Culture and sentiments of Irish American Civil War songs
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date26/11/2019
Bateson, Catherine Victoria
During the American Civil War, an approximate 200,000 Irish-born soldiers, and an even greater number of subsequent generation descended soldiers, fought for the Union and Confederate causes. Their experience, opinions, military actions and attitudes of their families were the subject of American Civil War songs, with songwriters penning numerous ballads about them. The conflict witnessed the mass production of wartime ballad culture, with over 11,000 pieces written and composed between 1861 and 1865 alone. An estimated 150 were by and about the Irish American wartime experience specifically. This thesis focuses on these Irish American Civil War songs and analyses the sentiments they expressed. Overall, the main topic written onto songsheet pages and in songbooks was the battlefield actions of Irish-born and descended soldiers. This study explores how military history was reported through song, following traditional oral practice patterns of using balladry to sing war reports. In particular, attention will be drawn to the proliferation of lyrical dedication and focus on specific Irish-dominated units such as the Union Army’s Irish Brigade and 69th New York State Militia, and how their actions, along with other Irish soldiering units, came to dominate Irish American Civil War articulations and history. Within this lyrical attention the figures of Irish-born commanding officers, namely Generals Michael Corcoran and Thomas Francis Meagher, come to the fore. This study also analyses how their own wartime experiences and articulations corresponded with song lyrics. Beyond the battlefield focus, this thesis explores the way in which song lyrics sang about Irish loyalty and devotion to the American Union – and in a few examples Confederate nation – and particularly adopted symbols of the American nation, such as the Star Spangled Banner, as embodiments of the causes and ideals fought for by soldiers. Alongside this were lyrics that referred to symbols of Irish cultural heritage, language and a history of foreign military service. Irish identity can be seen on the surface of some songs, including references to Irish nationalism and the desire to gain Irish independence one day. Yet, as this thesis will argue, Irish American Civil War song lyrics reveal complicated support and sympathy for the Irish nationalist cause in the United States during the 1860s. Running through the songs of this study is a pervading sense and sentiment of American identity – that the Irish fighting and living through the war were stressing to society through song that they were committed to the United States as Americans first and foremost. In addition to assessing wartime views of Civil War politics and military actions, this thesis will also explore the way Irish song played a critical part in the formation of American musical culture, with traditional Irish music forming the foundation for American tunes, and blending Irish culture into the American wartime zeitgeist. This thesis will demonstrate the way in which Irish songs were written, published and disseminated through American society and crucially circulated beyond the confines of the Irish diaspora. Traditional and wartime Irish songs became a fundamental part of American culture because they were American cultural outputs. Thus this thesis will demonstrate the important evidential role Irish American Civil War songs play in singing an unexplored areas of mid-nineteenth century Irish American transnational history.