Over the coming months Irish in the American Civil War will be looking at some of the 146 Irish born men who were awarded the Medal of Honor for displaying bravery and heroism during the conflict. In the first we look at Sergeant Dennis J.F. Murphy* of the 14th Wisconsin Infantry, who was presented with the medal for his actions at the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi, on the 3rd October 1862.
Dennis Murphy joined the ranks of the 14th Wisconsin on 13th September 1861. He had been born in Ireland in 1830 but lived in Green Bay prior to the war, electing to serve with Company F of the regiment, the ‘De Pere Rifles’. By the time October 1862 arrived Murphy had already borne witness to the carnage of the Battle of Shiloh, and now carried his regiment’s national color. He knew what he could expect when Major-General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederate Army of West Tennessee prepared to attack Union positions around the town of Corinth. (1)
On the morning of 3rd October Major-General William S. Rosecrans ordered three of his divisions to advance out of Corinth and occupy old Confederate rifle pits to the north and north-west of the town. Amongst them was the 14th Wisconsin, part of Colonel John M. Oliver’s 2nd Brigade of Brigadier-General Thomas J. McKean’s 6th Division. McKean’s men were holding the left of the line when at 10am Major-General Mansfield Lovell’s Rebels smashed into the Union positions.
As wave after wave of Confederates surged forward, the 14th Wisconsin under Colonel John Hancock were positioned in the old rifle pits atop a hill, with Companies E and K thrown forward as skirmishers. Sergeant Murphy declared his intent at the start of the fight to ‘come out a dead sergeant or a live lieutenant.’ As Caruthers’ Mississippi Sharpshooter Battalion attacked up the hill the advanced companies pulled back and with their comrades unleashed a devastating fire that sent the Rebels reeling backwards. Another attack surged forward with the reformed sharpshooters joining the 22nd Mississippi. This time the Confederates got to within a few yards of the Union line and the two lines began to exchange fire. Suddenly at this critical juncture in the battle the 15th Michigan to the Wisconsinites’ right gave way in the face of pressure from the 1st Missouri and 33rd Mississippi. This left Sergeant Murphy and his comrades facing a withering crossfire and potentially complete destruction. As men began to fall left and right, the entire color guard became casualties. In the terrible hand to hand combat that ensued, the man carrying the regimental colors was bayoneted and the flag almost lost. Denis Murphy was hit again and again but somehow managed to hold onto the national color, covering the flag in his own blood. Eventually the 14th had no option but to withdraw, although it was too late for some of their number who were captured. (2)
The 14th Wisconsin had taken heavy casualties and although briefly called on later in the day they were effectively shattered. Their brigade commander remarked of their performance at Corinth: ‘Though suffering more loss than any regiment in the command, they maintained their lines and delivered their fire with all the coolness and precision which could have been maintained upon drill.’ Dennis Murphy had been wounded three times, but he did receive his commission. He was discharged due to disability on 13th November 1862 and later rewarded with a lieutenancy in Company B of the 24th Wisconsin. He paid a heavy price, however; Dennis was to be crippled for life as a result of the wounds he sustained at Corinth. (3)
Almost thirty years after the battle, on 22nd January 1892, Dennis J.F. Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation simply reads ‘Although wounded three times, carried the colors throughout the conflict.’ He died on 19th June 1901 and is buried in Allouez Cemetery, Green Bay. The national color that he held aloft in October 1862 survived the war, and is now preserved in the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. (4)
*Dennis Murphy should be known as Denis- the extra ‘n’ was due to an error in his military records. Many thanks to the Sergeant’s descendant Michael Lee for this information.
(1) Roster 1886: 789; (2) Cozzens 1997: 168-171; (3) Official Records: 356, Cozzens 1997: 170-171; (4) Broadwater 2007: 145
References & Further Reading
Broadwater, Robert P. 2007. Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients: A Complete Illustrated Record
Cozzens, Peter 1997. The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth
Official Records Series 1, Volume 17 (Part 1), Chapter 29. Report of Colonel John M. Oliver, Fifteenth Michigan Infantry, commanding Second Brigade, including operations October 3-11
Wisconsin Adjutant General’s Office 1886. Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861- 1865, Volume 1