The Fight for the American Dream: Irish-Americans and the Civil War
Danver, Brian Drew
From 1861 to 1865 the United States tore itself apart in the Civil War. The staggering loss of life exemplifies the tragedy of the conflict, which is widely regarded as the defining moment of our nation's history. Furthermore, the war represents the nation's epic clash to purge its lands from the horrors of chattel slavery and fulfill the promises of the Declaration of Independence.The Civil War is rightly remembered as a battle over slavery, but it also remains as a pivotal moment in the lives of many Irish-Americans, who had recently arrived from their native land in the hope of finding a better life. These immigrants had fled a colony that suffered from starvation but came to a nation in political turmoil. They faced intense discrimination for their religious beliefs and endured a tumultuous assimilation process.The Irish enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies in the hopes of ridding themselves of nativist ridicule and providing better lives for their families. In other words, they sought to achieve the American Dream of upward mobility and were willing to fight for this goal on the battlefield. They felt as if they could gain equality through shedding blood for their adopted homeland in the war.This thesis will explore the harrowing story of the Irish in the Civil War and consider their successes and failures in the conflict. The first chapter will analyze their journey from Europe to America during the Great Famine and the persecution they endured upon arrival. The second chapter will closely study the actions of Irish soldiers in four major battles: Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg. The third chapter will consider the Irish community's frustrations with the war, as many felt as if they were used in dangerous combat mission disproportionately to native-born combatants. These frustrations were most clearly and terribly manifested in the New York City Riots of 1863. This chapter will explore the motivations for these riots and the relationship between Irish and African-Americans.The experience of the Irish in the Civil War reveals that the American Dream is not promised or guaranteed. The Dream often comes disguised as a fight, and only those citizens who are willing to battle can keep it alive.
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