On the 22nd May 1863 Ulysses S. Grant launched an assault against the Rebel defences at Vicksburg, Mississippi. His previous effort to take the ‘Gibraltar of the Confederacy’ by storm, on 19th May, had ended in failure. Now he was trying again. At around 10 in the morning following an artillery barrage, blue-coated infantry surged forward across a three-mile front. The assault did not succeed. After hours of fighting the Union attack was thrown back, and Grant suffered over 3,000 casualties. Despite the setback feats of gallantry were commonplace; no fewer than eight Irishmen would receive the Medal of Honor for their actions that day. One of them was Donegal native Menomen O’Donnell.
Menomen O’Donnell was born in Drumboarty, Co. Donegal on 20th April 1830 and emigrated to the United States during the Famine, arriving in America in 1848. Gradually moving further and further west, he eventually settling in Bridgeport, Illinois in 1850. On 7th June 1853 Menomen married Mary Bailey of Towanda, Pennsylvania. The couple would go on to have nine children together, although two would not survive infancy. He did well as a farmer and stock-breeder, and at one point owned over 1,000 acres. His success meant that the family he left in Ireland could join him, and over the course of the 1850s he was able to welcome his brother, sisters, father and step-mother to Illinois. He was even able to take a trip back to Ireland shortly before the war broke out- for Menomen O’Donnell America was fulfilling all his hopes and dreams. (1)
With the outbreak of war Menomen answered the call for volunteers, enlisting in July 1861. As Illinois had filled its quota of men, his company became part of the 11th Missouri Infantry, with whom he would serve for the duration of the conflict. He quickly rose to the rank of Lieutenant and began to demonstrate the courage that marked him out during the war years. During the fight for New Madrid and Island No. 10 in March 1862 he volunteered to take a detachment of soldiers across the Mississippi to silence a newly constructed Rebel battery. One of his men recalled the event: ‘Lieut. O’Donnell said that if they would let him have 12 picked men he would go over and spike their guns. He did and I was one of the 12. We crossed the river at midnight on a dark night and drifted down to opposite the guns, when the rebel sentinel sang out, ‘Who goes there?’ Lieut. O’Donnell told them he was a friend and wanted to see the General in command. At least 1,000 men raised up from behind the guns.’ The Donegal native and his men beat a hasty retreat, and lived to fight another day. (2)
The 1863 siege of Vicksburg was one of the defining events of the war in the West. It’s capture would split the Confederacy in two and secure control of the Mississippi River for the Union. The 22nd May assault was an attempt to end the siege by force and compel the Confederate army in the city to surrender. For much of that day O’Donnell and the men of the 11th Missouri could only watch as their comrades tried- and failed- to take the Confederate fortifications. Finally, shortly after 4pm, they received orders to launch themselves against the enemy entrenchments in the vicinity of the Stockade Redan. Menomen later recounted the action:
‘The Eleventh Missouri led the advance. The enemy’s guns had been booming for some time, but as soon as the Union advance was seen coming over the bluff, the fire seemed to double its former strength and fury. The ground was covered with the dead and wounded, and not seeing my colors I felt like one lost in the wilderness. I called out: ‘Where is the flag of the Eleventh Missouri?’ A captain of an Ohio company answered: ‘Lieutenant, your flag is over there!’ then pointing still farther to the left he said: ‘And the head of your regiment is at the fort.’ I soon found the flag, and called all of the Eleventh Missouri, within sound of my voice, to come forward to the colors. Only forty-four appeared. I exhorted the boys to follow me to the fort. The color sergeant refused to carry the flag. Just as I was about to reach for it, brave Corporal Warner stepped forward, grabbed the flag, and to the fort it went with us. It was raised, but soon shot down, only to be again put up and floated on the rebel fort until dark. Twenty-four of the forty-four got to the fort. After arriving there we could do nothing but sit with our backs to the wall until darkness came, when under cover of the night, we finally got out, and safely returned to camp.’ (3)
On the 11th September 1897 Menomen O’Donnell received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day at Vicksburg. The first part of the citation read: ‘Voluntarily joined the color guard in the assault on the enemy’s works when he saw indications of wavering and caused the colors of his regiment to be planted on the parapet.’ However Vicksburg was not the sole reason for the award. It also recognised his actions at Fort DeRussey, Louisiana on 14th March 1864 when he: ‘Voluntarily placed himself in the ranks of an assaulting column (being then on staff duty) and rode with it into the enemy’s works, being the only mounted officer present; was twice wounded in battle.’ (4)
The reference to Fort DeRussey was testament to Menomen’s continued bravery and his close relationship with Brigadier-General Joseph Mower. Mower had been O’Donnell’s brigade commander at Vicksburg, and had approved the Irishman’s promotion to Captain following the fighting there. By 1864 Mower had risen to divisional command, and both men were taking part in the ill-fated Red River Campaign. Fort De Russey blocked the Federal advance, and Mower had been ordered to deal with it. Menomen takes up the story:
‘Returning from a reconnaissance, in which, with a few mounted orderlies, I had taken twenty prisoners, with some supply wagons, I found General Mower with the command, about two miles from the fort. The general said to me: ‘Captain, I have received orders to go into camp; what do you say?’ ‘General, it is not for me to say what to do,’ I answered. ‘I wish you would give me your opinion,’ he persisted. ‘General,’ I replied, ‘if I were in your place, I would capture Fort DeRussy before evening. if we don’t, the enemy will be gone before daylight.’ ‘Just my own opinion,’ General Mower said, requesting me to take a brigade, and open fire, which was the signal for a general charge. Subsequently I led the Twenty-fourth Missouri of Colonel Shaw’s Brigade against the enemy. There was some hard fighting, but at 6.30 pm we were in possession of the fort.’ (5)
In his report of the action, Mower did not forget O’Donnell: ‘I deem it my duty to mention the conduct of Captain O’Donnell, of my staff, who rendered me most efficient and valuable aid in putting troops into position. He was always ready when his services were required, and was one of the first in the enemy’s works.’ Aside from the actions which saw him receive the Medal of Honor, Menomen had a number of other brushes with death. He received three gun-shot wounds in the left arm during a skirmish with the Rebels at Grand Ecore, Louisiana on 5th April 1864 and had two horses shot from under him at Tupelo, Mississippi that July. The latter encounter resulted in a fall that crushed his left shoulder and aggravating his earlier wound. These injuries forced Menomen from the service, and he was mustered out at St. Louis, Missouri on 9th August 1864. (6)
Following the war Menomen O’Donnell returned to business in Bridgeport. He sought to build on his family’s position through cattle ranching and by expansion into the pork packing trade. However, he had not reckoned on the Panic of 1873. This financial crisis and the depression that followed destroyed his business and took his fortune, which was estimated at some $70,000. Having built himself up from scratch and survived the hardships of war, Menomen now faced what was perhaps his toughest challenge. He had to find a way to restore his family’s livelihood and secure their economic future. He decided to move to Vincennes, Indiana in 1879, where he opened a butcher’s shop and slowly but surely began to recover financially. He rebuilt his family’s business and became active in the Grand Army of the Republic and also the local Democratic Party. Having successfully conquered his post-war setbacks, Menomen O’Donnell was able to enjoy his later years. He passed away at the age of 81 on 4th September 1911 at his home in Vincennes, Indiana and is buried in the city’s Mount Calvary Cemetery. (7)
*Special thanks are due to Deborah Maroney, a descendant of Menomen O’Donnell, for providing images and valuable information about her ancestor.
(1) Maroney: Capt. Menomen O’Donnell, Blanchard 1898: 1136; (2) Blanchard 1898: 1137, Belcher 2011: 42; (3) Belcher 2011: 124, Beyer & Keydell 1901: 200- 201; (4) Proft 2002: 954; (5) Beyer & Keydell 1901: 201; (6) Belcher 2011: 149, Blanchard 1898: 1138; (7) Vincennes Sun-Commercial 2011, Blanchard 1898: 1138-1139, Maroney: Capt. Menomen O’Donnell;
References & Further Reading
Belcher, Dennis W. 2011. The 11th Missouri Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster.
Beyer, Walter F. & Keydel, Oscar F. 1901. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won The Medal of Honor, Volume 1.
Blanchard, Charles 1898. History of the Catholic Church in Indiana, Volume 2.
Maroney, Deborah, n.d. Capt. Menomen O’Donnell.
Proft, R.J. (ed.), 2002. United States of America’s Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients and their Official Citations, Fourth Edition.
Vincennes Sun-Commercial 3rd June 2011. Menomen O’Donnell: O’Donnell ‘A Man of Courage’.