Cork Harbour is one of the largest natural harbours in the World. This coupled with its strategic location meant that it was of key significance for the British Empire over the centuries. The harbour’s importance to the Royal Navy led to the construction of a major series of defences at key locations around the anchorage. The linchpins of this defence were Fort Carlisle and Fort Camden on opposite sides of the harbour entrance, and Fort Westmoreland (Spike Island) within. When these fortifications were handed back to the Irish State in 1938 they were renamed to honour Irish patriots- inadvertently highlighting the divisions in the Irish community created by the American Civil War.
The decision was taken to officially name the Forts for three prominent members of the nineteenth century Young Ireland movement. So it was that Fort Carlisle became Fort Davis, Fort Camden became Fort Meagher and Fort Westmoreland became Fort Mitchel. Thomas Davis had founded The Nation newspaper and had written ballads such as The West’s Awake and A Nation Once Again. His death at only 30 years of age meant that he was not involved in the abortive 1848 Young Ireland Rebellion. Such was not the case with Thomas Francis Meagher and John Mitchel, the other men honoured with the re-naming. They found themselves arrested and deported to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) but both would eventually end up in the United States. Meagher escaped to New York in 1852 while Mitchel followed in his footsteps in 1853.
The American Civil War would see the former allies on opposite sides. While Meagher remained in New York and would eventually throw in his lot with the Union, Mitchel took a very different path. Mitchel was disgusted by how capitalism was operating; he saw it as one of the main causes of the Famine and as the creator of terrible conditions for the industrialised poor of the North. At the same time he became a staunch supporter of slavery, the spread of which he supported. He eventually decided to move South to help the Southern cause.
With the outbreak of war Thomas Francis Meagher became first a Captain in the 69th New York State Militia and later organised and led the Union’s Irish Brigade as a Brigadier-General. Meanwhile John Mitchel helped with the Confederate Ambulance Corps and later became editor of the Richmond Enquirer and subsequently the Richmond Examiner. The war was not kind to either of the former Young Irelanders. Meagher watched hundreds of his men fall in battle in 1862 and 1863, an experience which undoubtedly had a deep and lasting impact on him. Mitchel meanwhile had seen his sons march off to fight for the South. The youngest, Private Willie Mitchel, died in the ranks of the 1st Virginia Infantry during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, almost 150 years ago. Willie’s eldest brother Captain John C. Mitchel of the 1st South Carolina Artillery was in command of Fort Sumter, South Carolina when he was mortally wounded during a barrage on 20th July 1864. The middle son, James, also served in the 1st Virginia Infantry and lost an arm during the fighting, but survived the war. James’s son, John Purroy Mitchel, would later become the Mayor of New York.
The former comrades Meagher and Mitchel had given virtually everything to the Northern and Southern causes during the American Civil War. Meagher would die in tragic circumstances in 1867 while serving as Governor of Montana, falling overboard and drowning while on a steamboat in the Missouri River. Mitchel was briefly arrested after the conflict for his wartime activities, settling in New York after his release. He eventually returned to Ireland in 1874 and was elected as MP for Tipperary, but was declared ineligible to hold a seat as he was a convicted felon. He died in 1875.
Interestingly Fort Westmoreland on Spike Island (now Fort Mitchel) has a number of links to the Irish who served the Confederacy during the American Civil War. John Mitchel himself had been very briefly held here prior to his deportation to Van Diemen’s Land following the 1848 Rebellion. A Fenian called John Pope, arrested in 1866 while attempting to assist in the organisation of a Fenian Rising, claimed to be both a former Confederate soldier and former prison warden on Spike Island. On 1st July 1849 a Private in the 41st Regiment of Foot- Patrick Cleburne- was promoted to Corporal while serving on Spike. During his time on the island Cleburne got into trouble as a prisoner escaped while he was standing guard, but he avoided serious censure. His regiment was also on duty in nearby Cobh in 1849 when Queen Victoria visited, an event which resulted in the settlement being renamed Queenstown. Cleburne would later go on to become the highest ranking Irishman to serve on either side during the American Civil War. As a Major-General in the Confederate Army he became known as the ‘Stonewall of the West’ and has had a city and number of county’s named for him. (1)
Although the names of Fort Meagher and Fort Mitchel in Cork Harbour are intended to primarily remember these two men’s activities in the Young Ireland movement, they also provide us with an opportunity to recognise Irish involvement in the American Civil War. One was a Yankee, the other a Rebel- together they remind us of the conflict in which nearly 200,000 Irishmen served and which had such a deep impact on the 1.6 million strong Irish community in America.
* Special thanks to Louise Nugent of Spike Island for providing images for this post.
(1) Joslyn 2000:14;
References & Further Reading
Joslyn, Mauriel Phillips 2000. ‘Irish Beginnings’ in Joslyn, Mauriel Phillips (ed.) A Meteor Shining Brightly: Essays on Major-General Patrick R. Cleburne.