In late 1863 Confederate Officer and Mallow native Captain Robert Going Atkins visited his home in Ireland on furlough. He was one of three brothers from the Co. Cork town who became involved in the American Civil War- two served the Confederacy while one supported the Union. While at home Robert took the opportunity to write to the Bishop of Kerry, as part of an effort to stem the flow of Irish emigrants then swelling the ranks of Union armies.
Robert Atkins was the son of the local Episcopal clergyman in Mallow, the Reverend Mr. Atkins. Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War he had been interested in military affairs, serving as an officer in the Royal Cork City Artillery in the 1850s. With the advent of the Italian War in 1860 he joined the ‘British Legion’, a group of volunteers who fought for Garibaldi’s Republicans. While there he struck up a friendship with an American called Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, a Southern adventurer who had been born in Virginia but had grown up in the State of Louisiana. The fateful encounter brought Robert to the United States, where civil war loomed. (1)
In New Orleans, Wheat organised the 1st Louisiana Special Battalion, a motley group of natives and immigrants (including many Irish) who would prove extraordinarily ill-disciplined but courageous in a fight. They soon took on the moniker of the ‘Louisiana Tigers.’ Robert Atkins became a Captain in the outfit, and served with them in the first major battle of the war at Bull Run. One colourful account of the Irishman’s service in that engagement claimed that: ‘It was Captain Atkin’s who led Wheat’s Battalion at Manassas, after the noble Wheat fell wounded, leading the celebrated charge of the Louisiana Tigers with a bare shillalah. ‘ (2)
After his service with the Tigers Atkins went on to become Aide de Camp on the staff of Major-General Arnold Elzey, who commanded the Department of Richmond. It was while in this position that he returned to Ireland on personal business; from his Mallow home in early 1864 he decided to assist the Southern cause from afar by addressing the Bishop of Kerry about Irish emigration to America and their subsequent enlistment in Union armies. The perceived swelling of Northern ranks by immigrants was an issue close to the Southern press’ hearts, and they frequently reported on it, particularly as the war dragged on in late 1863 and 1864. Robert’s letter was published in the Irish Tralee Chronicle and was soon picked up and reprinted in Southern papers such as the The Richmond Dispatch (Virginia), Daily Constitutionalist (Georgia) and Charleston Mercury (South Carolina). It read as follows:
FIRVILLE, MALLOW, County Cork,
January 9th, 1864
The enclosed letter from the Rev. John Teeling, of Richmond, Va., Confederate States of America, must be my introduction to your lordship. I had the pleasure of making that gentleman’s acquaintance before the first battle of Manassas, July 21st, 1861, and have the highest satisfaction in stating that he enjoys the reputation among a vast number of admiring friends (of every religious denomination) of being an upright honorable man, and a zealous Christian Minister. During the first year of this unfortunate conflict, my friend, Mr. Teeling, acted Chaplain to “Wheat’s Louisiana Battalion,” from New Orleans, (in which Corps I had the honor to serve as Captain for eighteen months,) composed almost exclusively of Irishmen, and nobly did he do his duty in camp and on the battle-field. On the presentation of new colors to the command, our worthy chaplain consecrated the standard, and on many a hard fought field of Southern independence has its silken folds floated on the breeze- when the victorious shout of “Stonewall Jackson’s corp’s” proclaimed that the minions of a despot had recoiled, baffled and dismayed, before the impetuous advance of Southern troops.
“Is it not sad, my Lord, to witness the flower of our peasantry, at this moment in America, imbruing their hands in each others blood?- Why does the Irishman, who craves for liberty at home, and who complains of mis-government here, support, at the risk of his life, the most degraded despotism the world has yet seen? and why does he (becoming forsooth fascinating with the flowery rhetoric and persuasive powers of Mr. Ward Beecher, et hoc genus omne) enrol himself under the “abolition banners” of Abraham Lincoln, and congratulate himself that he is on a crusade, to grant an unsolicited freedom to three millions of “Africans,” who are better clothed, better lodged, and beyond all better fed then he is himself? I shall answer these questions briefly. No feeling of animosity against a people gallantly struggling for liberty, influences the mind of the Irish peasant, when he sails to America, no sympathy with despotism actuates him to enlist in the Northern army; no hatred of the institution of slavery prompts him to join the fanatical legions of the invader, and makes it the greatest object of his life to carry fire and sword, lust and rapine into every Southern home.
What reasons then actuate him to fight for a despotism which his soul abhors? His own adventurous spirit- the distressed condition of his native land, and then by far the greatest inducement- the enormous bounty paid by the Yankee Government for fighting material. What spirited young fellow, who perhaps never made (-) note in his life, can stand the golden bait of seven hundred and seventy-seven dollars. As seven was a favorite number in Holy Writ, it is to be inferred that the legitimate descendants of the Canting Puritans of England regard that number with a sort of religious reverence. The cotton, tobacco and corn-fields of the South must, indeed, must be a much coveted prize to the consistent worshippers of the “almighty dollar” when seven hundred and seventy-seven “shinplasters” are to be the reward of the Irishman who “undertakes” to “serve an ejectment.” Why does not the Red Republican of New England, abandoning the shelter of his counting house or factory, lead bravely to the field of carnage these hordes of Irish, Dutch, Germans and free niggers whom he so persistently treats to the sound of that music which has no harmony for him- that is, the whistle of Southern bullets? or actuated by the same spirit of liberality with which he started- why does he no remunerate with a pension his unhappy substitute, who returns from the field with a shattered constitution or minus a limb? No, my lord! the men whom I have described are coolly speculating in the life blood of our gallant countrymen, who are the abject dupes of those who hesitate to immolate them by thousands for the accomplishment of their selfish purposes and bloody ends.
On several battlefields in America I can bear testimony to the gallant fighting and esprit de corps of the Irish regiments engaged on both sides. The history of this war will attest the fact that on the bloody field of Fredericksburg no troops ever surpassed in deeds or daring that “Irish brigade” who, selected to storm the key of the Confederate position, (an impregnable range of hills,) was only finally repulsed when four-fifths of its number lay in front of the bloody parapet from which belched forth the converging fire of our victorious artillery.
In the reply of His Holiness, Pius IX., to the letter of Mr. Jefferson Davis, (which appeared in the public journals,) the Sovereign Pontiff thus proves himself, my Lord, the worthy apostle of Him who taught “peace on earth and good will towards men.” He says, “it is particularly agreeable to us to see that you, illustrious and honorable President, and your people, are animated with the same desires of peace and tranquillity with which we have in our letters inculcated upon our venerable brothers. May it please God, at the same time, to make the other peoples of America and their rulers, reflecting seriously how terrible is civil war, and what calamities it engenders, listen to the inspirations of a calmer spirit, and adopt resolutely the path of peace.” Such are the sentiments of His Holiness, and such ought to be the feelings of all who wish to see this unhallowed conflict brought to a termination. I trust, my Lord, that you participate in my views, and hope that you, in the high position in which has pleased Providence to place you, use all the exertions in your power to dissuade the peasantry of your diocese from emigrating to the shores of America, there either to imbue their hands with the blood of their kindred, or crippled and maimed, like houseless warriors dependent on the public charity of some great Northern city.
I am, my Lord, with assurances of high consideration, your Lordship’s obedient servant,
R. GOING ATKINS,
Captain and A.D.C., C.S. Army.
Right Rev. D. Moriarty, D.D., R.C., Bishop of Kerry, Killarney (3)
Robert Atkins did not get an opportunity to return to the Confederacy, as family reasons forced his resignation in February 1864. It is unclear if his letter had any effect on Irish emigration and subsequent enlistment, but there was undoubtedly one person who was strongly influenced by his views. Robert’s younger brother John decided that he would champion the cause of the Confederacy. In March 1864 John arrived in the South and took up arms with the famed ‘Gray Ghost’, John Singleton Mosby. The Richmond Examiner of the 3rd December 1864 revealed his fate:
In a charge upon the enemy made by Mosby’s band at Upperville, on the 29th October, fell mortally wounded JOHN ATKINS, a private trooper, the son of the Rev. Mr. Atkins, an eminent Episcopal Clergyman of Mallow, in the County of Cork, Ireland…John Atkins was the younger brother- a young man of high connections in his own country, of good education and great gallantry, who arrived in the Confederacy in the month of March last, with the purpose of throwing himself into our struggle for independence, and at once purchased a horse and joined Mosby, under whose command he has participated in all the dashing exploits of that noble partisan leader. Thus has fallen another of the gallant young soldiers whom European countries have contributed to our devoted armies. (4)
Following the war’s conclusion Robert maintained his love for the South. In early 1870 he returned to America to participate in a hunting trip in Arkansas. The visit would be his last; his death while in the Natural State was recorded by the Irish American of 19th February 1870, at the age of just 39. The final surviving brother, Phillip, was now heir to Firville. He had reputedly served as a surgeon in the Union forces, but did not return to Ireland in 1865. By the time of Robert’s death five years later, he had been out of touch with his family for several years. Despite its geographical remoteness from the battlefields of the conflict, Firville House and it’s occupants in Mallow had felt the personal and tragic touch of the American Civil War just a strongly as many thousands of families across the Atlantic. (5)
(1) Edinburgh Gazette: 17th August 1855, Personne 1864: 99; (2) Personne 1864: 99; (3) Robert Going Atkins Service Record, Daily Constitutionalist: 13th April 1864; (4) Richmond Examiner: 3rd December 1864; (5) Irish American: 19th February 1870;
Personne. 1864. Marginalia; Or Gleanings From An Army Notebook
Robert Going Atkins Military Service Record
The Daily Constitutionalist 13th April 1864. Enlistments in Ireland
The Edinburgh Gazette 17th August 1855. Commissions
The Irish American 19th February 1870. Munster
The Richmond Examiner 3rd December 1864. Death of a Gallant Gentleman