Michael Kerwin was born in Co. Wexford on 15th August 1837. He emigrated with his parents to the United States at the age of 10, settling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There he was educated in a private academy and trained as a lithographic printer. In his spare time he spent a number of years involved with a local volunteer militia company, until the outbreak of war in 1861 led him to embark on a much more serious military career. (1)

Colonel Michael Kerwin, 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, in later life

Colonel Michael Kerwin, 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, in later life

In April 1861 Michael Kerwin enlisted as a private in the largely Irish 24th Pennsylvania Regiment, where he quickly rose to First Sergeant in Company H. The three-month regiment formed part of Tyrone native General Robert Patterson’s force which advanced into Virginia early in the war. The forward Union movement presented Kerwin with a first opportunity to demonstrate his mettle. He volunteered to precede the army across the Potomac River, and infiltrate the Rebel lines to ascertain the force that lay ahead. Disguising himself, the Irishman successfully passed through Confederate camps around Martinsburg, returning to his own lines with an estimate of enemy numbers and dispositions. Kerwin would not remain in the ranks for long. (2)

Following the expiration of his service with the 24th Pennsylvania, Kerwin began his long association with the cavalry arm. He became the Captain of Company B, 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry dating from 27th March 1862. Again promotion came quickly for him, and he became the unit’s Major on 20th October of the same year. Perhaps the regiments most notable action took place on 12th October 1863 at White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, when the 13th was part of a picket force that attempted to hold off a large enemy advance. Severely outnumbered, the horsemen kept fighting against the odds for some 6 hours, during which time they sustained significant losses. (3)

Michael Kerwin became the Colonel of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry dating from 22nd April 1864. The regiment formed part of General Sheridan’s command in the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign. The Wexford native was sporadically called on to take acting command of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division of the Cavalry Corps, holding the post for a number of days in August, October and November 1864 and February 1865. In the latter month his command was pulled from in front of Petersburg and dispatched to Wilmington, North Carolina, in order to meet up with General Sherman’s army which was then marching through Georgia. They rendezvoused with Sherman’s troops at Fayetteville, where Kerwin took command of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division of Kilpatrick’s cavalry. He remained in charge at Fayetteville until the close of the conflict, when he returned to Philadelphia and was mustered out on 14th July 1865. (4)

Michael Kerwin’s martial career did not end with the close of the Civil War. He was a noted Fenian, and following his discharge he immediately travelled to Ireland, commissioned by John O’Mahony to James Stephens who was the Chief Organiser of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Intending to assist in an armed struggle to gain Irish independence, Kerwin was arrested and detained in prison by the British for a number of months before being returned to the United States, where he remained active in the Irish movement. After the war he married the widow of another Fenian and American Civil War veteran, Colonel Denis Burke of the 88th New York Infantry, Irish Brigade. (5)

The Wexford native worked in a number of varied posts following his return to the United States. Moving from Philadelphia to New York in 1870, he became Collector of Internal Revenue for the Second District of the city, and later served as the Police Commissioner. He subsequently acted as the Pension Agent for New York, a position he took over from Franz Siegel. He established the Irish nationalist paper the New York Tablet which he owned with David Power Conyngham, historian of the Irish Brigade. Michael Kerwin lived until the age of 74, passing away on 20th June 1912 at his home at 487 West 145th Street, New York. The New York Times listed his cause of death as ‘senile infirmities’. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia in Section 3, Lot 2169. (6)

(1) Bates 1875: 764, Hunt 2007, 95; (2) Bates 1875: 765; (3) Bates 1875: 765, Hunt 2007, 95; (4) Hunt 2007, 95; Bates 1875: 766; (5) Denieffe 1906: 283, Hunt 2007, 95; (6) New York Times Obituary, Hunt 2007: 95, Denieffe 1906: 283, Kohl 1994: xxiii-xxiv;

References & Further Reading

Bates, Samuel P. 1875. Martial Deeds of Pennsylvania

Conyngham, David Power (edited by Lawrence Kohl) 1994. The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns

Denieffe, Joseph 1906. A Personal Narrative of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood

Hand, Harold 2000. One Good Regiment: The Thirteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry (117th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment) 1861-1865

Hunt, Roger D. 2007. Colonels in Blue: The Mid-Atlantic States

New York Times 21st June 1912: Gen. Michael Kerwin Dead