When you read about the American Civil War in your high school history book. It was probably depicted as a clear cut affair where the true Americans fought to free the slaves from those ignorant racist rebels down South. Putting aside for now the fact that the Civil War wasn’t fought mainly over slavery at all. One thing those history books never seem to mention is that the Union, due to the fact the majority of its people didn’t care enough to enlist in the Army, fought the war largely with a fresh off the boat immigrant force, that was mainly bribed and at times even coerced into service. In fact nearly one in four Union soldier was a foreign born national fighting only as a way to gain citizenship.

Of the more than 2 million Union soldiers who fought in the war, over 543,000 of them were non Americans who had no real stake or even proper understanding over the issues involved. These additional bodies however gave the Northern army a complete numerical advantage over the Southern rebels. An advantage that despite often displaying a greater fighting spirit, the Confederacy was never able to overcome. Even during the War the South knew this was occurring and did what little it could to dissuade the foreigners from enlisting in the Union army. For example, Confederate envoy Edwin De Leon worked to inform Europeans that as he put it the North was building its conquering Army, “in large part of foreign mercenaries made up of the refuse of the old world.”

An immigrant soldier and his family at a Union outpost.

Even the Union leaders openly looked down upon this cannon fodder they were enlisting. Admitting that many of them were as they called it “immigrant bounty jumpers” who enlisted just to receive the new recruit monetary bonus, before deserting, and then reenlisting for the same bonus in another city. While most modern American’s still aren’t aware of this, the fact that as Time Magazines puts it, “The Civil War Was Won by Immigrant Soldiers” is not exactly a secret among real historians. One likely reason the immigrant army narrative is downplayed in today’s public education, is that the behavior of these forces wasn’t usually the best.

As one historian puts it, “Irish and German soldiers were often chastised for their disorderly behavior in the ranks and their predisposition towards alcohol consumption. This became increasingly problematic as the war progressed the armies were flooded with poor reluctant volunteers. By 1864 many officers drew linked between ethnic traits and poor soldiering.” By the midpoint of the war however, even the immigrant volunteer well had dried up. The promise of money alone not being enough to make these people, who felt no sense of American patriotism want to continue fighting. With this in mind, Lincoln soon initiated a draft, which unsurprisingly sent these un-loyal migrants into riots almost immediately.

The most famous of these, the 1863 New York City Draft Riots featured the local Irish population lighting Manhattan on fire. The Northern Irish population at the time being strongly against Lincoln’s then recent emancipation proclamation. Which is why the Irish mob during these riots killed “at least eleven African Americans in the streets, and burned the Colored Orphan Asylum.” The anti-black violence purported by these immigrants got so out of hand in New York that it took the arrival of Federal troops to eventually bring peace back to the city. To the native Northern American population in the wake of these and other similar riots, the “Irish again were viewed as violent hoodlums unfit for civilization.”

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A poster advertising for Irish volunteers to the Union army.

Regardless of the reasons behind the war, or the realities of its aftermath. It’s not fair to say that it was simply anti-slavery Americans that defeated the South. In a fair fight of ideals, the Northern forces simply couldn’t motivate their own people to care enough to risk death. Unlike the South whose all-volunteer army, for better or for worse legitimately believed they were fighting for their own freedom and right to self-determination. Given the slavery issue, there is certainly an irony to be found in that fact surely, but it still doesn’t change it. The fact remains that it was the North and not the south who had to bring in outsiders to fight what we maybe mistakenly still refer to as only the American Civil War today.


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