Immigrants in a Time of Civil War
Immigrants in a Time of Civil War: The Irish, Slavery, and the Union, 1845-1865 Ian Delahanty (Kevin Kenny, adviser) Irish Americans' involvement in the national conflict over slavery that engulfed the United States from 1845 to 1865 reflected the international perspective of an immigrant group. Many Irish first encountered the issue of American slavery in Ireland, where nationalists and abolitionists clashed over Ireland receiving aid from America during the Irish potato famine. Irish nationalists decried abolitionism as harmful to national unity and neglectful of Irish poverty, an argument that the famine immigrants brought with them to America and adapted to Irish Americans' circumstances. At the same time, many Irish Americans saw their adopted country as a sanctuary for the oppressed and as a future ally for an independent Ireland. They were loath to see the nation divided, and in the sectional crisis of the 1850s, they blamed antislavery agitators for pushing America to the brink of civil war. Irish immigrants' antebellum support for slavery resulted from these transatlantic strains of anti-abolitionism and Unionism. When the Civil War began in 1861, Irish Americans rallied to the Union cause in order to preserve and perpetuate the United States as an immigrant haven and as a model republic. Many soon feared that Republicans' antislavery war policies were not only prolonging the war but also weakening the position of immigrant labor. Yet other Irish immigrants, especially those in the army, learned from the progression of the war that emancipation would facilitate the Union's restoration. Crucially, wartime developments--including British foreign policy, emigration from Ireland, and a rejuvenated Irish nationalist movement in Ireland and America--sustained the notion that the Union's survival had a tangible and particular importance to the Irish. By the end of the conflict, many Irish immigrants who had once defended slavery were advocates of emancipation. Countless northerners underwent a similar change. But the Irish-American story shows that immigrants' backgrounds in their homeland and their unique status in America combined to give them a singular perspective on the internecine conflict over slavery.