Irish Colonels: Michael Kerwin, 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry

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

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Categories: 13th Pennsylvania, Irish Colonels, Pennsylvania, Wexford

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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4 Comments on “Irish Colonels: Michael Kerwin, 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry”

  1. January 5, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    Colonel Michael Kerwin had served as a militiaman in the 2nd regiment, Philly militia but the fact that he showed up as 1st sergeant in H company, 24th Pa. could have been caused by the fact that he was a personal friend of Captain Thomas Smythe and also served as Smythe’s best man at Smythe’s wedding. Kerwin jumped into Galligher’s Irish Dragoon’s as a captain and company commander. Later Galligher’s unit did not join the Irish Brigade as originally planned but became the first squadron in the 13th Pennsylvania cavalry. Kerwin was elected secretary of War of the Fenian Brotherhood in 1869. He had served six months imprisonment as a Fenian in March, 1866 in Kilmanion. Later he and Colonel Dennis Burke, 88th NY, ran the military end of the Clan-Na-Gael. British intelligence tried to get several Irish immigrants to befriend and inform on Kerwin in NYC—unsucessfully. Several New York newspapers accused Kerwin of recruiting Irishmen for the “Dynamite campaign” ie Dr. Gallagher. This has never been proven The highlight of Kerwin’s Civil War career was when he was chosen to ride South with the 13th Pa. cavalry thru CSA lines and link up with General Sherman who was coming north after his Atlanta campaign.

    • Joseph Maghe
      January 10, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

      Excellent information on Kerwin’s relationships with some of his close friends and fellow Fenians.

  2. January 6, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the excellent additional information! Kerwin is a really interesting character, in many respects his post-war activities both in the Fenian movement and holding different offices in New York is even more interesting than his Civil War service.

    Kind Regards,

    Damian.

  3. January 7, 2012 at 12:39 am #

    You must remember that John O’Neill and James Gibbons (Head Centre of Pennsylvania) wrestled control of the Fenian Brotherhood from several factions in 1867. Since Kerwin was a Philadelphian and since Gibbons was known to have printed recruiting posters for the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Kerwin would have had Gibbons backing for Secretary of War after Sweney retired. However O’Neill and Kerwin clashed bitterly–and Kerwin offered to resign the post. O’Neill lost interest in the movement after the failure of the 1870 intrusion into Canada. Eventually the FBA became moribund and Kerwin and Burke jumped into the Clan-na-Gael. Although probably unknown in Ireland, the Philadelphia Clan-na-Gael was probably stronger and more active under Dr. Carroll than the NYC outpost. Kerwin also purchased a small Catholic newspaper called the Tablet in NYC and used that organ to voice his displeasure against the British empire.

    Kerwin also commanded a brigade of cavalry for a short period–however he never received the Brevet promotion to general. So you may sometimes see secondary sources refer to him as “General Kerwin.”

    You underestimate his Civil War service. After General Smythe was killed directly before the end of the war, O’Mahoney no longer had a general to direct field operations in Ireland. O’Mahoney personally traveled to Philadelphia in 1865, recruited Kerwin, and swore him into the FBA. This allegiance to the Fenian cause may have cost him a commission in the shrinking U.S.Army. Myles Keough received a regular commission while many Americans were discharged.

    Much of Kerwin’s success in NYC politics arose from the fact that he embraced the Republican party while most of the Irish-American community was affiliated with the Democrats. This gave the native Americans (WASPs) an Irish candidate.

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