Irish Americans have long filled a special, if changing, role in American life and development. Between 1710 and 1775 an estimated 200,000 Scots-Irish left for America while during the American war of independence an estimated third of Washington’s army was made up of Irish volunteers. Subsequently, writing home, Irish settlers described America as a land of great opportunity, free of landlords and tyranny, and natural resources beyond their wildest dreams. Many more Irish followed, enticed by such descriptions although anti-Irish tensions increased because, as Roman Catholics they were viewed with suspicion and prejudice and for a time no other group of immigrants were considered to be lower than the Irish who formed the first ghettos in America. Yet, by 1860 over 50 per cent of the New York police were Irish. Back in Ireland, whose population in 1840 was about eight million, disaster struck in 1845 with the potato famine that reduced the population to about three million over ten years by death from famine or as migrants to America. Between 1845 and 1853 an estimated two million Irish arrived in America. By 1860 the Irish had become a major force in urban politics. Then came the American civil war. Due to the numbers involved, the terrible casualties, the development of the concept of total war this civil war has come to be regarded as the first modern war.
The author then examines the progress of the civil war but does so twice: first he deals in chronological order with the principal battles and their outcome; then he looks at them again from the point of view of Irish involvement. It is an unusual but effective way of dealing with his theme. As the war progressed and the high rate of Irish casualties became known shock and horror pervaded the Irish community in New York with its growing number of widows. It was an insatiable war and draft measures had to be introduced to raise the required number of troops. The author spells out the Irish contribution and losses in each of the major battles and the Irish impact, by any standards (in both the Union and Confederate armies) was enormous.
It is the usual tragedy of our world that the Irish made an indelible contribution to their acceptance as part of the United States through warfare. In his final chapter, The Irish after the American Civil War, the author claims that the war proved a transformation act for the Irish. No longer were they seen as the lowest of the low. A final quote: While their nationalism had never been questioned, their commitment and bravery on both sides of the war and their sheer force of numbers established them as American patriots. The book represents a substantial addition to the history of the Irish in America.
= = = = =