Joseph Finegan, Irish-born American businessman and brigadier general for the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War, is born on November 17, 1814 at Clones, County Monaghan. From 1862 to 1864 he commands Confederate forces operating in middle and east Florida, ultimately leading the Confederate victory at the Battle of Olustee, the state’s only major battle.
Finegan comes to Florida in the 1830s, first establishing a sawmill at Jacksonville and later a law practice at Fernandina, where he becomes the business partner of David Levy Yulee and begins construction of the Florida Railroad to speed transportation of goods and people from the new state’s east coast to the Gulf of Mexico.
Finegan’s successes are perhaps attributable to his first marriage on July 28, 1842, to the widow Rebecca Smith Travers. Her sister, Mary Martha Smith, is the wife of Florida’s territorial governor, Robert Raymond Reid, an appointee of President Martin Van Buren. In 1852, he is a member of the Committee of Vigilance and Safety of Jacksonville, Florida.
By the outbreak of the American Civil War, Finegan had built his family a forty-room mansion in Fernandina on the site of the modern Atlantic Elementary School. At Florida’s secession convention, he represents Nassau County alongside James G. Cooper.
In April 1862, Finegan assumes command of the District of Middle and Eastern Florida from Brigadier General James H. Trapier. Soon thereafter, he suffers some embarrassment surrounding the wreck of the blockade runner Kate at Mosquito Inlet (the modern Ponce de Leon Inlet). Her cargo of rifles, ammunition, medical supplies, blankets, and shoes is plundered by civilians. Attempts to recover these items takes months before he issues a public appeal. Eventually, most of the rifles are found, but the other supplies are never recovered. Also in 1862, recognizing the importance of Florida beef to the Confederate cause, he gives cattle baron Jacob Summerlin permission to select thirty men from the state troops under his command to assist in rounding up herds to drive north.
At this time, the principal Confederate military post in east Florida is dubbed “Camp Finegan” to honor the state’s highest-ranking officer. It is about seven miles west of Jacksonville, south of the rail line near modern Marietta.
In 1863, Finegan complains of the large quantity of rum making its way from the West Indies into Florida. Smugglers are buying it in Cuba for a mere seventeen cents per gallon, only to sell it in the blockaded state for twenty-five dollars per gallon. He urges Governor John Milton to confiscate the “vile article” and destroy it before it can impact army and civilian morals.
In February 1864, General P. G. T. Beauregard begins rushing reinforcements to Finegan after Confederate officials become aware of a build-up of Union Army troops in the occupied city of Jacksonville. As Florida is a vital supply route and source of beef to the other southern states, they cannot allow it to fall completely into Union hands.
On February 20, 1864, Finegan stops a Union Army advance from Jacksonville under General Truman Seymour that is intent upon capturing the state capitol at Tallahassee. Their two armies clash at the Battle of Olustee, where Finegan’s men defeat the Union Army and force them to flee back beyond the St. Johns River. Critics have faulted Finegan for failing to exploit his victory by pursuing his retreating enemy, contenting himself by salvaging their arms and ammunition from the battlefield. His victory, however, is one rare bright spot in an otherwise gloomy year for the dying Confederacy.
Some Finegan detractors believe he did little more to contribute to the Confederate victory at Olustee than to shuttle troops forward to General Alfred H. Colquitt of Georgia, whom they credit for thwarting the Union Army advance. They point out that Finegan was quickly relieved of his command over the state troops, replaced by Major General James Patton Anderson. But this change in command is necessary as Finegan is ordered to lead the “Florida Brigade” in the Army of Northern Virginia, where he serves effectively until near the end of the war.
Finegan returns to Fernandina after the war to discover his mansion has been seized by the Freedmen’s Bureau for use as an orphanage and school for black children. It takes some legal wrangling, but he is eventually able to recover this property. He has to sell most of his lands along Lake Monroe to Henry Shelton Sanford for $18,200 to pay his attorneys and other creditors. He does retain a home site at Silver Lake. Adding to his sorrows is the untimely death of his son Rutledge on April 4, 1871, precipitating a move to Savannah, Georgia. There, he feels at home with the large Irish population and works as a cotton broker.
It is while living in Savannah that Finegan marries his second wife, the widow Lucy C. Alexander, a Tennessee belle. They eventually settle on a large orange grove in Orange County, Florida. Finegan dies on October 29, 1885, at Rutledge, Florida. According to the Florida Union, his death is the result of “severe cold, inducing chills, to which he succumbed after brief illness.” The paper describes him as “hearty, unaffected, jovial, clear-headed, and keen-witted.” He is buried at the Old City Cemetery in Jacksonville.