Irish attitudes to slavery during the American Civil War

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (July-August 2013), Letters, Letters, Volume 21

Sir,—I write to register some disagreement with Daniel Downer’s article ‘Irish attitudes to slavery during the American Civil War’ (HI 21.3, May/June 2013). First, the argument is somewhat of a straw-man construction. No one has doubted that many, and probably most, Irish emigrants to the US in the Civil War era took an extreme white supremacist view of blacks, and were stalwarts of the Democratic Party that espoused those views. Surely, that is old news?

Second, the reasons for this are less clear than Mr Downer thinks. The economic argument falls flat for two reasons: compared to hundreds of thousands of Irish in the cities of the North, there were only thousands of African-Americans, if at all. Blacks moved North only in small numbers in the antebellum USA, and there were surely not enough to generate the economic rivalry we hear about. Furthermore, why did the Irish not show the same venomous economic rivalry towards contemporary German immigrants, or later Italian ones?

The economic argument has always seemed weak. The social/psychological argument is far stronger, advanced by David Roediger in The Wages of Whiteness, that the Irish ‘became white’ to psychologically rise above the menial and servile circumstances many shared with blacks.

Regarding the New York draft riots of 1863, the figure of 1,000 dead stated by some contemporaries has not been verified by modern research. Adrian Cook in The Armies of the Streets could only find records of some 10% of that figure, and only a dozen African-Americans. This leads me to believe that the racial aspects of the riot, though certainly shocking, are over-emphasised, and most of the mob violence was directed elsewhere. I outlined the wider context of the draft riots in an article (HI 11.2, Summer 2003) and a letter (HI 12.1, Spring 2004).

Mr Downer might also have examined the views of a significant Irish group—those who joined the Union Army. While Irish recruitment dropped off as the war progressed, Irish soldiers also re-volunteered in large numbers when their enlistments were over, and a sizeable group must have voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1864. That does not support the picture of mass disillusionment after the Emancipation Proclamation and the recruitment of blacks into the Army.

It seems that most Irish adopted a pragmatic attitude to blacks as fellow-soldiers. Influential in this regard was Irish-born Colonel Charles G. Halpine, who served on the staff of abolitionist General David Hunter. Under the pseudonym Miles O’Reilly, Halpine wrote an inspired piece of doggerel, comically offensive to modern politically correct ears, called Sambo’s right to be kilt. Some of the mildest lines in regard to the African-American soldier were as follows:

So hear me all, boys darlin’,
Don’t think I’m tippin’ you chaff,
The right to be kilt we’ll divide wid him,
And give him the largest half!

Another abolitionist officer, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the first to recruit and lead a regiment of African-Americans, wrote that the song ‘eased acceptance of black soldiers among white troops’.

The American Irish of the Civil War era disappoint us moderns by going so quickly from being oppressed to being oppressors. But, rather than condemning them, we should realise that they adopted a viable, but not praiseworthy, survival strategy in what was a society deeply divided over race and slavery. It would be interesting to have Daniel Downer tell us more about the nuances among the sinners, whom we should try to understand, while rejecting their sins.—Yours etc.,




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