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Dying for Dixie

Enrico Dal Lago

The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America, by David T Gleeson, University of North Carolina Press, 307 pp., €35, ISBN: 978-1469607566

The year 2013 is particularly significant in the historical memory of the United States. It falls in the middle of the five-year-long commemorations of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the American Civil War (1861-65), the great struggle between Abraham Lincoln’s Union and the majority of the southern states, gathered in Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy – a war that caused over six hundred thousand deaths. This year’s commemorations in particular remind us of the importance of 1863 as a turning point in the war, specifically as a result of the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg and of the release of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the South. Many books, both scholarly and popular, and several movies – among which, most notably, there is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) – have reminded us of the events of the American Civil and the main cause that led to its unfolding, that is the struggle over slavery. In fact, the recognisably universal nature of the struggle between slavery and freedom, represented in the collision between the South’s Confederate government, advocate of slavery, and the North’s Union government, opposed to slavery, is the most important feature that makes the American Civil War an event that transcends the boundaries of the history of the United States. The victory of Lincoln’s Union over the Confederacy and the defeat of southern slaveholders were, in this perspective, nothing short of a gigantic, indispensable, step in the history that ultimately led to the victory of freedom over slavery in our own modern world.

Yet the American Civil War has a significance that goes well beyond the history of the United States for another reason – namely the participation of thousands of European soldiers on both sides of the struggle. Among the “ethnic” soldiers of European descent, Germans, British, Irish, French and Poles were the most represented, especially in the Union. The history of these soldiers in the Union army is well-known and has led to the publication of some important scholarly works. The same, however, cannot be said in regard to the Confederacy, since the history of ethnic soldiers of European origins in that army has not received the same amount of scholarly attention, partly because their numbers were much much smaller than for the Union. The case of the scholarship on Irish soldiers in the American Civil War is emblematic in this sense, since, until recently, the lack of academic studies on the Irish Confederates represented a well-known problem for those interested in the subject. To be sure, at the start of the American Civil War, ninety-five per cent of the Irish in America lived in the North, and 150,000 of them fought for the Union – most famously in the renowned “Irish Brigade”, under the command of Thomas Francis Meagher. Therefore, it is no wonder that most studies have focused on the Irish soldiers in the Union army; among them the most notable is probably Susannah Ural Bruce’s The Harp and the Eagle (2006).

Providing, in many ways, a study that is a perfect counterpart to Bruce’s work on the Irish in the Union, David Gleeson has now filled this gap in the scholarship with his new book The Green and the Gray, effectively the first academic monograph written on Irish soldiers in the Confederacy. Gleeson had already published an important work called The Irish in the South (2001) on a related neglected area of scholarship, providing an overview of the Irish experience in the southern states between 1815 and the post-Civil War years. Doubtless, The Green and the Gray stems directly from that earlier study, which had covered Irish involvement in the Confederacy only in a couple of chapters, in order to expand on, and provide a thorough explanation of, some important claims that Gleeson had hinted at in his 2001 work, when discussing the making of Irish-American identity in the US South. In The Green and the Gray, the issue of identity, and specifically of single vs. multiple and conflicting national identities – Irish, American, Confederate, Southerner – is at the very heart of the research. It is the underlining theme that runs through the entire work and it ultimately explains the fundamental question that has driven Gleeson to write his book: why did several thousand Irishmen who did not directly profit from slavery decide to fight for a government and a nation – the Confederacy – whose declared purpose was to protect the slaveholding system in the South?

To answer this difficult question, Gleeson has undertaken extensive research in the archives of all the US southern states that belonged to the Confederacy, with a particular emphasis on Virginia, where the Museum of the Confederacy is located, and Louisiana and South Carolina – with the two largest concentrations of Irish in southern urban settings, in New Orleans and Charleston – as well as in archives in Washington, London, and Northern Ireland. His purpose was to obtain as much information on individual case studies as possible so as to reconstruct with a good approximation the mindset that characterised Irish soldiers in the Confederate army and, more generally, Irish southerners during the American Civil War. The results of his research have essentially confirmed his main thesis, clearly presented clearly in his introduction: namely that “the war experience and its aftermath were crucial to the integration of Irish immigrants to white society in the South”. In seeking to understand the contours and the details of the answer to this working hypothesis, thus, Gleeson’s research has focused on the fundamental issue of the identity of the Irish in the South, and, for the purpose of his study, he has considered “Irish” both those who were born in Ireland and also those who were born in America but had a strong “Irish ethnic awareness”.

In particular, in relation to the tormented issue of Confederate identity, which is the focus of much recent scholarship, Gleeson tells us that, when the eleven southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate nation, the Irish in the South proved “reluctant secessionists”, and afterwards retained an ambiguous attitude toward Confederate nationalism, since “Irish immigrants had already negotiated their Irishness with an American national identity, and now they faced adapting to a Confederate one”. In the process, Irish immigrants resolved this conundrum by relying on the well-known and well-worn stereotype of the “Fighting Irish”, the idea of brave warriors fighting to the death for the just cause they had embraced, a stereotype which still formed an essential part of the constructed identity in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, it seems that this stereotype continues to characterise recent popular publications on the Irish Confederates, even though it is mostly a glorification and a very partial rendering of the true story of Irish soldiers in the Confederate Army – many of whom, as Gleeson clearly states, were more than willing to compromise with the enemy, and, in several cases, desert.

The Green and the Gray begins looking at the variety of Irish experiences in the South before the American Civil War and how this variety reflected on their complex and often ambiguous attitudes toward race and slavery. He takes into account both Irish slaveholders and non-slaveholders and both little known and famous supporters of slavery, such as the nationalist John Mitchel, concluding that the election of Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 and the following secession of the Confederacy effectively forced the Irish in the South to make a stand in favour of both slavery and racism, leading them to embrace “racial supremacy, even if they often bent the rules surrounding it”. In looking at the way the Irish in the South sought to demonstrate their embrace of Confederate nationalism, Gleeson then examines the Irish units of volunteers in the Confederate army – most of which were part of the armies of the three states of Virginia, Georgia, and Louisiana – the symbolism of names and flags, the identity of the Irish Confederates in relation to their names and occupations, and the impact of Confederate conscription laws later in the Civil War. In the central chapter of his book, in looking at the actual life and performance of Irish Confederate soldiers in the battlefield, Gleeson builds both on his own research on primary sources and also on insight coming from important studies on Civil War soldiers in order to understand the motivation, or the absence of it in the case of desertion – about which he provides interesting tables – for going to battle in a particularly gruesome and costly war. In line with the most recent studies, Gleeson claims that “Confederate nationalism depended on the performance of its military”,and therefore, “for an Irish soldier, going to the front ... was, in an ideological sense, a manifest and public way of displaying loyalty to the new [Confederate] republic”.

Particularly interesting are the chapters on the Irish on the Confederate home front and on the Irish Catholics. In them, Gleeson states that “support for Irish Confederate soldiers from home was vital ... to highlight to native white southerners that the entire Irish community was behind the Confederacy” (P. 172). Yet, the Confederacy’s failure to provide a strong sense of national identity led the Irish in the South, together with many other southerners, to fall back on their own religious faith during the increasingly trying times of the Civil War. In this respect, the Catholic Church, with her support for slavery, especially that of Charleston’s Bishop Patrick Lynch, and for the Confederate cause, was crucial not just during the Civil War but also later “to help the Irish and other white southerners to remember the conflict in a Confederate way”. In the final chapter of The Green and the Gray, Gleeson also looks, insightfully, at the Irish Confederate commemorations of the Civil War and at their role and contribution in creating the myth of the “Lost Cause” of Confederate bravery defeated by the Union’s ruthlessness – a contribution that helped a great deal Irish integration into white southern society in the post-Civil War U.S. South.

Ultimately, in focusing his research on the issue of the national identity of a European ethnic minority in the Confederate South at the time of the American Civil War, Gleeson has written an exemplary study that is at the crossroads of several different historical fields, some of which are relatively recent and some of which have been given new life by recent scholarly efforts. Among the former, especially important is the context of the new transnational approach to the history of Ireland and the Irish, within which we should clearly place Gleeson’s The Green and the Gray, specifically in relation to the importance given by recent scholarly studies to the Atlantic dimension in the understanding of cultural and political cross-currents in the Irish diaspora, in both the nineteenth century and in earlier periods. Gleeson himself is a staunch advocate of the Atlantic perspective in Irish history and edited a crucial collection of innovative essays – The Irish in the Atlantic World (2010) – just a few years ago. Specifically in regard to the issue of identity of nineteenth-century Irish Americans and their relationship with Atlantic slavery, this perspective has led to major advances through the work of several celebrated scholars, particularly Nini Rodgers with her groundbreaking book Ireland, Slavery, and Antislavery (2007).

At the same time, Gleeson’s The Green and the Gray is in dialogue with another important historical field, since it comes at the height of a season of studies that have fundamentally reshaped our view of the Confederacy in Civil War America. We now know much more about the intricacies and contradictions entailed in the embrace of Confederate national identity and about the different meanings that this identity assumed for different groups of southerners at different times during the Civil War, thanks to a number of fundamental works, among which the most recent are Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning (2010), and Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie (2012). Building both on the nuances coming from the new transnational approach to Irish history focused on the Atlantic, and on the new view of Confederate nationalism coming from recent works on the Confederate South during the American Civil War, thus, Gleeson has provided, with The Green and the Gray, a further, important, piece in the jigsaw of nineteenth-century Irish American identity, by focusing his study on the tormented and ambiguous contribution of the Atlantic Irish, children and grandchildren of the diaspora, to Confederate nationalism.
18/11/2013

Enrico Dal Lago is Lecturer in American History at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and author of American Slavery, Atlantic Slavery, and Beyond: The U.S. “Peculiar Institution” in International Perspective (Paradigm Publishers, 2012), and of the forthcoming William Lloyd Garrison and Giuseppe Mazzini: Abolition, Democracy, and Radical Reform (Louisiana State University Press, 2013).

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