Book Summary Under the Starry Flag: How a Band of Irish Americans Joined the Fenian Revolt and Sparked a Crisis over Citizenship

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Under the Starry Flag: How a Band of Irish Americans Joined the Fenian Revolt and Sparked a Crisis over Citizenship by Lucy E. Salyer  (Hardcover, 324 Pg.) 

Brief Overview

The United States of America was established on the principle that people had the right, if necessary for their happiness, to start anew. The Declaration of Independence in part referenced “abuses” such as how Great Britain unjustly blocked migration and new settlements.  

We are a nation of immigrants.  People come from around the world and are offered the chance to become “naturalized” citizens.  They take an oath to be loyal to the United States, revoking their ties to their native lands.  To many people, this is “natural,” it is obviously right.  

Under the Starry Flag reminds us that – just like a lot of other “obvious” things – the right to give up ties (and responsibilities) and join a country anew was far from uncomplicated.  For instance, the War of 1812 was in part fought over the impressment of sailors who Great Britain argued were still obligated to serve “their” country.  They were not “really” American citizens.

The issue of citizenship arose again when some Irish Americans, some naturalized years earlier, took part in a failed rebellion in the 1860s.  This “Fenian revolt” also took place in the context of the American Civil War and the new citizenship rules of the Fourteenth Amendment.  

This book examines questions of the fluidity of citizenship in the midst of exciting times with diverse historical characters like Finian rebel John Warren, diplomat Charles Francis Adams, and various British officials in Victorian England.  The laying down of a transatlantic cable symbolizes how the world became more interconnected.  

Citizenship remains a tricky issue until the current day.  This book helps the reader understand this important issue mixed in with some fascinating and exciting history along the way.  

Favorite Quote

Why the right of expatriation mattered in the nineteenth century and why its meaning remains obscure and elusive today are the puzzles it aims to solve.  

The book uses a failed Irish revolt in the 1860s as a way to introduce the readers to wider questions about the right to start anew in a new country. This concept is basic to American traditions, being a land of immigrants, but once was quite controversial.  The book talks about this matter in-depth, ending with a reminder that the issue is still not completely settled.  

Should I Read It?

Readers should find this an interesting account that covers a historical moment that many do not know much about.  The Irish famine and other events are familiar, but the specific debate over citizenship is less well known.  This is an interesting, approachable introduction with a few specific people highlighted to allow readers to understand wider themes through their stories.   

The book is not useful only as a lesson in Irish and American history.  It covers themes such as citizenship, racism, immigration, and nationalist movements that remain relevant today.  The reader will not only find the story interesting but will also see how it connects to the present.

Under the Starry Flag is suitable for well-read high school students and would be appropriate for a reading list in an appropriate college class.  The reader need not be an expert, but general understanding of the era would be helpful.  It helpfully has several black and white photos.  

The book covers many subjects; if a person wants in depth examination of one of them (such as Finians, Irish rebels), a book focused on that might be helpful instead.  On a technical level, I think the font of the book is a bit too small; that might turn some people off.  If the reader is a true beginner to these subjects, the book also might be too advanced.

Comprehensive Summary

Prologue: Erin’s Hope and the Forgotten Right of Expatriation

Erin’s Hope was a ship that was launched (under another name) from New York City in 1867 with a small band of Fenians, Irish rebels, with a mission to take part in a rebellion against British control of Ireland.  Many were naturalized American citizens. 

Their chances for success were low.  But, they would be part of an international controversy over the right of “expatriation,” to choose one’s own country.  “Bent on freeing Ireland, the Finians sparked a revolution on the law of citizenship instead.”  Thus, the theme of this book.  

PART ONE The Fenians and the Making of a Crisis

1: Clonakilty, God Help Us!

John Warren was one of leaders of the Fenians (the name arising from legendary Irish warriors) on Erin’s Hope.  He was born in Clonakilty, Ireland, which has its own fame as the site of an uprising against the British.  The struggles between the Irish and British are discussed as is the struggles of the Irish famine in the 1840s.   

2: Exiles and Expatriates

Millions of Irish emigrated to America, John Warren being one of the better off.  But, would the Irish emigrants “truly” be American?  The influx of immigrants led to a backlash in the United States, including the growth of the Know Nothing Party and the nativist movement.  

Irish immigrants served in the Civil War, including John Warren, but many were opposed.  Some Irish-Americans felt mistreated, including feeling their efforts as soldiers were not properly respected.  The Irish’s service in the Civil War was one thing that they appealed to as a sign of their American citizenship.  

3: The Fenian Pest

Once the Civil War was over, some Irish Americans now looked firmly toward freedom of Ireland from Great Britain.  Great Britain in the 1860s became more concerned about a treasonous Irish faction among them.  A stronger “treason-felony” act was passed to expand governmental powers against those who protested British rule.  

Canada also was concerned, some Fenians threatening to invade, part of many “filibuster” (unauthorized military excursions) efforts abroad in that time period, especially focused in Latin America.  In the end, only token (and easily defeated) Fenian military excursions occurred.  

Newly sworn U.S. citizens celebrate at a July 4, 2012, ceremony in Portsmouth, N.H.

4: Civis Americanus Sum  [I am an American Citizen]

Charles Francis Adams, grandson of President Adams, was the U.S. minister to Great Britain in the 1860s.  It was his job to deal with the sensitive U.S.-British relations during the Civil War.  

Adams continued on after the war as well, having the role of dealing with the aftershocks of the Erin’s Hope landing in Ireland.  Adams was not going to let Finians interfere with his attempts to keep the peace.  He had enough to worry about protecting American sovereign power, including the rights of American citizens abroad.  But, what exactly did that mean? 

PART TWO Citizenship on Trial

5: A Floating Rebellion

A Irish Fenian uprising took place in Ireland in 1867.  Erin’s Hope, a ship with forty-five crew members, went to Ireland from the United States to take part.   

By the time the ship arrived in May, the uprising was defeated, and no one answered the ship’s signals.  About two thirds of the crew went on land, and were quickly captured by government officials, a few of the crew willing to “peach”  (testify against their fellow conspirators).  

The rest sailed away, Erin’s Hope (named Jacmel Packet in the U.S.) going back to New York.

6: The Voice from the Dungeon

The Erin’s Hope crew were a mixture of naturalized Americans and those born in the United States, so citizens from birth.  The British granted the latter group were American citizens, but did not accept the right of the former group to revoke their British citizenship.  

The captured men were imprisoned, but still were able to communicate with the outside world, including by means of American officials.  They put forth a public campaign to insist they were innocent and deserving protections as American citizens.  The whole matter became an international incident, friendly American press spreading their message.  

Charles Frances Adams, pressured by William Seward (Secretary of State), found the Fenians a troublesome bunch, who were probably guilty.  The new transatlantic cable allowed Seward to communicate instructions much more quickly than the old much slower diplomatic messages.  

Note: The new transatlantic cable is one of many interesting details that provide a “you are there” feel to the account.  Imagine how revolutionary it was to be able to instantaneously communicate overseas when it used to take weeks to communicate.  

7 All the World’s a Stage

John Warren, a naturalized American citizen [though the British denied it], and one of the leaders of the expedition, was brought to trial in October.  A major tactic he used was to demand a “mixed jury,” a right offered for foreigners where some foreigners were put on the jury.  Not treated as an American, he was denied this, and claimed the trial itself was rigged. 

A tricky matter for the British was that the expedition failed before it did anything.  But, the conspirators who “turned state’s evidence” allowed them to prove intent.  Warren along with another member of the crew was found guilty.  The next person to be prosecuted, however, was a native born American citizen.  This was much more difficult for the British to handle.  

PART THREE Reconstructing Citizenship

8: Are Naturalized Americans, Americans?

Sen. Charles Sumner was a leader against slavery and supporter of equal rights for black Americans.  Sumner was a strong backer of the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, which established “birthright citizenship.”  Citizenship was granted at birth, overturning the ruling of Dred Scott v. Sandford.  The rights of naturalized citizens were also protected.  

Sumner was less concerned about the Fenians rebels, believing them troublesome and clearly guilty.  Irish and German immigrants meanwhile continued to seek to protect their interests though often being in competition with one another.  

Naturalized immigrants proclaimed their connection to the U.S., resisting claims they still had obligations such as military service to their old nations.  

9: This Is a White Man’s Government!

Democrats, with some support of Irish-Americans, in the 1860s answered Republican appeals to black equality in part by promoting racism.  George Francis Train, a colorful businessman and public speaker, was one showy promoter of the Fenian cause who used racist appeals.  

Republicans appealed to immigrants as well, especially Germans, but German immigrants also at times felt black civil rights appeals unfairly ignored their interests.  

Women groups also split over civil rights, especially after the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment were not used to protect women’s equality and suffrage.  

10: The Politics of Expatriation

The rights of expatriation, the ability to change one’s country and become a citizen in a new land, became a political issue with both Congress and the Johnson Administration involved.  

There was long a general understanding that expatriation was a “natural right,” a basic liberty involved to pursue happiness where one wished.  Nonetheless, there was no clear national law establishing the right or spelling out rules to protect the people involved.  

The Fourteenth Amendment nationalized birthright citizenship. If a person was born on U.S. soil, they would by birth be a United States citizen. The rules for expatriation were still unclear.  After some complicated negotiation, Congress passed legislation.  

Meanwhile, the Fenian rebels were released from prison, various arrangements made, and went home to the United States.  

11: Private Diplomatizing

When President Lincoln wanted to draft a code of warfare during the Civil War, he sought out Francis Lieber.  Lieber was born in Prussia (1798), injured as a teenager fighting Napoleon.  

He eventually was a college professor in South Carolina, but eventually freed himself from slavery, voting for Lincoln in 1860.  After writing a law of war, Lieber continued his efforts to promote international law, especially with the rise of modern nation states.  

One thing he, and even some British international law experts supported, was a right to expatriation.  There also was a support of internationalism, the peaceful interactions between nations, including as trading partners.  Diplomats and legislators jostled to determine how powerful each should be in this process.  

12: Treating Expatriation

After Congress established rules for the rights of naturalized citizens, there was also some success negotiating with other countries to address the issues.  

A major early victory was a treaty with the new German Confederation, led by Otto Bismarck, the Prussian leader of the age.  Negotiations also were made with the British, including settling disputes arising from Confederacy shipbuilding during the Civil War.  

Efforts also were made to negotiate with China, which was forced by Western nations to open up to foreign powers. Chinese immigrants were granted equal privileges enjoyed by other foreigners but were still denied American citizenship. This was a prelude to future second-class rights of Asian Americans though birthright citizenship applied to Asians as well.  

Epilogue: Exits     

John Warren came home to the United States a hero to the Irish community.  Nonetheless, he had various personal tragedies, including multiple family members dying young.  Warren would basically fall into obscurity though eventually got a black mark on his war record removed.

The Fenian movement itself soon died out, the spirit living on in the Irish Revolutionary movement in the 20th Century.  Charles Francis Adams came home to retire, though (if not by choice) was drafted in a failed Democratic attempt to win the Massachusetts governorship. 

The right to expatriation was unequally honored with the United States having various discriminatory immigration policies.  Russia and Turkey never recognized a right to expatriation.   An American wife marrying a foreigner would lose her American citizenship as late as 1920.   

The United Nations after World War II embraced a right to migrate and expatriate as fundamental freedoms.  The Supreme Court recognized American citizenship as a fundamental right, only lost by clear consent.  But, migration remains a controversial issue, including what rights refugees should have and when naturalized citizenship should be available.  

Points to Ponder

A basic disputed principle examined in the book is the idea that someone can voluntarily revoke one’s bonds with the country of their birth and become a citizen of a new country.  This “natural right” was pressed by the American colonists in 1776. Consider the implications of this principle, including what it means to be a citizen of a nation, and freedom of movement.  

One thing examined in this book is American foreign policy, particularly with the United Kingdom, in the period of around the Civil War.  Consider the complex matters of international policy that the American government had to weigh.  How did this influence how the government treated their own citizens abroad, including naturalized citizens?  What about today?


Lucy E. Salyer is a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire is known for her scholarship in the area of immigration history.  She has written various academic writings in that area and two other books:

  • Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law
  • Guarding the ‘White Man’s Frontier’ 

Is Under the Starry Flag a Reliable Source?

The author writes about what she knows here, focused more on history than the complex nuances of the law of citizenship.  The book deals with such legal questions, but not in a so much in depth fashion more appropriate for someone with more academic knowledge in that area.  

The book’s history is accurate as a whole (my general knowledge on the era in question makes me familiar with the basics; I did not see any mistakes).  The book is well recommended by others who have special knowledge of the ground related as seen by this roundtable sample.  
The book has about eighty pages of notes, so is academically sourced as well.  I would as a whole say this is a reliable source, noting no book covering as many subjects as this one will be truly comprehensive in each given the size of this volume.