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


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Birth of Michael Corcoran, Union Army General

Michael Corcoran, Irish American general in the Union Army during the American Civil War and a close confidant of President Abraham Lincoln, is born in Carrowkeel, near Ballymote, County Sligo, on September 21, 1827. As its colonel, he leads the 69th Infantry Regiment (New York) to Washington, D.C. and is one of the first to serve in the defense of Washington by building Fort Corcoran. He then leads the 69th into action at the First Battle of Bull Run. After promotion to brigadier general, he leaves the 69th and forms the Corcoran Legion, consisting of at least five other New York regiments.

Corcoran is the only child of Thomas Corcoran, an officer in the British Army, and Mary McDonagh. Through his mother, he claims descent from Patrick Sarsfield, hero of the Williamite War in Ireland and leader of the Wild Geese. In 1846 he takes an appointment to the Revenue Police, enforcing the laws and searching for illicit stills and distilling activities in Creeslough, County Donegal. He also joins a guerrilla group called the Ribbonmen.

On August 30, 1849, Corcoran emigrates from Sligo to the United States and settles in New York City where he finds work as a clerk in the tavern owned by John Heaney, whose niece, Elizabeth, he marries in 1854.

Corcoran enlists as a Private in the 69th New York Militia. By 1859 he is appointed colonel of the regiment. The regiment is a state militia unit at the time composed of citizens, not soldiers, and is involved in the maintenance of public order. On October 11, 1860, he refuses to march the regiment on parade for the 19-year-old Prince of Wales, who is visiting New York City at the time, protesting the British imposition of the Irish Famine. He is removed from command and a court martial is pending over that matter when the Civil War begins.

Corcoran also becomes involved in Democratic politics at Tammany Hall. He becomes district leader, a member of the judicial nominations committee, an elected school inspector for his ward, and a member of the Fourteenth Ward General Committee. He is one of the founders of the Fenian Brotherhood in America.

With the outbreak of war, the court martial is dropped and Corcoran is restored to his command because he had been instrumental in bringing other Irish immigrants to the Union cause. He leads the 69th to Washington, D.C. and serves for a while in the Washington defenses building, Fort Corcoran. In July 1861 he leads the regiment into action at the First Battle of Bull Run and is taken prisoner.

While Corcoran is imprisoned, the United States makes threats to execute captured Confederate privateers. Corcoran and several other Union prisoners are selected by lot for execution if the United States carries out its threats against the privateers. This event is known as the Enchantress Affair, but no executions are ever carried out by either side. Corcoran is then offered a parole under the conditions that he not take up arms against the Confederacy. Intending to resume his place in the Union army upon his release he refuses the offer of parole. He is appointed Brigadier General of volunteers in July and exchanged in August 1862. His role in the Enchantress Affair and his refusal for parole gains him some attention and upon his release he is invited to dinner with President Abraham Lincoln.

In April 1863 Corcoran is involved in an incident that ends with Corcoran shooting and killing Edgar A. Kimball, commander of the 9th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Corcoran attempts to pass through the 9th New York’s area without giving the required password after receiving the challenge from a sentry. When Kimball intervenes on the side of the sentry, Corcoran shoots him. Corcoran is not charged with a crime or reprimanded, and continues to serve.

Corcoran returns to the army and sets about recruiting more Irish volunteers. He raises and takes command of what becomes known as the Corcoran Legion. Placed in command of the 1st Division, VII Corps he is engaged in the Battle of Deserted House and takes part in the Battle of Suffolk. In late 1863 he is placed in command of a division in the XXII Corps and returns to serve in the Washington defenses. While riding alone in Fairfax, Virginia he is thrown from a runaway horse and suffers a fractured skull. He dies at the age of 36 at the William Gunnell House on December 22, 1863.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveils Ireland’s national monument to the Fighting 69th in Ballymote on August 22, 2006. The monument is sculpted by Philip Flanagan. The inscription around the top of the monument reads “Michael Corcoran 1827–1863” Around the base is inscribed “New York Ballymote Creeslough Bull Run.” Underneath the monument is a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, donated by the family of Michael Lynch, who died in the tower on September 11, 2001. Lynch’s family are also from County Sligo.


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Death of Thomas Fitzsimons, U.S. Merchant & Statesman

thomas-fitzsimonsThomas Fitzsimons, American merchant and statesman of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, dies in Philadelphia on August 26, 1811. He represents Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention and the United States House of Representatives.

Fitzsimons is born in Ireland in 1741. In the mid-1750s his family immigrates to Philadelphia, where his father dies soon thereafter. He has enough education that he begins work as a clerk in a mercantile house. He marries Catherine Meade on November 23, 1761 and forms a business partnership with her brother George. Their firm, which specializes in the West Indies trade, operates successfully for over 41 years.

The firm is soon hit by the new revenue measures created to help support the finances of the British Empire, including the much reviled Stamp Act of 1765. Concerned with these ideas, Fitzsimons becomes active in the Irish merchant community in Philadelphia. He is a founding member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in 1771 and later, in 1774, a steering committee organized to protest the Coercive Acts.

When Pennsylvania begins mobilizing and organizing a militia to fight the British, Fitzsimons is soon involved. He serves as captain of a company of home guards under the command of Colonel John Caldwalader. Initially his company serves as part of the soldiers who man posts along the New Jersey coast. His unit later serves as part of the reserve at the Battle of Trenton in 1776. Later in the war, he served on the Pennsylvania Council of Safety and heads a board to oversee the newly formed Pennsylvania Navy.

Fitzsimons enters active politics as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1782 and 1783. He is a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1786 until 1795. He is also a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787. Although not a leading member of that convention, he supports a strong national government, the end of slavery, the United States Congress‘s powers to impose a tariff on imports and exports, the granting the House of Representatives, and power in equal to the United States Senate in making treaties. He is one of only two Catholic signers of the Constitution of the United States, the other being Daniel Carroll of Maryland.

After the Constitution is established, he serves in the first three sessions of the House of Representatives as a Federalist, where he favors protective tariffs and a strong navy, co-drafting the Naval Act of 1794 authorizing the original six frigates of the United States Navy. He fails to win re-election in 1794. This was partially attributed to public opinion turning against the Federalist Party over the forceful suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion. Although he never holds elective office again, he serves in 1798 as head of the committee of merchants overseeing the subscription-loan to build a warship at private expense for use in the Quasi-War.

In 1796, FitzSimons, along with James Innes of Virginia, is appointed by President John Adams to serve as one of two American members on the five-man debt commission charged under Article VI of the Jay Treaty with examining the claims of British subjects unable to collect debts incurred by Americans prior to the American Revolution. FitzSimons, Innes and Samuel Sitgreaves, who replaces Innes upon the latter’s death, become annoyed with the arguments used by their British counterparts to inflate the claims total. FitzSimons and Sitgreaves angrily and permanently seceded from the board in July 1799. The claims are eventually disposed of by a lump-sum payment, agreed upon by United States Minister to Britain Rufus King with British Foreign Secretary Robert Banks Jenkinson and approved by President Thomas Jefferson and the Senate in 1802.

While withdrawing from politics, Fitzsimons remains active in civic and business affairs. He serves as president of Philadelphia’s Chamber of Commerce, as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, Director of the Delaware Insurance Company and a director of the Bank of North America from 1781–1803. He is a founder of the bank and supports efforts to found Georgetown College. He also helps found the Insurance Company of North America.

Fitzsimons dies on August 26, 1811, in Philadelphia, where he is buried in the cemetery of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, which is in present-day Independence National Historical Park.


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The Battle of Port Republic

battle-of-port-republicAs part of Confederate States Army Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson‘s campaign through the Shenandoah Valley, the Irish 6th Louisiana fight in the Battle of Port Republic in Rockingham County, Virginia on June 9, 1862 during the American Civil War. The battle is a fierce contest between two equally determined foes and is the most costly battle fought by Jackson’s Army of the Valley during its campaign.

During the night of June 8–9, 1862, Brig. Gen. Charles S. Winder‘s Stonewall Brigade is withdrawn from its forward position near Bogota, a large house owned by Gabriel Jones, and rejoins Jackson’s division at Port Republic. Winder’s brigade is assigned the task of spearheading the assault against Union Army forces east of the river. Brig. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble‘s brigade and elements of Col. John M. Patton, Jr.’s, are left to delay Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont‘s Union forces at Cross Keys, while the rest of Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell‘s division march to Port Republic to be in position to support Winder’s attack.

Brig. Gen. Erastus B. Tyler‘s brigade joins Col. Samuel S. Carroll‘s brigade north of Lewiston on the Luray Road. The rest of Brig. Gen. James Shields‘s (a native of County Tyrone) division is strung out along the muddy roads back to Luray. General Tyler, in command on the field, advances at dawn on June 9 to the vicinity of Lewiston. He anchors the left of his line on a battery positioned on the Lewiston Coaling, extending his infantry west along Lewiston Lane to the South Fork near the site of Lewis’s Mill. The right and center are supported by artillery, 16 guns in all.

Winder’s brigade crosses the river by 5:00 AM and deploys to attack east across the bottomland. He sends two regiments, the 2nd Virginia Infantry and 4th Virginia Infantry, into the woods to flank the Union line and assault the Coaling. When the main Confederate battle line advances, it comes under heavy fire from the Union artillery and is soon pinned down. Confederate batteries are brought forward onto the plain but are outgunned and forced to seek safer positions. Ewell’s brigades are hurried forward to cross the river. Seeing the strength of the Union artillery at the Coaling, Jackson sends Richard Taylor‘s brigade, including the famed Louisiana Tigers, to the right into the woods to support the flanking column that is attempting to advance through the thick underbrush.

Winder’s brigade renews its assault on the Union right and center, taking heavy casualties. General Tyler moves two regiments from the Coaling to his right and launches a counterattack, driving Confederate forces back nearly half a mile. While this is occurring, the first Confederate regiments probe the defenses of the Coaling, but are repulsed.

Finding resistance fiercer than anticipated, Jackson orders the last of Ewell’s forces still north of Port Republic to cross the rivers and burn the North Fork bridge. These reinforcements begin to reach Winder, strengthening his line and stopping the Union counterattack. Taylor’s brigade reaches a position in the woods across from the Coaling and launches a fierce attack, which carries the hill, capturing five guns. Tyler immediately responds with a counterattack, using his reserves. These regiments, in hand-to-hand fighting, retake the position. Taylor shifts a regiment to the far right to outflank the Union battle line. The Confederate attack again surges forward to capture the Coaling. Five captured guns are turned against the rest of the Union line. With the loss of the Coaling, the Union position along Lewiston Lane becomes untenable, and Tyler orders a withdrawal about 10:30 AM. Jackson orders a general advance.

William B. Taliaferro‘s fresh Confederate brigade arrives from Port Republic and presses the retreating Federals for several miles north along the Luray Road, taking several hundred prisoners. The Confederate army is left in possession of the field. Shortly after noon, Frémont’s army begins to deploy on the west bank of the South Fork, too late to aid Tyler’s defeated command, and watches helplessly from across the rain-swollen river. Frémont deploys artillery on the high bluffs to harass the Confederate forces. Jackson gradually withdraws along a narrow road through the woods and concentrates his army in the vicinity of Mt. Vernon Furnace. Jackson expects Frémont to cross the river and attack him on the following day, but during the night Frémont withdraws toward Harrisonburg.

Together, the Battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic are the decisive victories in Jackson’s Valley campaign, forcing the Union armies to retreat and leaving Jackson in control of the upper and middle Shenandoah Valley and free to reinforce Gen. Robert E. Lee for the Seven Days Battles outside Richmond, Virginia.

The Civil War Trust, a division of the American Battlefield Trust, and its partners have acquired and preserved 947 acres of the Port Republic battlefield in seven transactions since 1988. The battlefield is located about three miles east of Port Republic at U.S. Route 340 and Ore Bank Road. It retains its wartime agrarian appearance. The Port Republic Battle Monument is on Ore Bank Road beside the site of The Coaling, a key battlefield feature. The Coaling is the first land acquisition of the modern Civil War battlefield preservation movement. The 8.55-acre site is donated to the Trust’s forerunner, the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites by the Lee-Jackson Foundation in 1988.


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The Battle of Fontenoy

battle-of-fontenoyThe Irish Brigade of France, a brigade in the French Royal Army composed of Irish exiles most commonly identified in Irish history as The Wild Geese, achieve its most glorious victory at the Battle of Fontenoy on May 11, 1745 during the War of the Austrian Succession.

The battle takes place in the Belgian municipality of Antoing, near Tournai. A French army of 50,000 commanded by Marshal Maurice de Saxe defeats a slightly larger Pragmatic Army of 52,000 consisting of the Dutch Republic, Great Britain, Hanover and the Holy Roman Empire, led by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland. The Irish Brigade is led by Justin McCarthy, Viscount Mountcashel and is comprised of six regiments.

Despite setbacks elsewhere, at the end of 1744 the French hold the initiative in the Austrian Netherlands, and their leaders consider this theatre offers the best opportunity for a decisive victory. In late April, they besiege Tournai, which controls access to the upper Scheldt basin, which makes it a vital link in the North European trading network and the Allies march to its relief.

Leaving 22,000 men in front of Tournai, Saxe places his main force five miles away in the villages of St. Antoine, Vezin and Fontenoy, along a naturally strong feature which he strengthens with defensive works. After a series of unsuccessful flank assaults, the Allies attack the French centre with a column of 15,000 men.

Colonel Arthur Dillon‘s regiment, which had already been badly shot up earlier in the fight, along with the brigade’s other five, charge the British as they seem on the verge of breaking the French line. Fifty years of Irish frustration and British betrayal now come back to haunt the British. As the men of the Irish Brigade close through a hail of British bullets, their shouts are heard above the din: “Cuimhnígí ar Luimneach agus ar fheall na Sasanach!” (Remember Limerick and the Saxon Faith).

Nothing can withstand the wave of hatred and revenge that breaks on the hapless British line that day. The victory is won but the cost is high. Colonel Dillon is dead and Lord Clare is wounded twice. The brigade suffers 656 casualties in all, the highest percentage of all the French units.

Although the Allies retreat in good order, Tournai falls shortly afterwards, followed by Ghent, Oudenaarde, Bruges and Dendermonde. The withdrawal of British forces in October to deal with the Jacobite Rising facilitates the capture of Ostend and Nieuwpoort. By the end of 1745, France controls much of the Austrian Netherlands, threatening British links with Europe.

However, by early 1746, France is struggling to finance the war and begins peace talks at the Congress of Breda in May. Despite victories at Rocoux in October 1746 and Lauffeld in July 1747, the war continues until the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

It is a day never to be forgotten by the Irish worldwide. At Manassas, Virginia, 116 years later, Thomas Francis Meagher cries out to the 69th New York, another regiment of Irishmen, “Remember Fontenoy!”

(Pictured: The Irish Brigade, presenting a captured British colour to Louis XV and the Dauphin)


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Phillip O’Reilly Surrenders to the Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland

settlement-of-ireland-1653The last major body of Irish Catholic troops under Phillip O’Reilly surrender to the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland at Cloughoughter in County Cavan on April 27, 1653. This marks the end of the Irish Confederate Wars which began in 1641.

Colonel Philip O’Reilly is a member of parliament (MP) for County Cavan in the Parliament of Ireland from 1639 to 1641, and a leading member of the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

O’Reilly’s father, grandfather and several other ancestors are chiefs of the O’Reilly clan and Lords of Breifne O’Reilly. His mother is Catherine MacMahon. He resides at Bellanacargy Castle in the barony of Tullygarvey, near to present day village of Drung. Bellanacargy castle, anciently referred to as Ballynacarraig because it was built on a carraig (rock island) situated in the middle of the River Annalee, is destroyed in May 1689 by Williamite forces led by Thomas Lloyd.

As a young man O’Reilly serves for some time in the Spanish army but returns to Ireland. He is appointed Commissioner of the Peace in 1625 and High Sheriff of Cavan in 1629. He is elected as MP for County Cavan in 1639.

During the Parliamentary session of 1640 O’Reilly is enlisted by Rory O’Moore in the plot to start a rebellion against English rule in Ireland. O’Moore is a distant relation as his sister Cecilia O’Moore is married to O’Reilly’s first cousin, Tirlagh O’Neill. On the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion in October 1641 he is elected chief of the O’Reillys. As a result, the Irish Parliament expels him on November 16, 1641. On November 6, 1641 he orders a general gathering of his clansmen from 16 to 60 years of age, to be held at Virginia, and on December 11, 1641 he has possession of the whole county, except the Killeshandra castles of Keelagh and Croghan which are defended by Sir Francis Hamilton and Sir James Craig. He raises a brigade of twelve hundred men, composed chiefly of his name and family, and serves with distinction as lieutenant-general in the service of the Confederate Catholics of Ireland. The Assembly of Kilkenny appoints him Lord President of Ulster. His second cousin Myles O’Reilly is High Sheriff of Cavan in 1641 at the outbreak of the Rebellion.

O’Reilly is detained for treason by the English government in 1642. In his diary for June 3, 1644, the historian Sir James Ware II states, “Intelligence came to Dublin that Roger Moore and Philip O’Reilly, two of the first incendiaries were committed to prison at Kilkenny.” O’Reilly is further denounced by the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652 at the end of the rebellion. Following the collapse of the Irish confederacy, he formally surrenders to Oliver Cromwell at Cloughoughter Castle on April 27, 1653, being the last Irish garrison to do so. He secures favourable terms and is obliged to leave Ireland. He retires with his brigade into Spain and thence to the Netherlands, where he serves in the Spanish army for about two years and dies in 1655. He is buried in the Irish monastery of St. Dominick in Leuven, Belgium.


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Publication of the First Issue of “The United Irishman”

john-mitchelJohn Mitchel, Irish nationalist activist, author, and political journalist, publishes the first issue of The United Irishman on February 12, 1848.

Mitchel is one of the great propagandists of his day, although the causes he espouses often place him on the wrong side, he is loved and loathed in equal measure. He is one of the few Irishmen to have incurred the wrath of the British government and of the Federal administration of the United States.

Mitchel is born near Dungiven, County Derry in what is now Northern Ireland on November 3, 1815. The son of a Presbyterian clergyman, he creates his own pulpit in a series of journalistic enterprises in Dublin, Tennessee, Virginia and New York.

Mostly raised in Newry, County Down, Mitchel’s first political association is with the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s and the famous The Nation newspaper, founded by Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon in 1842. But long before the abortive Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 he has moved on, finding the editorial policies of The Nation rather too bland for his tastes.

Inflamed by the suffering he witnesses on a trip to Galway, it is Mitchel, more than any other writer or politician, who shapes the nationalist perception of an Gorta Mór (Great Famine):

“I could see, in front of the cottages, little children leaning against a fence when the sun shone out for they could not stand, their limbs fleshless, their bodies half-naked, their faces bloated yet wrinkled, and of a pale, greenish hue… I saw Trevelyan’s claw in the vitals of those children: his red tape would draw them to death: in his government laboratory he had prepared for them the typhus poison.”

Responding to such writing, Ireland simmers, angry and ready for rebellion. Fearful of Mitchel’s power, London’s Punch magazine emphasises his international standing by portraying him as an Irish monkey challenging the Great British Lion. The Times thunders against him. When Mitchel produces his own republican newspaper, The United Irishman, which, in its inaugural edition, claims that “the world was weary of Old Ireland and also of Young Ireland” thus attacking both Daniel O’Connell and his younger antagonists with the same broadsword. He aims to be an equal opportunities offender and succeeds admirably.

The United Irishman sells out and is shut down by the British authorities after a mere sixteen issues. In order to silence Mitchel, to rob him of his heroic status and his possible martyrdom, the British government passes the Treason Felony Act 1848, which seeks to treat treason as a common crime. He is later tried before an elegantly and efficiently packed jury, found guilty of treason-felony, and deported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). The result is one of the greatest works of Irish political history, The Jail Journal, in which Mitchel writes about his own experience of deportation and advocates a far more militaristic approach to Ireland’s “English problem” than would have been popular heretofore.

Mitchel is acclaimed by Patrick Pearse, who declares The Jail Journal to be “the last of the four gospels of the new testament of Irish nationality, the last and the fieriest and the most sublime.” Éamon de Valera reveres Mitchel, and when in 1943 he imagines Ireland as “the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit,” he too is delving into The Jail Journal for his inspiration.

(From: #OTD in 1848 – John Mitchel Publishes First United Irishman, Stair na hÉireann | History of Ireland)


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Birth of Brigadier General Thomas Alfred Smyth

thomas-alfred-smythThomas Alfred Smyth, brigadier general in the Union Army during the American Civil War, is born in Ballyhooly, County Cork on December 25, 1832. He is the last Union general killed in the war. In March 1867, he is nominated and confirmed a brevet major general of volunteers posthumously to rank from April 7, 1865.

Smyth works on his father’s farm in Ireland as a youth. He emigrates to the United States in 1854, settling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He participates in William Walker‘s expedition to Nicaragua. He is employed as a wood carver and coach and carriage maker. In 1858, he moves to Wilmington, Delaware.

In 1861 Smyth enlists in the Union army in an Irish American three-months regiment, the 24th Pennsylvania, and is quickly made a captain. He is later commissioned as a major of the 1st Delaware Infantry, a three-years regiment. He serves at the battles of Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, following which he is promoted to lieutenant colonel and then to colonel. During the Gettysburg campaign, he commands the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division of the II Corps. During the Battle of Gettysburg, his men help defend Cemetery Ridge and advance to the area of the Bliss farm to oust enemy sharpshooters. He is wounded on the third day of the battle and relinquishes command briefly.

Smyth retains brigade command during the reorganization of II Corps before Ulysses S. Grant‘s Overland Campaign. He leads the second brigade of the first division from March 25 to May 17, 1864. When Colonel Samuel S. Carroll is wounded, Smyth is transferred to his command, the third brigade of second division, the Gibraltar Brigade. In October 1864, he is promoted to brigadier general during the Siege of Petersburg. He retains command of his brigade throughout the siege.

Between July 31, 1864 and August 22, 1864 and between December 23, 1864 and February 25, 1865, Smyth commands the 2nd division of the corps. In April 1865 near Farmville, Virginia, he is shot through the mouth by a sniper, with the bullet shattering his cervical vertebra and paralyzing him. He dies two days later at Burke’s Tavern, concurrent with the surrender of Robert E. Lee and his Confederate States Army at Appomattox Court House.

On March 18, 1867, President Andrew Johnson nominates Smyth for posthumous appointment to the grade of brevet major general of volunteers to rank from April 7, 1865, the date he was mortally wounded, and the United States Senate confirms the appointment on March 26, 1867. He is the last Union general killed or mortally wounded during the war, and is buried in Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery in Wilmington, Delaware.


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Death of Colonel Dennis O’Kane

dennis-o-kaneColonel Dennis O’Kane, officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War, dies on July 4, 1863 of wounds sustained the previous day when fighting with the 69th Pennsylvania Irish Brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Born in Coleraine, County Londonderry, O’Kane is a tavern owner in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a member of the 2nd Pennsylvania Militia regiment prior to the Civil War. When the conflict starts, he helps recruit the 24th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a unit that has the 2nd Pennsylvania Militia as its nucleus. Commissioned Major, Field and Staff, on May 1, 1861, he is with his regiment as it serves first in Maryland and then Virginia before their enlistment expires in July 1861.

In August 1861 O’Kane joins with many of the men from the 24th Pennsylvania in re-enlisting to continue the war effort, and they form the basis of what becomes the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Commissioned Lieutenant Colonel, Field and Staff on August 19, 1861, his new regiment is composed largely of Irish immigrants like himself, and they emblazon the Irish harp on their flag. The unit eventually is joined with the 71st, 72nd and 106th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments to form the famous Philadelphia Brigade.

O’ Kane serves as second-in-command through 1862, participating in the Peninsular Campaign of May and June, the Second Battle of Bull Run in August, and the September 1862 Battle of Antietam, where his brigade is caught in the West Woods area and takes heavy losses. In November 1862, the 69th Pennsylvania’s commander, Colonel Joshua T. Owen, is promoted to Brigadier General, US Volunteers. O’Kane is advanced to Colonel on December 1, 1862 to fill the vacancy.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 14, 1862, O’Kane leads his men in the third of four waves of futile Union charges on strong Confederate positions at Marye’s Heights south of the town, and sees his regiment sustain fifty-one casualties. In May 1863 during the Battle of Chancellorsville, his brigade is held in reserve and sees limited action.

During the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, O’Kane finds the 69th Pennsylvania positioned along a rock fencing in the middle of the Union lines that becomes famous as “The Angle.” That position becomes the epicenter of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, the third day of the battle, as the remnants of the Confederate forces, having been much devastated from Union artillery fire, crash over the rock walls and engage the Philadelphia Brigade in brutal hand-to-hand fighting.

O’Kane is shot in the head at the wall and dies the following day. His regiment again takes high casualties but succeeds in helping to repulse the rebels and defeat the charge. The monument for the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry in Gettysburg National Military Park stands on the spot where O’Kane was mortally wounded.


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The Battle of Malvern Hill

battle-of-malvern-hillIrish take up arms against each other in the American Civil War as the Irish Brigade of the Union Army and the Confederate 6th Regiment, Louisiana Infantry take part in the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862.

Also known as the Battle of Poindexter’s Farm, the Battle of Malvern Hill is fought between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee, and the Union Army of the Potomac under Major General George B. McClellan. It is the final battle of the Seven Days Battles, taking place on a 130-foot elevation of land known as Malvern Hill, near the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia and just one mile from the James River. Including inactive reserves, more than fifty thousand soldiers from each side take part, using more than two hundred pieces of artillery and three warships.

The Seven Days Battles are the climax of the Peninsula Campaign, during which McClellan’s Army of the Potomac sails around the Confederate lines, lands at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, southeast of Richmond, and strikes inland towards the Confederate capital. Confederate commander-in-chief Joseph E. Johnston fends off McClellan’s repeated attempts to take the city, slowing Union progress on the peninsula to a crawl. When Johnston is wounded, Lee takes command and launches a series of counterattacks, collectively called the Seven Days Battles. These attacks culminate in the action on Malvern Hill.

The Union’s V Corps, commanded by Brigadier General Fitz John Porter, takes up positions on the hill on June 30. McClellan is not present for the initial exchanges of the battle, having boarded the ironclad USS Galena and sailed down the James River to inspect Harrison’s Landing, where he intends to locate the base for his army. Confederate preparations are hindered by several mishaps. Bad maps and faulty guides cause Confederate Major General John B. Magruder to be late for the battle, an excess of caution delays Major General Benjamin Huger, and Major General Stonewall Jackson has problems collecting the Confederate artillery.

The battle occurs in stages: an initial exchange of artillery fire, a minor charge by Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, and three successive waves of Confederate infantry charges triggered by unclear orders from Lee and the actions of Major Generals Magruder and Daniel Harvey Hill, respectively. In each phase, the effectiveness of the Federal artillery is the deciding factor, repulsing attack after attack, resulting in a tactical Union victory.

After the battle, McClellan and his forces withdraw from Malvern Hill to Harrison’s Landing, where he remains until August 16. His plan to capture Richmond has been thwarted. In the course of four hours, a series of blunders in planning and communication had caused Lee’s forces to launch three failed frontal infantry assaults across hundreds of yards of open ground, unsupported by Confederate artillery, charging toward firmly entrenched Union infantry and artillery defenses. These errors provide Union forces with an opportunity to inflict heavy casualties.

The human toll of the Battle of Malvern Hill and the Seven Days Battles is shown clearly as both capitals, Washington and Richmond, set up numerous provisional hospitals to care for the dead and wounded. Ships sails from the Peninsula to Washington carrying the wounded. Richmond is nearest to the battlefields of the Seven Days, and the immense number of casualties overwhelms hospitals and doctors. People from about the Confederacy descend upon Richmond to care for the conflict’s casualties. Graves cannot be dug quickly enough. In total, the Confederacy counts some 5,650 casualties while the Union Army estimates approximately 3,000 casualties.

In the aftermath of the battle the Confederate press heralds Lee as the savior of Richmond. In stark contrast, McClellan is accused of being absent from the battlefield, a harsh criticism that haunts him when he runs for president in 1864.

(Pictured: A watercolor painting of the Battle of Malvern Hill, made by Robert Sneden during the American Civil War at Malvern Hill in Henrico County, Virginia. Sneden was the mapmaker for Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps.)


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John Kennedy’s Address to Oireachtas

jfk-address-to-oireachtasUnited States President John F. Kennedy addresses a joint session of Houses of the Oireachtas in Dublin on June 28, 1963, on the third day of his Irish visit. It follows a visit earlier in the day to Cork where he is greeted like a rock star.

Kennedy makes a surprising mistake when speaking to a packed Dáil Éireann about one of the most momentous days for the Irish Brigade during the American Civil War. Somehow, Kennedy gets his dates and geography mixed up when he says, “The 13th day of September, 1862, will be a day long remembered in American history. At Fredericksburg, Maryland, thousands of men fought and died on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the American Civil War.” The date of the Battle of Fredericksburg where so many Irish are slaughtered is December 13 rather than September 13 as Kennedy states. Also, Fredericksburg is in Virginia and not Maryland.

Kennedy is accompanied on this European trip, which includes the famous Ich bin ein Berliner, speech by his counselor and speech writer Ted Sorensen, a master wordsmith and fastidious researcher who seems to have erred in the writing of the speech. It is unlikely that Kennedy mispronounced “December” as the transcript of the speech at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum includes the incorrect dates. No one in Dáil Éireann appears to notice Kennedy’s error.

Aside from this mistake, the speech is uplifting and motivating to an Irish nation that is still young. Kennedy says:

“This has never been a rich or powerful country, and yet, since earliest times, its influence on the world has been rich and powerful. No larger nation did more to keep Christianity and Western culture alive in their darkest centuries. No larger nation did more to spark the cause of independence in America, indeed, around the world. And no larger nation has ever provided the world with more literary and artistic genius.

This is an extraordinary country. George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, summed up an approach to life: Other people, he said “see things and . . . say ‘Why?’ . . . But I dream things that never were – and I say: ‘Why not?’” ”

The complete audio version of Kennedy’s speech can be heard on the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website.