Susannah Ural received her Ph.D. from Kansas State University, where her dissertation morphed into her first book, The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865. She’s now researching her next book, Hood’s Texans, to be published by Louisiana State University Press. Ural, who teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi and summers at her family’s home on the North Carolina coast, also writes CWT’s web reviews.
What inspired your interest in military history and the Civil War?
Part of it is the military influence in the family and war stories—and talking about those things growing up. For as long as I can remember I have been reading about soldiers and war.
My first interest was World War II and then the American Revolution, but by grad school I couldn’t choose between World War II and the Civil War, and then I just started gravitating more and more toward it.
I wrote my master’s thesis on a German-American general, Peter Osterhaus. After that I started thinking about what I really loved about military history, and it has always been the common soldier. Why do these soldiers volunteer? How does war change them?
Were you treated differently in grad school because you were female?
There’s an assumption that a woman wouldn’t really be interested in military history, but once they saw I was doing my work and serious, there was no difference. A woman doing military history wasn’t quite as shocking as it would have been a generation ago.
What led you to look at Irish soldiers in The Harp and the Eagle?
I’ve always been interested in common soldiers, as I’ve said. And I was also thinking that the United States wasn’t a particularly lovely place to be for an immigrant in the 1850s. Why would those guys volunteer? It’s a fabulous twist.
Explain the conundrum between the Irish Brigade and Irish antiwar riots.
The Irish responses to the war in 1863 are far different than in 1861. Relatively speaking, they are all for the war in 1861, but my argument is that Emancipation marked the fading point for war support.
You get the Emancipation Proclamation, General George McClellan gets relieved, then the Irish Brigade takes heavy casualties during the absolute mess at Fredericksburg—not to mention what happened at Bloody Lane at Antietam before Emancipation. In March 1863, the Enrollment Act was passed, and they were feeling it was a rich man’s war, poor man’s fight. Suddenly if you’ve simply declared the intent to become a citizen, you can be drafted. You don’t even have to be a citizen to be drafted into the Army, which they had been promised by Abraham Lincoln’s administration would not happen.
The Irish were convinced they were going to be sacrificed for a war that would now hurt them. Part of this was just racism, part of it was fears that blacks would take their jobs. But part of it was that this is a group that—culturally—was historically suspicious of federal authority infringing on their lives, whether that’s the government in Britain or in the United States.
Why haven’t we heard more about the antiwar side of the Irish?
It’s not a fun story to tell or to hear. The heroic images and memories of units like the Irish Brigade and its commanders were a postwar response from Irish Catholics. At that time, a lot of late- 19th-century Americans were only remembering the Draft Riots, so you get people like Father Corby of Gettysburg fame and former Irish Brigade commander St. Clair Mulholland writing their memoirs to say, “Wait a minute, Irish Catholics did fight, we did serve.”
Do modern audiences sometimes find your theories hard to take?
I did have one guy tell me that my book is one of the hardest things he’s ever had to read. He keeps putting it down, and he’s angry because it’s not nice to be told that your ancestors were all gung-ho in the war until the idea of black freedom came about, and then they were rioting. But this was 19th-century America, and there was plenty of racism to go around.
The racial situation in 19th-century America is so complex.
The Draft Riot talks are the hardest to discuss because it is an ugly story and I can’t defend what the Irish did. By 1863, the Irish were a very angry, frustrated group, and I try and explain why they were so angry.
You’ve shifted from the Irish Brigade to the Texas Brigade. Why?
I was astonished that for a unit that famous, there had not been a history done of it since the early 1970s. Harold Simpson, a retired Air Force colonel, wrote a history of the Texas Brigade, and then put out a compendium on the units and their rosters, plus some works on reunions, so it’s basically a four-volume collection. He gathered so much material that it has been the starting point for my research.
How will your book be different?
Our interpretations of the war have changed significantly since the 1970s, and there is a lot more that can be done with the brigade. The late historian T. Harry Williams once wrote that if a unit history is done right it is a study of democracy at war, and that’s what I’m doing with my socio-military history of these men.
Confederates held up the Texas Brigade as one of their best units. They had this rugged frontier Texas thing going on that east coast Southerners didn’t always know what to do with— but they were still fascinated by it.
So their fighting reputation is not overrated or exaggerated?
No. They’re a phenomenal unit. These guys absolutely believed they were some of the best Confederates around, and they absolutely believed they were going to win the war.
What’s the most surprising thing you found out about the Texas Brigade?
Their stance on slavery. It’s a key question that scholars will want answered, but the Texans don’t talk about it, and I will not put words in their mouths. What’s interesting is how this changed by 1863. I argue that, until then, they never thought they could lose. When they saw black men in blue uniforms shooting at them, though, this was a wake-up call that their world was changing; that everything they knew could disappear. From that point forward they definitely discuss slavery, and their comments and actions could be vicious.
But Texas was not a major slaveholding state compared to others.
The Texas Brigade units predominantly come from East Texas, where the majority of the slaves were. These guys came from small slave-owning families or are socially or economically tied to slaveowning families.
Between the Irish and the Texans, do you have a favorite personality?
You have to be careful that you don’t identify with anyone, but there’s a guy by the name of Watson Dugat Williams in the 5th Texas, and he’s just a good storyteller. He is this lovesick guy who’s always positive his fiancée is going to run off with one of the home guard!
But my all-time favorite is J.B. Polley of the 4th Texas. He was a beautiful writer—just phenomenal. He edited a number of his letters before publishing them, so people don’t realize that even before revisions, the man was a masterful writer. And he’s hilarious, threatening to vote for the Republicans if the Democrats don’t shape up in the postwar period—he’s a fabulous character in the book.
After the Texas Brigade book, what do you plan to research next?
I have to finish some edited collections on the Texans, and then I’d like to look at some of the units coming out of southern Mississippi, and do community studies around those soldiers and their families.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.