The USS Kearsarge and the ‘Queenstown Affair’, Co. Cork, 1863

On the morning of 3rd November 1863, the Federal sloop of war USS Kearsarge steamed into Queenstown harbour, Co. Cork. Anchoring to the east of the Spit Light, members of her crew crowded the deck to get a look at the town. While they waited to hear if any of them would be lucky enough to be granted a brief shore pass, some of the Kearsarge officers prepared for quite a different mission. Their activities would cause a major diplomatic incident between the United States and Great Britain, which would become known as the ‘Queenstown Affair.’ Meanwhile, for one Irishman in the town, the arrival of the Kearsarge was destined to dramatically alter his life. (1)

The USS Kearsarge (Library of Congress)

The USS Kearsarge (Library of Congress)

Coal Heaver Charles Poole of the Kearsarge thought Queenstown (now Cobh) was a small town considering how busy the port was, and he remarked that the old houses on the shore gave the settlement an ‘antique’ look. For some of the crew it was a familiar sight. Quarter Gunner John Dempsey knew it well, and even encountered people who knew his family amongst those who rowed out to meet the ship. Captain of the Forecastle Jimmy Haley hailed from nearby Ringaskiddy, and was allowed ashore to visit his sister. As Queenstown was a neutral port, the local Examining Officer sought to inform the Kerasarge’s Captain, John A. Winslow, that the vessel could stay for no longer than 24 hours. However, Captain Winslow had travelled to Cork, and his deputy, Lieutenant-Commander James Thornton, told the officials that he would leave when his Captain ordered him to. The local media quickly condemned the Union warship’s actions as defiance of the law. Things had got off to a bad start. (2)

While the Captain visited Cork, the Kearsarge’s officers got to work on shore. Although the vessel was ostensibly looking for coal, the ship was also short-handed and badly needed new recruits. It was illegal for Union or Confederate vessels to recruit in British ports, but this rarely prevented them from trying. The Petty Officers began actively seeking out men in the town; Ringaskiddy native Haley alone managed to persuade five men- John Sullivan, Edward Rylurne, Thomas Murphy, George Patterson and Dennis Leary- to sign up at $12 a month. Many of the locals undoubtedly hoped that enlisting would allow them to eventually gain passage to America. Any men interested were taken on-board, where they were given a medical examination below decks. Not everyone passed muster; Edward Lynch was rejected for being too short. Others suffered from cold feet- Queenstown natives Patrick Kennedy and Edward Lynch agreed to enter as seamen but elected not to sail with the ship when she departed. In the end 16 men from Ringaskiddy and Queenstown were accepted, local men like Daniel O’Connell of Whitepoint and John Connelly of Bishop’s Street. The illegal recruits were cautioned to stay out of sight until the Kearsarge had raised anchor for fear of discovery. (3)

The modern day Spit Light at Queenstown (Cobh), Co. Cork as seen in 2012 where the USS Kearsarge anchored in 1863. The Irish Naval vessels LE Aoife (foreground) and LE Emer (bacground) highlight the continued military presence

The modern-day Spit Light at Queenstown (Cobh), Co. Cork as seen in 2012, where the USS Kearsarge anchored in 1863. The Irish Naval vessels LE Aoife (foreground) and LE Emer (background) highlight the continued military presence at this important port

Captain Winslow returned from his visit to Cork on 5th November and the sloop made ready for sea. Departing that afternoon the new men quickly found themselves subjected to the full rigours of life before the mast, as heavy seas caused most of them to become violently seasick. The Captain was keen not to flagrantly violate British law by officially signing the men up in Her Majesty’s waters. For now they would officially remain ‘stowaways.’ As the Kearsarge neared Brest on the coast of France, Winslow sent an officer ashore in a launch, together with the 16 Irishmen. Here the ‘stowaways’ were asked if they wanted to depart for shore, or if they would prefer to seek the Captain’s mercy. Unsurprisingly all chose the latter course, and they were enlisted ‘for the purpose of their support and comfort.’ The ruse was intended to circumvent any legal implications resulting from the recruitment, but unfolding events would soon place Captain Winslow in an extremely uncomfortable position. (4)

Ordinarily the incident would have gone practically unnoticed and the new men would have been quietly subsumed into the crew of the Kearsarge. However, on this occasion Captain Winslow’s luck was out. British authorities became aware of the illegal recruitment, and it was the subject of an official complaint to the United States as well as questions in Parliament. The incident quickly became major news, and was used to demonstrate a lack of respect by the Union for the British  Foreign Enlistment Act, which made such recruitment illegal. Confederate agents and sympathisers held up the incident as an example of U.S. perfidy. Confederate agents such as Lieutenant J.L. Capston were active in Queenstown at this time, and was actively corresponding about the incident. As pressure increased, Captain Winslow had little option but to create an appropriate paper trail and deny all knowledge of  illegal recruitment, while hurriedly seeking to re-embark the men at Queenstown. (5)

The main waterfront buildings in Cobh (Queenstown), Co. Cork as they appear today

The main waterfront buildings in Cobh (Queenstown), Co. Cork as they appear today

Captain Winslow wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on 7th December to inform him that: ‘A party of men, either by connivance of the crew or otherwise, were concealed on board this vessel on the night of her departure from Queenstown, the 5th ultimo. These men I learn were in expectation of being enlisted in the service of the United States after the Kearsarge had proceeded to sea, but found their mistake.’ On the same day that he wrote to Secretary Welles, Winslow had returned to Queenstown and repatriated the unfortunate men, who had once again officially become ‘stowaways’. As was later pointed out in Parliament, the fact that all the returned men subsequently pleaded guilty to enlisting with the Kearsarge suggests that Captain Winslow was being somewhat economical with the truth. (6)

When the Corkmen were returned to the port in December 1863, one man was missing. Michael Ahern, who had been working as a clerk with Messrs. Scott of Queenstown prior to throwing in his lot with the Kearsarge, was not amongst them. Captain Winslow seems to have managed to develop another ruse to keep this man aboard, as he had specific qualifications which were needed on the ship. Ahern was to become a Paymaster’s Steward. The man who on 2nd November 1863 was quietly working in a Co. Cork office would achieve an unlikely feat just over 6 months later. On 19th June 1864, the USS Kearsarge did battle with the notorious Confederate warship, the CSS Alabama, off Cherbourg, France. The rebel vessel was sent to the bottom in the fight; amongst those men commended for their actions was one Michael Ahern, who exhibited ‘coolness and good conduct and was highly recommended by his divisional officer for gallantry under enemy fire.’ On 31st December 1864, just over a year since he had been illegally recruited in Queenstown, Michael Ahern was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The only man to avoid repatriation following the ‘Queenstown Affair’ had gone on to receive the United States highest award for gallantry. (7)

(1) Marvel 1996: 202; (2) Marvel 1996: 202-3, Official Records: 489; (3) Marvel 1996: 203, Diplomatic Correspondence Earl Russell to Mr. Adams; (4) Marvel 1996: 203-204, Official Records: 565; (5) Marvel 1996: 204-5; (6) Marvel 1996: 204-5, Official Records: 563, Debate on the Kearsarge; (7) Marvel 1996: 204-5, Diplomatic Correspondence Earl Russell to Mr. Adams, Congressional Medal of Honor Society, Broadwater 2007: 7;

References & Further Reading

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

Congressional Medal of Honor Society

Irish Emigration Database: Debate on the ‘Kearsarge’ Federal Enlistments in Ireland

Marvel, William 1996. The Alabama and the Kearsarge: The Sailor’s Civil War

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion; Series 1, Volume 2: The Operation of the Cruisers (January 1, 1863- March 31, 1864)

University of Wisconsin Digital Collections: United States Department of State- Diplomatic Correspondence Earl Russell to Mr. Adams

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Categories: Cork, Medal of Honor, Recruitment

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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7 Comments on “The USS Kearsarge and the ‘Queenstown Affair’, Co. Cork, 1863”

  1. January 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

    Great article, Damian. Really great research. When’s that book about the Irish in the ACW coming out ;)

    • January 4, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

      Thanks Robert! I wish we will have to wait and see on that front!

  2. January 4, 2012 at 2:14 am #

    Union recruiting was quite regular in Ireland.However the CSA tried to unveil this practice and sent a Catholic preist over to Ireland, hoping that the priest (I think his name was Bannon?) could dissuade Irishmen from enlisting in the Union army. British regiments were also angry about Union recruiting in Ireland–since the British army considered Ireland their home turf. Many English regiments (except Guards regiments) were 30 to 40 % Irishmen. This does not include commissioned officers. The British army had a ‘purchase” system in effect until about 1872. This meant a rich parent gave an above the table payment and a below the table payment to the army and the actual officer who held the commission wanted for a son.

    In 1793 the British army revoked the rule that no R.C. could serve in its ranks. Strangely, the 88th Foot (Connaught Rangers) were formed in 1793. Some experts feel this rule was relaxed because of a British fear of the French.The Munsters came much later.

    Many Irish-American regiments contained Irishmen who had served in the British army and were dumped after the Crimean war. Captain John Dunne, 164th NY, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, had served in the 44th Foot and was present at the battle of Alma.
    Lieutenant James Cosgrove had also served in the Crimea but enlisted in the 23rd Illinois in the American Civil War where he was Head Centre of the Fenian Brotherhood Circle. So we can conclude his British service was a career move—not motivated by a political statement.

    British recruiting in Ireland declined steadily from 1865.

    • January 4, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

      Hi Michael,

      You are right about Father Bannon he was one of the agents sent here- he is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin in the Jesuit plot. The activities of both sides agents here trying to influence who people would join up with is fascinating stuff!

  3. Jembo
    February 1, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    Great piece of work,I also see Ahern listed ar Aheam on his citation. Any reason for this?

    • February 1, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

      Thanks! He was indeed, it appears to be a transcription error at some point following his award- I can imagine it happening with the ‘rn’ begin read as an ‘m’ when written. Unfortunately it has persisted, and so his real name is somewhat obscured!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ‘Watch the Man’s Movements’: Illegal Recruitment for the Union in Ireland, Part One | Irish in the American Civil War - April 3, 2013

    [...] A previous post explored the case of the USS Kearsarge, which caused a major diplomatic incident when she illegally recruited in the port of Queenstown (now Cobh), Co. Cork during the war. It was not the only time when questionable recruitment tactics led to friction between Britain and the United States. In 1864 the actions of a man called Patrick Finney led to a number of Irishmen unexpectedly joining the 20th Maine and 28th Massachusetts Regiments. How did they get to America? In the first of two posts on the story, we explore the methods Patrick Finney used to get perspective recruits from Ireland to the United States. [...]

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