Many of the Irishmen who fought during the American Civil War had a strong commitment to using their experience to strike a blow for Irish Independence when the conflict was over. These were the Fenians, and even when on military duty between 1861 and 1865 it was not unusual for many Irish officers to meet frequently to collect funds and discuss the situation in Ireland. The Fenian movement was active in both the Union and Confederate forces, and on occasion attempts were made to set aside differences in current loyalties in order to advance the cause of Ireland. There is perhaps no greater example of this dual-allegiance than that which took place during the midst of the Atlanta Campaign, Georgia in May 1864. This incident was recorded by Captain Irving A. Buck, Assistant- Adjutant General in Major General Patrick Cleburne’s Division.

Brigadier-General Thomas Sweeny, Union Army of the Tennessee (Library of Congress)

William T. Sherman’s advance towards Atlanta had commenced early in the month of May, with the combined Union forces (consisting of the Army of the Cumberland, Army of the Tennessee and Army of the Ohio) taking on Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. By mid month actions such as those at Resaca, together with Sherman’s flanking movements, had forced the Confederates back. As both sides continued to manoeuvre for position, Union Brigadier-General Thomas W. Sweeny found that his division of the Army of the Tennessee was in close proximity to that of Confederate Major-General Patrick R. Cleburne. Both Sweeny and Cleburne were Irishmen, and indeed both originally hailed from the same county, Cork. Not only was Sweeny a Federal division commander, he was also a dedicated Fenian. He decided to take this opportunity to communicate with his fellow General, as described by Buck:

‘In this affair the opposing force to Cleburne was the division of that gallant one-armed Irishman, General Thos. W. Sweeny, who later, by flag of truce, sent a message to Cleburne that after the war was over they both would raise a Fenian army and liberate Ireland. Cleburne’s answer was that after this war was closed he thought both would have had fighting enough to satisfy them for the rest of their lives.’ (1)

Major-General Patrick Cleburne, Confederate Army of Tennessee (Library of Congress)

Although communications between opposing officers across the lines was not uncommon during the war, this incident and the message sent highlights the dual allegiance felt by many Irishmen. Cleburne would not get the opportunity to become involved with a Fenian Army even if he had wanted to; he was killed at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee on 30th November 1864. Sweeny, who had lost his arm at the Battle of Churubusco during the Mexican War, would go on to become embroiled in controversy as the campaign intensified around Atlanta. A career officer, he was not enamoured with his Corps Commander Major-General Grenville M. Dodge, who was a political general, and whom Sweeny thought inept. On 25th July 1864 an argument erupted between them where the Irishman cursed his commanding officer and called him a liar. Dodge slapped him in the face and Sweeny returned the blow. Brigadier-General John W. Fuller was also present and when he intervened, both he and the fiery Irishman ended up exchanging blows while rolling around the tent floor. Sweeny was court-martialled, and though acquitted he did not serve in the field again during the conflict. The Corkman did get his wish of striking a blow against the British after the war, overseeing the ill-fated Fenian Invasion of Canada in 1866. Although he was arrested by U.S. authorities for his part in this, he was later released. Thomas Sweeny retired from the U.S. Army in 1870 and died in New York on 10th April 1892, where he is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn. (2)

(1) Buck 1908: 213; (2) Morgan 2005: 102-103, 152

References & Further Reading

Buck, Irving Ashby 1959 (First Published 1908). Cleburne and His Command and Hay, Thomas Robson Pat Cleburne: Stonewall Jackson of the West

Morgan, Jack 2005. Through American and Irish Wars: The Life and Times of General Thomas W. Sweeny 1820- 1892

Patrick Cleburne’s Grave, Helena, Arkansas

Thomas Sweeny’s Grave, Brooklyn, New York