to threaten immigrant voices of dissent with deportation. His successor Thomas Jefferson threw the doors of the United States open to Europe’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Over time, many parts of America adopted bilingual policies to help immigrants participate in civic life, but restrictionist voices deeming new immigrants a threat to the dominant Anglo Saxon culture were also heard, rising to a crescendo during the 1850s Know Nothing upsurge. The Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s welcoming of immigrants seemed to put an end to organized anti-immigrantism, but two decades later efforts to block non-white immigration scored victories with the Chinese Exclusion Acts and other laws barring many Asian immigrants from becoming citizens.

Throughout the 19th Century immigrants advanced scientific research in the United States, started whole new types of industries, increased our country’s religious diversity, and advocated for workers rights and workplace safety. Their stories are often lost now, or simply subsumed under the broad title of American Progress. The uniqueness of a country that thrived on a process, the process of immigration, is lost on many Americans.

The struggles of the immigrants are also ignored. Our immigrant ancestors had the same language problems as today’s immigrants, the same culture shock of arriving in a new land, and some of the same hostility from the native-born. By not teaching about the frictions and problems of earlier waves of immigration we create a myth of smooth acculturation and assimilation that can leave a modern American wondering why today’s immigrants seem so slow in “becoming American.” Few students are taught that local governments in 19th Century America often made services available in languages other than English, that some states published translations of their laws into German so that they could be understood by new immigrants, or that army units were formed during the Civil War in which the language of command was French, or German, or Italian. Many don’t realize that the culture of the Irish immigrant community was once described as incompatible with democracy and so hated that it gave rise to a major political party or that Jewish soldiers in the Union army were denied access to clergy of their own faith.

Schools need to take on the task of teaching immigrant history-not to generate ethnic pride or resentment-but so that modern Americans can understand the processes that led to the peopling of the United States and view the contemporary immigration debate with the insights that only a knowledge of our history can bring.

Cat Mercado’s interest has been piqued. If she continues her studies in this field either professionally or casually she will not only enjoy the thrill of visiting the past but she will be able to share her knowledge with her fellow citizens allowing them to understand the new immigrants of the next chapter of our history.


Historian Andy Hall has been documenting the exploration of the Hatteras. He writes of this picture taken over the wreck: September 10, 2012. Fr. Stephen Duncan of Galveston, Texas conducts a memorial service for U.S.S. Hatteras Fireman John G. Cleary and Coal Heaver William Healy, who died in the battle with C.S.S. Alabama, January 11, 1863. This service, conducted over the wreck of Hatteras, is believed to be the first to honor these men, both of whom were Irish immigrants. The service marked the beginning of an intensive survey of the wreck conducted by a team of archaeologists and technicians assembled by NOAA, that will create a three-dimensional sonar map to document the storm-exposed remains of the USS Hatteras. The wreck itself will not be disturbed, and no artifacts will be recovered. The wreck is a protected site, and because the remains of the two crewmen were never recovered, the site is considered to be a war grave.


Historian Andy Hall has written several articles on the Hatteras that can be found here His most recent article can be found here. It includes illustrations showing the Hatteras and Alabama in combat.

Video: 3D sonar imaging of the wreck

Video: Roll Alabama, Roll

The ship that sank the Hatteras, the CSS Alabama, was one of the most famous vessels in the Confederate Navy. The ship was built in England and crewed largely by Englishmen. Unionist recruiters exploited the British connection to the raider to encourage Irish enlistments in the North by implying that the English were the real backers of the Confederacy.

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:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

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.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?


Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.