Susannah Ural Bruce. The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army 1861-1865. New York: New York University Press, 2006. xiii + 309 pp. $22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8147-9940-6.
Reviewed by Rory T. Cornish (Department of History, Winthrop University)
Published on H-War (May, 2008)
The Irish are Coming!
At the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861, Catholic Irish soldiers had already established a long and well-respected tradition of service abroad in continental European armies. Driven out of Ireland by religious persecution, political oppression, stark economic realities, a wish for adventure or even by a wish to strike a blow against England, regular Irish companies had been established in the service of Spain as early as 1587. Following the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, Irish soldiers throughout the eighteenth century served in the Spanish Hibernia Regiment, the French Dillon Regiment, and the Austrian O'Donnell Regiment. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, sons of both Wolfe Tone and Daniel O'Connell served in foreign armies and it was to this tradition that Thomas Francis Meagher called upon the Irish in America to support the cause of the Union in one of his most stirring speeches, "The Irish Soldier: His Present Duty to the American Republic," delivered in Boston on September 23, 1861.
Why approximately 150,000 Irish Catholics, Irish Americans, or American Irish would fight for the North, a region of the United States heavily influenced by Know-Nothing Nativism during he antebellum period, is the subject of Susannah Ural Bruce's new study. This question in itself is hardly a new one, but fight the Irish did, especially the Irish Brigade originally founded by Meagher. One of the most prominent ethnic units of the Army of the Potomac, the Irish Brigade became a first rate combat command and, consequently, a focal point of many previous ethnic studies regarding foreigners in the Union Army. These have ranged from the earlier monograph by Ella Lonn, Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy (1951), to the more recent William L. Burton's Melting Pot Soldiers (1998), to specific Irish Brigade studies, such as Pia Seija Seagrove's edited collection of essays, The History of the Irish Brigade (1995) and Joseph G. Bilby's The Irish Brigade in the Civil War (1998).
Bruce's new study, however, is a welcome addition to the topic as she broadens the original question why the Irish Catholic fought to also consider the impact the war itself had on Irish American communities, and how Irish Catholic men "and their communities understood their service in the Union Army" (p. 2). As Irish support for the war weakened, the author also explores how this impacted the native born American view of the Irish Catholic--from the gallant and brave Celt of 1861, to the violent draft rioter of 1863, and the disloyal Democrat Party peace at any price advocate of 1864, through to the post-war lingering fear that Irish foreigners somehow posed a threat "to all that was good in America" (p. 189). Increased Fenian activity, especially the raids into Canada in 1866 and in the 1870's, only contributed to this suspicion, and a fascinating section of The Harp and Eagle delineates how antebellum nativist prejudices resurfaced during the immediate post-war years. This, together with suspicions regarding Irish loyalty to the United States, would, Bruce suggests, "darken the Irish for years to come, and the history of Irish bravery, loyalty, and devotion to (the) Union would remain buried for decades" (p. 232).
In her review of the Irish military experience during the war the author goes beyond merely focusing on the Irish Brigade and its mercurial first commander, Thomas Francis Meagher. This allows her to consider the equally important role played by other ethnic leaders during the war, such as Michael Corcoran and the often overlooked James A. Mulligan, a first generation Irish American lawyer from Chicago. Consequently, her description of the Irish contribution to the crucial battle at Gettysburg highlights the role of Colonel Dennis O'Kane of the 69th Pennsylvania, and Captain James McKay Rorty of the 1st New York Light Artillery, as well as resurrecting the often overlooked pivotal role played by Colonel Patrick H. O'Rorke of the140th New York Infantry in securing Little Round Top on the second day of the battle. Although the regiment was not an Irish command, O'Rorke was the son of Irish Catholic immigrants who had graduated top of his class at West Point. Also of passing interest are the various small, but fascinating, vignettes with which the author peppers the text to illustrate ordinary voices at crucial moments of the struggle. These include the reflections of Andrew and Lucy Greenless, a poor Irish Protestant family in Illinois; Andrew Sproul, another Irish Protestant, who had grown tired of the war while fighting at Vicksburg, and Abraham Irvine, yet another Irish Protestant, whose service in the 76th Illinois stirred a proud republicanism within him as he was surrounded by the carnage of Cold Harbor. Even though the author attempts, not always successfully, to broaden the Irish experience away from a concentration on the Irish Brigade, it should also be noted that her treatment of General Meagher, never an easy topic, is evenhanded and her portrayal of his decision to resign his commission in 1863 is one of the most thoughtful that has been published.
The role of such diverse figures as Meagher and Irvine must raise the questions of why the Irish volunteered to serve as they did. Not all, of course, volunteered, and Bruce ably covers topics such as the draft, whether young Irishmen facing another potential famine in Ireland came to the United States to enlist for purely pecuniary reasons, and whether others were tricked into enlistment by unscrupulous recruiters. Throughout her study, the notion of "dual loyalty" reoccurs constantly in the thesis that Irish soldiers constantly considered how their actions would aid both the Union and Ireland, or at least their Irish communities. While there is much to recommend such a thesis the one criticism that can be leveled at this new, valuable study is that it rather overplays the Fenian motivations behind early volunteerism, while also underplaying the strong commitment to both the American Constitution and republicanism that many of the more literate Irish solders often voiced. The war would transform what it meant to be Irish American and many of those Irish who were involved understood this point perfectly well. For, as the author notes in her excellent final chapter, "Father was a Soldier of the Union," in the post-war period the Irish in America had come to see this side of the Atlantic as home, increasingly creating an American-Irish Catholic identity . It was perhaps, after all, in this period of post-war tradition creating, and recollecting past service in the war that the Irish Brigade, in which over 7,715 soldiers, actually fought became a focal point in memorial services and statue building. To many ex-servicemen, the Irish Brigade came to symbolize their collective sacrifice to Union cause. The war was increasingly seen by many as a right-of-passage to equal citizenship.
The Harp and Eagle is well written, well researched and has widened our vision of not only why the Irish fought to preserve the Union, but also made it clearer what the war actually meant to the America Irish in their eventual transformation into Irish Americans. Dr. Bruce's transatlantic approach to her topic has opened many doors, and posted many signposts to future students of this period. Overall, The Harp and the Eagle is one of the most valuable and interesting books published on the nineteenth century transatlantic Irish experience since the often overlooked Joseph M. Hernon, Celts, Catholics and Copperheads (1968).
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Rory T. Cornish. Review of Bruce, Susannah Ural, The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army 1861-1865.
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