The American Civil War in Irish Unionist Memory

The American Civil War was one of the key historical points of comparison for Irish unionists as they fought against Home Rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The Civil War itself was easily within living memory during the Home Rule period, ending only twenty years before the first Home Rule crisis.  Joseph Hernon’s short article on the “Use of the American Civil War in the Debate over Irish Home Rule” shows how British politicians and intellectuals who had supported the Northern States later as Liberal Unionists used the Civil War example to oppose Irish Home Rule.  Hernon writes that the principles of states’ rights in the Civil War, which helped to validate the Confederate standpoint, were used as examples by the Liberal Unionists.  They feared that if Ireland was granted Home Rule the Irish nationalists would use states’ rights principles to demand complete separation.

Hernon rightly points out that there are limits to the logic of this parallel, because slavery as a moral issue played such a large role in the American situation.  However, fear of states’ rights leading to Irish separation was not the only way that the Civil War example was employed in unionist rhetoric.  The Civil War, considered the greatest war in living memory at the time, was frequently used to develop themes of legitimacy of the Ulster cause, the sense of betrayal by Britain because they would not fight to hold the Union together, and unity as part of the spirit of the age.

During the first Home Rule crisis, unionists used the Civil War to develop several themes in their rhetoric.  With Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule, many Ulster Liberals turned to an alliance with the Conservatives.  As the Liberal Party was faced with schism during the first Home Rule Bill, T.W. Russell, MP for South Tyrone, defended the stance of Liberal Unionists.  He stated in an 1886 Stirlingshire speech:

My alternative is – ‘Maintain the Union, be scrupulous to redress every Irish wrong, be even generous in view of the past, but govern the Country.’  I am told that Democracy will not consent to do this.  Let us not be too sure of that…. The great Democracy of the United States answered to Abraham Lincoln, not to Jefferson Davis.  And to maintain the Union there the cannon thundered in the valley of the Shenandoah, the musketry rattled on the heights of Fredericksburg, and Grant fought and conquered at Richmond.  And the Union was maintained there, just as I firmly believe it will be maintained here.

Russell defended the Liberal Unionists’ choice to break from Gladstone, committing them to maintain Liberal social policies in Ireland while supporting the Union.  When faced with the question of whether Home Rule was inevitable, the Civil War provided an example of a people willing to commit everything to maintaining unity rather than separation.  Many Liberal Unionists maintained that they were willing to give every consideration to bettering the condition of Ireland other than destruction of the Union.

Ulster’s Liberal Unionists used the American Civil War example to condemn Gladstone’s Home Rule stance.  Belfast Reverend R.J. Lynd wrote,

Mr. Gladstone is not infallible.  Had he his will, the United States of America would now be cut into two kingdoms, and slavery would still retain its grim hold on the kingdom of the South without any control from the North.  To us Irish Liberals, who loved him and followed him with a devotion and personal veneration seldom equalled, but never surpassed, there could not be a more melancholy spectacle under the sun than Mr. Gladstone as a Liberal leader presents now.

The former supporters of Gladstone identified a pattern in his support of the Confederacy and his promotion of Irish Home Rule.  As implied by Lynd, an immoral cause would have a hold over a helpless minority in each case.

Ulster unionists used the American Civil War as an historical example in many other cases.  They cited the partition of West Virginia from Virginia as precedent for the protection of a significant loyal minority from a disloyal majority.  They used the Civil War to deny Irish nationalists the right to compel the Westminster Parliament to change the relationship between Ireland and Great Britain within the Union.  For example, they claimed that even if, like the South during the Civil War, Irish nationalists might technically be acting within constitutional bounds by demanding Home Rule, Parliament should not grant Home Rule if it would lead to greater dangers.  In the United States, Civil War was preferable to the North than allowing the South to legally secede from the Union.  The threat of an independent Confederacy to the North was similar to that of a Home Rule Ireland to Britain, because of the dangers of total separation.

Unionists used the Civil War example to show that attempting to use Home Rule to pacify Irish nationalists would be futile.  They claimed that the North had refused to pacify the South during the Civil War; therefore the British government should refuse to pacify Irish nationalists with Home Rule.  If Home Rule was granted to the disloyal Parnellites, total separation from the Union would be an even greater threat.  This threat was also used to justify Ulster unionist militancy against the British government in an attempt to prevent the implementation of Home Rule – even if this militancy led to the outbreak of Civil War in Ireland.

Like the United States, Ulster unionists were faced with demands for Home Rule.  They felt that the British government was not making any effort to combat these demands but simply accommodated them despite the threat of the destruction of the Union.  Ulster unionists observed the extreme measures taken by the Northern States to prevent the implementation of Home Rule.  They resented being painted as bigots and fools by British Liberals and Irish nationalists because they wanted to do the same thing in their country.  Unionists developed themes of legitimacy of the unionist cause because of the perceived similarities with the Northern states, and betrayal by the British who were unwilling to stand up to the nationalists’ Home Rule demands.  Moreover, the British government was going against the worldwide trend toward unity as exemplified by Italy, Germany, and the American Civil War.  The American Civil War symbolized the power of the Union to endure threats of separation and disconnection if only there were people willing to fight for it.

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