Becoming American under fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the politics of citizenship during the Civil War era

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

Becoming American under fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the politics of citizenship during the Civil War era

Christian G. Samito
(Cornell University Press, $39.95)
ISBN 9780801448461


78_small_1274267762Just as on this side of the pond, in the United States the discourse of citizenship circulates in increasingly impoverished forms. The recent repackaging of republicanism via Sarah Palin and her Tea Party cohort gives us a skewed, culturally prescriptive, picture of the ideals of American citizenship. Obama hate-campaigns show the return of the ugly spectre of racism and display chronic disregard for the founding ideals of the Union and their post-bellum redefinition. Christian G. Samito’s book is fundamentally concerned with citizenship as a Civil War inception—who and what constituted it and how it was consolidated. Samito offers a tripartite definition of citizenship—as a form of freedom encompassing civil, political and socio-economic rights—provoking, if not directly attending to, these far-ranging questions.
In the body of work pertaining to citizenship in the American Civil War, this is the first time that such an unlikely dual approach has been taken—to examine both Irish and African Americans in tandem. In James McPhearson’s seminal The battlecry of freedom (1988) the usual coupling of Irish and Germans is made, while African American Civil War agency has merited its own canon. While Samito offers a parallel narrative of Irish American and African American Civil War experiences, he is careful not to over-egg the device of comparison, drawing rather a discreet nexus. In terms of the racial perceptions of the ruling class in this period, however, the links are threadbare and the project somewhat ambitious. For Samito, mutual non-native status, subjecthood or lack of civic entitlement, and subsistence at the lowest level of the socio-economic chain, justify the bridging of the gap.
In the ante-bellum South, slaves were regarded as chattel property that could be bartered and exchanged for cash. In contrast, the majority of Irish Americans residing in the Northern industrial cities were merely destitute, non-naturalised citizens. The legacy of the Famine and mass emigration had led to slum living, crime and much-fabled alcoholism in the Irish communities. Amid touching folkloric accounts, Samito is wont to utter such truisms as ‘Peter turned to the bottle’.
The book’s guiding tenet is that readiness to fight on the part of both ethnic groups strengthened purchase on citizenship and sowed the seeds for equality. Perhaps the main tendency into which the author drifts is that of reversing cause and effect, and ascribing lofty foundations to non-native military service in this era. The narrative that constantly leaks through the seams of this excellently researched work is that the march towards American citizenship was a progressive, linear one with a clear ideological vision. Yet alongside this narrative there emerges a more prosaic one, in the Irish case for instance, that penury and the widespread appeal of the pomp and pageantry of war were actually what spurred them to fight.
Links between global republicanism and insular Irish nationalism are far too attractive for the author to ignore. Samito offers expansive coverage of Fenian activities contemporaneous with the Civil War, shedding light on the oft-mythologised picture of Fenian revolutionary rhetoric and business acumen in drumming up funds abroad. Concentrated studies of Fenian soldiers and pamphleteers such as Meagher and O’Mahony show that not only were many of the Fenian brethren unpopular amongst nativists and abolitionists alike, but they even regarded themselves as being guilty of political duplicity. The paradox of fighting in America for a global bastion of republicanism while the Irish at home suffered a dearth of leadership and numbers is interestingly touched on.
While many Irish Americans were drawn to the defence of the Union for reasons of self-advancement or romanticism, African Americans had more urgent interests at stake. Fighting the war was a double combat, upholding republican values and opposing the brutality of racism. The groundwork for emancipation and civil rights was beset with prejudice, injustice and ritual humiliation by no means specific to slave-owners. More disturbing are references to ‘the great and promising experiment of employing negroes as soldiers’ and speeches in which the ‘sinewy bodies’ of black men are called upon to form a ‘living rampart’ against the Confederate forces. The author is dexterous in describing courts martial and campaigns for equal pay, then black mutinies and Ku Klux Klan counter-revolutionary gruesomeness, making even legal and constitutional history somewhat diverting.
Becoming American under fire suggests, in its title, a foray into the bloody and bellicose birth of citizenship for non-naturalised Americans. Yet this lesson is also problematic: a proto-male, muscular narrative of barbarity, in which women feature putatively as wives, children and ‘sewing circles’. At moments, also, the author slips into a normative discourse of ‘aliens’ and ‘natives’, neglecting use of the inverted comma, and somewhat revels in the caricature of the proverbial, grog-selling Irishman abroad. One wonders whether the book is aimed at historically marginalised groups or at a depoliticised, middle-class American audience that takes the ideals of citizenship for granted.
During some of the more stilted, pedantic passages one might regret that the book happens to be an extension of the young author’s Ph.D thesis. Nevertheless, when not immersed in constitutional fora or carving a somewhat blundering social history, the clean-cut, measured documentation and use of anecdote is compelling. Painstaking archival research and gathering of materials ‘from the bottom up’ result in a sound resource for tapping into the minefield of patriotism in wartime America.  HI

Maggie Armstrong is an editor in the Royal Irish Academy.


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