The 29th October 1851 was a good day for the United States army. That was the date that 24-year-old Irish laborer, James Fegan, decided to enlist. He must have cut an impressive figure standing in front of Captain Westcott, a recruiting officer for the 2nd US Infantry. Towering at over 6 feet in height, Fegan already carried a military bearing. Westcott couldn’t have known, but by signing Fegan on he was starting a remarkable relationship between the Irishman and the US military that was to last for nearly 35 years. (1)
James Fegan was born in Athlone, Co Westmeath in 1827. He had grown to adulthood in Ireland, and the initial indications were that he intended to pursue a career at home. Deciding to become a policeman, he joined the Irish Constabulary. Why he left the force and emigrated to the United States is unknown, but one report states that he killed a smuggler while in the discharge of his duty, an incident which may have had unforeseen consequences. (2)
The records indicate that James sailed from Liverpool to New York in 1850 aboard the De Witt Clinton, arriving in his new home on 25th February. Finding life as a laborer unfulfilling, he clearly hoped that Company I of the 2nd US Infantry would bring him some of the camaraderie and regimen that he had experienced during his time in the Constabulary. If there is such a thing as a natural soldier, James Fegan was it. By the time his first five-year period of enlistment had expired, Fegan had risen to Sergeant, a rank he would consistently reach throughout his time in the army. In 1856 he decided to re-enlist, something he would do a remarkable further eight times during his military career. One of the officers who served with him described Fegan as:
‘…an innate soldier…a soldier in the old-fashioned sense of the term. He stood six feet four in his shoes; was as straight as a rifle barrel; as full of the military spirit as a Prussian martinet; precision itself in movement and utterance; touchy in his dignity, giving and exacting the fullest measure of respect to all rank; truthful in all matters; absolutely faithful in the discharge of his military duties, and willing, if necessary, to lay down his life in the execution of any task committed to his care.’ (3)
With the outbreak of the American Civil War he went east with the 2nd US Infantry, fighting at many of the Army of the Potomac’s early engagements. While in action near the Middle Bridge at Antietam Creek in September 1862 he received a bullet wound to the right knee, which threatened both his life and his military career. He eventually recovered, but pain from the injury, which he referred to as ‘me Antatum knee’, stayed with him for the rest of his days. By 1864 he had recovered sufficiently to re-enlist, and did so on 31st March. This time be became part of Company C, 3rd US Infantry, the regiment he would be associated with for the remainder of his time in the army. He took further wounds between the commencement of the Petersburg Campaign and the surrender at Appomattox, but came through the conflict having participated in over 30 engagements. (4)
It was shortly after the war that the event for which James Fegan is most remembered took place. In March of 1868 the Irishman was part of a small detachment taking a powder and supply train from Fort Harker to Fort Dodge in Kansas. While stopped at a station in Plum Creek he recognised a deserter from the regiment and took it upon himself to arrest and detain the man. The rest of the party, including the commanding NCO, were angry at Fegan for the arrest and tried to force him to release the deserter. Refusing, the Westmeath man fended off an attack and took the prisoner to a barn, standing guard over him. The other men, who were drunk, crept into the back of the barn and knocked Fegan unconscious before themselves deserting with the prisoner. Now on his own and with a bad head wound, Fegan nonetheless felt it his duty to continue alone with the train towards Fort Dodge. It was an action for which he earned the Medal of Honor, which was presented on 19th October 1878. His citation reads:
‘While in charge of a powder train en route from Fort Harker to Fort Dodge, Kans., was attacked by a party of desperadoes, who attempted to rescue a deserter in his charge and to fire the train. Sgt. Fegan, singlehanded, repelled the attacking party, wounding 2 of them, and brought his train through in safety.’ (5)
Despite the fact that the action led to the award of the Medal of Honor, it did not result in any monetary benefit for Fegan. He later applied for a Certificate of Merit based on the incident, as the certificate came with a $2 per month pay increase. However, as the statute for the certificate explicitly stated it was for ‘private soldiers’ he did not qualify, as he held the rank of Sergeant. The issue was brought to the attention of Congress in a special message from President Chester A. Arthur in 1882. Fegan’s case was cited as the exemplar as to why the statutes should be altered to read ‘enlisted’ rather than ‘private’ and thus cover those who held other enlisted ranks. Among the amendment’s supporters was William Tecumseh Sherman. Thanks in large part to Fegan’s case, the change was eventually enacted. (6)
Finally, in 1870 and after nearly 20 years service, James Fegan was prevailed upon to give up his arduous military career and enter the Soldier’s Home in Washington. He did not last long. Quickly realising that a quiet life was not for him, he obtained a discharge and left the Home. He made straight for the nearest recruiting officer, once again enlisted, and returned to service in the 3rd US Infantry. His complete dedication to duty meant that many of the officers with whom he served were extremely fond of him. Captain Philip Reade related how Fegan’s respect for officers was absolute, and increased in proportion with rank. This often had an unexpected impact on the pockets of more junior officers in the regiment. When off-duty Fegan washed and ironed officer’s clothes for additional pay, but did not employ a flat fee for all- while Captains could obtain his services for $5 a month, the same service cost First Lieutenants $8 and Second Lieutenants $10! (7)
James Fegan found time during his long career to marry and had three children, a son James Jr. (who would also become a Sergeant in the 3rd US Infantry) and two daughters. Reade (at the time a Lieutenant) remembered meeting his family when he was carrying out an inspection of Fegan’s quarters:
‘I inspected his quarters and found them immaculately clean…He [Fegan] stood erect and said with dignity to his wife: “Woman! step to the front and curtsey to the commanding officer, so!”…Seeing a small, curly-headed, handsome boy in the quarters I asked who he was. “James Fegan, Jr., sir,” he said with pride. “James, salute the commanding officer.” “What do you propose to do with the boy?” I asked. “Give him an eddication, sor!” he said. “What his father never had, and, God willing, make an officer and a gentlemen av him! An’ we’ve got the money to do it too- haven’t we, woman? Drop the liftinant a curtsey, woman! So-o-oh!” (8)
Despite his rather short mannerisms with his wife in front of the officer, James seems to have had an extremely close relationship with her. This is attested to by the fascinating description of the Memento Mori style photograph he had taken following her death, which also incorporated imagery representative of Ireland:
‘After the death of the first Mrs. Fegan [the Irishman later remarried] he employed a photographer to testify to his love for the dead and his respect for his officers. The photograph was taken on a 10 x 14 inch plate, and depicted Mrs. Fegan after death, surrounded by burning candles, with a saucer filled with earth from old Ireland at the head of the handsome coffin in which the remains were. Beside the body, attired in full dress uniform, knelt the sergeant. The expression of his face was untranslatable. The photograph was a mixture of the grotesque, the horrible and the piteous. The sergeant meant it for the best, and spent two months’ pay in having a lot of these souvenirs made, one of which he presented, “in memory of the late Mrs. Fegan with his rispictful compliments,” to each officer of the Third Infantry on duty at Fort Dodge at the time. Few that have seen one of these photographs will ever forget it. Significant trifles of the picture were that the sergeant had on white Berlin cotton gloves and also wore the black leather neck stock.’ (9)
James Fegan remained a commanding figure throughout his long service. He was a man not to be trifled with; one one occasion he succeeded in getting some unwilling prisoners to carry out work, informing his superior that he had ‘persuaded’ them to rethink their decision. When asked what he had persuaded them with, he replied ‘a spade, sor.’ Finally and inevitably the years caught up with him. This realisation was not easy for the old soldier, but when he was retired in 1885 he did not have to move far from the military life. He was given a home on the military reservation at Fort Shaw, Montana, where he raised chickens, sold milk, butter and eggs and continued his tradition of washing for the officers. He had been suffering from angina for some time and it was heart disease that eventually took his life. His son, First Sergeant Peter Fegan Jr, 3rd US Infantry and his friend Captain Reade were at his bedside when he passed away aged 59 on 25th June 1886. He is buried at the Custer National Cemetery, Montana in Section A, Grave 749.
(1) US Army Register of Enlistments; (2) Philadelphia Inquirer 10th September 1893; (3) New York Passenger and Immigration Lists, Uncle Sam: 400, Philadelphia Inquirer 10th September 1893; (4) Uncle Sam: 394; (5) Philadelphia Inquirer 10th September 1893, MOH; (6) Message from the President: 1-3; (7) Uncle Sam: 394, Philadelphia Inquirer 10th September 1893; (8) Philadelphia Inquirer 10th September 1893; (9)Philadelphia Inquirer 10th September 1893;
References & Further Reading
New York Passenger and Immigration Lists 1820-1850
US Army Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914
US Government 1882. Message from the President of the United States, transmitting a communication from the Secretary of War and its accompanying papers, recommending the amendment of Section 1216 Revised Statutes, relating to enlisted men of the Army, also the modification of Section 1285 Revised Statutes, &c. December 6, 1882. — Read and referred to the Committee on Military Affairs and ordered to be printed.
Philadelphia Inquirer 10th September 1893. An American Mulvaney. Sergeant James Fegan, Third Infantry, U.S. Army. By His Friend, Captain Philip Reade, U.S.A.
Rodenbough, Theo. F. 1886. Uncle Sam’s Medal of Honor