This blog serial explored aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page. #IUCRevisited
“For today in Ireland, as then in America, we find a grave question of politics … seriously complicated and aggravated, not only by considerations of moral right and wrong, but by a profound perturbation of the material interests of the community.”
–William Henry Hurlbert
In addition to his comments about the Irish in America, Hurlbert also made numerous references to the U.S. Civil War, which he witnessed a quarter century before his visit to Ireland. “Hurlbert’s home country and its history were never far from mind as he explored the Emerald Isle,” historian Daniel Crofts wrote in his book about the 19th century American journalist.
Hurlbert suggested the 1867 Fenian Rising “was undoubtedly an indirect consequence of our own Civil War in America.” He wrote of meeting a Colonel Talbot, “the only foreign officer” at the Battle of Petersburg [Virginia], who relayed a story about then U.S. General and later President [1869-1877] Ulysses S. Grant. He reported the U.S. northern state of New Hampshire was the only state to lose population during the war decade of the 1860s, which he compared to Irish emigration in the 1880s:
This phenomenon, unique in American history, is to be explained by only three causes, all active in the case of congested Ireland,–a decaying agriculture, lack of communications, and the absence of varied industries.
Hurlbert’s assessment of Ireland during the Land War as similar to America during the Civil War is most evident in this extended passage from the Epilogue of Ireland Under Coercion. The Border States were slave states that did not secede from the Union and did not join the Confederacy:
Not once, but a hundred times, during the visits to Ireland recorded in this book, I have been reminded of the state of feeling and opinion which existed in the Border States … of the American Union … For today in Ireland, as then in America, we find a grave question of politics … seriously complicated and aggravated, not only by considerations of moral right and wrong, but by a profound perturbation of the material interests of the community. … [I]t would be uncandid not to say that the optimists of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee had greater apparent odds in their favor [for reaching a peaceful solution] in 1861 than the optimists of Ireland seem to me to have in 1888. Ireland stands to-day between Great Britain and the millions of the Irish race in America and Australia very much as the Border States of the American Union stood in 1861 between the North and the South. … [T]he Border States enjoyed all the advantages and immunities of ‘Home Rule’ to an extent and under guarantees never yet openly demanded for Ireland by any responsible legislator within the walls of the British Parliament. But so powerful was the leverage upon them of conflicting passions and interests beyond their own borders that this sovereign states, well organized, homogeneous, prosperous communities, much more populous and richer in the aggregate in 1861 than Ireland is to-day, practically lost the control of their own affairs, and were swept helplessly into a terrific conflict, which the had the greatest imaginable interest in avoiding, and no interest whatever in promoting.
As Crofts noted, “Hurlbert recognized that analogies were deceptive,” yet he “understood, better than many of his contemporaries,” the similarities of “ideological polarization” and “absolutist mentalities” at work in America during the mid-1800s and Ireland in the late 1800s. Crofts continued:
[Hurlbert’s] dour warnings about how the Irish situation might trigger a civil war were not fulfilled during his own lifetime, but he was correct to predict that the struggles of the 1880s could have a violent sequel [and did in the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, 1919-1923]. … The conflict that led to partition [in Ireland] was mercifully less bloody than the American Civil War, but it was bad enough [and] persisted for the rest of the 20th century.
NOTES: From pages 145, 220, 394, and 417-18 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Pages 183-84, 186-87 of A secession crisis enigma : William Henry Hurlbert and “The diary of a public man, by Daniel W. Crofts.
NEXT: Hurlbert reviewed
Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan