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The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865

by Susannah Ural Bruce, New York University Press, 2006, 320 pages, $22.

On December 27, 1862, Captain William J. Nagle of the 88th New York Infantry wrote to his father after participating in the Battle of Fredericksburg: “Irish blood and Irish bones cover that terrible field today. We are slaughtered like sheep, and no result but defeat.” A few weeks later New York’s Irish-American newspaper, reflecting the sentiments of that city’s large Irish population, published a haunting letter from a nameless Irish soldier, pronouncing, “All is dark, and lonesome, and sorrow hangs like a shroud over us all.”

The words of Captain Nagle and that anonymous Irish soldier echoed the sentiments of many sons of Erin serving in the Army of the Potomac’s fabled Irish Brigade and reflected an ideological sea change occurring throughout the Irish-American community concerning Union war aims and tactics. Why did more than 150,000 Irishmen, many of them recent immigrants and not yet citizens, rally to the Union cause and fight valiantly on many of the Civil War’s bloodiest killing fields? Why did the patriotic ardor of their friends and families in the United States and Ireland fade as the war progressed, the casualty lists lengthened and Northern war aims evolved from a fight to save the Union to a war to free the slaves?

These are important questions whose answers are essential to a more thorough understanding of the motivations of Civil War soldiers: why they volunteered and fought, how they persevered through the hardships of camp life and the horrors of the battlefield, and the mythologies they created during and after the war to justify their military service. A new generation of Civil War scholars is following the trail blazed by Bell Irvin Wiley more than 60 years ago to uncover the reasons behind the actions.

The answers cannot be found by reading traditional battle narratives, regimental histories or biographies of Civil War officers. They often lie hidden in dank church basements, moldering in the archives of little-known community newspapers, pressed between the dusty covers of long forgotten diaries or scrawled on the yellowing pages of crumbling letters to friends, families and sweethearts.

Susannah Ural Bruce has adroitly plumbed the depths of these vital primary sources to give us The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865, an important contribution to the emerging genre of common soldiers’ histories. Bruce began her excavations as a doctoral dissertation but fortunately has reworked her academic treatise into a highly readable yet erudite study of the Irish-Catholic community in the North. She clearly presents her theses and supports them with insightful analyses and appropriate examples from a host of archives in both America and Ireland.

Bruce argues that Irish immigrants, largely unskilled rural laborers fleeing the notorious Potato Famine of the 1840s, arrived in an America rife with religious discrimination and “Know Nothing” nativism. Nevertheless, Irishmen flocked to defend their adopted homeland to prove their loyalty, gain experience for future military operations against the hated English, ensure a safe haven for friends and family still in Ireland and improve their economic opportunities in a unified postwar America. Countless others joined not for ideological reasons but to obtain food, clothing, shelter and money.

“An Irish man’s decision to join the Union Army,” Bruce writes, “and the support or criticism he received from his family regarding this decision, was shaped by his and their religion, economic background, age, duration of time in the United States, birthplace, location in America, and many other factors.” Irishmen divided their loyalties between fidelity to their native soil, the needs of their families and the opportunities available in their adopted homeland irrespective of the persecution and discrimination they experienced on an almost daily basis.

Bruce focuses primarily on Irishmen serving in the Eastern theater with the Army of the Potomac, though she does reference the experiences of Midwest Irishmen serving in regiments from Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. A fuller investigation of their wartime experiences and how they were similar or different from their countrymen in the East is still needed for a complete picture.

Irishmen tended to enlist in regiments primarily or exclusively made up of their fellow countrymen. The story of Irish participation in the Civil War cannot be written without reference to the Army of the Potomac’s famous Irish Brigade, made up of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York, the 28th Massachusetts and the 116th Pennsylvania. Led by Thomas Francis Meagher and later by other Irish officers, the brigade upheld the fighting tradition begun in the 17th century by the “Wild Geese,” warriors who fled English rule in Ireland to serve in foreign armies and fight on foreign soil. Bloodied on the Peninsula, tenacious at Second Manassas and Antietam, gutted at Fredericksburg and heroic at Gettysburg, the brigade evolved into the stuff of legend just about the time Irish support of the war effort was waning.

Bruce argues that changing Union war aims, including issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of legislation instituting a Federal draft, had as much to do with Irish disillusionment of the war as did the lengthening butcher’s bill, listing a profusion of Irish surnames. Even though they were a minority group familiar with discrimination, the Irish had little sympathy for African Americans, viewing them more as competition in the labor market than as people yearning for freedom. Many Irish participated in the draft riots that broke out in New York and other Northern cities, angry because more well-to-do individuals could buy their way out of military service.

The weakest part of Bruce’s book comes at the end. Her chapter on Irish veterans and the creation of an Irish-American identity doesn’t go much beyond establishing that few Irishmen joined postwar veterans associations, primarily because of church policy against membership in secret societies. She does show that Irish bloc voting was a building block of the postwar Democratic Party and that the dedication of battlefield monuments recognizing the sacrifices of the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg helped Americanize aging veterans.

This is a minor quibble with an overwhelmingly fine monograph. Perhaps Bruce is inviting future scholars to examine how military service affected the postwar lives of Irish veterans and how their myths of a just war contributed to the spirit, or lack thereof, of reconciliation that dominated the North in the Gilded Age. Bruce does make one legacy of military service, however, emerge with crystal clarity: After the war, Irish Americans saw themselves as American Irish.


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here