Irish Colonels: Henry F. O’Brien, 11th New York Infantry

Over 25 Irishmen served as Colonels in units raised in the State of New York. Many are well-known, having served in ethnic Irish regiments such as those of the Irish Brigade and Corcoran’s Legion. Perhaps one of the least recognisable, and certainly one of the most tragic, is Colonel Henry F. O’Brien. He took over command of the 11th New York on 27th June 1863, but his tenure was destined to end in horrific circumstances. Less than a month after what must have been one of his proudest moments, on 14th July 1863, he would be dead. His end came not on the field of battle at the hands of the enemies of Union-Henry O’Brien was beaten to death by his fellow countrymen on a New York street. (1)

Henry F. O’Brien was born in Ireland in c.1823, although little is known about his life prior to the American Civil War. He served as a Captain of Company H of the 155th New York Infantry, part of Corcoran’s Irish Legion, from 12th October 1862 until his honourable discharge from that regiment on 6th February 1863. In June 1863 O’Brien was given permission to recruit in order to re-raise the 11th New York Regiment. The original 11th  had been known as the Ellsworth Zouaves, and had mustered out of service in 1862. Permission to reestablish the unit had initially been granted to James C. Burke in May of 1863, but this authorisation was revoked and passed to O’Brien in June. Thus it was that the now Colonel O’Brien was engaged in recruiting activities in New York when the violence of the draft riots erupted in the city. (2)

Colonel Henry F. O'Brien (New York State Military Museum)

Colonel Henry F. O'Brien (New York State Military Museum)

Riots erupted across New York City on 13th July 1863 in response to the military draft, which had been instituted to bolster numbers serving in the Union forces. Protests against the draft descended into a wave of violence which engulfed portions of the city for a number of days. The majority of those involved came from the city’s poorer areas, and included large numbers of the Irish community. Many of the rioters felt they were being specifically targeted by unjust Government policies, which they saw as forcing them to fight for a cause with which they had little affinity. Many homes and premises were attacked, looted and burned during the unrest, and members of New York’s coloured community were targeted and some murdered in horrendous circumstances.

As he was stationed in New York at the time of the unrest, Henry O’Brien decided to face down the rioters and offered his services and those of his men to the police. Reports as to the sequence of events that followed are somewhat confused. What is known is that on the morning of Tuesday 14th July, a large mob had assembled at the junction of Second Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street. According to the New York Times, the crowd had become incensed upon learning that O’Brien and his men were due to march on them, and in response proceeded to his home in the area, forcing his family onto the street and robbing the premises. Some 300 New York police were detailed to confront the rioters, and they marched through a hail of missiles down Second Avenue in an attempt to clear the area. This was the fateful moment when Colonel O’Brien and his men arrived on the scene. (3)

The Irishman approached at the head of two companies of the 11th New York and two field pieces under the commanded of Lieutenant Eagleson. Joining forces with the police, O’Brien moved his men forward to confront the Second Avenue crowd. One account described what happened next: ‘He [O'Brien] unlimbered his pieces, notified the mob in the streets to disperse, and after waiting for them to do so a sufficient time, fired; he had elevated his guns so as to shoot over the heads of the crowd, giving as his reason that he did not want to hurt them if scaring would do as well.’ According to other accounts, far from trying to avoid civilian injury, O’Brien had ridden to the crowd and fired his pistol into them. Whether through some errant firing by O’Brien’s soldiers, a mishap with the artillery blanks, or indiscriminate shooting by the Colonel himself, a woman and child fell dead in front of the 11th New York’s position. The crowd had no doubts about who was responsible. They dispersed, but they did not go far. The mob now had but one focus- dozens of eyes stared at Colonel Henry O’Brien, and they bore an unquenchable thirst for revenge. (4)

It was now around 2pm in the afternoon. As the situation appeared to die down, the Colonel made the bizarre decision to stray from the safety of his men. The New York Tribune related that he went in to a nearby drug store in search of refreshments. On re-emerging in the doorway, he found that much of the mob had reformed, silently surrounding the shop. Drawing his sword and revolver, he walked out amongst them, presumably in the hope of regaining the safety of the troops. Suddenly a man emerged from the crowd behind O’Brien, striking him across the back of the head. Staggering, the Irishman was quickly subsumed beneath a wave of assailants as blows rained down upon him. Despite the violence of the attack, and unfortunately for Henry O’Brien, his end would not be a quick one. (5)

Colonel O'Brien attacked outside the Drugstore (Harper's Weekly)

Colonel O'Brien attacked outside the Drugstore (Harper's Weekly)

Whatever the circumstances leading to it, the murder of the Colonel of the 11th New York was among the most savage and brutal to occur during the course of the New York Draft Riots. Bent on vengeance, the rioters sought to make sure that his suffering would last for hours. After his initial beating he was dragged to the nearest lamp-post, where he was strung up by a rope. From here he was taken down and hurled into the street, where, covered in blood and breathing heavily, he lay for an hour periodically being kicked and pelted with stones. Then he was again dragged around the street. Around this time a correspondent with Harper’s Weekly arrived on the scene. His described what he saw: ‘As I arrived at the corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Second Avenue, the rioters were dragging the body of a man along the sidewalk with a rope. It was difficult to obtain any information from the by-standers who were terror struck by the savage fury of the mob. I ascertained, however, that the body was that of Colonel O’Brien of the Eleventh New York. There was not a policeman or soldier within view of whom inquiry could be made. “What did they kill him for?” I asked a man leaning against a lamp-post. “Bedad, I suppose it was to square accounts,” replied he. “There was a woman and child kilt there below a while ago by the sojers, and in coorse a sojer had to suffer.” The brutal roughs who surrounded the body fired pistols at it occasionally, and pelted it with brick-bats and paving stones.” (6)

Incredibly the man was still not dead. Another witness said he had now become unrecognisable: ‘The head was nearly one mass of gore, while the clothes were also saturated with the crimson fluid of life.’ Occasionally the ‘extended mass of fleshthat had once been Colonel O’Brien would raise his head, only to be struck once again by those surrounding him. Some accounts suggest that he clung to life for up to six hours in this way, all the time being periodically beaten. Eventually his horrific suffering ended, and the unfortunate Colonel died on the street only a short distance from his home. Shortly after his death the riot moved on, making it possible for his body to be recovered and taken to Bellevue Hospital. (7)

Colonel O'Brien being set upon (Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)

Colonel O'Brien being set upon (Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)

Following the murder a substantial reward was offered for the apprehension of those involved. A number of men including one Patrick Keegan, Patrick O’Brien and later Thomas Kealy were arrested. All were Irish. The suffering of 14th July marked only the beginning for Henry O’Brien’s widow, Anna. On 30th January 1864 the New York Herald published a heart-rending letter she had felt compelled to publish: ‘I am the widow of Colonel Henry F. O’Brien, who lost his life while endeavoring to protect this, the proud city of his adoption, from the ravages of a plundering mob during the riots of July last. Slaughtered with a barbarity seldom equalled by savages, his poor mangled remains were unceremoniously hurried off to a pauper’s grave, where they still lie unnoticed and forgotten. I was myself forced to fly from the fury of the mob, who ransacked my house and destroyed or stole everything I possessed. Thus, at one fell swoop, were carried away home, husband and all that rendered life comfortable and happy.’ The distraught widow found that all her appeals for the honourable reburial of her husband had fallen on deaf ears, as had her request for a pension to support herself. Her letter to the Herald was a desperate attempt to have someone in officialdom take notice. (8)

Whatever the outcome of her appeals for a pension, Anna O’Brien did not have her wish for a suitable memorial for her husband fulfilled. Henry O’Brien today lies in an unmarked grave in Section 1 West, Avenue E, Plot 10 of Calvary Cemetery on Long Island. It remains unclear if Colonel O’Brien was the heartless villain who, as the mob believed, fired indiscriminately at a woman and child, or if he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, a man trying to do his best in difficult circumstances who was undone by unfortunate events. His death, falling at the hands of enraged fellow Irishmen at the junction of Second Avenue and Thirty-Fourth Street on that July day was certainly not the one he would have imagined for himself the previous June, as he set about organising his regiment. (9)

(1) Hunt 2003: 214; (2) Hunt 2003: 214; Bureau of Military Statistics; (3) New York Times 15th July 1863, Barnes 1863: 37; (4) New York Times 15th July 1863, Barnes 1863: 37, Civil War Newspaper Clippings, (5) Civil War Newspaper Clippings; (6) Civil War Newspaper Clippings, Harpers Weekly 1st August 1863; (7) Civil War Newspaper Clippings; (8) New York Herald 9th August 1863, New York Times 4th July 1867, New York Herald 30th January 1864; (9) Hunt 2003: 214;

References

Barnes, David M. 1863. The Draft Riots in New York, July 1863. The Service of the Metropolitan Police

Harper’s Weekly 1st August 1863: ‘The Riots at New York’

Hunt, Roger D. 2003. Colonels in Blue: Union Army Colonels of the Civil War, New York

New York Herald 9th August 1863: ‘The Murder of Colonel O’Brien’

New York Herald 30th January 1864: ‘The Late Colonel O’Brien’

New York State Military Museum: 11th Infantry Regiment: Civil War Newspaper Clippings

New York State Military Museum: 11th Infantry Regiment: 3rd Annual Report of the Bureau of Military Statistics

New York Times 15th July 1863: ‘The Riot in Second Avenue’

New York Times 4th July 1867: ‘The Murder of Col. O’Brien: Arrest of the Alleged Murderer’

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Categories: Irish Colonels, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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5 Comments on “Irish Colonels: Henry F. O’Brien, 11th New York Infantry”

  1. February 26, 2012 at 12:04 am #

    Like all USA selectuve Service laws, the Civil War was very “selective.” If you had three hundred dollars or could provide a substitute for yourself, you ddidn’t have to go to the U.S. army. There were many draftee brokers who would line up a substitute for the rich man and take a cut of Yankee dollars…..
    Now where was some mackerel snapper (the Nativist derisive name for an Irish Catholic) right off the boat with peat still in his hair at Castle Garden in NYC going to get $300.00 or a substitute? Andrew Carnegie, FDR’s father, and Teddy Roosevelt all went the substitute or $300.00 way.
    Several letters from the New England states, written by Irishmen and printed in the Irish-American stated the draft was rigged by the WASPs —-many more Irishmen appeared on certain draftee lists in the New England states than the more numerous native sons—although Irishmen, even if naturalized, were seldom picked to sit on juries by by WASP prosecuters…… And that’s why we have the Boston celtic basketball team today….

  2. sallieparker
    December 3, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    For the record: Irish immigrants were not subject to the draft, as they were British subjects. This is not an obscure theoretical point but a matter of daily awareness for both William Seward and Lord Lyons throughout the War. Those names picked in the draft lottery in July 1863 were mostly native-born American citizens (look up the first one, William Jones, on ancestry.com). This fable that “Irish immigrants” caused the “Draft Riots” because they didn’t have $300 is nonsense. The July 1863 demonstrations were legitimate, organized resistance against the Federal police state. They had broad support, from the Governor on down.

  3. January 22, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    Surely this Col. O’Brien is a fictitious character. He appears only in accounts of the July 1863 melees, and there are at least a half-dozen different stories of what happened to him. There is no record of him in the government archives.

    There was a Lt-Col James O’Brien who died around the same time, in an assault at Port Hudson, but he was from Charlestown, Massachusetts. There is no death record for either a Colonel Henry O’Brien or for a Captain Henry O’Brien. Finally, the well-upholstered publican in your photo does not look like a seasoned officer to me.

    • January 22, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

      Hi William,

      Many thanks for the comment. There is no doubt that Colonel O’Brien existed, and he does appear in government sources. Roger D. Hunt in his ‘Colonels in Blue’ for New York references his Military Service File which he accessed, and his permission to re-raise the 11th was recorded in the 3rd Annual Report of the Bureau of Military Statistics. His existence is further confirmed by the 155th Infantry Rosters:

      ‘O’Brien, Henry F. Age, 42 years. Enrolled, October 1862, at New York City, to serve three years; mustered in as captain, Co. H, November 18, 1862; discharged, February 6, 1863.’

      I have also seen his service index card for his time in the 155th.

      He appears in dozens of newspaper references from the period, as indeed does his wife who wrote about her predicament after her husband’s death, as she was not in receipt of a pension. The different accounts of his death aren’t surprising given the nature of his demise, and the good v evil characterisation of his actions dependent on the writer’s viewpoint. As for the photograph, given his relatively short period of service I think it probable that it predates his military service, which would explain his appearance. I am interested in your thoughts on him though, it is an interesting viewpoint! Is there any reason you believe he may have been fabricated at the time?

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  4. William B. Robinson
    February 22, 2013 at 7:21 am #

    Thank you, Damian. Synchronicity of interest focused your eyes and mine upon Henry O’Brien.

    Indulge me while I lay out my notes and methodology…

    1) Henry O’Brien was an extremely common name in mid-19th C America: as common as Kevin O’Brien would be a hundred years later. There were about 55 Henry O’Briens in the opposing armies of the 1861-65 war.

    2) Looking through them all, I became convinced that the ex-Captain Henry O’Brien of the 155th NYS Infantry could NOT be positively identified with the Colonel Henry O’Brien who was purportedly the victim of a gruesome lynching about 14 July 1863, near his house in the Kips Bay area of Manhattan (around 34th St and 2nd Ave).

    3) We have military documentation for the Captain but I can find none for the Colonel. There are no death records for any Henry O’Brien, civilian or military, during July 1863. Trow’s City Directories for the early 1860s show no Henry O’Brien living in that vicinity.

    4) My search has included the online National Archives, New York State vital records, city directories, Civil War muster rolls, military deaths, pension applications, and subscriber-fee databases at fold3.com, ancestry.com, archives.com, newspaperarchives.com; and other historical and genealogical sources.

    5) Primary evidence for Col. Henry O’Brien is therefore not just sketchy, it is nonexistent. No mention in a company roster or logbook, no death certificate, no pension application for a widow. His tortures and death at the hands of the “mob” were featured in lurid hagiographic detail in the pro-Republican New York newspapers (as well as in the many papers that copied the stories, sometimes embellishing them further). But the main basis for the O’Brien tale seems to be the newspapers themselves.

    6) Voluminous records from the War Department and Adjutant General are readily available. We have records for most or all of the Henry O’Briens on the Union side. We see that some were deserters, some were shot to death, some died in prison, some got promotions. We know that at least two Henry O’Briens were in the 155th New York State Infantry. In addition, we know of another famous Colonel O’Brien who died around this time (Lt-Col James O’Brien of Massachusetts Artillery, d. 27 May 1863) in the battle at Port Hudson. We have handwritten official records of his service and his death. We have photographs of him in uniform, alive and in his coffin. We have none of this for Col Henry O’Brien. (There is a photograph purporting to be him, of course, but its provenance is unknown.)

    7) The newspaper stories of Col. Henry O’Brien’s death are varied and contradictory (primarily the ones in The New York Times, The New York Tribune, and Harper’s Weekly). There is no way to reconcile them. Sometimes O’Brien approaches the crowd on a horse, other times on foot; sometimes he fires grapeshot into the crowd, sometimes his men shoot pistols, killing a woman and a baby. Sometimes the crowd immediately hangs him; or else they do it the following morning when he returns to see if his house is burned down. Sometimes the mob beat and torture him before hanging him; sometimes they hang first. Usually they they drag him through the street and pull off most of his clothes. O’Brien is often beaten to death by a mob of harridans who committing obscure “outrages” upon his dying body; other accounts say that women were not involved.

    My gut tells me this Col. O’Brien is fictitious, a generic figure with a generic name, and untraceable. Like many of the more unlikely and gruesome ‘Draft Riots’ episodes, Col. O’Brien was almost certainly concocted by newspapermen who sat at their desks and wrote political propaganda. I suppose the intended moral to the story was something like: ‘See how beastly they are! They even kill one of their own, just for being a Federal officer! And women are the worst! It’s like Carlyle on the French Revolution!’

    I realize you might think this all a bridge too far—too much iconoclasm at once!—but I invite anyone to investigate for himself.

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