Medal of Honor: First Sergeant Patrick Irwin, 14th Michigan Infantry

It is just after 4p.m. on 1st September 1864, and the men of the XIV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland are ordered to the attack. Their objective is the right flank of Confederate Lieutenant-General William Hardee’s Corps, which is deployed just to the north of the town of Jonesboro, Georgia. If they succeed in driving the Rebels from their positions they will sever the Macon & Western Railroad, a vital supply line for the beleaguered city of Atlanta. Among the thousands of troops starting forward is Irishman Patrick Irwin of the 14th Michigan Infantry. By days end he will not only have secured a memorable prisoner, but will be destined for promotion to Lieutenant. (1)

Patrick Irwin was born in Co. Clare in 1838. As the Great Famine ravaged Ireland during the late 1840s, his parents decided to emigrate to the United States and eventually settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Prior to the war Patrick was living in the city’s First Ward, where he worked as a blacksmith.* With the outbreak of war the Irishman enlisted in Company H of the 14th Michigan; Patrick’s company commander was fellow Irishman Captain Richard Beahan. The regiment was organised in Ypsilanti and mustered into service on 13th February 1862. (2)

Battle of Jonesboro

The Battle of Jonesboro by Currier & Ives (Library of Congress)

The 14th Michigan attacked on 1st September as part of Colonel Charles M. Lum’s brigade, Brigadier-General James D. Morgan’s division. With the Michiganders out in front, the brigade advanced through a strip of woods, where they manoeuvred to form line of battle and connect with the other attacking brigades. Irwin and his comrades found themselves in the front rank on the right of their brigade’s line, and they began to take fire from grape and solid shot. The Confederate positions were now facing them, with the Rebels located behind breastworks in the woods to their front. Without receiving orders to advance the entire brigade began to march up the slope towards the enemy, with the 14th Michigan outpacing the rest. Irwin and his comrades were the first to enter the woods, encountering little resistance as they drove the Confederates from their first line of entrenchments. The second line of works did not fall quite so easily. The Colonel of the regiment, Henry R. Mizner, recounts his men’s advance: ‘Moving steadily forward with fixed bayonets at ‘right shoulder shift,’ first at quick time, then at double quick, my men without pause or hesitation leaped upon the rebel works, not having up to that moment fired a shot or raised a shout. Upon gaining the works which were filled with the enemy, our colors gallantly planted by Sergeant Steiner, they opened upon them a most deadly fire…it was impossible to stay the fire of my men, who swept through the entire line of works ….’ (3)

The men that Irwin and his comrades faced were Confederate’s from Brigadier-General Daniel Govan’s brigade, part of Irishman Major-General Patrick Cleburne’s division. Outnumbered by superior forces in front, and with other Union troops moving towards their rear, their fate was sealed. The 14th Michigan’s Lieutenant Gifford turned one of the captured guns on the fleeing rebels, while Lieutenant Witherspoon and Sergeant Smith of Company A captured the colors of the 1st Arkansas. But the first man of the regiment over the works was First Sergeant Patrick Irwin. In the melee the Clareman was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. In the midst of the fighting he found himself confronting none other than General Govan himself. Irwin challenged the Rebel General to yield, and Govan surrendered his sword. (4)

The Union advance had been so rapid that the Michiganders sustained relatively light casualties, with two men killed and 28 wounded. The capture of such a high-ranking prisoner earned Irwin a mention in both Lum’s and Mizner’s official reports. It also had other advantages, as the Irishman would rise to the rank of First Lieutenant before wars end. Jonesboro was the final battle of the Atlanta Campaign, as the Confederates now had no option but to withdraw their troops from the city. This turn events not only had a devastating impact on the Southern war effort, it also helped to secure the reelection of Abraham Lincoln as President, removing the possibility of a compromise peace. (5)

Patrick Irwin went on to participate in Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’ and was honorably discharged in 1865. He married Hannah McCann of Macomb County, Michigan with whom he had a number of children. The Irishman would later serve as an Alderman in Bay City, Michigan before becoming the proprietor of a livery, sale and feed stable in the State. His actions on 1st September 1864 were officially recognised over 30 years after they took place. On 28th April 1896 Patrick Irwin was awarded the Medal of Honor, with his citation reading: ‘In a charge by the 14th Michigan Infantry against the entrenched enemy was the first man over the line of works of the enemy, and demanded and received the surrender of Confederate General Daniel Govan and his command.’ Patrick Irwin died on 6th February 1910 in Ann Arbor, where he was buried in Saint Thomas Catholic Cemetery. His wife Hannah survived him into the 1920s before burial beside her husband. (6)

Pension Index Card Civil War

Civil War Pension Index Card of Patrick Irwin (via Footnote)

*No Patrick Irwin appears in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the 1860 census, but a Patrick Ervin, aged 21, lived in the First Ward with 73 year old James Ervin. It seems likely that this is the same Patrick Irwin who would later win the Medal of Honor, and that James may have been his father.

(1) Castel 1992: 509- 515 (2) Chapman 1881:1008, 1860 Census; (3) Castel 1992: 515, Official Records: 655- 656, Robertson 1882: 348-349; (4) Castel 1992: 517, Robertson 1882: 349, Official Records: 654, Official Records: 676; (5) Robertson 1882: 349, Chapman 1881: 1008; (6) Broadwater 2007:109, Congressional Medal of Honor Society, Civil War Pension Index Cards;

References & Further Reading

Broadwater, Robert P. 2007. Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients

Castel, Albert 1992. Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864

Chapman, Charles 1881. History of Washtenaw County, Michigan 

Robertson, John 1882. Michigan in the War 

Official Records Series 1, Volume 38 (Part 1), Chapter 50. Report of Col. Charles M. Lum, Tenth Michigan Infantry, commanding First Brigade, of operations August 24- September 8

Official Records Series 1, Volume 38 (Part 1), Chapter 50. Reports of Col. Henry R. Mizner, Fourteenth Michigan Infantry, of operations June 4- September 5

1860 Federal Census (Footnote)

Civil War Pensions Index (Footnote)

Civil War Trust Battle of Jonesborough Page

Color of the 14th Michigan Infantry

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Categories: Battle of Jonesboro, Clare, Medal of Honor, Michigan

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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  1. Irish-Born Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients: The Complete List? | Irish in the American Civil War - January 26, 2012

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  2. Irish-Born Medal of Honor Project | Irish in the American Civil War - December 30, 2012

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