Andrew J. Byrne was born in Dublin in 1830. In 1898 he decided to commence writing his memoirs, which he finished in 1909, two years before his death. Superficially there seems to be nothing unusual about Byrne’s life; he was born in Dublin and died in Dublin, and spent much of his life employed in the building trade. However, Andrew J. Byrne was a remarkable man who led a remarkable life. He travelled back and forth between Ireland and the United States no less than four times between 1849 and 1875, along the way amassing some nine years service in the U.S. army. He saw service in the 1850s at frontier locations in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, spent time in the Dublin Artillery Militia, and returned to the United States in 1861 to fight for the Union in the Civil War. He served with the 65th New York Volunteer Infantry throughout the conflict, was twice wounded, and eventually reached the rank of First Lieutenant.
Andrew Byrne’s memoirs were published thanks to the efforts of his grandson, retired Irish army Colonel Seamus B. Condon. The manuscript and an image of Byrne in Civil War uniform were kept in the family, until in 2008 Condon succeeded in having them published. Andrew Byrne did not have the benefit of much formal education, and it takes some time to adapt to his writing style and lack of punctuation. However, this is more than compensated for by the content, and the editor Nicola Morris has rightly retained the integrity of Byrne’s original work. This includes a number of poems written by Byrne about his life during the period. Among the highlights of the book are the numerous coloured sketches that Andrew Byrne produced to accompany his recollections. Although some are based on images in contemporary newspapers, others have been created from memory.
The first part of the book deals with Andrew Byrne’s pre Civil War experiences. He arrived in New Orleans in 1849, and finding it difficult to procure work, he embarked on his first experience in Uncle Sam’s army. He deserted and returned to Ireland in 1853, but came back to America in 1856 and re-enlisted in New York. He confessed about his previous desertion, and was pardoned on condition that he return to his original unit in the West. During this period Byrne served at locations such as Fort Martin Scott in Texas, Fort Union in New Mexico and Fort Buchanan in Arizona. Along the way he encountered Comanches and marched across vast tracts of the south-western United States.
When his term of service expired in 1860 Andrew returned to Ireland, but when the Civil War broke out he determined to travel back to the United States and serve the Union. He chose to join the 65th New York Volunteer Infantry, otherwise known as the 1st U.S. Chasseurs. He described the unit as ‘cosmopolitan in its composition’ with about half of the men being American, followed by Irish, German, English and Scottish. As a result of his previous military experience he quickly began to climb the non-commissioned ranks, soon becoming a First Sergeant. The regiment’s first experience of the war came during the Peninsular Campaign, and Byrne gives a vivid account of his first view of the dead on a battlefield. He provides descriptions of the confusion and intensity of the Seven Day’s Battles, including Malvern Hill on 1st July 1862, in which he was seriously wounded in the left arm. Unable to retreat with the army, he was captured by the Confederates and sent to the notorious Libby Prison, Richmond. The horrors of Libby clearly stayed with Byrne for the rest of his life, with the images of the dead and dying impressed on his memory. He describes one soldiers plight: ‘I came to a Cot near the front door of the Libby a young soldier was lying stretched on the bed with a light dirty covering over him. He was a bad cace his face and arms were covered with flyes. When he made a slight motion with his arm the horrable insects rose from him like a Swarm of Bees. The flesh of his arms and face was red and scallded looking the flies were actually eating him alive.’
Byrne was fortunate enough to be exchanged, but the seriousness of his injury would prevent him from returning to his regiment until August 1863. He does not describe the 1864 Overland Campaign in the same detail with which he handled the 1862 battles, relying more on presenting an overview than describing his personal experiences. Given the intensity of the fighting the 65th endured at locations such as the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, one wonders if these were difficult for him relive. He does provide some vignettes, however, with one of the more gruesome and poignant being his description of the impact of a cannonball on his regiment’s advancing line during the Battle of Cold Harbor: ‘Two men of my Regiment the front and rear rank were knocked out of the ranks with as much ease as if they were two chickens and dashed against the ground where they lay flat and motionless killed by a cannon ball. One was a German and the other an Irishman named Bermingham from Dublin MacNamara an Irishman next the German was splashed with blood and got pale and nervous he came down to me I saw the man was weak. I told him to go to the rear and sit down awhile. I was sorry for Bermingham, he was the victim of a drunken wife in New York who ruined him and his business.’
Byrne’s regiment was redeployed to the Shenandoah Valley to serve with Sheridan, and he gives a particularly interesting account of his and his unit’s participation at the Battle of Cedar Creek on 19th October 1864. By now a Second Lieutenant, Byrne was wounded for the second time during this fight, being hit in the left hip. He rejoined the 65th for the final time in February 1865 as a First Lieutenant. He describes the anxious wait as the Union troops waited to assault the works at Petersburg, and the final days leading up to Appomattox when he and his comrades heard of Lee’s surrender.
Andrew Byrne’s story did not end there, however. His first wife died in 1865, and Andrew once again returned to Ireland. He had by now became a Fenian and was one of a large number of ex Union officers in the movement. He was eventually arrested and forced to return to the United States, where he completed yet another stint in the military, serving as a non-commissioned officer in the 42nd Regiment U.S. Infantry from 1867 to 1869. He spent a number of years working in the building trade around New York and the mid-west, before eventually settling in Saratoga, New York. He met his second wife here and returned to Ireland with his new family for the final time in 1875.
This memoir is an extremely important addition to the body of writing on the Irish experience of the American Civil War. More than this, it offers an insight into the general Irish experience of emigration to the United States in the 19th century. Byrne never served in a distinctly Irish unit, but it is clear from his memoirs that no matter where you were in the U.S. army, you were never far from and Irish soldier. At one juncture he even ran into an old classmate of his from Dublin while serving in American south-west!
The impression one gets of Andrew Byrne in this book is of a highly intelligent, honest and conscientious man with a yearning for exploration and adventure. He did not see the Atlantic as a barrier never to be recrossed, and somewhat unusually made frequent trips between Ireland and his adopted home. After all his varied experiences it is perhaps of note that he eventually found the pull of Ireland too strong, and decided to live out his days in the city of his birth.
This book is highly recommended as a fine personal account of one Irishman’s experience of America in the 1800s. It deserves as wide a circulation as possible.
Byrne, Andrew J. (edited by Nicola Morris) 2008. Memoir of Andrew J. Byrne- Veteran of the American Civil War. Original Writing. 239pp.
Available to buy from Original Writing.