Irish soldiers in Risorgimento Italy and Civil War America: Nineteenth-century Irish nation-building in transnational and comparative perspective
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This study investigates Irishmen who served as soldiers in the Italian Risorgimento and the American Civil War, and their role in Irish nation-building in the mid-nineteenth century. In the first section, the main focus is on specific transnational links uncovered through the analysis of letters penned by soldiers who served both in Italy and the USA in the 1860s. My work addresses the wider historical significance and context of the Irish soldiers’ lives, and assesses the key topics revealed and elaborated in the soldiers’ correspondence. These topics include issues such as contemporary Irish views on Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi, the service of Irish soldiers in foreign armies, Irish Catholic nationalism, the use of transnational Catholicism for career advancement, and the transatlantic nature of the Fenian movement that aimed to secure national independence for Ireland. This analysis ultimately reveals that these men had a number of different identities coexisting within their military lives. The second and larger part of my study compares the attitudes of Irish soldiers to the most influential themes that affected their motivations for enlisting in Italy and America and, by extension, their identity. In contrast to the men above, these soldiers served either in the Italian Risorgimento or in the American Civil War, but not in both. This approach facilitates a comparative assessment of the different attitudes of Irish soldiers in these nineteenth-century conflicts. Three major core themes motivated the soldiers: Irish Catholic nationalism; an anti-British sentiment; and attitudes to other ethnicities and nationalities. The strength of the bond between Irish national identity and Catholicism, which was the reason why many Irishmen volunteered to fight in 1860, underwent a major test through the experience of battling both with and against fellow Christians in Italy. On the other hand, for many Union Irish soldiers, religious devotion was strengthened by the institutional support provided by the expanding Catholic Church in America, together with a potent anti-British feeling which became exasperated as a result of Britain’s sympathy for Italian unification and later for the Confederate States. Both in Italy and the USA, Irish interaction with other ethnicities often resulted in tension. Union Irish soldiers in America, however, felt the additional need to prove their loyalty to their new country, and this led, in many cases, to prejudice and unwillingness to be associated with other ethnic groups, particularly African Americans.
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