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Battlefield and homefront.

SUSANNAH URAL BRUCE The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865 New York University Press, 2006, $22.00

SUSANNAH BRUCE'S PURPOSE in this well-researched book is to explore "the crossroads between battlefield and homefront" and to offer us "a broad examination of the way Irish Catholic men and their, communities understood their service in the Union army" (2). Her interest is the issue of motivation and attitude, therefore, and she is especially curious about why these men volunteered and how their view of their service changed as the war wore on. She finds that Irish-Americans, particularly Irish-American Catholics volunteered in large numbers and with enthusiasm for service in the Union army at the beginning of the Civil War, largely out of a "dual loyalty" to both the United States and to Ireland. She argues that as the war progressed, however, this enthusiasm quickly waned and anti-Irish sentiments in the general population, which seemed to have briefly diminished in 1861 from what they had been in the ante-bellum years, re-emerged in 1862. This rejuvenated nativist prejudice forced the Irish back on their loyalty to Ireland and led them to rely increasingly on their own ethnically defined communities. Bruce suggests that this retreat left Irish-Americans in a strong position to claim an important place in the United States in the early twentieth century, however, particularly in light of the arrival of even less favored immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

This book began as a doctoral dissertation (at Kansas State University) but has been expanded significantly beyond it's original scope. The author regrets the spotty character of the record of Irish Catholics in America, but insists that "the tale is there if you are willing to dig for it" (xii) and she has done an excellent job of uncovering materials in a host of archives, including in the National Archives (Washington, D.C.), the National Library of Ireland and in local and state archives in the United States, principally in the northeastern states; private collections of letters also form part of the primary material used for the book.

In terms of original motivation, Bruce concludes that Irish Catholics volunteered for service in the Union army in large numbers and for a variety of reasons. Members of the Fenian brotherhood joined to forward the cause of Irish independence, in part by acquiring the military training they might later use in a struggle for that independence. Other Irish volunteers joined to improve the lot of the Irish in America themselves by saving the union, while some wished to directly challenge nativists, especially nativist claims that the Irish were disloyal. Still others joined merely to get the bounty offered by the government and to have a steady wage at a time of high unemployment. Native Americans generally exhibited admiration for the Irish propensity to volunteer in 1861 and the fine performance of the Irish Brigade at the first Battle of Bull Run seemed to confirm both this improved attitude to the Irish on the part of other Americans and the optimistic view that Irish-American soldiers themselves (and their communities) had of the cause.

The book suggests that several factors led to the unraveling of both nativist admiration for the Irish and of Irish optimism about the war and what it might do for them. Perhaps most important of these were the heavy casualties Irish and Irish-dominated regiments suffered, especially at the second Bull Run, at Antietam and at Fredericksburg, all fought in 1862. These casualties were in part the fault of Thomas Francis Meagher, who was not a very good commander and whose careless attitude to losses quickly eroded the confidence Irish-Americans had in him; other Irish-American commanders also failed to live up to expectations and this, in addition to petty jealousies among them, led many in the Irish communities to become quickly disillusioned. In addition, many of the Irish commanders who did distinguish themselves (such as Michael Corcoran) died over the course of the war. The poor treatment Irish soldiers received in the Union army also eroded the optimism of 1861. When enlisted in their own regiments Irish-American soldiers often found themselves and their units treated as aliens, and the experience of an Irish regiment from Pennsylvania, who were pelted with stones as they marched through the streets of Philadelphia to the front (and who were hissed and booed by native soldiers when they got to camp) is symptomatic of the deep-seated anti-Irish prejudice that prevailed in the Union army--and that had its roots in the army of the antebellum years. Irish soldiers who found themselves in overwhelmingly native units suffered from particularly galling bouts of persecution.

As Bruce sees it, the shilling nature of the war undermined Irish support for it too. Lincoln's Emancipation proclamation angered Irish-Americans, in part because it changed the avowed purpose of the struggle and because it seemed to guarantee an influx of cheap African-American labor into northern cities that would undercut the wages of the Irish, most of whom were laborers at the time of the war. In addition, the firing of George McClellan, who was well regarded in the Irish community, copper fastened Irish-American dislike of Lincoln and their corresponding devotion to the Democratic party--and opposition to the war. The institution of the draft and the strikingly unfair way it was carried out, was the death knell to Irish sympathy for the cause.

By 1863 Irish-America was bitterly opposed to the struggle in general and the draft in particular, and natives were largely contemptuous of the hostile attitude the Irish now exhibited to the cause of the Union. The New York draft riots were initially the work of skilled as well as unskilled workers, Irish and non-Irish alike, but quickly became an uprising of unskilled Irish laborers; they exemplified the degree to which Irish men and women had come to regard the war with disdain and the draft with undying hatred. Natives, by the same taken, considered the riots as powerful proof that the Irish were never likely to be loyal to America. At the same time, the Fenian idea that the Civil War might be used to foster Irish independence by training a generation of Irish-Americans as soldiers was wilting too, as the physical damage from the war on the Irish population mounted.

Bruce argues, however, that as the effort to memorialize the struggle took hold in the post-war years, Irish-American did salvage something from the experience. Large numbers of them had joined units such as the Irish Brigade out of both dual loyalty to America and to Ireland, and out of loyalty to their immediate 'home' communities. She notes that as the business of remembering the war developed, Irish-Americans formed their own veterans associations (partly because they were not welcome in such organizations as the Grand Army of the Republic) and built their own collective memory of the war, centered on their efforts and losses at battles such as Antietam and Fredericksburg; they focused also on Gettysburg, where their numbers were small but where Irish units played a crucial role in repelling Pickett's charge. Pride in these achievements, in addition to the more important place Irish-Americans enjoyed in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s, intensified their loyalty to their American-Irish identity, while allowing them to still give widespread support to Fenianism in this period. Bruce points out that even in the 1890s Irish-Americans still suffered from considerable anti-Irish prejudice but asserts that their proud memory of service in the Civil War, in spite of the admixture of bitterness that was inevitably part of it, helped reinforce their sense of communal autonomy and was of significant benefit to them in the early decades of the new century.

This is an impressive book. While Susannah Bruce asserts at the outset that she did not intend to write a narrative, her writing style has good narrative qualities and is engaging throughout. Her descriptions of the Irish role in several of the more important battles are especially vivid and are accompanied by excellent maps. Letters, diaries, memoirs and newspapers form the bedrock of her sources and, in part because the text is liberally sprinkled with well chosen quotes, the reader gets a good sense of the human drama-and tragedy-that the Civil War was for Irish-Americans. Photographs of the more prominent members of Irish units are an important addition to the text too. Bruce's thesis seems convincing, given the evidence she has produced, and would appear to reinforce the general argument that the Irish continued to occupy the margins of society in nineteenth-century America; thus, in spite of plentiful evidence of their racist attitude to African-Americans, this work offers a corrective to Noel Ignatiev's suggestion (How The Irish Became White) that Irish immigrants quickly became part of the American mainstream.

Bruce has done an exceptional job. She addresses the inevitable quandary of dealing with Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant immigrants and suggests at the outset that her focus will be on Catholics, although, now and again, we encounter the emotional (and political) struggles that Irish Protestants faced during the war years too; it is not always clear if they have "Irish" attitudes though, and the pattern here seems to be inconsistent; it is notable too that, in spite of how inappropriate the term may now be, she uses the label "Scots-Irish" several times for Irish Protestants. The evidence called upon is almost all anecdotal and while, it gives us a good sense of how those who committed their thoughts/experiences to paper felt about the war, it does limit our perspective a little. There might have been more by way of statistical evidence incorporated into the work, especially to give the reader a sense of how many Irish from different regions of the country served. Indeed, the matter of different regional experiences, while surely a relevant part of the story, does not get a lot of attention, apart from a pattern of evidence that suggests that abuse of Irish soldiers was as common in the Midwestern forces as it was in those of the East. The concluding chapter, while well focused, is regrettably brief.

This is a well researched and well presented work. It adds significantly to our understanding of both the Civil War as a national experience and of the Irish-American ethnic experience in the nineteenth century. Bruce's findings reinforce the view that the Irish were the prototype of America's immigrant peoples and their story in the Civil War and in the twenty or so years afterwards reminds us of the striking similarities between what they endured and what immigrants in twentieth and twenty-first century America have faced--and face. Susannah Bruce has done us an important service.

--University of Evansville, Indiana
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Title Annotation:The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865
Author:Gahan, Daniel
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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