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


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Birth of Robert Nugent, Civil War and Indian Wars Officer

robert-nugentBrigadier General Robert Nugent, Irish-born American United States Army officer during the American Civil War and the American Indian Wars, is born on June 27, 1824 in Kilkeel, County Down, in what is now Northern Ireland.

Nugent serves with the Irish Brigade‘s 69th Infantry Regiment, from its days as a National Guard unit and into its incorporation into the Union Army at the start of the war. He is one of its senior officers at the First Battle of Bull Run.

When the unit is originally mustered out of service, the 90-day enlistment terms having expired, Nugent accepts a commission as a captain in the regular army. He is immediately assigned to the 13th Infantry Regiment whose commanding officer, Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman, personally requests. Taking a leave of absence to return to New York, he assists Thomas Francis Meagher in organizing the Irish Brigade. The newly reformed 69th Infantry Regiment is the first unit assigned to the Irish Brigade and, with Nugent as its colonel, he leads the “Fighting 69th” at the Battles of Fair Oaks, Gaines’s Mill, Savage’s Station, White Oak Swamp, Glendale and Malvern Hill.

Nugent is shot in the stomach at the Battle of Fredericksburg and is eventually forced to resign his command. He is appointed acting assistant provost marshal for the southern district of New York, which includes New York City and Long Island, by the United States War Department. An Irishman and Democrat, his appointment is thought to assure the Irish American population that conscription efforts would be carried out fairly. The Irish American, a popular Irish language newspaper, writes that the selection is a “wise and deservedly popular one.” He encounters resistance from city officials wanting to remain uninvolved, however by mid-June reports to his superior officer and provost marshal general Colonel James Barnet Fry that conscription efforts are “nearing completion without serious incident.”

Understanding the seriousness of the situation, Nugent attempts to keep the draft selections quiet and in isolated parts of the city. In Manhattan however, lotteries are placed in the heart of Irish tenement and shanty neighborhoods where the draft is most opposed.

In the ensuing New York City draft riots, Nugent takes command of troops and attempts to defend the city against the rioters. Despite issuing the cancellation of the draft, the riots continue for almost a week. His home on West 86th Street is looted and burned by the rioters during that time, his wife and children barely escaping from their home. Upon breaking into his house, furniture is destroyed and paintings of Nugent and Meagher are slashed, although a painting of Brigadier General Michael Corcoran is reportedly left untouched.

On October 28, Nugent is relieved of his post and succeeded by General William Hays. Returning to active duty, he assumes command of the Irish Brigade in November 1864, shortly after the death of Corcoran. He is present at the battle of Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the Siege of Petersburg and the Appomattox Campaign. As its last commanding officer, he and the Irish Brigade also march in the victory parade held in Washington, D.C. following Robert E. Lee‘s surrender at Appomattox Court House.

Nugent is brevetted Brigadier General for distinguished leadership of the 69th Regiment on March 13, 1865. The veterans of the Irish Brigade are honorably discharged and mustered out three months later. Nugent remains in the regular U.S. Army for the next twenty years, a formidable “Indian fighter” during the American Indian Wars with the 13th and 24th Infantry Regiments. In 1879, he retires at the rank of major and resides in New York where he is involved in the Grand Army of the Republic, the War Veterans’ Association of the 7th Regiment and an honorary member of The Old Guard.

Nugent becomes ill in his old age, complications arising from his wounds suffered at Fredericksburg, and remains bedridden for two months before his death at his McDonough Street home in Brooklyn on June 20, 1901. In accordance with his last wishes, he is buried at Cypress Hills National Cemetery.


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The American Civil War Begins

The American Civil War begins on April 12, 1861. There is perhaps no other ethnic group so closely identified with the Civil War years and the immediate aftermath of the war as Irish Americans.

Of those Irish who come over much later than the founding generations, fully 150,000 of them join the Union army. Unfortunately, statistics for the Confederacy are sketchy at best. Still, one has but to listen to the Southern accent and listen to the sorts of tunes Southern soldiers love to sing to realize that a great deal of the South is settled by Irish immigrants. But because the white population of the Confederate states is more native-born than immigrant during the Civil War years, there does not seem as much of a drive in the Southern army to recognize heritage in the names and uniforms of regiments as there is in the Union forces.

In the Union army there is the fabled Irish Brigade, likely the best known of any brigade organization, organized in 1861 and led by the flamboyant General Thomas Francis Meagher. They go into battle with an emerald green flag with a large golden harp in its center, celebrating their heritage even in the midst of death. The Irish Brigade makes an unusual reputation for dash and gallantry. It belongs to the First Division of the Second Corps, and is numbered as the Second Brigade. The Irish Brigade loses over 4,000 men in killed and wounded during the war, more men than ever belong to the brigade at any given time. The Irish Brigade is commanded, in turn, by General Thomas Francis Meagher, Colonel Patrick Kelly (killed), General Thomas A. Smyth (killed), Colonel Richard Byrnes (killed), and General Robert Nugent.

In the North, centers of Irish settlement are Boston and New York, both of which have sizeable Irish neighborhoods. There are major immigration periods in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. The numbers steadily increase until, according to the 1860 census, well over one and a half million Americans claimed to have been born in Ireland. The majority of these live in the North. There are periods of severe economic difficulties both before and after the war when the immigrant Irish are singled out for the distrust and hatred of their fellow Americans. “No Irish Need Apply” is a frequently seen placard sign above the doors of factories, shops, warehouses, and farms.

The Irish are chiefly distrusted because they are Catholic, and there is much opposition in the United States to the Church of Rome. The frustration this prejudice causes leads indirectly to the boil-over of tempers in July 1863, when the first official draft is held. A mob of mostly immigrant laborers gather at the site of the draft lottery, and as names are called and those not wealthy enough to purchase a substitute are required to join up, the mob’s temper flares.

The situation escalates into full-scale rioting. For three days, cities like New York and Boston are caught up in a rampage of looting, burning, and destruction. Many of the rioters are frustrated Irish laborers who cannot get jobs, and their targets are draft officials, as well as free blacks living in the North, who seem able to get jobs that the Irish are denied. It takes the return of armed troops from the fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg to bring the cities back to peace and quiet.

Such events do little to help the image of the Irish in America, until many years after the war. Despite their wartime heroics, many Irish veterans come home to find the same ugly bias they faced before going off to fight for the Union. Many of them choose to go into the post war army.

Still others follow Thomas Meagher into Canada, where they join up in an attempt to free Canada from British domination. Many simply choose to remain in the Eastern cities, hoping matters will improve as time goes by. Eventually things do get better for the Irish, but it is many long years before ugly anti-Irish prejudice fades.