Monday, December 07, 2009

New and Noteworthy---Irish Troops , Black Troops and American Citizenship

Becoming American Under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship During the Civil War Era, Christian G. Samito, Cornell University Press, 312 pages, November 2009, $39.95.

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.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean, author of Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia states "Christian G. Samito's new book offers a signal contribution to a crucial but understudied aspect of the Civil War--its effect on citizenship. By focusing on the aspirations of Irish and African Americans, Samito shows how the contingencies of war gave opportunities for people at all levels to revise this fundamental attribute. His narrative reveals how a new, more robust national citizenship eclipsed older versions built narrowly around state identity and racial attributes. Samito's story rightly emphasizes the dynamic nature of how Americans have defined and understood citizenship and, in the process, adds a crucial historical dimension to contemporary debates over identity, citizenship, and politics."

Christian G. Samito earned a law degree from Harvard Law School and a doctorate in American history from Boston College. He is the editor of Commanding Boston's Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney, Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; “Fear Was Not in Him”: The Civil War Letters of Major General Francis C. Barlow, U.S.A.; and Changes in Law and Society During the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Legal History Documentary Reader. He edits a series about the legal history of the Civil War era, teaches at Boston College and Boston University School of Law, and practices law in Boston.

Text Source: Cornell University Press

Middle and Bottom Images: Irish Banner, Black Troops Poster,

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