Immigrants and Immigration

Citation metadata

Editor: John P. Resch
Date: 2005
Americans at War
From: Americans at War(Vol. 2: 1816-1900. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1210L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 83


American wars have provided both opportunities and difficulties for immigrants. On the one hand, conflict has given immigrants a chance to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. On the other hand, immigrants have faced problems when hostilities arise between the United States and their native country or when, for various reasons, American citizens suspect that their immigrant neighbors do not fully support the military effort.

In the nineteenth century America's first major immigrant groups, the Irish and the Germans, faced this dilemma. The Irish arrived in large numbers after the end of the War of 1812. The Great Potato Famine of 1845 to 1849 brought the number of Irish in the United States to 1.6 million by 1860. These Irish were overwhelmingly Catholic and often poor. They lived in the worst neighborhoods, did the least desirable work, and were overrepresented in prison, insane asylums, and poorhouse populations. Large-scale German immigration began with the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe. By 1860, Germans numbered about 1.3 million. Although not as poor or socially disruptive as the Irish, many of them harbored radical political tendencies that made many Americans nervous. A number of Americans responded negatively to Irish, German, and other immigrants. In the 1850s some organized secret fraternal organizations and then a political party, the American Party, more commonly known as the Know-Nothings. Its members called for extending the naturalization waiting-period from five to twenty-one years.

The Irish first faced the challenge of the disruptive effects of war when the United States fought Mexico in 1846. Mexico was a Catholic country, and some critics wondered if the Irish would support such a war. When about fifty Irish soldiers already in the regular army (along with another ninety soldiers from eleven other countries) deserted to the Mexican army and formed the San Patricio (St. Patrick) Battalion, many Irish in the United States were shocked and felt vulnerable to accusations of being unpatriotic. Irish and Irish American politicians tried to distract attention from the "traitorous" San Patricios with the performance of loyal Irish units and prominent generals such as General Stephen Kearney. The Mexican war left a mixed impression of immigrant loyalty in American conflicts.


The Civil War gave another chance for immigrants to prove themselves. Both the Union and Confederate authorities

Page 84  |  Top of Article

Immigrants arriving in New York City in the early 1890s. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS Immigrants arriving in New York City in the early 1890s. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS

recruited foreign units into their ranks. Irish and German companies were prominent in both armies, but other immigrants including the British, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, and Polish also served in "foreign legions." These units generally had a reputation for tough fighting but also for high desertion rates. The actions of recent immigrants on the home front also challenged their efforts to gain acceptance as patriotic citizens. In particular, the New York City draft riots of 1863 destroyed the trustworthiness of the Irish in many Americans' eyes. In the Confederacy, it was the Germans who raised native ire because many favored the abolition of slavery. In Texas, Confederates executed a number of Germans whom they suspected of being "traitors."

Despite their disputed record in the Civil War, immigrant advocates spent the postwar decades defending the loyalty of ethnic soldiers. According to their story, they had fought as hard as native soldiers and had proved their loyalty to the United States. Using veterans' magazines and memoirs, immigrant soldiers managed to recreate their record into a wholly positive one. The latter half of the nineteenth century, however, saw an influx of new immigrants who, again, would be seen as foreign and suspect. The new migrants did not come primarily from western and northern Europe but rather, in growing numbers, from southern and eastern Europe and Asia. Italians, Poles, Russians (predominantly Jewish), Mexicans, and Chinese flooded the United States between 1865 and 1920. These new groups tended to live in ghettoes and retained their distinctive languages and cultures. The presence of large numbers of foreigners in American cities who, unlike the Irish for example, were dark-skinned or Asian and did not speak English, worried many natives. As a result of this influx, the government began to restrict immigration. In 1882 the U.S. Congress prohibited Chinese immigration, the first foreigners to be targeted in this manner.


The call of imperialists, such as the British writer Rudyard Kipling, for the advanced nations to take up thePage 85  |  Top of Article "White Man's burden" to civilize "backward" peoples only increased racial tensions. The propaganda of the Spanish American War in 1898 was virulently anti-Hispanic. The resulting takeover of the colonies of Cuba and the Philippines after the U.S. victory over Spain only increased the use of racist justifications for government policies. As an imperial power, the United States began to emphasize the need for national unity by condemning what President Woodrow Wilson described as "hyphenated Americanism." This attitude reached its height in the anti-German hysteria of World War I and the immigration acts of 1921 and 1924. In this legislation the federal government established national quota systems to preserve the racial composition of the country, discriminating particularly against southern and eastern European and Asian immigrants.

Though a nation of immigrants since the initial settlement, the United States has always dealt with complex issues surrounding immigrants. Their presence has created a strong nation of enormous diversity but also fostered negative responses from those who preceded them, as well as tensions among various immigrant groups as they vie for their place in this country. Americans at war have tended to be intolerant toward immigrants. War has often brought out the best in American society; but it has also revealed the nativist tendencies in American culture. Although wartime patriotic feelings serve the nation by binding the people in a common cause, those same feelings have legitimated persecution of immigrants.


De Leon, Arnoldo. They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821–1900. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Bodnar, John. The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Penguin/Viking, 2003.

Gleeson, David T. The Irish in the South, 1815–1877. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Goldscheider, Calvin, and Goldstein, Sidney. Jewish Americans: Three Generations in a Jewish Community. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968.

Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Kenny, Kevin. The American Irish. New York: Pearson-Longman, 2000.

David T. Gleeson

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3427300156