Becoming American under Fire

Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era

Christian G. Samito
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Becoming American under Fire
    Book Description:

    In Becoming American under Fire, Christian G. Samito provides a rich account of how African American and Irish American soldiers influenced the modern vision of national citizenship that developed during the Civil War era. By bearing arms for the Union, African Americans and Irish Americans exhibited their loyalty to the United States and their capacity to act as citizens; they strengthened their American identity in the process. Members of both groups also helped to redefine the legal meaning and political practices of American citizenship.

    For African American soldiers, proving manhood in combat was only one aspect to their quest for acceptance as citizens. As Samito reveals, by participating in courts-martial and protesting against unequal treatment, African Americans gained access to legal and political processes from which they had previously been excluded. The experience of African Americans in the military helped shape a postwar political movement that successfully called for rights and protections regardless of race.

    For Irish Americans, soldiering in the Civil War was part of a larger affirmation of republican government and it forged a bond between their American citizenship and their Irish nationalism. The wartime experiences of Irish Americans helped bring about recognition of their full citizenship through naturalization and also caused the United States to pressure Britain to abandon its centuries-old policy of refusing to recognize the naturalization of British subjects abroad.

    As Samito makes clear, the experiences of African Americans and Irish Americans differed substantially-and at times both groups even found themselves violently opposed-but they had in common that they aspired to full citizenship and inclusion in the American polity. Both communities were key participants in the fight to expand the definition of citizenship that became enshrined in constitutional amendments and legislation that changed the nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6376-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-12)

    Attorney General Edward Bates grew frustrated as he contemplated, in late 1862, what constituted citizenship in the United States. Despite the Supreme Court’s exclusionary Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling in 1857, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase asked Bates for his official opinion as to whether the United States could recognize black men as citizens, making them eligible to command American ships, after a federal revenue cutter detained a schooner captained by a black man. Bates examined legal treatises and court rulings to find an explanation of what it meant to be a citizen of the United States in the...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Crisis of Citizenship in the 1850s
    (pp. 13-25)

    A crisis of citizenship wracked the United States between the Mexican War and the Civil War. Debate concerning slavery, citizenship for free blacks and immigrants, and the rights applicable to both groups, intensified during the 1850s. These discussions reveal a broader question with which society wrestled in the decade before the Civil War and another one that it tried to avoid: Who comprised the American people and what did citizenship mean?

    The idea of citizenship based on voluntary consent emerged during the Revolutionary era, when Americans rejected subjectship and developed the concept that individuals had the right to choose their...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Question of Armed Service
    (pp. 26-44)

    As the crisis of citizenship culminated with the Civil War, whether African Americans or Irish Americans would actively participate in the struggle for the Union remained uncertain in light of their prewar experiences and ambiguous allegiances. Yet many Irish Americans and African Americans seized on the opportunity provided them by the Civil War to work toward membership in the broader local and national community, and they entered a new phase in the debate about what American citizenship meant and who could partake in it. Both groups immediately linked any decision to serve in the armed forces with a new location...

  7. CHAPTER 3 African Americans in Arms
    (pp. 45-76)

    Minutes after Alexander T. Augusta boarded a train in Baltimore, a white teenager tore off a shoulder strap from his uniform. As Augusta scolded the boy, a man tore off his other strap, and other people menaced the distinguished thirty-eight-year-old doctor as he quietly took his seat. Augusta, educated in Canada and the first black surgeon to serve in the American army, reported the incident to provost guards elsewhere in the car once the group left. Determined that his attackers must be punished, Augusta went with one of the guard to the local provost marshal, who offered that any U.S....

  8. CHAPTER 4 Equal Rights and the Experience of Military Justice for African American Soldiers
    (pp. 77-102)

    While at camp on Folly Island, South Carolina, on May 1, 1864, Wallace Baker of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry mutinied against Lieutenant Thomas F. Ellsworth, a twenty-three-year-old from Ipswich, Massachusetts, who earned a corporal’s stripe for bravery at Gettysburg before he joined the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts as an officer. Slightly younger and hailing from Kentucky, Baker lost his temper when Ellsworth sent him to his quarters for arriving at an inspection unprepared. Baker returned before Ellsworth dismissed the company and, exasperated at his command’s laughter, the lieutenant repeatedly ordered Baker to his tent. In response, Baker muttered that he would...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Irish Americans in Arms
    (pp. 103-133)

    In March 1863, an Irish-born sergeant in the Ninth Massachusetts presented his young lieutenant, an Irish American born in Boston, with a sword on behalf of their company. Sergeant Frank Lawler anticipated that the recipient would “tarnish its bright hue in the crimson tide of those recreants who would rend to pieces our beloved adopted country.” A notion of agency pervaded that phrase commonly used by Irish American leaders, “adopted country,” in contrast to the harsh realities of the Famine which forced most of the Irish to migrate in the first place. Irish Americans and the native-born embraced each other...

  10. CHAPTER 6 African Americans and the Call for Rights
    (pp. 134-171)

    In 1868, Kentucky’s superintendent of freedmen’s affairs, Benjamin P. Runkle, announced in a speech to blacks in Louisville, “At last when the government, casting aside the last lingering remnants of prejudice, determined to use all the power it could command to crush the rebellion it offered the musket to the Black man—the musket without the promise of bounty and without the sword—How they responded let the names of 125,000 black men on the rolls of the National Army answer! How they used their arms, let Fort Wagner and Port Hudson respond!” Runkle inspired his audience by reminding them...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The Affirmation of Naturalized Citizenship in America
    (pp. 172-193)

    On June 15, 1864, the men of the Ninth Massachusetts gathered at Faneuil Hall in Boston to celebrate their homecoming after the expiration of their three-year term of enlistment. The city’s mayor thanked the veterans for doing as much as any citizens had to sustain the Union, and Massachusetts adjutant general William Schouler declared that their service helped to undermine pre-war nativism. Afterward, the regiment marched to Boston’s Irish American district in the North End for a grand reception. Before spread tables in a decorated hall, a band played “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning” and an officer of the...

  12. CHAPTER 8 The Affirmation of Naturalized Citizenship Abroad
    (pp. 194-216)

    In the spring of 1867, Fenians dispatched arms and men to Ireland aboard a ship they named Erin’s Hope. Britain arrested twenty-eight of thirty-one men within a day of their landing on Irish soil, including native-born American William J. Nagle and naturalized American John Warren. According to Nagle, the British arrested the two former Civil War officers on June 1 and kept them in the local prison at Youghal until June 4 before marching them in handcuffs through the streets of Cork to the jail in that city—“the penalty of being an American soldier with Irish blood in my...

  13. EPILOGUE: The Legacy of National Citizenship in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction
    (pp. 217-236)

    Americans confronted anew during the 1860s the issues of who comprised “the people,” as well as what citizenship meant, and they did so in the course of the hard-fought triumph of the Founders’ ideals of liberty and freedom over the paradox of slavery. From the smoke of the Civil War battlefields, and equally hazy antebellum understandings of what national citizenship meant, Americans began to clarify citizenship doctrine and practice in ways still with us today. Citizenship as a concept became primarily national in character. It contained certain civil, political, and economic rights to be safeguarded principally by the federal government,...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 237-274)
  15. Works Cited
    (pp. 275-292)
  16. Index
    (pp. 293-306)