The main function of this site is to provide a resource for those interested in the Irish experience of the American Civil War. It is hoped that this will include a number of contributions by researchers in the area, and to that end the second guest post on the blog examines those Irish veterans of the Papal Army who fought in the American Civil War. It has been written by Robert Doyle who runs the excellent Myles Walter Keogh- Three Wars; Two Continents: One Irish Solder site, dedicated to perhaps the most famous of the American Civil War’s Papal veterans.
While the vast majority of the Irish who fought in the Union ranks had no previous military experience, there were a handful of soldiers and officers who arrived on American shores already battle-hardened from a little known European war. Exactly 150 years ago this year, over one thousand Irishmen answered a call to arms from Pope Pius IX and journeyed to Italy to fight in defence of his temporal lands – the Papal States. Garnering praise from friend and foe, the Irish Papal Brigade, christened the ‘Battalion of St. Patrick’, fought with bravery and aplomb alongside soldiers from Europe’s military superpowers. Although the conflict between the invading Piedmontese and Sardinian nationalists and the Pope’s multinational army lasted only a matter of weeks, there was sharp fighting in locations where the Irish were stationed such as Perugia, Spoleto, Castelfidardo and, finally, Ancona where the war finally ended following a ten day siege of that Adriatic port.
After a short time as prisoners of war, most of the Irish returned home with only a handful retained to serve in Rome as part of the greatly diminished papal army. However, within a matter of months, Fort Sumter was fired upon and the American Civil War ignited across the Atlantic. Desperate for military experience in their reorganised Federal Army, Lincoln’s government dispatched envoys to Europe in the hope of enlisting adventurous or disenfranchised soldiers and officers. Agents of the Union such as Archbishop John Hughes and Archbishop John Purcell were brought in to assist in this recruitment process and both men travelled to Ireland and Rome recruiting veterans of the Papal War. They were highly successful in that mission as, according to the Rome correspondent of the Tablet, “the greater part of the Irish Brigade in the Papal service . . . passed into that of the Northern states, where they have greatly distinguished themselves.” Many of the men of the Pope’s Irish battalion did indeed go on to have remarkable military careers, particularly in the Union ranks.
Patrick Clooney, who fought so doggedly in the streets of Perugia, died heroically while rallying the men of the Irish Brigade at Antietam. In an editorial mourning the death of Captain Patrick Clooney of Meagher’s Brigade at Antietam, the Tipperary Advocate published: “In that disastrous retreat from Richmond, which was only saved from degeneration into a shameful flight by the valorous steadiness of Meagher’s command, one and twenty brave youths who had escaped the fire of Piedmontese artillerists unscathed, fell before the Southern rifle.” Clooney, the editorial mused, “with two other comrades of Perugia, Costello and Synan, left Waterford in the opening of ’61 for the express purpose of taking arms under his townsman Thomas Francis Meagher, whom he loved with all the fidelity and fullness of heart of a clansman for his chief.” Clooney “did not live long to wear his spurs and though he died the death he ambitioned, perhaps, most of all, we do not think he perished quite on the field he desired.” With his “indomitable Munster pluck,” he “risked his life once for Faith, and following the martial promptings of his breed, he devoted it the second time to Gratitude—a chivalrous, albeit some might deem it an erring, impulse.”
Fellow Waterford man, Dan Keily (Ancona), was horrifically wounded at Port Republic in June of 1862 when he led a daring charge of Ohioan cavalry up a slope into a fusillade of Rebel artillery fire. J.J. Coppinger (Spoleto) established himself as one of the Union army’s most redoubtable fighters and eventually became a general. The commander of Company “H” of Meagher’s Irish Brigade at Antietam was Lieutenant John H. Gleeson, also formerly of the Irish Papal Brigade. Lieutenant Michael O’Connell of Ballybunion, who had won the Order of Pius IX while in the Battalion of St. Patrick was killed in battle fighting with the 155th New York (Corcoran’s Irish Legion) at the battle of Reams Station, Virginia. Probably the best known of the Pope’s Irishmen was Myles Walter Keogh (Ancona), whose impressive service in the Union ranks gained him a post-war captain’s commission in the famed 7th Cavalry. Keogh was killed along with General Custer and 200 hundred other troopers fighting Sioux and Cheyenne warriors at the iconic Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Although treated like heroes on their return to Ireland, and then choosing to offer their blood and sword in the service of another nation, the deeds of the Pope’s Irish soldiers have dissipated with the passing of time. Hopefully, an anniversary such as falls this year will provoke a renewed interest in the valiant Irishmen who fought in the Pope’s army. As American Civil War historian, Brian C. Pohanka, once insightfully remarked – “Without memory, we have no deeds.”
*Article and research by Robert Doyle, www.myleskeogh.org