The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Thesis Christ: Harry Fukano ‘13

In the 1840s, Ireland experienced a potato famine that wiped out one-eighth of its population and displaced another fifth. According to one thesising senior, the heavy impact of Irish displacement, combined with Irish nationalism, had an unexpected effect on the American Civil War.

Harry Fukano ’13, from Los Angeles, California is writing his 90-page History thesis on Irish participation in the American Civil War with his adviser, Professor Margot Minardi. In summing up the aim of his thesis, Harry says, “Essentially its on trying to figure out why the Irish, the majority of which are recently displaced from a famine in Ireland, would choose to engage in this pretty serious military action for a country they had just recently arrived at.”

Harry explains that the term “Wild Goose,” which will appear in the final title of his thesis, is a historical trope used to describe Irish people who enlisted in the militaries of other countries, such as the American Civil War.

“After Ireland fell to the English invasions in the 1600s, a lot of Irish resisters and soldiers were expatriated out of the country,” Harry explains.

Many of these expatriates immigrated to predominantly Catholic countries, much like migrating wild geese, and hoped to fight Protestant England at some point, “with the idea that they were essentially fighting for Irish nationalism in the service of foreign armies.”

After the potato famine of the 1840s, about 1 million displaced Irish moved to the U.S. to flee poverty and a lack of work. Thrilled to be able to work, receive wages, and survive, the Irish surged into the U.S., mostly through the North.

But, says Harry, not everything was easy for new Irish immigrants. “The Catholic Irish received a lot of negative backlash from Protestant abolitionists, who were really hostile to the Irish,” he explains.

Harry also gives the example of the Know-Nothing Party, which was an anti-foreigner party in the American North that responded negatively to the surge of Irish immigrants.

In the South, however, people were more tolerant of Irish immigrants. The climate in the South was not as near to the Irish climate as that of the North, but Southerners tended to care less about Irish Catholicism, and New Orleans, which had a huge French and Spanish Catholic presence, provided somewhat of a religious refuge for the Irish. Twenty thousand Irish men ended up enlisting in the Confederate Army.

For Harry, this raises the question: “Why would 150,000 Irish then sign up for the Union?”

Harry answers this question in a number of ways. First, he says, the South was a farther trip from New York and other northern ports, which is where most Irish immigrated. And the North had a similar climate to Ireland, whereas the South had a tropical climate unfamiliar to the Irish.

But the continuous Irish presence in the North wasn’t all practical. Harry draws from letters and memoirs published by Irish in the Union army, where ethnic segregation led to the formation of all-Irish brigades, to show that there were emotional reasons for the Irish to join the Union as well.

“Part of my argument is that [the Irish] tended to overlay a sort of Irish nationalist narrative onto their participation in the war,” says Harry. “For the Union, people coming in from Ireland are fleeing total devastation, where there’s no work, people are literally dying of disease and starvation in the streets.”

“When they come to America they are the lowest rung of society—they are immigrant labor and they get the worst jobs—but they’re able to make money and survive,” he explains. “So a certain amount of the Irish population says when we couldn’t live in Ireland, when were literally dying, we could come to America and get a job and live.”

According to Harry, being able to survive in America made Irish immigrants see value in defending America, so that they could both send money back to Ireland and keep it open for their fellow Irish to show up.

Irish immigrants were also inspired by the U.S., says Harry, and therefore fought for the survival of the Union. According to Harry, some immigrants looked at the U.S. as a former English colony that was able to establish itself as an independent republic, a goal they wanted Ireland to achieve. They also wanted the U.S. to emerge as a global competitor of Great Britain who would give material, aid, and a model for Ireland. Harry classifies these ideas as “positive Union values.”

Harry says that even though they fought predominantly for the Union, the Irish weren’t necessarily on board with everything the Union fought for.

“They compete with labor groups, and so the Emancipation Proclamation would have been perceived very negatively by them because in freeing the slaves you’re opening up this huge labor market by about 8 million ground-level laborers,” he explains.

Yet for many “Wild Geese” the reasons to join the Union were still overwhelming.

Harry chose his thesis topic based on an experience he had in his youth, volunteering, surprisingly, at the Japanese-American National Museum.

“It always struck me as kind of weird that even though the U.S. interned all the Japanese on the West Coast into internment camps [during World War II], they were still able to draw men out of the camps and form an all-Japanese fighting battalion called the 442nd, which was the most distinguished unit in World War II in the European theater.

“And you just have to ask yourself—why would these people fight for a government that locked them up into a camp and forced them out of their homes and just treated them virulently racistly?”

Harry says that he already explored that specific topic earlier in his life. But for him the broader question, which also applies to the Irish experience in the American Civil War, still remains: “Why on Earth do you want to die for this?”

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