James Adelbert Mulligan, a colonel of the 23rd Illinois Infantry Regiment in the Union Army during the American Civil War, dies on July 26, 1864 of wounds sustains at the Second Battle of Kernstown three days earlier.
Mulligan is born on June 30, 1830 in Utica, New York. His parents had immigrated from Ireland and his father died when he was a child. His mother remarries a Michael Lantry of Chicago, Illinois, and moves there with her son, who later attends the St. Mary’s on the Lake College of North Chicago. From 1852–54 he reads law in the offices of Isaac N. Arnold, U.S. Representative from the city. He is admitted to the bar in 1856, and commissioned a second lieutenant in the “Chicago Shield Guards.”
At the onset of the American Civil War, Mulligan raises the 23rd Illinois Infantry Regiment in 1861, which is locally known as the “Irish Brigade” (not to be confused with a New York unit by the same name). This unit includes the Chicago Shield Guards. In September 1861, he leads his troops toward Lexington, Missouri, as word had been received that this vital river town will be attacked by the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard under Major General Sterling Price.
The First Battle of Lexington, often referred to as the Battle of the Hemp Bales, commences on September 13, 1861, when 12,500 soldiers of the Missouri State Guard begin a siege of Mulligan’s diminutive command, entrenched around the town’s old Masonic College. On September 18, Price’s army mounts an all-out assault on Mulligan’s works, which fails. Cannon fire continues through September 19. On the 20th, units of Price’s army use hemp bales soaked in the Missouri River as a moving breastworks to work their way up the river bluffs toward Mulligan’s headquarters. By 2:00 PM, Mulligan has surrendered. Combined casualties are 64 dead, and 192 wounded. Price is reportedly so impressed by Mulligan’s demeanor and conduct during and after the battle that he offers him his own horse and buggy, and orders him safely escorted to Union lines.
Mulligan is commander of Camp Douglas, a prisoner of war camp in Chicago, from February 25, 1862 to June 14, 1862. The camp had been constructed as a short term training camp for Union soldiers but is converted to a prisoner of war camp for captured Confederate soldiers after the fall of Fort Donelson.
Mulligan and his regiment are assigned to the Railroad Division of the Middle Department between December 17, 1862 and March 27, 1863. Then they are assigned to 5th Brigade, 1st Division, VIII Corps in the Middle Department between March 27, 1863 and June 26, 1863.
Between August and December 1863, Mulligan oversees the construction of Fort Mulligan, an earthworks fortification located in Grant County, West Virginia. This fort remains one of the best-preserved Civil War fortifications in West Virginia, and has become a local tourist attraction.
On July 3, 1864, only three weeks before his death, Mulligan distinguishes himself in the Battle of Leetown, fought in and around Leetown, Virginia. Federal troops are retreating in the face of Major General Jubal Early‘s relentless Confederate advance down the Shenandoah Valley during the Second Valley Campaign. Hoping to buy time to concentrate Union forces and supplies, Major General Franz Sigel orders him to hold Leetown for as long as possible and then conduct a fighting retreat as slowly as possible to cover the other withdrawing Union units. He manages to hold Leetown for the entire day before being compelled to retreat, albeit very slowly. He continues to battle Early’s troops all the way from Leetown to Martinsburg, West Virginia, buying valuable time for Union commanders to concentrate their forces in the Valley.
On July 24, 1864, Mulligan leads his troops into the Second Battle of Kernstown, near Winchester, Virginia. Late in the afternoon, Major General John B. Gordon’s Confederate force attacks Mulligan’s 1,800 soldiers from ground beyond Opequon Church. Mulligan briefly holds off Gordon’s units, but Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge leads a devastating flank attack against the Irishmen from the east side of the Valley Pike. Sharpshooters then attack his right flank from the west. Now encompassed on three sides, the Union battle line falls apart.
With Confederates closing from all around, Mulligan orders his troops to withdraw. As he stands up in his saddle to spur his men on, Confederate sharpshooters concealed in a nearby stream bed manage to hit the Union commander. His soldiers endeavor to carry him to safety, but the unyielding Confederate fire make this an impossible task. He is well aware of his situation, and the danger his men are in, and so he famously orders, “Lay me down and save the flag.” His men reluctantly comply. Confederate soldiers capture him, and carry the mortally wounded colonel into a nearby home, where he dies two days later on July 26, 1864. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Evanston, Illinois.
On February 20, 1865, the United States Senate confirms the posthumous appointment of Mulligan to the rank of brevet brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers to rank from July 23, 1864, the day before he is mortally wounded at the Second Battle of Kernstown.