The Harp and the Eagle, A Book Review

The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865 by Susannah Ural Bruce (New York University Press, November 2006), available in both paperback and hardback, tells about Irish Catholic immigrants who served in the American Civil War.

Before the Civil War, Irish Catholic immigrants, other immigrants, and the recent descendents of immigrants had to endure abuse and persecution by the so-called "nativists." Many nativists were members of the Know-Nothing Party. Most were Protestants who were born in the United States and were usually the descendants of earlier immigrants or colonists. The nativists looked down on immigrants as scum of the earth worthy of only low-paying jobs — jobs that most people would not take. They were considered only one step above Black slaves.

This book is about the Irish Catholics who still did not have an easy life even after escaping famine or other abuses in their native Ireland. The Irish Catholics had two strikes against them — the first being Irish and the second being Catholic. Nativists questioned their loyalty to the United States thinking they had double first loyalties — first to Ireland and then to the Pope. Nativists feared that the Irish Catholics and other immigrant Catholic groups would band together and overthrow the American government and turn it over to the Pope. This idea of course was far-fetched, but many believed it. Some even believe it today.

This book presents how Irish Catholics decided to prove their loyalty and to make some money by joining the Union Army. They also wanted to gain some military training and experience so that they could one day go back to Ireland and help liberate the Island from British rule. Some quasi-military units of Irish Catholics already existed in the bigger cities where they would march in parades and do other things. These were social clubs too. At first some in the government were opposed to them joining the Union Army, but as the need for men increased they gave in or were ordered to give in to them by higher members of government. Many of these groups formed their own regiments or units, as did other nationalities. The Irish used green flags with a harp on them for their regimental colors. As the Civil War continued and the casualty lists kept increasing with many Irish names on them, Irish volunteers began to wonder if they were being used by the Government as cannon folder. Many would not re-enlist when their time was up, and some who were drafted became deserters. Still the Irish Catholics made a difference in the result of the Wa,r and they also helped to change nativists' views of them. This book primarily focuses on the Irish Catholics who fought for the Union, but some who lived in the South fought for the Confederacy. Their numbers, though, were not as large as those in the Union Army. The Irish Catholics who fought for the Union were many times not in favor of abolition or the Emancipation Proclamation because they feared they would have to compete with Blacks for jobs.

The Harp and the Eagle is not an easy book to read. It is very academic, so general readers might find it difficult or slow to read. Others will enjoy the material that Susannah Bruce presents. She covers many issues and topics of the Irish Catholic involvement in the Civil War. Many black and white photos and illustrations from the time period as well as maps, endnotes, a select bibliography and an index are included in the book. This book is recommended to Civil War enthusiasts and those interested in Irish American Catholic history.

Susannah Ural Bruce is an assistant professor of History at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. She is the editor of Ethnicity and the American Civil War (2007) and author of Hood's Texans (2007). She has also written several articles for journals and encyclopedias.

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  • Guest

    It appears that nothing has changed. Now it is the Mexicans turn,??

  • Guest

    “It appears that nothing has changed. Now it is the Mexicans turn,??”

    I don’t remember the Irish marching saying how their land was stolen by the United States, that it belongs to them, and also smuggling meth, heroin, cocaine, and weapons in. Mexico has vast resources, yet there is so much immorality and corruption they don’t even have a functioning economy.

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