James E. Kinsella was born in Ireland in 1865 and emigrated with his parents to America in 1872. Settling first in New York the family later moved on to Chicago, where James eventually took a position as a clerk in the Registry Division of Chicago Post Office. James’s true passion appears to have been poetry, and he published numerous pieces, often being referred to as the “Chicago Post Office Poet” due to his position. Sometime around 1905 he penned a tribute to Irish veterans of the American Civil War for Decoration Day, or Memorial Day as it is now known. He took as his central theme an aged former soldier in “Mulligan’s Irish Brigade”, the 23rd Illinois Infantry, commanded by James A. Mulligan. It appeared in a number of publications at this time under the heading “Shakespeare of the Slums”, but a decade after its first appearance it was also to be found in Ireland. The newspaper it appeared in, The Irish Volunteer, was of note, as it was the organ of the Irish nationalist military organisation of the same name. Removing some of the more American verses, they printed the piece under the title “Last Chevalier of Mulligan’s Irish Brigade.” To mark Memorial Day I have reproduced the poem below, reinstating the verses that were omitted from the published Irish versions.
LAST CHEVALIER OF MULLIGAN’S IRISH BRIGADE
VETERAN OF AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
“You see, my boy, I lag behind; I’m growing very old;
Just let me lean upon your arm, and hear an old man scold.
Old Father Time has thinned my thatch and left it grizzly gray,
But all the same I’ll meet the boys on Decoration Day.
‘They call me a ‘Back Number’ now, I guess I’ve lost my grip,
My old-time friends avoid me, as the rats desert a ship,
I am a good “Old Has Been” and I haven’t far to go,
But lend an ear and you shall hear how Hogan trimmed the foe.
“Have patience with an old recruit; bear with me for awhile,
And spare me all your shallow slang, and drop that pitying smile.
Sometimes I prattle like a fool; I know not what I say,
That’s when I hear those rumbling drums on Decoration Day.
‘This old gaffer’s kinder slouchy and he’s somewhat out of place,
You youngsters make the running now and set too swift a pace,
But in these piping times of Peace, you front no frenzied foe,
Just hark ye to the old man’s tale of forty years ago!
“Slow up a bit; don’t walk so fast; you still have lots of time,
I like to hear the children’s song, yon belfry’s aerial chime.
I like to see ‘Sam Starsandstripes’ stalk by in soldier way;
You see they yield the old man place on Decoration Day.
‘I like to see those striplings pass with supple, panther stride,
Ah! youth has all the right to walk with careless, haughty pride.
I like to see some pure-eyed girl strew flowers upon the dead,
It seems to me it does ’em good and soothes their coffined bed.
‘Pull up a bit, for don’t you see my starboard leg is lame?
‘Twas punctured by a boy in gray–confound his deadly aim!
The Southern soldiers fought us well, though vanquished in the fray,
Staunch Robert Lee and Stonewall kept us many a month at bay.
And when we clashed and grappled we shook the grassy plain,
Our cannon forged the thunderbolt that brought the gory rain.
The silvery saber’s sanguine sweep that bared the flashing steel,
The neighing steeds, the headlong charge that made the foeman reel.
“I took the field with Mulligan, the first to reach the front;
We heard the coughing of the guns, the cannon’s ugly grunt,
On the green fields of Virginia the Rangers laid him low,
‘Oh, save the flag and let me be, and charge again the foe!”
“The measured roll of throbbing drums falls grandly on my ear;
Shrill neighing of the horses and the rebels’ ringing cheer;
The cavalry’s colossal charge– we clashed in glorious strife;
The surge and shock–the ambuscade– I tell you that was life!
“I like to see Old Glory bare her beauty to the breeze,
Facing in pride the lordly sun and trailing o’er the trees;
I like to see yon little lass strew the flowers o’er every tomb,
And dewy roses sigh their soul in rich and rare perfume.
The dead sleep sound beneath the turf, they have no grief or pain.
They’ve reached the harbor port at last, through life’s tempestuous strain
Across Fate’s surging sea they’ve sailed, like pilgrims gaunt and gray,
They’ve fought the fight, and kept the faith and conquered in the fray.
“Of Mulligan’s Brigade, my son, I guess I am the last;
The sole leaf of an Irish oak, scourged by the wintry blast.
The Irish solders fought like– well, those men were built to stay,
Their fierce delight was stubborn fight, the rapture of the fray!
‘Neath alien skies our heroes sleep near Rappahannock’s roar.
Under the dark and bloody ground, their soldier bivouac o’er.
And some lie snug in Calvary in sweet and dreamless rest,
Like tired children who at night still seek the mother nest.
“And pretty girls are strewing flowers upon each soldier’s grave,
The tribute blushing beauty pays that heroes only, crave.
The dew drops on each blade o’ grass are memory’s tears that rain
Their tender tribute to the dead, who have not died in vain.
“Old times; old friends, where are you now?– a mist has blurred my eyes,
Perhaps you are all mustered out beyond the sapphire skies;
Perhaps you hold your campfire as evening reveille blows
In some soft clime, in peace sublime you welcome former foes.
JAMES E. KINSELLA (In the “National Volunteer.”)
U.S. Federal Census 1900.
The Chanute Times (Kansas) 26th May 1905. Shakespeare of the Slums.
Kerry Advocate 25th September 1915. Last Chevalier of Mulligan’s Irish Brigade.