Born in Kilkeel, County Down on June 27, 1824, Nugent serves with the 69th New York Infantry Regiment, from its days as a militia unit and into its incorporation into the Union Army at the start of the war, and is one of its senior officers at the First Battle of Bull Run.
When the unit is originally mustered out of service, the 90-day enlistment terms having expired, Nugent accepts a commission as a captain in the regular army. He is immediately assigned to the 13th Infantry Regiment whose commanding officer, General William Tecumseh Sherman, personally requests. Taking a leave of absence to return to New York, he assists Thomas Francis Meagher in organizing the Irish Brigade. The newly reformed 69th Infantry Regiment is the first unit assigned to the Irish Brigade and, with Nugent as its colonel, he leads the “Fighting 69th” at the Battles of Seven Pines, Gaines’ Mill, Savage’s Station, White Oak Swamp, Glendale, and Malvern Hill.
Nugent is wounded, shot in the stomach, at the Battle of Fredericksburg and is eventually forced to resign his command. He is appointed acting assistant provost marshal for the southern district of New York, which includes New York City and Long Island, by the U.S. Department of War. An Irishman and Democrat, his appointment is thought to assure the Irish American population that conscription efforts would be carried out fairly. The Irish-American, a popular Irish language newspaper, writes that the selection is a “wise and deservedly popular one.” He does encounter resistance from city officials wanting him to remain uninvolved, however by mid-June he reports to his superior officer and provost marshal general Colonel James Fry that conscription efforts are “nearing completion without serious incident.”
Understanding the seriousness of the situation, Nugent attempts to keep the draft selections quiet and in isolated parts of the city. In Manhattan however, lotteries are placed in the heart of Irish tenement and shanty neighborhoods where the draft is most opposed.
In the ensuing New York City draft riots, Nugent takes command of troops and attempts to defend the city against the rioters. Despite issuing the cancellation of the draft, the riots continue for almost a week. His home on West 86th Street is looted and burned by the rioters during that time, his wife and children barely escaping from their home. Upon breaking into his house, furniture is destroyed and paintings of Nugent and Meagher are slashed, although Brigadier General Michael Corcoran‘s is left untouched.
On October 28, Nugent is relieved of his post and succeeded by General William Hayes. Returning to active duty, he assumes command of the Irish Brigade in November 1864, shortly after the death of Corcoran, and is present at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the Siege of Petersburg and the Appomattox campaign. As its last commanding officer, he and the Irish Brigade also march in the victory parade held in Washington, D.C. following Robert E. Lee‘s surrender at Appomattox Court House.
Nugent is brevetted Brigadier General for distinguished leadership of the 69th Regiment on March 13, 1865. The veterans of the Irish Brigade are honorably discharged and mustered out three months later. Nugent, however, remains in the regular U.S. Army for the next twenty years, a formidable “Indian fighter” during the America Indian Wars with the 13th and 24th Infantry Regiments. In 1879, he retires at the rank of major and resides in New York where he is involved in the Grand Army of the Republic, the War Veterans’ Association of the 7th Regiment and an honorary member of The Old Guard.
Nugent becomes ill in his old age, complications arising from his wounds suffered at Fredericksburg, and remains bedridden for two months before his death at his McDonough Street home in Brooklyn on June 20, 1901. In accordance with his last wishes, he is buried at Cypress Hills National Cemetery, located in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn.