Before the American Civil War, Irish Catholics, other immigrants and their recent descendants endured abuse and persecution by so-called nativists. Members of the Know-Nothing Party, nativists were Protestants born in the United States and usually the descendants of earlier immigrants or colonists. The nativists looked down on immigrants as scum of the earth, worthy of only cheap paying jobs that most people would not take. They were considered only a step above black slaves.
The Irish Catholics in Susannah Ural Bruce’s The Harp and the Eagle did not have an easy life even if they had escaped famine or abuses in their native Ireland. They had two strikes against them: they were Irish, and they were Catholics. Nativists questioned their loyalty to the United States, fearing that they had double first loyalties - first to Ireland, then to the Pope. Nativists feared that the Irish Catholics and other immigrant Catholic groups would band together, overthrow the American government and turn it over to the Pope. This, of course, was far-fetched, but many believed it; some still believe it today.
Bruce’s book presents how the Irish Catholics decided that, to prove their loyalty and to make some money, they would join the Union Army. They also wanted to gain some military training and experience so that they could one day go back to Ireland and help liberate the island from British rule. There were already some quasi-military units of Irish Catholics in the bigger cities; they would march in parades and do other things, acting as social clubs, too. At first. some in the government were opposed to them joining the Union Army. As the need for men increased, though, they either gave in or were ordered to give in to them by higher government officials.
Many of these groups formed their own regiments or units in the same manner as other nationalities. The Irish used green flags emblazoned with a harp for their regimental colors. As the Civil War continued and the casualty lists kept increasing - with many Irish names on them - the Irish volunteers began to wonder if they were not being used by the government as cannon folder. Many would not re-enlist when their time was up; others who were drafted became deserters. Still, the Irish Catholics did make a difference in war’s result, and they also helped to change nativists’ views of them. Bruce covers mainly the Irish Catholics who fought for the Union, but some who lived in the South fought for the Confederacy. Their numbers, though, were not as large as those in the Union Army. The Irish Catholics who fought for the Union were often not in favor of abolition or the Emancipation Proclamation; they feared they would have to compete with blacks for jobs.
The Harp and the Eagle is very academic, so general readers might find it difficult or slow to read. Others will enjoy the many issues and topics concerning the Irish Catholic involvement in the Civil War that Bruce covers. There are many black and white photos and illustrations from the time period, as well as maps, endnotes, a select bibliography and an index. This book is recommended to Civil War enthusiasts and those interested in Irish American Catholic history.
Susannah Ural Bruce is an assistant professor of History at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. She is the editor of Ethnicity and the American Civil War (2007) and author of Hood’s Texans (2007). She has also written several articles for journals and encyclopedias.