Many Union Soldiers Fought “For Liberty All over the World,” Considered the War “the First Test of a Modern Free Government . . . Sustaining Itself against Internal Enemys”. . .
June 1, 1863. The war was, for many, both in the North and abroad, about preserving a bastion of democratic government — not just for Americans and not only freedom for slaves, but for all the world. Historian James McPherson quotes an Ohio private who, on the second anniversary of his enlistment, noted in his diary that regardless of how much longer it takes to win, the war must be carried on “‘for the great principles of liberty and self government at stake, for should we fail, the onward march of Liberty in the Old World will be retarded at least a century, and Monarchs, Kings, and Aristocrats will be more powerful against their subjects than ever.’
“Some foreign-born soldiers,” McPherson continued, “expressed such convictions with even greater intensity. [On June 1,] 1863 an Irish-born carpenter, a private in the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts Infantry of the famous Irish Brigade, rebuked both his wife in Boston and his father-in-law in Ireland for questioning his judgment in risking his life for the Lincoln administration’s war aims. ‘This is the first test of a modern free government in the act of sustaining itself against internal enemys,’ he wrote almost in echo of Lincoln. ‘If it fail then the hopes of milions fall and the designs and wishes of all tyrants will succeed the old cry will be sent forth from the aristocrats of europe that such is the common lot of republics. . . . Irishmen and their descendants have . . . a stake in [this] nation. . . . America is Irlands refuge Irlands last hope destroy this republic and her hopes are blasted.’ In 1864 a forty-year-old Ohio corporal who had immigrated from England wrote to his wife explaining his decision to reenlist for a second three-year hitch: ‘If I do get hurt I want you to remember that it will be not only for my Country and my Children but for Liberty all over the World that I risked my life, for if Liberty should be crushed here, what hope would there be for the cause of Human Progress anywhere else?’ Later that summer, in the Atlanta campaign, he gave his life for these convictions.”
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, executive director, Vermont Humanities Council
James M. McPherson, Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, 209, 211-12.