One Conflict, Two Nations and Four (or more) National Identities: The American Civil War from a Four Nations Perspective

One Conflict, Two Nations and Four (or more) National Identities: The American Civil War from a Four Nations Perspective

This week, PhD student Catherine Bateson (University of Edinburgh) considers the impact of British and Irish migrants in the American civil war and shows how a four nations approach can help evaluate the influence of ethnic cultural diaspora in America.

In early July 1861, the “Memphis Daily Appeal” advertised a music-hall performance which included a rendition of ‘the popular “Bonnie Blue Flag”’.[1] Written by song-writer Harry Macarthy, “The Bonnie Blue Flag” became a pro-Confederate rallying song during the American Civil War. As with many ballads from the era, the song and Macarthy’s origins began in the British Isles. Both exemplify British and Irish migrant cultural impact and demonstrate how a Four Nations approach can be taken when evaluating the influence of ethnic cultural diaspora in America.

American musical culture is truly international, beginning with seventeenth century ballads which originated in all four nations of the United Kingdom, as well as transported from Europe and in the bowels of slave ships. Harry Macarthy was part of an established line of songwriters spreading music from the home nations. His exact origins belie the complexity of discussing what constitutes early nineteenth century ‘British nationality’. He was described as an English-born Irish songwriter; one obituary reported he was English-born but ‘an Irish comedian and writer’.[2] At a time when Irish immigrants were establishing new identities as Irish Americans, Macarthy stressed his Irish credentials. This is complicated by suggestions he was Ulster-born or of Ulster-Scots descent, ‘born in England to Scotch-Irish parents’.[3] Ulster-Scots (or Scots-Irish in America) retained separate ethnic, predominately Protestant identities. Many migrated in the eighteenth century but were a numerical minority by the Civil War, assimilated into society compared to newer waves of Irish Catholic migrants.

Macarthy’s English, Irish and Scottish roots suggest the reason for “The Bonnie Blue Flag” melody, providing an example of how influential British Isles immigrant tunes were in the formation of American musical culture. Macarthy set his lyrics to “The Irish Jaunting Car” – an Irish folk ballad tune from the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries. The speed at which “The Bonnie Blue Flag” spread through the Confederacy suggests “The Irish Jaunting Car” was already established in America through the transportation of Irish musical culture. Countless songs written by Irish-born and descended soldiers serving in the Union and Confederate armies were similarly set to traditional Irish, Scottish and Ulster-Scots tunes, as well as English American melodies.

Many foreign-born soldiers also wrote letters in their native languages even after wider family immigration. Letters from Welsh soldiers were similar to American foreign language newspapers: they provided a way of keeping native tongues alive. The letters of Wisconsin Infantry Corporal John G. Jones provide a Welsh view of the American Civil War, a voiced experience muted in comparison to the records and materials produced by the some 200,000 Irish soldiers in the conflict. While delighting ‘the officers praise the Welshmen highly’, Jones acknowledged ‘as we are among Englishmen all the time now I prefer to speak English’.[4] Jones’s Welsh-worded letters to his family retained his ethnic cultural nationality, while army life created a new one.

Determining how foreign-born soldiers and citizens felt about their own ethnic national affiliations and changing identities must be placed in the broader context of what American nationalism meant in the 1860s (if it meant anything). Irish American, Welsh American, German and Italian Americans – American ethnic studies creates hybrid dual identities that form the melting pot of United States history. Writings from the Civil War era suggest the early establishment of dual national identities set apart from British and European origins, yet not quite fully ‘American’. While many Irish soldiers expressed their loyalty as Americans in wartime songs, they also stressed a distinct ‘Irishness’ separate from Britain, even though Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. Songs which contained Anglicised Gaelic phrases, or Jones’s comment about speaking more English, reveal national identities were transitioning, a process magnified by participating in the war.

Research continues to highlight British – ostensibly northern English and Westminster – attitudes and policies towards the war and Confederacy in particular. Though harder to ethnically separate from its Celtic neighbours, an English presence can be seen in the accounts of army observers such as Arthur Freemantle, who travelled through the divided nation and, along with other English wartime witnesses, noted ideas for future European military conduct. The wartime experiences of Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers and their families are a more visible but under-researched area of Civil War scholarship at present. The First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 not only witnessed the fighting spirit of the 69th New York Infantry Regiment – comprised of Irish-born and descended soldiers who would form the foundation of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade – but the 79th New York Infantry Regiment too. Established by Scottish migrant fraternities, the regiment donned tartan and were nicknamed ‘Highlanders’. Theirs is an interesting Scottish American diaspora story hidden by contemporary Irish and Ulster-Scots displays of patriotic identity.

Beyond military and political Civil War histories it becomes clear the conflict was far from domestic. It was a multi-national affair in which all four nations were present. The transnational expansion of United States history provides a fruitful scholarly bedfellow for a Four Nations evaluation of ethnic and migrant history, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when regional and national identities – principally Irish, Scottish and Welsh – were recognised as separate entities. Analysing the wartime experiences of migrants and their descendants from a Four Nations stance demonstrates how inhabitants of the home nations were involved in shaping transnational futures. ‘Y Sais…y Gwyddel, a’r Cymro, a floeddiasant yn nghyd!’- ‘The English-speaker…the Irishman and the Welshman crying together!’ on the battlefield of Fredericksburg reveal the ethnic diversity of 1860s America and how the Civil War between two nations, Union and Confederate, involved participants from many countries, including those from the four nations.[5]

[1]“The Bonnie Blue Flag”, Memphis Daily Appeal (Tennessee), 9 July 1861.

[2] Harry Macarthy Obituary, The Sun (New York), 14 November 1888.

[3] S. Breitenfeldt, The Harp of Old Erin and Banner of Stars: Irish Music from the American Civil War, (Lulu Press, 2011), 78.

[4] J.G. Jones to his family (1862-1864), in Wales and the American Civil War, ed. C. Taylor (Aberystwyth, 1972).

[5] T. Griffiths, quoted by J. Hunter, Sons of Arthur, Children of Lincoln: Welsh Writing from the American Civil War (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2007), iii.

Catherine Bateson is a second year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, funded by the AHRC. She researches the sentiments expressed in Irish songs from the American Civil War, evaluating how they formed part of an Irish American cultural diaspora. Catherine already feels she’s adopted a Four Nations approach to her doctorate as a Welsh student working on Irish transnational history at a Scottish university. You can follow her on Twitter @catbateson.

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