British and Irish adventurers
Millions fought in the American Civil War; millions more were wrapped up in it. Many of these were born in Britain or Ireland, while many others from across the continent left Europe's shores to fight for the North or the South.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, over half of America's foreign–born population was British and Irish. Many of these immigrants had sought escape from famine in Ireland and poverty elsewhere, or who were lured by the need for skilled workers in the rapidly industrialising North. Many second and third generation decedents from the British Isles who maintained their homeland cultural identities also fought during the conflict.
General Thomas F. Meagher of the Irish Brigade
Large cities, such as New York, formed volunteer militia regiments, often based on the ethnicity of their members, such as the 79th New York Volunteer Infantry, known as the Highland Guard, or the 69th Infantry Regiment, which had strong Irish connections. While in theory Britain's declaration of neutrality prevented British subjects from enlisting in the Union and Confederate armies, many still left her shores in search of adventure, fame and fortune: perhaps 50,000 British and Irish men and women participated in the North American conflict. Many thousands also went to the British North American Provinces.
Additionally, several foreign military observers traveled to American to watch the conflict unfold on the battlefields. Several of their reports about the military techniques they witnessed were adopted in later European conflicts, thus crediting the American Civil War with developing aspects of modern warfare that would become familiar by the First World War.
One of the most noteworthy observers of the war was the British officer Arthur Fremantle, who travelled to America in 1863 to see the conflict from the Confederate perspective. Between April and June 1863 he traveled through Texas to Virginia, before arriving at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in time to observe the great battle. He also witnessed the New York City Draft Riots before sailing back to England.
Upon his return, and encouraged by a British public eager for news of the conflict and the Confederacy in particular, Fremantle published Three months in the Southern States, based on his travel observations. His account of the Battle of Gettysburg remains one of the best eyewitness descriptions of the war, though his less remembered writings about the Confederacy also provide a fascinating and impartial contemporary insight into the seceded region. The book received wide readership on both sides of the Atlantic, and on both sides of the Mason–Dixon line.
In recent years, research has begun to explore the lives of soldiers with British and Irish ties during the American Civil War and the reasons for why they joined in the conflict. For example, Sons of Arthur, children of Lincoln offers a look at Welsh soldiers in the Civil War and their letters to the home–front, highlighting the retention of ethnic culture within another country and broadening the scope of what is often perceived as a mostly American conflict. This book, along with letters held in the Library's manuscripts collections, offers a glimpse into the lives of some of those who fought in the conflict.
Find out more
- Foreman, Amanda, A World on Fire: an epic history of two nations divided (2010)
- Fremantle, Arthur James Lyon, Three months in the Southern States: April-June, 1863 (1863)
- Hunter, Jerry, Sons of Arthur, children of Lincoln: Welsh writing from the American Civil War (2007)
- National Park Service Civil War Soldiers & Sailors System
- New York State Military Museum (New York Civil War Units, NY State Unit History Project)
- 79th New York Volunteer Infantry
- Welsh American Index
- Irish in the American Civil War.