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


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The Battle of Antietam

irish-brigade-at-antietamThe Irish Brigade of the Union Army fights in the Battle of Antietam, one of the most famous battles of the American Civil War, on September 17, 1862. The battle has the sad distinction of being the bloodiest single day of fighting in America’s bloodiest war. Combined casualties at the Battle of Antietam are 26,134. Few regiments suffered more than the Irish Brigade.

The Irish Brigade is the brainchild of their commanding officer Thomas Francis Meagher. The former Young Ireland rebel, creator of the Irish Tricolor of green, white and orange, escaped political prisoner, lawyer, newspaper editor and politician forms the brigade with the twin objectives of gaining respect for the Irish by their patriotism for their adopted country and developing a nucleus for a future fight for Ireland’s freedom. The Brigade is formed of the almost exclusively Irish American 69th, 63rd and 88th New York and the “honorary Irish” of the 29th Massachusetts. The regiments of the Irish Brigade had already earned a formidable reputation as a crack unit, having distinguished themselves in every battle of the earlier Seven Days Battles. It is small wonder, many in the Brigade’s ranks had already distinguished themselves in the Mexican-American War or in fighting with the Papal forces in Italy against Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The Union Army is already heavily engaged, when the Irish Brigade is ordered to advance through an open field to take an area of high ground. Subjected to accurate Confederate rifle fire as they cross the field, the Brigade marches on in disciplined order, the National and the famed Green Regimental Colors (flags) fluttering overhead. When they encounter a fence across their line of march, eighty volunteers rush forward to knock it down, rather than see the whole Brigade slowed by the obstacle and exposed to fire. Over half of these volunteers are killed. Seeing the Irish continue to press forward, the Confederates fall back as the Irish advance up the hill.

What no one on the Union side knows is that on the other side of the hill is a farmer’s dirt road that years of rain has eroded into a ditch five feet below the surrounding ground level. The sunken road is a perfect rifle pit and is filled with Colonel John Brown Gordon’s Georgians. As the Irish crest the hill, they are met with a volley that decimates the Brigade, including killing or wounding every single standard-bearer. Seeing the flags fall from across the field, an aide to Union General George B. McClellan exclaims, “The battles lost, the Irish are fleeing!” only for McClellan to respond, “No, the flags are raised again, they are advancing.” Eight successive standard-bearers of the 69th New York alone fall that day as men pick up the flags from fallen comrades. Captain Patrick Clooney, though wounded himself, snatches up the colors from the 88th’s fallen standard-bearer only to be killed by multiple shots, the Green Flag wrapping around him like a shroud befitting a hero. Another standard-bearer, the staff of his Irish Brigade flag snapped in two by a rifle shot, drapes the flag over his shoulder like a sash and continues to move forward, personifying the Gaelic phrase on the flag he is carrying “Riamh Nar Dhruid O Spairn lann”, “Who never retreated from the clash of spears.”

The fire of the Confederates is so intense that the Irish Brigade cannot advance, but they do not flee either. Despite the failure of promised reinforcements that never materialize, the Brigade pours “Buck and Ball” (a 69 caliber ball and three 30 caliber buckshot) into the enemy at 300 paces, turning the “Sunken Road” into “Bloody Lane.” When their ammunition is depleted, the remnants of the Brigade, with drill ground precision, form and march back to the Union lines. The Irish Brigade never “ran” from the enemy. Another Union unit takes the “Bloody Lane,” but most credit the punishment that the Irish Brigade inflicted on the enemy, at a terrible cost to themselves, with making it possible. The New York Regiments take over 50% casualties. The Irish Brigade is now no bigger than a single regiment. As the depleted ranks of the 88th march passed, Union Major General Israel Bush Richardson salutes as it passes with the words “Bravo 88th, I shall never forget you!”

During the course of the War, the Irish Brigade suffers over 4,000 casualties, more men than the Brigade ever had at any one time. The Fighting 69th loses more men than any other New York regiment. The Battle of Antietam is remembered as the Union victory that allows President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which frees the slaves in the Confederate states. It is all too often forgotten that this emancipation was secured in no small part with the blood of Irish immigrants, immigrants who were denied civil rights in their own country and faced discrimination in their adopted county before and after the Civil War.

In thinking of the Civil War, all Americans should remember the words of a defeated Confederate Officer to his Union counterpart at Appomattox, “You only won as you had more Irish than we did.”

(Credit: “The Irish Brigade at Antietam” by Neil F. Cosgrove, October 17, 2009)

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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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Death of William Smith O’Brien, Young Ireland Leader

william-smith-obrienWilliam Smith O’Brien, Irish nationalist Member of Parliament (MP) and leader of the Young Ireland movement, dies in Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales on June 18, 1864.

Born in Dromoland, Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare, O’Brien is the second son of Sir Edward O’Brien, 4th Baronet, of Dromoland Castle. His mother is Charlotte Smith, whose father owns a property called Cahirmoyle in County Limerick. He takes the additional surname Smith, his mother’s maiden name, upon inheriting the property. He lives at Cahermoyle House, a mile from Ardagh, County Limerick. He is a descendant of the eleventh century Ard Rí (High King of Ireland), Brian Boru. He receives an upper-class English education at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge. Subsequently, he studies law at King’s Inns in Dublin and Lincoln’s Inn in London.

From April 1828 to 1831 O’Brien is Conservative MP for Ennis. He becomes MP for Limerick County in 1835, holding his seat in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom until 1849.

Although a Protestant country-gentleman, O’Brien supports Catholic emancipation while remaining a supporter of British-Irish union. In 1843, in protest against the imprisonment of Daniel O’Connell, he joins O’Connell’s anti-union Repeal Association.

Three years later, O’Brien withdraws the Young Irelanders from the association. In January 1847, with Thomas Francis Meagher, he founds the Irish Confederation, although he continues to preach reconciliation until O’Connell’s death in May 1847. He is active in seeking relief from the hardships of the famine. In March 1848, he speaks out in favour of a National Guard and tries to incite a national rebellion. He is tried for sedition on May 15, 1848 but is not convicted.

On July 29, 1848, O’Brien and other Young Irelanders lead landlords and tenants in a rising in three counties, with an almost bloodless battle against police at Ballingarry, County Tipperary. In O’Brien’s subsequent trial, the jury finds him guilty of high treason. He is sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Petitions for clemency are signed by 70,000 people in Ireland and 10,000 people in England. In Dublin on June 5, 1849, the sentences of O’Brien and other members of the Irish Confederation are commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania in present-day Australia).

O’Brien attempts to escape from Maria Island off Tasmania, but is betrayed by the captain of the schooner hired for the escape. He is sent to Port Arthur where he meets up with John Mitchel.

O’Brien is a founding member of the Ossianic Society, which is founded in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day 1853, whose aim is to further the interests of the Irish language and to publish and translate literature relating to the Fianna. He writes to his son Edward from Van Diemen’s Land, urging him to learn the Irish language. He himself studies the language and uses an Irish-language Bible, and presents to the Royal Irish Academy Irish-language manuscripts he has collected.

In 1854, after five years in Tasmania, O’Brien is released on the condition he never returns to Ireland. He settles in Brussels. In May 1856, he is granted an unconditional pardon and returns to Ireland that July. He contributes to the Nation newspaper, but plays no further part in politics.

In 1864 he visits England and Wales, with the view of rallying his failing health, but no improvement takes place and he dies at Bangor, in Wales on June 16, 1864.

A statue of William Smith O’Brien stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin. Sculpted in Portland limestone, it is designed by Thomas Farrell and erected in D’Olier Street, Dublin, in 1870. It is moved to its present position in 1929.


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Founding of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America

The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) is founded in the United States on May 4, 1836, at St. James’ Roman Catholic Church in New York City, near the old Five Points neighbourhood. A branch is formed the same year at Pottsville, Pennsylvania. The existence and activities of the Order are concealed for some years.

During the late 1860s and early 1870s many of the lodges of the order in Pennsylvania are infiltrated by the Molly Maguires. However the Molly Maguires and their criminal activities are condemned at the 1876 national convention of the AOH and the Order is reorganised in the Pennsylvania coal areas.

In 1884 there is a split in the organisation. The Order has previously been governed by the Board of Erin, which has governed the order in Ireland, Great Britain and the United States, but is composed of officers selected exclusively by the organisations in Ireland and Great Britain. The majority leave in 1884 and become the Ancient Order of Hibernians of America, while the small group calls itself Ancient Order of Hibernians, Board of Erin. In 1897 the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Board of Erin, has approximately 40,000 members concentrated in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan, while the Ancient Order of Hibernians of America has nearly 125,000 members scattered throughout nearly every state in the union. The two groups reunite in 1898.

A female auxiliary, the Daughters of Erin, is formed in 1894, and has 20,000 members in 1897. It is attached to the larger, “American” version of the order. The AOH has 181,000 members in 1965 and 171,000 in 736 local units of “Divisions” in 1979. John F. Kennedy joins the AOH in 1947.

The Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAOH) raises $50,000 to build the Nuns of the Battlefield sculpture in Washington, D.C., which the United States Congress authorises in 1918. The Irish American sculptor, Jerome Connor, ends up suing the Order for non-payment.

In 1982, in a revival of Hibernianism, the Thomas Francis Meagher Division No. 1 forms in Helena, Montana, dedicated to the principles of the Order and to restoring a historically accurate record of Brigadier General Meagher’s contributions to Montana. Soon after, six additional divisions form in Montana.

The Order organises the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade for 150 years, emphasising a conservative Catholic interpretation of the Irish holiday. In 1993 control is transferred to an independent committee amid controversy over the exclusion of Irish-American gay and lesbian groups.

The Brothers of St. Patrick Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America is established at Brother’s of St. Patrick in Midway City, California, in 1995.

In 2013, The Ancient Order of Hibernians raises and distributes over $200,000 to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy.

In 2014, the AOH calls for a boycott of Spencer’s Gifts, for selling products the AOH says promote anti-Irish stereotypes and irresponsible drinking.

On May 10, 2014 a memorial to Commodore John Barry, an immigrant from Wexford who is a naval hero of the American Revolution and who holds commission number one in the subsequent United States Navy, is dedicated on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy. The memorial and associated “Barry Gate” is presented to the Academy by the members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Several buildings of the Ancient Order of Hibernians are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places or are otherwise notable.


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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.


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William Smith O’Brien Pardoned from Deportation

william-smith-obrienWilliam Smith O’Brien, leader of the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, is pardoned from his deportation to Van Diemen’s Land on February 26, 1854, on the condition of exile from Ireland.

From April 1828 to 1831 O’Brien serves as Conservative MP for Ennis. He becomes MP for Limerick County in 1835, holding his seat in the House of Commons until 1849.

Although a Protestant country-gentleman, O’Brien supports Catholic Emancipation while remaining a supporter of British-Irish union. In 1843, in protest against the imprisonment of Daniel O’Connell, he joins O’Connell’s anti-union Repeal Association.

Three years later, O’Brien withdraws the Young Irelanders from the association. In January 1847, along with Thomas Francis Meagher, he founds the Irish Confederation, although he continues to preach reconciliation until O’Connell’s death in May 1847. He is active in seeking relief from the hardships of the famine. In March 1848, he speaks out in favour of a National Guard and tries to incite a national rebellion. He is tried for sedition on May 15, 1848 but is not convicted.

On July 29, 1848, O’Brien and other Young Irelanders lead landlords and tenants in a rising in three counties, with an almost bloodless battle against police at Ballingarry, County Tipperary. In O’Brien’s subsequent trial, the jury finds him guilty of high treason. He is sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Petitions for clemency are signed by 70,000 people in Ireland and 10,000 people in England.

In Dublin on June 5, 1849, the sentences of O’Brien and other members of the Irish Confederation are commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land, which is Tasmania in present-day Australia.

O’Brien attempts to escape from Maria Island off Tasmania, but is betrayed by Captain Ellis of the schooner hired for the escape. He is sent to Port Arthur where he meets up with John Mitchel, who had been transported prior to the rebellion. The cottages which O’Brien lives in on Maria Island and Port Arthur have been preserved in their 19th century state as memorials.

Having emigrated to the United States, Ellis is tried by another Young Irelanders leader, Terence MacManus, at a lynch court in San Francisco for the betrayal of O’Brien. He is freed for lack of evidence.

In 1854, after five years in Tasmania, O’Brien is released on the condition he never return to Ireland. He settles in Brussels. In May 1856, he is granted an unconditional pardon and returns to Ireland that July. He contributes to The Nation newspaper, but plays no further part in politics.

In 1864 he visits England and Wales, with the view of rallying his failing health, but no improvement takes place and he dies at Bangor, Wales on June, 16, 1864.


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Death of John O’Mahony, Founder of the Fenian Brotherhood

john-omahonyJohn Francis O’Mahony, Gaelic scholar and the founding member of the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States, sister organisation to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, dies in New York City on February 7, 1877.

O’Mahony is born in 1816 in Kilbeheny, County Limerick. His father and uncle were members of the Society of United Irishmen, and took part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. On the death of an elder brother, he inherits a property which yields £300 per annum. He enters Trinity College, Dublin, where he studies Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Irish. He becomes an accomplished Gaelic scholar, and later teaches Greek and Latin, and contributes articles to Irish and French journals. He leaves Trinity without getting a degree.

In 1843, O’Mahony joins Daniel O’Connell‘s movement for the Repeal of the Acts of Union 1800, but quickly becomes dissatisfied with the lack of progress and joins the Young Ireland movement which William Smith O’Brien leads and takes part in the failed Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. His participation in the rebellion obligates him to leave Ireland, and he settles for a time in Paris, where he lives in great poverty. In 1854, he joins John Mitchel in New York City, and takes part in the Emigrant Aid Association, the Emmet Monument Association, and other Irish organisations.

In 1857, O’Mahony publishes History of Ireland, by Geoffrey Keating, D. D., translated from the Original Gaelic, and Copiously Annotated (New York, 1857). O’Mahony’s notes are copied from John O’Donovan‘s translations of Annals of the Four Masters, and it is on this ground that Hodges & Smith procures an injunction against the sale of the book in the United Kingdom. The mental strain to which O’Mahony is subjected in the preparation of this work, which brings him no pecuniary gain, affects his reasoning and he is removed by his friends for a short time to a lunatic asylum.

In 1860, O’Mahony organises the Fenian Brotherhood, also known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The object of the association is to secure the freedom of Ireland. The name is probably derived from O’Mahony’s Gaelic studies, the Fenians having been a military body in pagan Ireland, celebrated in the songs of Ossian. The organisation of the new society is completed at conventions that are held in Chicago in 1864 and in Cincinnati in January 1865.

At the time of the Cincinnati convention, O’Mahony holds the rank of colonel of the 69th Regiment of New York State Militia, recruited mainly from the ranks of the Brotherhood, which has also furnished a large proportion of Thomas Francis Meagher‘s Irish Brigade, Michael Corcoran‘s legion, and Irish regiments engaged in the American Civil War. The rapid growth in membership of the Fenian Brotherhood renders it impossible for O’Mahony to retain the colonelcy of the 69th regiment, which he has held for some time. He resigns in order to give all his attention to the spread of Fenianism.

The close of the civil war in the spring of 1865 gives a great impetus to the Fenians, owing to the number of Irish American soldiers that are disbanded and anxious to see service elsewhere. Money pours into the Fenian exchequer. Many differences occur between O’Mahony and James Stephens and the Central Council relative to the policy to be pursued for the attainment of their object, but O’Mahony remains president of the organisation for several years. He does not take any part personally in the attempted insurrection in Ireland or in the raids on Canada, although his advice counts for much in these enterprises.

He devotes the last years of his life to literary pursuits, but suffers from ill health, and he has a hard struggle to secure the bare means for subsistence. However visionary may have been his objectives, he is honest, and although thousands have passed through his hands, he is often at a loss for a dollar. When his poverty is discovered, he declines to receive assistance in any form. He dies in New York City on February 7, 1877 and soon after his death his remains are returned to Ireland and interred with the honors of a public funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.