Red Shirts and Yankees

Oct 4, 2013 by

At a dinner-table discussion last week, two of my friends brought up the Civil War and had a debate over what was the “real” cause of the war:  the issue of slavery or the issue of states’ rights.  I offered a suggestion that nationalism might have been the cause, but my idea was soundly rejected.  However, this idea deserves further study, because it provides a new way to interpret the Civil War that has merit, especially when one considers what was happening in Europe during this time period.

The progress of the unification of Italy

The progress of the unification of Italy

Italy during the middle of the 19th century  was a place of political upheaval.  It did not start out as a unified nation, but rather a collection of city-states that were very much separate.  The northern states were more industrialized than the southern states.  While the north had railroads and factories, the south was agricultural.  Italy’s unification did not come naturally, but rather through wars of conquest by the north against the south.  One northern city-state,  Piedmont-Sardinia, played a key role in the unification of Italy.  This city-state began began conquering the other city-states and taking territory from the Austrian empire.  In 1861, Giuseppe Garibaldi and the “Red Shirts” stirred up Italy by marching up the peninsula and urging Italians to unite.  The king of Sardinia met Garibaldi in Naples, where Garibaldi gave him support and the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed.  The country as we know it today completely unified in 1870.(1)

The reason for Italy’s unification at this specific time in history is generally attributed to the rise of nationalism.  Nationalism is the idea that an individual identifies himself according to his nation rather than his ethnicity, regional area, religion, or some other qualifier.  Most people today think this way on some level:  in America we tend to consider ourselves Americans before Nevadans or North Carolinians.(2)

Abraham Lincoln:  one of the most influential nationalists in history

Abraham Lincoln: one of the most influential nationalists in history

My friend Jesse Harris is the one who had the brilliant idea of comparing the rise of nationalism in Europe to the Civil War period in the United States.  Italy, the nation of states that were divided north and south by industrial and agricultural backgrounds, that was united by subjugation of the south by the north, sounds an awful lot like the United States during the same time period.  This could be coincidence, but isn’t it also likely that they were acting on a similar ideology?  Abraham Lincoln wanted to keep the United States united even if it meant sacrificing on the issue of slavery.(3)  Giuseppe Garibaldi wanted to expedite what he saw as an inevitable result of unification in Italy.

Some say that the Civil War was caused by slavery, while others insist that it was an issue of states rights.  And these are both legitimate and correct answers, because there are as many reasons for war as there are people involved.  But we like to think that America was in a bubble of isolation from the War of 1812 to  World War I.  While this may be true politically, it was not true economically, culturally, or philosophically.  Greater attention should be paid to these connections between the United States and the rest of the world, because they form a more complete picture of the nation and provide a better understanding of history.

 (1) David Sheridan, “Italian and German Unification:  the Continued Rise of Nationalism,” (class lecture, HIST 331 Modern Europe 1789-Present, at California State University Long Beach, California, Long Beach, September 30, 2013).

(2) While I was in Europe I would frequently refer to myself as a Californian because all Europeans know about California and if I said I was an American it was inevitable that they would ask from which part of America.  But a lot of people, especially other North Americans, would ask me why I did that, because everyone else identified by their country.  My Canadian friend would never say she was an Albertan, partly because no one would understand where that was.  Either way I identified myself, it tended to involve much more explanation than it should have.

(3) Abraham Lincoln, “Letter to Horace Greeley,” August 22, 1862, in Marion Mills Miller, Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln.

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