Written by Henry Carroll, 11th Grade
Louis Lang’s painting, the Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment, N.Y.S.M. from the Seat of War, carries a great and timeless message regarding an issue close to the hearts and minds of many Americans: immigration. Prominently displayed in the painting are uniformed soldiers marching through the crowd of excited civilians on their way home from the American Civil War. The New York Harbor is visible in the background, and the squalor of everyday life is portrayed in the periphery. Although on the surface it may appear to be a simple depiction of wartime activity and patriotism, this painting actually encapsulates the history of immigration in America and the role race played in that history.
The soldiers depicted were part of the Irish Brigade, one of the many ethnicity-based fighting units that served during the American Civil War. These brigades fought not only for their country, but also for their greater acceptance and equality as American citizens. The Irish Brigade fought in every battle from Bull Run to Gettysburg, and acquired a reputation for toughness and dependability. This reputation came at a steep price. By the end of the war, very few of the regiment’s original volunteers had survived. The replacements for these losses, and the original volunteers themselves, all came from the same Irish neighborhoods and ghettos in New York City. A high number of draftees and heavy losses in small concentrated areas were a large contributing factor to the New York Draft Riots in 1863.
However, the 69th’s continued loyalty and service had an impact beyond the war. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Irish immigration to the U.S., particularly in New York City, reached incredibly high levels following the Irish Potato Famine. The waves of immigration were caused by the harsh English treatment of the Irish which led to several failed Irish uprisings. Many Irish people sought to escape the economic hardships and political instability by coming to America. As a result, many Irish neighborhoods and organizations began to form. This mass immigration caused great unrest within segments of American society, primarily amongst those descended from English Protestants. They targeted the Irish because of their association with Roman Catholicism. In a time of racial discord and societal upheaval, many white Protestants viewed the Irish as non-whites. As a result of mass immigration, there was a surge of American Nativism from the 1840s through the 1860s. Nativists believed that America should only be for “Americans,” which they defined as white Protestants, typically from England. Exclusion from society, along with other factors such as patriotism and Irish nationalism, created a strong impetus in the Irish population to fight in the Civil War to prove their worth. This strategy worked. Following the Civil War, the Irish gained societal acceptance and recognition. While their role in the fighting was not the only reason, it is often cited as one of the main causes behind this social status change.
The experience of the American Irish is similar to that of many other ethnic groups in American history, with a particular commonality being the influence of war. Irishmen, African Americans, Asian Americans, and other minority groups have fought time and again to defend a nation and a society that did not accept them. For some, the military was a path towards gaining social acceptance. In American history, conflict is intrinsically linked to citizenship. Even today, service in the US military offers a path to citizenship for many immigrants. The realities and history expressed in Lang’s painting remain relevant to this day and offer a powerful lesson on the importance of understanding citizenship as it relates to war and immigration in American history.
“Certificates and form letters relating to the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, dated January 1, 1862 – March 11, 1865.” Regiment Collection, Miscellaneous: 69Th New York State Militia (January 1862): 001-009. Civil War Primary Source Documents, EBSCOhost (accessed February 7, 2018).
Harris, Leslie M. “The New York City Draft Riots of 1863.” University of Chicago Press. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/317749.html&title=The New York City Draft Riots of 1863&desc=.
History.com Staff. “The Irish Brigade.” History.com. 2010. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/the-irish-brigade.
Klein, Christopher. “When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century’s Refugee Crisis.” History.com. March 16, 2017. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.history.com/news/when-america-despised-the-irish-the-19th-centurys-refugee-crisis.
“Know-Nothing Party.” Ohio History Central. Accessed January 31, 2018. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Know-Nothing_Party.
Silverman, Jason H. Lincoln and the Immigrant. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015.