I have been thinking quite a lot recently about the type of historic events we choose to explore (and in some cases commemorate). This was spurred by the recent laying of a wreath by the Irish President Michael D. Higgins to the memory of the San Patricios, the largely Irish group who deserted from the U.S. Army to fight with the Mexicans during the Mexican-American War.
The story of the San Patricios is a fascinating one and is certainly worthy of exploration. It has proven a popular topic in Ireland both in terms of memory and commemoration. In an Irish context, the San Patricios fit within a broader narrative of fighting for the side of ‘right’ against overwhelming odds, a popular theme in Irish memory. In contrast, as part of the force of the aggressors, the Irish in the U.S. military have received virtually no attention. Despite their being perceived as being on the ‘wrong’ side, I am nonetheless struck at how little time is spent pondering the lot of the vast majority of Irishmen who remained in U.S. uniform during the Mexican War. As emigrants during the era of the Great Famine, their experiences might be expected to be of interest, from a social history perspective if nothing else. Why were these Irishmen in uniform? What were their motivations for enlisting, and why did they stay?
Little work is being carried out in Ireland on the hundreds of thousands of Irishmen who served in the U.S. military during the nineteenth century. Outside of the American Civil War many of these men were engaged in fighting either Mexico or Native Americans. Particularly in the case of the latter, this brings with it an element of shame in modern Irish memory. Irish participation in wars against Native Americans does not sit well within a broader narrative of Irish people struggling against oppression. To modern sensibilities it often seems incongruous that these Irish could be both victims (as in the case of Famine emigrants, for example) and aggressors. Of course, many of the Irish who served in the U.S. military in the nineteenth century were economic emigrants, who had little choice but to seek a new life in America and to earn a living as best they could.
It is my view that the Irish who served in the nineteenth century U.S. military are victims of the artificial break that exists in Irish history, where the stories of those who emigrated are no longer relevant. This has been overcome in certain circumstances (such as with the San Patricios) where later actions are seen to have a resonance with a wider Irish historical narrative. However, the Irishmen who charged into Black Kettle’s Camp on the Washita are disassociated from Irish history, and also from the wider reality that many were Famine emigrants.
Today we look with horror at the way Native Americans were persecuted in the nineteenth century. Incidents such as the Wounded Knee massacre are rightly remembered as some of the darkest in American history. Should we study the Irishmen who served in the U.S. military at this time? Should we remember them? Some Irishmen in the Plains Wars do receive attention, notably those who died with Custer at the Little Big Horn in 1876. A previous post on this site has looked at the 25% of Fetterman’s annihilated force that were of Irish birth. There is no doubt that many of the Irish who fought in the U.S.-Mexican War, American Civil War and Native American Wars viewed themselves as racially superior to non-whites, views that we find difficult to understand today. However, this was not unusual for the period. It is probable that many men in units such as the San Patricios held similar views. The only way we can hope to gain a real picture of these Irish is to study them. Many were simply in search of a livelihood- some of those who died in the Powder River Country with Fetterman in 1866 had not been in the United States for long, finding themselves transposed from rural Ireland to the alien landscape of the Plains. Michael Regan, the 28-year-old former carpenter from Sligo, had been in the army only three months when he died at Wounded Knee in 1890.
Two of the most controversial engagements in which Irishmen were involved during the nineteenth century were the Battle of the Washita (sometimes referred to as the Washita Massacre) and the Wounded Knee Massacre. The battle at the Washita was fought on 27th November 1868 in what is now Oklahoma, while the Wounded Knee massacre occurred on 29th December 1890 in South Dakota. Although there is some debate regarding the casualties among women and children at the Washita, it is clear that at Wounded Knee many were hunted down and slaughtered. Four Irishmen died at each of these incidents. They may not be events which we wish to have as a focus of remembrance for the Irish in America, but if we want to gain a fuller understanding of Irish emigrant history and Irish nineteenth century history we need to study the Irish experience throughout this period.
Irishmen who died at the Washita River, Indian Territory, 27th November 1868
Private Charles Cuddy, Company B, 7th U.S. Cavalry
21-year-old, 5 feet 4 1/2 inches tall former moulder with blue eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion. Enlisted in New York City on 16th August 1866. On his death he was due $26, but owed $5.26 for extra clothing, 78 cents for tobacco and 30 cents for rations. He was born in Co. Waterford. The report on his body said that a ‘ball entered about an inch above upper lip and a little to the left of nose, passed upwards and backwards and emerged behind and a little above left ear.’ (1)
Private John McClernan, Company E, 7th U. S. Cavalry
26-year-old, 5 feet 5 inches tall soldier with blue eyes, brown hair and a ruddy complexion. Enlisted in Philadelphia on 26th July 1866. On his death he was owed $8.10 in backpay and $17.05 in clothing not drawn. He owed 30 cents for his rations. He was born in Co. Derry. His body was not recovered. (2)
Corporal William Carrick, Company H, 7th U.S. Cavalry
32-year-old, 5 feet 6 inches tall former painter with blue eyes, brown hair and a ruddy complexion. Enlisted in New York on 26th September 1866. On his death he was owed $14 in backpay and $123.44 in clothing not drawn. He owed 30 cents for his rations. He was born in Co. Dublin. His body was found with a bullet hole in the right parietal, both feet cut off, throat cut and left arm broken. (3)
Private Thomas Downey, Company I, 7th U.S. Cavalry
40-year-old, 5 feet 8 inches tall former laborer with black eyes, black hair and a dark complexion. Enlisted in Troy on 3rd September 1866. No county of birth recorded. When found his body had an arrow in the stomach, his thorax was cut open, head cut off and right shoulder cut by a tomahawk. (4)
Irishmen who died at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, 29th December 1890
Private Michael Regan, Company A, 7th U.S. Cavalry
28-year-old, 5 feet 8 inches tall former carpenter with blue eyes, brown hair and a sallow complexion. Enlisted in Brooklyn on 18th September 1890. Born in Co. Sligo. On his death he was owed $13.60 in backpay.
Private John Costello, Company B, 7th U.S. Cavalry
21 and a 1/2 year-old, 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall former brass worker with brown eyes, black hair and a dark complexion. Enlisted in New York on 27th December 1887. Born in Co. Limerick. On his death he was owed $12.07 in backpay and $33.64 for clothing not drawn.
Private Pierce Cummings, Company I, 7th U.S. Cavalry
22-year-old, 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall former laborer with blue eyes, red hair and a florid complexion. Enlisted in Chicago on 22nd April 1889. Born in Co. Waterford. On his death he was owed $24.95 for clothing not drawn.
Private Joseph Murphy, Company K, 7th U.S. Cavalry
25-year-old, 5 feet 9 inches tall former laborer with blue eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion. Enlisted in New York on 15th December 1889. Born in Co. Roscommon. On his death he owed $2.40 for clothing drawn.
(1) Greene 2008:210; (2) Ibid.: (3) Ibid:174; (4) Ibid:175;
References & Further Reading
Greene, Jerome A. 2008. Washita: The U.S. Army and the Southern Cheyennes, 1867-1869
Johnson, Eric S. 2012. No Greater Calling: A Chronological Record of Sacrifice and Heroism During the Western Indian Wars, 1865-1898
Final Statements 1862-1899