Soldiering to Citizenship in the Civil War

By Susannah Ural
7/7/2010 • African Americans In The Civil War, Antebellum Period, Black History, Black History Month, Civil War, Reviews

Becoming American Under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship During the Civil War Era
by Christian G. Samito,
Cornell University Press, 2010, $39.95

Christian Samito’s Becoming American Under Fire is a superb study of the expansion of citizenship during the Civil War era. He proves that through active defense of the Union, the Irish and African Americans in the North gained the skills and confidence to demand their place in the American social and political arenas. While the expansion of citizenship affected all Americans, few groups made such a dramatic transition from antebellum nativism and slavery to the legal changes that followed the war as did Irish Catholics and blacks. Because of this, they serve as an excellent lens through which to study this process.

Samito, a practicing attorney in Boston with a Ph.D. in history from Boston College, analyzes how the experiences of these two groups, in separate but complementary ways, “helped to redefine the legal concept and practical meaning of American citizenship.” His arguments are grounded in thorough research and a sophisticated understanding of the existing scholarship. In chapters that shift between the two groups, Samito gracefully proves his case.

He stops short of the classic argument put forth by Ella Lonn and other historians that, through demonstrations of loyal military service, Irish and African Americans convinced native-born whites to embrace them as fellow citizens. There are times, however, where Samito comes close to making that claim only to later contradict himself, as when he asserts that “Irish American military service accelerated the withering, though not the death, of nativist feelings and action against them.” While there were some examples of “withering” nativism in the years immediately following the war, significant racial and ethnic prejudice returned during the 1870s and beyond, which he makes clear in his final chapter.

Samito is on stronger ground when he sticks to his central point, which is that native-born whites did not necessarily reverse their previous racial and ethnic bigotry, or if they did, there is no way to prove it was the result of minority military service. What scholars can show, and what Samito demonstrates admirably, is that the service of Irish Americans and African Americans made them more aware of their allegiance to the United States. It led them to conclude that they had earned the rights of full American citizenship, and exposed them to the tools with which they could seize these rights, with or without the help of their fellow citizens.

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