The photograph below shows Battery M of the 1st Missouri Light Artillery during Sherman’s Meridian Campaign of February 1864. One of the men in this image is Sergeant Peter Cavanagh, from near Tullamore in Co. Offaly. Peter had a remarkable career; not only did he serve through some of the toughest campaigns of the Western Theater, but highly unusually he also managed to return to Ireland after the war. As a result his Great-Grandson Michael MacNamara was born in Ireland rather than the United States, and is one of the few descendants of Irish American Civil War soldiers who travels west rather than east across the Atlantic when exploring his ancestor’s past.
The average visitor to the small rural cemetery of Cappincur, 2km outside of Tullamore in Co. Offaly, is unlikely to notice the unassuming headstone of the Cavanagh family. The inscription commemorates three of its members, and reads as follows:
LORD HAVE MERCY ON THE SOUL OF
DIED AUGUST 9 1859 AGED 72 YEARS
AND HIS WIFE
DIED NOVEMBER 17 1871 AGED 82 YEARS
AND THEIR SON PETER
DIED MARCH 10 1871 AGED 45 YEARS
ERECTED BY THEIR SONS JOHN AND PAUL CAPPINCUR
This epitaph belies Peter Cavanagh’s extraordinary journey, which took him from Offaly to the United States and back again. Peter’s Great-Grandson Michael has painstakingly pieced together his ancestor’s life. Born in 1824, the family still posess Peter’s exercise book from his time in an Offaly Hedge School between 1844 and 1848. At some point after this he decided to try his luck in America. His port of embarkation was most likely Cork, as that county is erroneously listed as his birthplace on his enlistment papers.
Peter next appears in 1860, when he took the fateful step of joining the regular army on the eve of the American Civil War. His place of enlistment was given as Newport, Kentucky, where he joined Battery F of the 2nd U.S. Light Artillery. He was one of a group of soldiers transferred to the Missouri Union forces following the Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek in 1861, with the new unit becoming Battery M of the 1st Missouri Light Artillery. It was with the 1st Missouri Light that Peter would serve for much of the war, travelling all over the South. Just prior to the Battle of Atlanta in 1864, Peter, now a Sergeant, petitioned along with a number of his regular comrades to be transferred back to the 2nd U.S. Light Artillery, a request which was granted. He remained in the military after the Confederate surrender, seeing service on the west coast at Fort Point in San Francisco and in Fort Vancouver in Washington, from where he returned to Ireland in July 1867.
Why did Peter choose to return home? Michael’s research has discovered that the Irishman fell ill with ‘miasmatic fever’ in 1863, contracted while on campaign in Mississippi. He recovered aboard the hospital ship Woodford, but it seems likely that he was sickly from this point forward. Apart from failing health Peter had at least one more pressing engagement at home in Ireland- having departed the United States in July of 1867 he was married to Offaly girl Margaret Tiernan that September. The marriage to Margaret may well have been the driving force behind his decision to return to his native land.
Peter and Margaret were not destined to enjoy their life together for long; Peter died of tuberculosis on 10th March 1871, to be followed to the grave only eight months later by his mother. Margaret long outlived her husband, claiming a pension for her husband’s military service which she received until her own death nearly sixty years later, in 1930. Peter Cavanagh brought home to rural Offaly memories of some of the hardest fighting of the American Civil War. His discharge prior to his 1864 re-enlistment in the 2nd U.S. Light noted the staggering array of engagements he had participated in up to that point:
1861: Capture of Camp Jackson, Battle of Boonville, Skirmish at Forsyth, Battle of Dug Springs, Battle of Wilson’s Creek;
1862: Battle of New Madrid/Island No. 10, Siege of Corinth, Skirmish at Farmington, Skirmish at Blackland, Battle of Iuka, Battle of Corinth, Skirmish at Hatchie River, Skirmish at Jonesboro, Skirmish at Tallahatchie;
1863: Battle of Fort Pemberton, Fight at Forty Hills, Battle of Raymond, Battle of Jackson, Battle of Champion Hill, Siege of Vicksburg, Siege of Jackson;
1864: Meridian Campaign, Red River Campaign, Battle of Kennesaw Mountain;
Peter served through the remainder of the Atlanta Campaign, and later fought with the ‘Rock of Chickamauga’, General George Thomas, in Tennessee. His last major battle of the war was fought at Nashville in December 1864, when he and his comrades destroyed the Confederate Army of Tennessee. It seems incongruous that someone who had survived so much hardship would enjoy such a short life back at home in Co. Offaly, but such was Peter’s lot. Thanks to the efforts of his Great-Great Grandson Michael MacNamara his remarkable service is remembered, as is his position as one of the very few Irish-born American Civil War soldiers who spent their final years in the land of their birth.
*Many thanks to Michael MacNamara for providing both the images and the history that relates to the remarkable career of his Great-Grandfather. If anyone has any additional information that they think may add to Peter’s story Michael would be eager to hear from you.