I just started posting my features on The Immigrants’ Civil War but I began researching them last October. I was prompted to write the series when I realized that 2011 was the 150th anniversary of the war. With issues of identity, immigration, race and states’ rights in the papers daily, it struck me that someone alive in 1861 would have a pretty good grasp on the topics being shouted about today.
I was a little boy when the last major Civil War Anniversary, the Centennial, took place back from 1961 to 1965.
Even though that anniversary was observed against the backdrop of the Civil Rights struggle to fulfill the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the official Centennial Commission turned the commemoration into a celebration of white native-born courage and national reconciliation. The only thing worth remembering, apparently, was the heroism of white native-born American soldiers in Blue and Grey, and the national reconciliation that apparently took place immediately after the end of Reconstruction when blacks were relegated to second-class status.
African Americans, the subjects of the national debate that led up to the war, were virtually written out of the commemoration. In fact, the first meeting of the Civil War commission took place in a segregated hotel.
The memory of the war presented to the American public 50 years ago was cleansed of politics. Men who employed the deadliest of violence against each other in the 1860s were treated as brothers in arms who together built a better America. The anniversary events neither explained the conflict, nor did they help Americans in the tumult of the 1960s understand how the incredibly race-conscious America of that era came into being.
The role of immigrants in the Civil War fared little better than that of blacks. Since the theme of national unity and American nationhood was stressed in 1961-1965, even though the nation was demonstrably not united during that period, immigrant communities that made independent claims on the national consciousness one hundred years earlier were also written out of the history books. After all, if Germans or Irish living in America found success as groups by maintaining an identity distinct from their native-born American neighbors, then history might offer a lesson in group progress for blacks, Native Americans, and Latinos trying to transform their lives in a country that had adopted a cult of individualism.
The fact that immigrants supplied roughly a quarter of the soldiers in the Union Army was unnoted and ignored.
Now there were a plethora of humorous anecdotes, typically exploiting popular ethnic stereotypes, depicting hard fighting, if sometimes drunk, Irish soldiers spouting homespun poetry or the guttural vainglorious utterances of ignorant Germans in the books published during the Centennial. But there were few studies of how immigrant communities functioned, what they hoped to get from the war, how they organized their own war efforts, why they hazarded the lives of their young men in military service, and the ways in which attitudes towards the war changed as the butcher’s bill came due.
As I became interested in writing about The Immigrants’ Civil War, I noticed that books dedicated to the subject were much rarer than the expanded scholarship on the African American war experience that exploded in the four decades after the official Centennial closed.
General works on the Civil War rarely go into detail on immigrants and books looking at specific topics involving soldiers’ lives, the home front, or politics during the war rely almost entirely on native-born sources. The motivations and ideologies of the foreign-born soldiers does not find its way into these books. Similarly, the wealth of new books on women during the conflict are rarely based on the memoirs and diaries of women born abroad.
Much of the writing that has been done about immigrants during the period is of the “ethnic pride” variety. Making the history of an ethnic group look good is understandable. What fifth-generation Irish American brags today that his ancestor lynched a black man during the 1863 New York Draft Riots? Apologetics, however, are not history. And it does not help us understand the immigrant experience to have this vital part of our history “cleaned up.”
I have often reflected that the sense of superiority many of today’s native-born feel when comparing their immigrant ancestors to today’s immigrants come from a lack of real familiarity with the past their families inhabited and the actions they engaged in. If they only knew…
I also decided to write this series because I have learned over the years that many of my readers are themselves immigrants. They may want to examine the ways earlier immigrants dealt with issues of identity, language, and the meaning of citizenship for clues about paths today’s immigrants might want to take. And paths they might want to avoid.
I hope you enjoy the series and have the stamina to read all 50 installments that I have planned as features. I’ll also post occasional blogs like this one to offer my reflections on the process of chronicling The Immigrants’ Civil War.
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
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites