Monday, July 18, 2016

Review of Bielski: "SONS OF THE WHITE EAGLE IN THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR: Divided Poles in a Divided Nation"

[Sons of the White Eagle in the American Civil War: Divided Poles in a Divided Nation by Mark F. Bielski (Casemate, 2016). Hardcover, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:246/312. ISBN:978-1-61200-358-0. $32.95]

With the flood of Eastern European immigration to the United States occurring much later in the century, the Polish contribution to the armies of the Civil War was necessarily small, dwarfed by other European ethnic groups like the Germans and Irish. According to author Mark Bielski in his new book Sons of the White Eagle in the American Civil War, 4,000-5,000 ethnic Poles served in the Union armies and 1,000-1,500 fought for the Confederacy. The lives of nine of these immigrant Poles, four of whom joined the Union side and four the Confederates (with another eventually wearing both uniforms), are the subject of the book.

Polish names can be difficult for English speakers to grasp, so Bielski begins with a very helpful spelling and pronunciation primer. Limited language skills on the part of American scholars have long been a barrier to the study of foreign-born participants in the Civil War, but the author's knowledge of Polish allowed him to do most of his own source translation.

Bielski organizes the book on a generational basis. While no direct correlation between historical timing of immigration and later Union vs. Confederate loyalty was found, the author's approach does serve as a useful way to offer context for why these men were forced to leave their native land and which factors shaped by their cultural background and life experience were involved in deciding which side to join during the Civil War. The final partition of Poland among the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian empires occurred in 1795. The oldest generation represented in Bielski's study was most directly influenced by this traumatic event, which erased their nation entirely from the European map. Those that fought in the 1830 revolt against Russia were able to trace the most direct lineage to earlier Polish patriots (Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciuszko) that came to America's defense in its time of need. A later group fought in the great failed revolutionary upheavals of the 1840s, and the book's youngest cohort was born in Poland but raised in the United States.

Some of these men did not specifically spell out their reasons for joining the Union or Confederate side, but the book's offers a fine chapter length discussion of possible contributing factors. According to Bieski, for much of its history Poland had a rudimentary form of political and legal democracy, a form of government much more progressive than its autocratic neighbors, so Enlightenment notions of freedom appealed to Poles and Americans alike. As newcomers to America, the Poles were obviously not guided by traditional party affiliations, but they were simultaneously attracted to the Republican anti-slavery platform and repulsed by its nativist element. Like many Americans, immigrant Poles also found their loyalties guided and tested by the sometimes contrasting layers of duty felt toward nation, state, and local community. Nearly all the Poles in Bielski's study were deeply troubled by the U.S. government's close relationship with autocratic Russia (including the Lincoln administration's actions during the war years), and some cited U.S. support of Russia and similarities between them in imperialist ambitions as strong reasons to take up the Confederate cause. On the other side of the equation, others viewed the potential breakup of the United States, not as a triumph of self-determination but a national calamity to the cause of freedom reminiscent of the partition of Poland. A major theme to take away of all this is that the Civil War motivations of immigrant Poles were just as complicated, contradictory, and difficult to predict as those of their native born American neighbors.

As stated above, a balanced group of men in terms of age and belligerent side was selected by the author for examination in the book. After immigrating to America, Gaspard Tochman continued to lobby for the Polish cause and defended Kosciuszko's heirs against Russian attempts (apparently with State Department collusion) to confiscate their U.S. property. Residing in Virginia, Tochman supported the Confederate cause on Constitutional grounds (at least as he interpreted them) and raised troops, but declined to lead them in person when his bid for a general's appointment was denied. Another veteran of the 1830 revolt was the Radical Republican and State Department official Adam Gurowski, who remains an enigma with his seemingly unexplicable ideological conversion to pro-Russian Pan-Slavism. Ignacy Szymanski also fought the Russians in 1830. He was part of Louisiana's planter class and led troops from that state during the Civil War, but his greatest contribution seems to have been in the sphere of prisoner negotiations, where he used his diplomatic skills to great effect.

Ludwik Zychlinski and Valery Sulakowski, both participants in the uprisings of the late 1840s, fought on opposing sides. Zychlinski served with the Army of the Potomac until 1863, when he was discharged and returned to Poland to fight the Russians. Sulakowski made a mark as a strong disciplinarian and one of the best regimental commanders in the Confederate army, but resigned his commission in 1862 when passed over for promotion. He later returned to the service as an engineering officer in the Trans-Mississippi, providing invaluable assistance to Texas's coastal defenses. He also was involved in a failed plot to transport Polish volunteers across the ocean to aid the Confederacy.

Two of the most well known Polish-American Union officers to today's readers are Joseph Karge and Wladimir Kryzanowski. Bielski lavishes a great deal of attention on their respective Civil War careers, with Kryzanowski's section by far the book's lengthiest. The author makes a strong case that Kryzanowski deserves more recognition as one of the bright lights of the ill-starred Eleventh Corps. Bielski also speculates that nativist impulses delayed Kryzanowski's promotion to general (a first attempt early in the war failed confirmation). Joseph Karge proved to be a fine cavalry officer, perhaps best known for beating Nathan Bedford Forrest in open battle. In truth, the engagement at Bolivar was a rather inconsequential affair, and the author demonstrates due restraint while discussing its significance.

Born in Poland but raised in the U.S., the youngest of the nine men profiled in the book are Leon Jastremski and Peter Kiolbassa. In terms of loyalty and political conviction, Peter Kiolbassa would prove the most elastic of all the figures examined in the book, jumping side from Confederate to Union mid-war and freely switching between parties for personal gain in the post-war period. In contrast, Leon Jastremski remained a die-hard Confederate. During the war, he worked his way up through the ranks from private soldier to officer in the 10th Louisiana, fighting with the Army of Northern Virginia. Captured for the second time at Spotsylvania in 1864, he was later shipped to Charleston as part of the "Immortal 600" contingent of officers and escaped imprisonment near war's end.

In recent decades, immigrant studies have assumed a much more prominent place in the Civil War literature. However, even after taking into account the comparatively minute scale of their contributions to both armies, the Polish experience has been unduly buried beneath the weight exerted by the far more numerous European ethnic groups. Sons of the White Eagle in the American Civil War not only brings into sharp focus the actions and significance of a number of prominent military figures (and one civilian), it also usefully examines the cultural and political connections between Poland and the United States throughout the turbulent first half of the nineteenth century.

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