I am delighted to share the latest review of Sons of the White Eagle in the American Civil War: Divided Poles in a Divided Nation by William B. Kurtz that was published in the Journal of Southern History (Volume 83, Number 3, August 2017). The Journal of Southern History, which is edited at and supported by Rice University, is a quarterly devoted to the history of the American South broadly conceived. The Journal publishes refereed articles and solicited book reviews on all aspects of southern history and is unrestricted as to chronological period, methodology, and southern historical topic. It is published by The Southern Historical Association.
Journal of Southern History Review of Sons of the White Eagle in the American Civil War
Recent scholarship on ethnic Americans during the Civil War has understandably focused on the two largest groups, German and Irish immigrants. Polish Americans, estimated as numbering perhaps 30,000, have received comparatively little attention due to their small numbers and the difficulty of working with Polish materials. Thus Mark F. Bielski offers a welcome take on the Polish Civil War story in his new book, Sons of the White Eagle in the American Civil War: Divided Poles in a Divided Nation. Whereas many recent studies of other ethnic groups are geographically constrained, Bielski’s study is evenly divided between four Polish Confederates and four Unionists, with another switching sides during the conflict. Bielski argues that a “tradition of freedom and liberalism,” forged in wars and revolutions fought to defend Poland, deeply influenced Polish Americans’ participation in the Civil War, leading some to support southern independence while others sought to uphold the Union (p. xiv). The author helpfully puts his story into the larger context of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Polish history as well as the previous military service of Polish heroes such as Thaddeus Kościuszko and Casimir Pulaski in the American Revolutionary War.
Bielski’s nine men represent different generations of Polish immigrants, from Adam Gurowski, who fought in the 1830–1831 rebellion against Russia, to Valery Sulakowski, who was a veteran of the 1848 revolutions, to Peter Kiołbassa, who grew up in a Catholic Polish settlement in Texas. All of the men (except Kiołbassa) were of aristocratic background, with most of them leaving behind published memoirs or having received their own biographical treatment from previous historians. Many were ardent nationalists who either fought against foreign rule of a divided Poland or who lectured or wrote in support of Polish independence in the United States. Bielski uses these elite men as representative examples of the roughly 1,500 Confederate and 5,000 Union soldiers of Polish ancestry who fought in the Civil War.
For historians, the usefulness of Bielski’s book comes in his compiling this collective biography of Polish American men from a variety of sources, including Polish language materials. The book’s long contextual passages and its lengthy discussions of military battles, however, indicate that it is primarily [End Page 696] meant for the general reader or Civil War enthusiast. For example, in his lengthy description of the battle of Brice’s Crossroads in 1864, Bielski loses sight of the Polish Union officer, Joseph Kargé, instead spending too much time explaining the mistakes of his commander, Samuel D. Sturgis. Also, the beginning of the book suffers from a considerable amount of repetition of basic historical and biographical information, and Bielski includes long quotations from other historians instead of paraphrasing them. Finally, the portrait gallery on the back cover is misleading; it may be unclear to a general reader that not all of the men pictured (such as Edwin M. Stanton and Nathan Bedford Forrest) were Polish.
Sons of the White Eagle in the American Civil War, in short, is a useful study of nine extraordinary Polish Americans during the Civil War intended for a general audience. The book leaves many important questions unanswered. How typical were these nine men’s experiences compared with those of other Polish Americans during the war? Did other Polish Americans, both men and women, share their liberal, democratic, and nationalist values? Why did Catholicism play a major role in so few of the men’s lives? How did Polish involvement in the Civil War influence future waves of lower-class Polish immigrants later in the century? The answers to such questions will go a long way toward a more complete understanding of the meaning of the Civil War in Polish American history.