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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of U.S. Union Army Colonel Patrick Kelly

colonel-patrick-kellyColonel Patrick Kelly of the Union Army‘s Irish Brigade (The Fighting Irish) dies on June 16, 1864 at the Siege of Petersburg during the American Civil War while leading the Irish Brigade forward against a Confederate position.

Kelly is born in Castlehacket, Tuam, County Galway and emigrates to the United States, landing in New York City. His wife Elizabeth is also from Tuam.

At the outset of the American Civil War, Kelly enlists in the Union Army and sees action as captain of Company E of the 69th New York Infantry at the First Battle of Bull Run. He briefly is a captain in the 16th U.S. Infantry. On September 14, 1861, he is named lieutenant colonel of the 88th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment and fights in the Irish Brigade’s major battles in 1862. He commands the regiment at the Battle of Antietam. While stationed at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia following the Maryland campaign, he is promoted to colonel on October 20, 1862. He leads the regiment in the ill-fated attacks in front of Marye’s Heights in the Battle of Fredericksburg. He is acting commander of the Irish Brigade at the end of 1862.

After the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, Kelly is promoted to command the Irish Brigade following the resignation of Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher. He leads the heavily depleted brigade of fewer than 600 men in an attack at the Wheatfield during the Battle of Gettysburg. The brigade loses 198 of 532 troops engaged, approximately 37%.

Kelly resumes his role as colonel of his regiment as more senior officers return to the brigade. However, with the death of Colonel Richard Byrnes at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, he again commands the brigade. At the age of 42, he dies during the Siege of Petersburg on June 16, 1864 when he is shot through the head while leading the Irish Brigade forward against Confederate earthworks. His body is recovered and sent back to New York for his funeral. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens, New York.


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Death of Colonel Dennis O’Kane

dennis-o-kaneColonel Dennis O’Kane, officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War, dies on July 4, 1863 of wounds sustained the previous day when fighting with the 69th Pennsylvania Irish Brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Born in Coleraine, County Londonderry, O’Kane is a tavern owner in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a member of the 2nd Pennsylvania Militia regiment prior to the Civil War. When the conflict starts, he helps recruit the 24th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a unit that has the 2nd Pennsylvania Militia as its nucleus. Commissioned Major, Field and Staff, on May 1, 1861, he is with his regiment as it serves first in Maryland and then Virginia before their enlistment expires in July 1861.

In August 1861 O’Kane joins with many of the men from the 24th Pennsylvania in re-enlisting to continue the war effort, and they form the basis of what becomes the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Commissioned Lieutenant Colonel, Field and Staff on August 19, 1861, his new regiment is composed largely of Irish immigrants like himself, and they emblazon the Irish harp on their flag. The unit eventually is joined with the 71st, 72nd and 106th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments to form the famous Philadelphia Brigade.

O’ Kane serves as second-in-command through 1862, participating in the Peninsular Campaign of May and June, the Second Battle of Bull Run in August, and the September 1862 Battle of Antietam, where his brigade is caught in the West Woods area and takes heavy losses. In November 1862, the 69th Pennsylvania’s commander, Colonel Joshua T. Owen, is promoted to Brigadier General, US Volunteers. O’Kane is advanced to Colonel on December 1, 1862 to fill the vacancy.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 14, 1862, O’Kane leads his men in the third of four waves of futile Union charges on strong Confederate positions at Marye’s Heights south of the town, and sees his regiment sustain fifty-one casualties. In May 1863 during the Battle of Chancellorsville, his brigade is held in reserve and sees limited action.

During the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, O’Kane finds the 69th Pennsylvania positioned along a rock fencing in the middle of the Union lines that becomes famous as “The Angle.” That position becomes the epicenter of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, the third day of the battle, as the remnants of the Confederate forces, having been much devastated from Union artillery fire, crash over the rock walls and engage the Philadelphia Brigade in brutal hand-to-hand fighting.

O’Kane is shot in the head at the wall and dies the following day. His regiment again takes high casualties but succeeds in helping to repulse the rebels and defeat the charge. The monument for the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry in Gettysburg National Military Park stands on the spot where O’Kane was mortally wounded.


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The Battle of Antietam

irish-brigade-at-antietamThe Irish Brigade of the Union Army fights in the Battle of Antietam, one of the most famous battles of the American Civil War, on September 17, 1862. The battle has the sad distinction of being the bloodiest single day of fighting in America’s bloodiest war. Combined casualties at the Battle of Antietam are 26,134. Few regiments suffered more than the Irish Brigade.

The Irish Brigade is the brainchild of their commanding officer Thomas Francis Meagher. The former Young Ireland rebel, creator of the Irish Tricolor of green, white and orange, escaped political prisoner, lawyer, newspaper editor and politician forms the brigade with the twin objectives of gaining respect for the Irish by their patriotism for their adopted country and developing a nucleus for a future fight for Ireland’s freedom. The Brigade is formed of the almost exclusively Irish American 69th, 63rd and 88th New York and the “honorary Irish” of the 29th Massachusetts. The regiments of the Irish Brigade had already earned a formidable reputation as a crack unit, having distinguished themselves in every battle of the earlier Seven Days Battles. It is small wonder, many in the Brigade’s ranks had already distinguished themselves in the Mexican-American War or in fighting with the Papal forces in Italy against Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The Union Army is already heavily engaged, when the Irish Brigade is ordered to advance through an open field to take an area of high ground. Subjected to accurate Confederate rifle fire as they cross the field, the Brigade marches on in disciplined order, the National and the famed Green Regimental Colors (flags) fluttering overhead. When they encounter a fence across their line of march, eighty volunteers rush forward to knock it down, rather than see the whole Brigade slowed by the obstacle and exposed to fire. Over half of these volunteers are killed. Seeing the Irish continue to press forward, the Confederates fall back as the Irish advance up the hill.

What no one on the Union side knows is that on the other side of the hill is a farmer’s dirt road that years of rain has eroded into a ditch five feet below the surrounding ground level. The sunken road is a perfect rifle pit and is filled with Colonel John Brown Gordon’s Georgians. As the Irish crest the hill, they are met with a volley that decimates the Brigade, including killing or wounding every single standard-bearer. Seeing the flags fall from across the field, an aide to Union General George B. McClellan exclaims, “The battles lost, the Irish are fleeing!” only for McClellan to respond, “No, the flags are raised again, they are advancing.” Eight successive standard-bearers of the 69th New York alone fall that day as men pick up the flags from fallen comrades. Captain Patrick Clooney, though wounded himself, snatches up the colors from the 88th’s fallen standard-bearer only to be killed by multiple shots, the Green Flag wrapping around him like a shroud befitting a hero. Another standard-bearer, the staff of his Irish Brigade flag snapped in two by a rifle shot, drapes the flag over his shoulder like a sash and continues to move forward, personifying the Gaelic phrase on the flag he is carrying “Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn lann”, “Who never retreated from the clash of spears.”

The fire of the Confederates is so intense that the Irish Brigade cannot advance, but they do not flee either. Despite the failure of promised reinforcements that never materialize, the Brigade pours “Buck and Ball” (a 69 caliber ball and three 30 caliber buckshot) into the enemy at 300 paces, turning the “Sunken Road” into “Bloody Lane.” When their ammunition is depleted, the remnants of the Brigade, with drill ground precision, form and march back to the Union lines. The Irish Brigade never “ran” from the enemy. Another Union unit takes the “Bloody Lane,” but most credit the punishment that the Irish Brigade inflicted on the enemy, at a terrible cost to themselves, with making it possible. The New York Regiments take over 50% casualties. The Irish Brigade is now no bigger than a single regiment. As the depleted ranks of the 88th march passed, Union Major General Israel Bush Richardson salutes as it passes with the words “Bravo 88th, I shall never forget you!”

During the course of the War, the Irish Brigade suffers over 4,000 casualties, more men than the Brigade ever had at any one time. The Fighting 69th loses more men than any other New York regiment. The Battle of Antietam is remembered as the Union victory that allows President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which frees the slaves in the Confederate states. It is all too often forgotten that this emancipation was secured in no small part with the blood of Irish immigrants, immigrants who were denied civil rights in their own country and faced discrimination in their adopted county before and after the Civil War.

In thinking of the Civil War, all Americans should remember the words of a defeated Confederate Officer to his Union counterpart at Appomattox, “You only won as you had more Irish than we did.”

(Credit: “The Irish Brigade at Antietam” by Neil F. Cosgrove, October 17, 2009)


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Birth of Myles Walter Keogh, Last Man Killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn

Myles Walter Keogh, soldier in the United States Army, is born in Orchard House in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, on March 25, 1840. It is said by the Sioux that he is the last man killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn, where his horse is the only U.S. survivor.

Keogh attends the National School in Leighlinbridge and is long thought to have attended St. Patrick’s College in Carlow but that college has no record of his attendance. It is possible that he attends St. Mary’s Knockbeg College.

By 1860, a twenty-year-old Keogh volunteers, along with over one thousand of his countrymen, to rally to the defence of Pope Pius IX following a call to arms by the Catholic clergy in Ireland. By August 1860, Keogh is appointed second lieutenant of his unit in the Battalion of St. Patrick, Papal Army under the command of General Christophe Léon Louis Juchault de Lamoricière. Once the fighting is over and duties of the Pontifical Swiss Guard become more mundane, Keogh sees little purpose in remaining in Rome. In March 1862, with civil war raging in America, he resigns his commission in the Company of St. Patrick and sets out for New York City, arriving on April 2.

Keogh actively participates in several prominent American Civil War battles including the Shenandoah Valley, the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the Battle of Gettysburg.

Perhaps the strongest testimony to Keogh’s bravery and leadership ability comes at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, on June 25, 1876. The senior captain among the five companies wiped out with General George Armstrong Custer that day, and commanding one of two squadrons within the Custer detachment, Keogh dies in a “last stand” of his own, surrounded by the men of Company I. When the sun-blackened and dismembered dead are buried three days later, Keogh’s body is found at the center of a group of troopers. The slain officer is stripped but not mutilated, perhaps because of the “medicine” the Indians see in the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) he wears on a chain about his neck or because many of Sitting Bull‘s warriors are believed to be Catholic. Keogh’s left knee has been shattered by a bullet that corresponds to a wound through the chest and flank of his horse, indicating that horse and rider may have fallen together prior to the last rally.

The badly injured animal is found on the fatal battlefield, and nursed back to health as the 7th Cavalry’s regimental mascot, which he remains until his death in 1890. This horse, Comanche, is considered the only U.S. military survivor of the battle, though several other badly wounded horses are found and destroyed at the scene. Keogh’s bloody gauntlet and the guidon of his Company I are recovered by the army three months after Little Bighorn at the Battle of Slim Buttes.

Originally buried on the battlefield, Keogh’s remains are disinterred and taken to Auburn, as he had requested in his will. He is buried at Fort Hill Cemetery on October 26, 1877, an occasion marked by citywide official mourning and an impressive military procession to the cemetery.

Tongue River Cantonment in southeastern Montana is renamed after him to be Fort Keogh. The fort is first commanded by Nelson A. Miles. The 55,000-acre fort is today an agricultural experiment station. Miles City, Montana is located two miles from the old fort.