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


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Birth of Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne

patrick-ronayne-cleburnePatrick Ronayne Cleburne, called the “Stonewall of the West” and one of the finest generals produced by either side during the American Civil War is born on March 17, 1828 at Bride Park Cottage in Ovens, County Cork, just outside Cork City.

Born on St. Patrick’s Day, this native Irishman is nevertheless extremely loyal to his adopted country, saying, “if this [Confederacy] that is so dear to my heart is doomed to fail, I pray heaven may let me fall with it, while my face is toward the enemy and my arm battling for that which I know to be right.” Sadly, Cleburne ultimately receives his wish.

Cleburne begins his military career in an unlikely manner. When he fails the entrance exam at Trinity College, Dublin, he cannot face his family. He enlists in the 41st Regiment of Foot in the British Army. In 1849 he purchases his discharge and leaves for the United States, eventually settling in Helena, Arkansas in June 1850 and earning his citizenship in 1855. He loves his new country, taking part in many community projects, and even being one of the few volunteers to care for the sick during a yellow fever outbreak.

In January 1861 Cleburne joins the local militia company, the Yell Rifles.  He leads the company in the seizure of the U.S. Arsenal in Little Rock in January 1861. When Arkansas left the Union, the Yell Rifles became part of the 1st Arkansas Infantry Regiment. By fall of 1861 he has risen to command the 2nd Brigade, Hardee’s Division, in the Army of Central Kentucky. His first major battle is at the Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862. At the Battle of Richmond (Kentucky) in August 1862, he is wounded in the mouth and loses several of his teeth. Still, he earns the thanks of the Confederate States Congress for his actions there. During the October 1862 Battle of Perryville he is wounded again – twice, yet stays in command during the battle. In December 1862 he is promoted to Major General.

At the December 1862 Battle of Stones River, Cleburne and his division earn the praise of General Braxton Bragg for their incredible skill and valor. Cleburne’s actions and character play a large role in his men’s determination during battle.

In 1863 Cleburne faces off against Union General George Henry Thomas at the Battle of Chickamauga. His and General John C. Breckinridge’s assaults force General Thomas to call repeatedly for reinforcements. In November 1863 the Confederate army is forced to retreat after the Chattanooga Campaign. However, Cleburne has defeated every assault against his men eventually charging his attackers. After the battle, he and his men are charged with covering the retreat.

On January 2, 1864, Cleburne makes his most controversial decision ever. He gathers the corps and division commanders in the Army of Tennessee to present his proposal. The Confederacy is unable to fill its ranks due to a lack of manpower. He states that slavery is their “most vulnerable point, a continued embarrassment, and in some respects an insidious weakness.” His proposed solution is for the Confederacy to arm slaves to fight in the army. In time, these soldiers would receive their freedom. The proposal is not well received at all. In fact, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, directs that the proposal be suppressed.

In the spring of 1864 the Army of Tennessee moves towards Atlanta, Georgia. Cleburne and his men fight at Dalton, Tunnel Hill, Resaca, Pickett’s Mill, Ringgold and Kennesaw. The Atlanta Campaign begins in the summer and lasts until September, when General John Bell Hood evacuates Atlanta. Hood had taken command from General Joseph E. Johnston, which Cleburne felt to be a disaster for the Confederacy.

General Hood hopes to stop Union General John Schofield and his men before they can reach Nashville to reinforce General Thomas. Due to poor communications and nightfall, Schofield slips past the Army of Tennessee into Franklin.

The November 30, 1864 Battle of Franklin is a tragic loss for the Confederacy. Hood throws his men into well-fortified Union troops. The results are disastrous. About 6,000 men are killed or wounded including six generals who are killed or mortally wounded. Cleburne is one of these six, killed while attacking Union breastworks. He is last seen advancing on foot toward the Union line with his sword raised, after his horse had been shot out from under him. Accounts later say that he is found just inside the Federal line and his body is carried back to an aid station along the Columbia Turnpike. Confederate war records indicate he died of a shot to the abdomen, or possibly a bullet that went through his heart. When Confederates find his body, he has been picked clean of any valuable items, including his sword, boots and pocket watch.

Cleburne’s remains are first laid to rest at Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia, Tennessee. At the urging of Army Chaplain Biship Quintard, Judge Mangum, staff officer to Cleburne and his law partner in Helena, his remains are moved to St. John’s Episcopal Church near Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, where they remain for six years. In 1870, he is disinterred and returned to his adopted hometown of Helena, Arkansas, with much fanfare, and buried in the Helena Confederate Cemetery located in the southwest corner of the Maple Hill Cemetery, overlooking the Mississippi River.

Several geographic features are named after Patrick Cleburne, including Cleburne County in Alabama and Arkansas, and the city of Cleburne, Texas. The Patrick R. Cleburne Confederate Cemetery is a memorial cemetery in Jonesboro, Georgia that is named in honor of General Patrick Cleburne.


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Birth of Civil War Officer John O’Neill

john-oneillJohn Charles O’Neill, Irish-born officer in the American Civil War and member of the Fenian Brotherhood, is born on March 9, 1834 in Drumgallon, Clontibret, County Monaghan. He is best known for his activities leading the Fenian raids on Canada in 1866 and 1871.

O’Neill receives some schooling in Drumgallon. He emigrates to New Jersey in 1848 at the height of the Great Famine in Ireland. He receives an additional year of education there and works in a number of jobs. In 1857 he enlists in the 2nd United States Dragoons and serves in the Utah War (May 1857 – July 1858), apparently deserting afterwards to California.

In California, he joins the 1st Cavalry and serves as a sergeant in the American Civil War with this regiment until December 1862, at which time he is commissioned as an officer in the 5th Indiana Cavalry. He is credited as being a daring fighting officer, but believes he has not received due promotion, which leads to a transfer to the 17th United States Colored Infantry as captain. He leaves the Union Army prior to the end of the conflict, marrying Mary Crow, with whom he has several children.

While in Tennessee, O’Neill joins the militant Irish American movement, the Fenian Brotherhood, which eschews politics in favor of militant action to expel the British presence in Ireland. He attaches himself to the group led by William Randall Roberts, who wishes to attack Canada.

O’Neill, ranked as colonel, travels to the Canada–US border with a group from Nashville to participate in the Fenian raids. The assigned commander of the expedition does not appear, so O’Neill takes command. On June 1, 1866, he leads a group of six hundred men across the Niagara River and occupies Fort Erie.

The following day, north of Ridgeway, Ontario, O’Neill’s group encounters a detached column of Canadian volunteers, commanded by Lt-Col. Alfred Booker. The inexperienced Canadians are routed by the Civil War veterans. O’Neill withdraws back to Fort Erie and fights a battle against a detachment led by John Stoughton Dennis. With overwhelming numbers of Canadian forces closing in, O’Neill oversees a successful evacuation on the night of June 2-3 back to United States territory. He is later charged with violating the neutrality laws of the United States but the charges are later dropped.

The penetration of O’Neill’s organisation by British and Canadian spies ensures that his next venture into Canada, the Battle of Eccles Hill, in 1870 is known in advance, and Canada is accordingly prepared. After the Battle of Trout River ends in a disorganized rout, O’Neill is arrested by United States Marshal George P. Foster and charged with violating neutrality laws. He is sentenced to two years in prison in July 1870 but he and other Fenians are pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant that October.

Though he renounces the idea of further attacks on Canada, he changes his mind at the urging of an associate of Louis Riel, William Bernard O’Donoghue. With the latter, and without the backing of the bulk of the Fenians, he leads an attack on the Hudson’s Bay Company‘s post at Pembina, Manitoba, on October 5, 1871. The area is then disputed between America and Canada. He is arrested by American troops.

In 1874 O’Neill embarks on a lecture tour along the east coast, encouraging the poor Irish that they would have a better standard of living if they would resettle with him in Nebraska. The first Irish colony in Nebraska is set up in Holt County in the town that bears his name today – O’Neill, Nebraska. His legacy is in the communities that exist in Nebraska today. These settlements are thriving and successful farming communities. John O’Neill can claim credit for the spirit of generosity that is still part of these communities today.

In 1877, while on a speaking tour in Little Rock, Arkansas, O’Neill becomes ill and returns to his home in Nebraska. His condition continues to deteriorate and, after been admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital Omaha in November 1877, suffers a paralytic stroke and dies on January 8, 1878.