The Five Meanings of The Immigrants’ Civil War


In October 2010, I decided I wanted to see if I could create a series on immigrant involvement in the American Civil War. I was not going to start my own blog on the war as many others have done. Instead, I wanted it published on Long Island Wins, a website for my area’s immigrants and their friends with a readership of around 100,000. This meant that I had to sell the series to the Wins editor Ted Hesson.

Ted is a professional journalist with an advanced degree from Columbia University. He recently moved on to Univision/ABC News. He knows tons more about the field than I ever will.

To my happy surprise Ted was very interested in my four year investigation of the subject. He was concerned that we find a good name for the series that would bring in readers. While I normally let him pick the title of my articles, he’s just better at that than I am, this time I dug in my heels.

I told Ted that I was adamant that the series be called The Immigrants’ Civil War. He asked me why I wouldn’t budge on the name, and I told him that the title had five meanings that were central to what I wanted readers to get out of the series.
The first meaning was the most obvious. The series would look at Immigrants in the Civil War. Anyone stumbling on the title would expect that, right?

I wanted to explore what the war was like for individual immigrant soldiers like Peter Welsh of the Irish Brigade. I wanted to examine how immigrant communities in places like New York, St. Louis, and rural Wisconsin reacted to the sudden loss of hundreds of their men in battle. Mostly, I wanted to tell the stories of men and women whose lives were often invisible to their native-born neighbors.

The next meaning will not surprise my regular readers. I wanted to write about the civil war against immigrants and how they fought back. I find that few Americans know of the history of deadly violence against immigrants during the Know Nothings surge in the 1850s. I wanted to examine how those attitudes towards immigrants held over during the war.

The third meaning is more surprising to readers. I wanted to look at the civil war within immigrant communities that developed between 1860 and 1865. Irish, German, and Jewish communities in New York, Baltimore, and New Orleans often felt a far greater commonality with their “countrymen” in the other section than they did with native-born citizens living in their own cities. The war created borders between those immigrant communities in ways immigrants had not anticipated. Also, within specific ethnic enclaves, the exigencies of war put pressure on immigrant communities that resulted in splintering and infighting.

The fourth “civil war” was the one the Union and Confederate governments fought to win over immigrants. Confederates felt they could count on help from the Irish in the North.  Unionists saw Germans as natural allies in the South. They each fought a civil war for the allegiance of the immigrants.

My final meaning for the title grew out of my desire that the series serve as a way of teaching the Civil War to today’s immigrants. I teach civics for immigrants applying for citizenship and I find that most newcomers have a hard time imagining Americans slaughtering one another by the hundreds of thousands. I hoped the series would help them understand the issues that nearly divided the country as well as the origins of the Fourteenth Amendment, the legal font of modern multiracial America.

I try to answer the questions today’s immigrants have about the immigrants who came here 150 years ago in The Immigrants’ Civil War. They want to know how immigrants were viewed back then, how language and cultural differences were handled, and whether the war changed their positions in society.

This meaning has also influenced my writing style. I try to avoid the sort of military-technical language used on many other Civil War websites. My citizenship students have no idea what a term like enfilade means. I also don’t take for granted that they know who Robert E. Lee was or that Kentucky was a border state not Texas. The series has developed a wide readership all over the United States and at least three quarters of my readers were born here, but I always consider my immigrant readers in researching and creating my articles.

I try to keep all five meanings of The Immigrants’ Civil War in mind whenever I write a new piece.

Thank you for helping sustain this series by reading it and sharing it with your friends. It is my pleasure to write it for you.

citizenship-002-thumbStudents taking my civics class for new citizens at the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN)

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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



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

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