seamus dubhghaill

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


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Birth of Brigadier General Thomas Alfred Smyth

thomas-alfred-smythThomas Alfred Smyth, brigadier general in the Union Army during the American Civil War, is born in Ballyhooly, County Cork on December 25, 1832. He is the last Union general killed in the war. In March 1867, he is nominated and confirmed a brevet major general of volunteers posthumously to rank from April 7, 1865.

Smyth works on his father’s farm in Ireland as a youth. He emigrates to the United States in 1854, settling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He participates in William Walker‘s expedition to Nicaragua. He is employed as a wood carver and coach and carriage maker. In 1858, he moves to Wilmington, Delaware.

In 1861 Smyth enlists in the Union army in an Irish American three-months regiment, the 24th Pennsylvania, and is quickly made a captain. He is later commissioned as a major of the 1st Delaware Infantry, a three-years regiment. He serves at the battles of Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, following which he is promoted to lieutenant colonel and then to colonel. During the Gettysburg campaign, he commands the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division of the II Corps. During the Battle of Gettysburg, his men help defend Cemetery Ridge and advance to the area of the Bliss farm to oust enemy sharpshooters. He is wounded on the third day of the battle and relinquishes command briefly.

Smyth retains brigade command during the reorganization of II Corps before Ulysses S. Grant‘s Overland Campaign. He leads the second brigade of the first division from March 25 to May 17, 1864. When Colonel Samuel S. Carroll is wounded, Smyth is transferred to his command, the third brigade of second division, the Gibraltar Brigade. In October 1864, he is promoted to brigadier general during the Siege of Petersburg. He retains command of his brigade throughout the siege.

Between July 31, 1864 and August 22, 1864 and between December 23, 1864 and February 25, 1865, Smyth commands the 2nd division of the corps. In April 1865 near Farmville, Virginia, he is shot through the mouth by a sniper, with the bullet shattering his cervical vertebra and paralyzing him. He dies two days later at Burke’s Tavern, concurrent with the surrender of Robert E. Lee and his Confederate States Army at Appomattox Court House.

On March 18, 1867, President Andrew Johnson nominates Smyth for posthumous appointment to the grade of brevet major general of volunteers to rank from April 7, 1865, the date he was mortally wounded, and the United States Senate confirms the appointment on March 26, 1867. He is the last Union general killed or mortally wounded during the war, and is buried in Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery in Wilmington, Delaware.


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Pickett’s Charge

On July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as the sun rises behind the men of Colonel Dennis O’Kane’s Irish 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry on Cemetery Ridge, the most famous assault of the American Civil War is being prepared across the mile of open field in front of them. The 69th Pennsylvania will be at the very vortex of that assault, now known to posterity as Pickett’s Charge.

Pickett’s Charge is an infantry assault ordered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee against Major General George G. Meade‘s Union positions on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Its futility is predicted by the charge’s commander, Lt. General James Longstreet, and it is arguably an avoidable mistake from which the Southern war effort never fully recovers militarily or psychologically. The farthest point reached by the attack has been referred to as the high-water mark of the Confederacy.  The charge is named after Maj. General George Pickett, one of three Confederate generals who lead the assault under Longstreet.

Pickett’s charge is part of Lee’s “general plan” to take Cemetery Hill and the network of roads it commands. On the night of July 2, Meade correctly predicts at a council of war that Lee will attack the center of his lines the following morning.

At 1:00 PM on July 3, a massive artillery bombardment by the Confederate guns sails mostly over the heads of the 69th. The bombardment is meant to soften up the Union defense and silence its artillery, but is largely ineffective. About 3:00 PM the barrage slackens and the rebel infantrymen begin their assault. “And let your work this day be for victory or to the death,” Colonel Dennis O’Kane tells his men as the furious rebel onslaught approaches. Approximately 12,500 men in nine infantry brigades advance over open fields for three-quarters of a mile under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire.

Soon the 69th is forced to refuse both flanks as the Confederate tide rolls up to them and laps around both sides. While many around them run, the 69th stands fast. Although some Confederates are able to breach the low stone wall that shields many of the Union defenders, they cannot maintain their hold and are repulsed with over 50% casualties. The regiment’s tenacious stand in front of the famous copse of trees is a pivotal part of the crucial Union victory and a decisive defeat for the Confederacy that ends the three-day battle and Lee’s campaign into Pennsylvania.

Good to his word, Colonel O’Kane is killed and, lying dead near the 69th’s position, wearing gray lay Pvt. Willie Mitchel of the 1st Virginia Infantry, son of Irish patriot John Mitchel. At the most crucial battle of America’s Civil War, Irish are killing Irish on a foreign field once again.

Years later, when asked why his charge at Gettysburg failed, Pickett replies, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”