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


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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.


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Birth of Patrick Ford, Irish American Journalist

patrick-fordPatrick Ford, Irish American journalist, Georgist land reformer and fund-raiser for Irish causes, is born in Galway, County Galway on April 12, 1837.

Ford is born to Edward Ford (1805-1880) and Ann Ford (1815-1893), emigrating with his parents to Boston, Massachusetts in 1845, never returning to Ireland. He writes in the Irish World in 1886 that “I might as well have been born in Boston. I know nothing of England. I brought nothing with me from Ireland — nothing tangible to make me what I am. I had consciously at least, only what I found and grew up with in here.”

Ford leaves school at the age of thirteen and two years later is working as a printer’s devil for William Lloyd Garrison‘s The Liberator. He credits Garrison for his advocacy for social reform. He begins writing in 1855 and by 1861 is editor and publisher of the Boston Tribune, also known as the Boston Sunday Tribune or Boston Sunday Times. He is an abolitionist and pro-union.

During the American Civil War (1861–1865) Ford serves in the Union Army in the Ninth Massachusetts Regiment with his father and brother. He sees action in northern Virginia and fights in the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Ford spends four years after the war in Charleston, South Carolina, editing the Southern Carolina Leader, printed to support newly freed slaves. He settles in New York City in 1870 and founds the Irish World, which becomes the principal newspaper of Irish America. It promises “more reading material than any other paper in America” and outsells John Boyle O’Reilly‘s The Pilot.

In 1878, Ford re-titles his newspaper, the Irish World and American Industrial Liberator. During the early 1880s, he promotes the writings of land reformer, Henry George in his paper.

In 1880, Ford begins to solicit donations through the Irish World to support Irish National Land League activities in Ireland. Funds received are tabulated weekly under the heading “Land League Fund.” Between January and September 1881 alone, more than $100,000 is collected in donations. British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone later states that without the funds from the Irish World, there would have been no agitation in Ireland.”

Patrick Ford dies on September 23, 1913.


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Frederick A. Sterling’s Ambassadorship to Ireland Ends

frederick-a-sterlingFrederick Augustine Sterling, United States diplomat and first U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, completes his mission in Ireland on March 7, 1934. He later serves as U.S. minister to Bulgaria and Sweden.

Sterling is born in St. Louis, Missouri on August 13, 1876 and is an 1898 graduate of Harvard University. After working on a ranch in Texas and manufacturing woolen goods, he becomes a career Foreign Service Officer in 1911. Assignments include work in Peru, China, Russia, and England.

On July 27, 1927, Sterling is the first person appointed U.S. minister to the Irish Free State. After confirmation by the United States Senate, and presentation of his credentials to Irish leaders W. T. Cosgrave and Timothy Healy in July, he holds the formal title of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary.

Sterling’s post in Ireland ends on March 7, 1934, when he becomes U.S. minister to Bulgaria, a position he remains in until 1936. In 1937, he is appointed to minister roles for both Latvia and Estonia, however he does not accept the post. In 1938, he becomes U.S. minister to Sweden and remains in that role until 1941.

For years Sterling owns a summer house in Newport, Rhode Island, which he shares with his wife, two sons and one daughter. He dies in Washington, D.C., on August 21, 1957, and is buried in Falls Church, Virginia.


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Andrew Lewis Appointed Brigadier General of the Continental Army

andrew-lewis-statueIrish-born Andrew Lewis is appointed a brigadier general in the Continental Army on March 1, 1776. He is most famous for his 1774 victory in the Battle of Point Pleasant in Lord Dunmore’s War. He also helps found Liberty Hall, later Washington and Lee University, when it is made into a college in 1776.

Lewis is born in County Donegal to Colonel John Lewis and his wife Margaret Lynn. In 1732 John Lewis, having killed his landlord in an altercation, flees to Virginia with his sons Andrew and Thomas. They become among the first settlers in western Augusta County.

Lewis receives a basic education and learns the skills of a surveyor. He spends at least fifteen years farming and working as a surveyor in southwestern Virginia. He also serves as county lieutenant and later captain in the Augusta County militia.

Early in the 1740s Lewis marries Elizabeth Givens, daughter of Samuel and Sarah (Cathey) Givens, formerly of County Antrim. They establish their own home, called Richfield, in what later becomes Roanoke County near Salem.

The Virginia frontier becomes a battleground in the French and Indian War, as do the frontiers of the more northerly colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Virginia organizes a militia to defend settlers subject to attacks by Indians upset at encroachments into their territories. Lewis becomes a captain in George Washington‘s regiment. However, after the loss at the Battle of Fort Necessity in 1754, Washington is forced to surrender to the French. Lewis retreats across the Appalachian Mountains.

Washington proposes a series of frontier fortifications to protect settlers east of the Appalachians. Lewis initially serves to build Fort Dinwiddie on the Jackson River of present-day Bath County and is relieved of his command September 21, 1755. The Virginia assembly approves Lewis’ promotion to major and assigns him to oversee the region along the Greenbrier River. On February 18, 1756, he leads the Big Sandy expedition from Fort Frederick with a mixed force of militiamen and Cherokees to raid the Shawnee towns along the Big Sandy and Ohio rivers to retaliate for Shawnee attacks. He leads several expeditions against both Indian settlements and French outposts. During the Forbes Expedition, he is captured during Major James Grant‘s attack on Fort Duquesne during the Battle of Fort Duquesne in September 1758. Taken to Quebec, he remains a prisoner until late 1759.

Upon the formation of Botetourt County from Augusta County in 1769, Lewis is elected to the House of Burgesses and reelected several times until 1780, though the American Revolution precludes much attendance in later years.

When the American Revolution begins, Governor Dunmore suspends Virginia’s legislature. The Whigs form a provisional congress, which includes both Lewis and his brother Thomas as delegates. When the Continental Congress creates a Continental Army in 1775 and makes George Washington its commander, he asks that Lewis be made a brigadier general. However, initially the Continental Congress had decided there should be only one general from each state, and Charles Lee is the first Virginian commissioned as Brigadier General.

On March 1, 1776, Lewis becomes a brigadier general, overseeing Virginia’s defense and raising men for the Continental Army. Virginia’s Committee of Safety calls on Lewis to stop Governor Dunmore’s raids along the coast from his last stronghold, a fortified position on Gwynn’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay. On July 9, 1776 he leads Virginia’s forces which capture the island as Lord Dunmore escapes by sea, sailing to the Caribbean, never to return.

On April 15, 1777, Lewis resigns his commission, alleging poor health. However, he also faces discontent among his men and the army as a whole. Moreover, he is bypassed when promotions are announced for Major General in early 1777. George Washington, in need of every able officer, expresses his disappointment to Lewis.

Lewis remains active in the legislature, and in 1780, Governor Thomas Jefferson appoints him to the Executive Council. The following year, he falls ill while returning home from a council meeting. He dies of fever in Bedford County on September 26, 1781. He is buried in the family plot at his home. His gravesite is not marked. Colonel Elijah McClanahan, who marries Lewis’ granddaughter, Agatha Lewis McClanahan, attended his funeral as a young man, and later identifies his grave to Roanoke County’s Clerk of the Court. In 1887 General Lewis’ remains are re-interred in the East Hill Cemetery at Salem, Virginia.

(Pictured: Statue of General Andrew Lewis outside the Salem Civic Center)


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Battle at Marye’s Heights

battle-of-fredericksburgIrish fight Irish in one of the bloodiest days in Irish military history at Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 13, 1862 during the American Civil War. The Union Army’s Irish Brigade, the Fighting 69th, is decimated by the Confederate States Army during multiple efforts to take Marye’s Heights. In his official report Thomas Francis Meagher writes, “of the one thousand and two hundred I led into action, only two hundred and eighty appeared on parade next morning.”

The Battle of Fredericksburg, fought December 11-15, 1862, is one of the largest and deadliest of the war. It features the first major opposed river crossing in American military history. Union and Confederate troops fight in the streets of Fredericksburg, the war’s first urban combat. And with nearly 200,000 combatants, no other Civil War battle features a larger concentration of soldiers.

Major General Ambrose Burnside’s plan at Fredericksburg is to use the nearly 60,000 men in Major General William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division to crush General Robert E. Lee’s southern flank on Prospect Hill while the rest of his army holds Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and the Confederate First Corps in position at Marye’s Heights.

The Union army’s main assault against Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson produces initial success and holds the promise of destroying the Confederate right, but lack of reinforcements and Jackson’s powerful counterattack stymies the effort. Both sides suffer heavy losses (totaling 9,000 in killed, wounded and missing) with no real change in the strategic situation.

In the meantime, Burnside’s “diversion” against veteran Confederate soldiers behind a stone wall produces a similar number of casualties but most of these are suffered by the Union troops. Wave after wave of Federal soldiers march forth to take the heights, but each is met with devastating rifle and artillery fire from the nearly impregnable Confederate positions.

As darkness falls on a battlefield strewn with dead and wounded, it is abundantly clear that a signal Confederate victory is at hand. The Army of the Potomac has suffered nearly 12,600 casualties, nearly two-thirds of them in front of Marye’s Heights. By comparison, Lee’s army has suffered some 5,300 losses. Lee, watching the great Confederate victory unfolding from his hilltop command post exclaims, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

Roughly six weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, President Abraham Lincoln removes Burnside from command of the Army of the Potomac.