For a full list of articles in The Immigrants’ Civil War scroll to the bottom of the page.
If you have been reading The Immigrants’ Civil War, you know that one-in-four soldiers fighting for the Union was foreign born. Immigrants rushed into the ranks of the new army every bit as fast as the native born in the weeks after Fort Sumter was attacked. Many immigrants who just weeks before had been complaining about discrimination in America volunteered to protect a government they had voted against.
The question that should be obvious, but is not often asked, is why would any immigrant join an army during a civil war?
The normal thing for foreigners to do when a civil war breaks out is to flee the country.
Think of events in Libya in the spring of 2011. As rebel forces traded fire with Gaddafi loyalists, British, American, Italian, and Egyptian workers in Libya fled. The same scene has been repeated when civil wars have wracked the Balkans, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. Yet, tens of thousands of immigrants joined the Union army in 1861 and over the course of the war roughly half-a-million foreign born would serve.
Nearly every immigrant who joined the Union Army in 1861 and 1862 was a volunteer. Most had only come to the United States within the last decade. Many were not even citizens yet when they joined. Some were buried on the battlefield before they took the oath of citizenship.
What were their motives for joining?
This installment of The Immigrants’ Civil War looks at the reasons men gave for enlisting during the first months of the war. This was at a time when patriotic fervor was at its highest, there was a confidence that the war would be short, and knowledge of the gory cost of battle was non-existent. I will devote future articles to the men who joined the army later in the war.
But before beginning to look at the many motives that may have led a foreign-born man to abandon the safety of civilian life, I wanted to point to a reason given by native born and immigrant alike for enlisting. Abraham Lincoln called America “the last best hope of earth” for democracy, and saw the war as the only way to preserve that hope. Many young soldiers, immigrant and native born alike, said the same in their letters home.
The Civil War came just a little more than a decade after the defeat of the democratic revolutions of 1848 in Europe. So-called government of the people, always under attack worldwide, appeared to be at its lowest point since 1776. Many immigrants, fleeing despotism in their homelands, believed that the Southern attack on the Union threatened to extinguish the flame of democracy worldwide.1
One extraordinary letter that many soldiers would have agreed with was written by a member of the Irish Brigade. Peter Welsh wrote it not when he enlisted, but after the famous brigade was nearly destroyed at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Welsh’s wife, who never supported his decision to enlist, wrote to him asking why an immigrant would want to get involved in a war between different groups of fanatical native-born Americans.
Peter Welsh enlisted during the second year of the war. His letter to his wife after the Battle of Fredericksburg expressed the strong belief of many immigrants that the preservation of the Union was the only way to insure that democratic government had a chance to flower in the world.
Welsh had to respond to his obviously anguished wife, soon to be a widow. His brigade had been mauled just weeks before, losing nearly half of its men. She had asked him why he could not just let the Americans “fight it out between themselves.” Peter Welsh replied with words that should still inspire new citizens today:
This is my country as much as the man that was born on the soil and so it is to every man who comes to this country and becomes a citizen…I have as much interest in the maintenance of the government and laws and integrity of the nation as any other man… This war, with all its evils, with all its errors and mismanagement is a war in which the people of all nations have a vital interest. This is the first test of a modern free government in the act of sustaining itself against internal enemies and matured rebellion. All men who love free government and equal laws are watching the crisis to see if a republic can sustain itself in such a case. If it fail then the hope of millions fail and the designs and wishes of all tyrants will succeed…There is yet something in this land worth fighting for.2
Peter Welsh, the immigrant construction worker turned soldier, who used his carpentry skills to build coffins for his friends’ corpses, understood what Americans sometimes forgot. In 1861, America was the only force for democracy that could transform the lives of ordinary people around the world.
Welsh also makes it clear that he is also fighting for the right of immigrants in the future to claim a full place in America. His letter was written knowing that many native born did not consider him a real American. Their bigotry did not lessen his demand that he, and immigrants to follow, be treated no differently than “the man that was born on the soil.”
Welsh and Lincoln shared a common vision. Neither would survive the war.
Caption for feature image: During the Civil War it became common to emblazon slogans like “UNION” on American flags.
1. The most recent discussion of what historians call the “Union motive” for joining the army can be found The Union War by Gary Gallagher published by Harvard University Press (2011). The book argues that only a minority of Americans held emancipationist views at the start of the war. Instead, they saw the war as a fight for freedom because they identified The Union as the only practical democratic force in the world. Many later embraced emancipation as a necessity for defeating the South and preserving the Union, but only saw it as a secondary war aim. The classic discussion of the “Union motive” is contained in James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, published by Oxford University Press (1997) pp. 90-116. McPherson says that there was a stronger ideological motivation for fighting among Civil War soldiers than there would be for American soldiers in the 20th century.
2. Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, edited by Lawrence Kohl, Fordham University Press (1986) p. 65-66.
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.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
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.
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.
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.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites