Shortly before midday on 21st July 1861 Captain James Haggerty of the 69th New York State Militia splashed across Bull Run creek, Virginia with the just over 1000 Irishmen of his unit. He and his comrades were moving to add their weight to an attack on Confederate forces who were retreating from their position on Matthews Hill to a new line at a place called Henry Hill. The first major Battle of the American Civil War was underway, and many hoped that Union victory would make it the last.
James Haggerty’s parents could not have envisioned that their son would one day participate in such a momentous battle when he was born in rural Glenswilly, Co. Donegal around the year 1816. His early years were spent in his native county, where he took a position as an apprentice house carpenter. It was not until he was in his late twenties that he first left Ireland, moving to Scotland in 1844 where he plied his trade for a number of years. The horrendous conditions in Ireland during the famine of the 1840s undoubtedly played a part in his decision to emigrate with his brother Bryan to the United States in 1849. (1)
James spent time in Philadelphia before settling in New York, where he established his own business in 1856 as a house carpenter and builder, setting up his office at 70 Bleeker Street. He also started a family around this time, marrying Elisa Bentley from Limerick. His first daughter, Anne died when she was only three days old in 1858. Another daughter Rosina was born in 1859. The Federal Census called to the Haggerty household on the 18th June 1860, just over a year before the Battle of Bull Run. James is recorded as a 40 year old carpenter living with 23 year old Elisa and one year old Rosina in the 1st District of the 17th Ward. (2)
The Donegal man was a dedicated Fenian, as were many other Irishmen in the city. Some chose to join New York State Militia units to gain military experience for a planned future rebellion in Ireland. Haggerty had already served as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the 75th Regiment prior to its disbandment in 1856. When Michael Corcoran was made Colonel of the 69th New York State Militia in 1859, he brought James Haggerty on board as Captain of Company A. He was a popular officer and a strict disciplinarian, and his command earned the nickname ‘Haggerty’s Bullies’. When the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers, James Haggerty and the 69th New York State Militia answered. (3)
The Irish New Yorkers went off to war on 23rd April 1861. After a week guarding a railroad junction they were sent to Arlington Heights, Virginia, where they constructed Fort Corcoran (named for the regiment’s commander) overlooking the Potomac. A smaller fort was also built to provide cover to the southern slope of this position, and was christened Fort Haggerty. On the 16th July the 69th moved out from their fortifications, as the campaign that would culminate in the Battle of Bull Run had begun. (4)
The 69th formed part of Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman’s brigade for the duration of the campaign. James Haggerty was to serve as acting Lieutenant-Colonel for the regiment during the days ahead, as Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Nugent had been injured following a fall from his horse. He did not have to wait long to prove his worth. On the 18th July an engagement at Blackburn’s Ford took place, a fight in which the Union troops were forced to retreat. As the 69th advanced to support the attacking units, they encountered another Union regiment moving in the opposite direction. Mistaking their comrades for Rebels, the Irish were about to fire on them when Haggerty ‘dashed along the line and struck the bayonets up with his sword,- his keen eye, which never ceased its watchful care, having detected the error of his men’. During a subsequent artillery barrage the men of the 69th were ordered to lie down, but Haggerty chose to set an example, standing erect on the right of the line.*(5)
The 21st July 1861 arrived, and Haggerty and his men were about to face their first serious engagement. In the early phase of the Battle of Bull Run they preformed a holding role at Stone Bridge while a strong Union force moved to flank the Confederate left by crossing at upstream fords. The fight had already been raging for some time when the Irishmen eventually got the order to cross Bull Run creek. They were to form a junction with the already engaged main attacking force; to do so Sherman’s brigade had to negotiate Rebels who were in the process of retreating from their positions on Matthews Hill to a new line on Henry Hill. The march of the 69th was bringing them up on the right and right-rear of some of these withdrawing Confederates.
Having crossed the creek the Irishmen moved into a meadow, and found the woods to their front filled with a number of retreating Rebels. William Tecumseh Sherman describes what happened next: ‘Lieutenant- Colonel Haggerty, of the Sixty-ninth, without orders, rode out and endeavored to intercept their retreat. One of the enemy, in full view, at short range, shot Haggerty, and he fell dead from his horse.’ Perhaps incensed at what had just happened, the 69th opened fire on the retreating Rebels, who replied in kind. Sherman ordered the firing ceased as he was determined to move his brigade up to join in with the main attack. Captain James Kelly of the 69th related that Haggerty was ‘killed by a Louisiana Zouave, whom he pursued as the latter was on his retreat with his regiment into the woods, and several of our men were severely wounded.’ If Kelly is right in his assessment then it is possible that Haggerty fell at the hands of a fellow Irishman, as many of the Louisiana zouaves were of Irish origin. (6)
The 69th succeeded in joining with the main attack, and many more of the regiment would die as they unsuccessfully charged the Confederate positions on Henry Hill. The day ended in defeat for the Union, and the war would continue for four bloody years. We can only speculate as to why James Haggerty so exposed himself in an effort to capture the fleeing Rebels. Perhaps he felt confident they were routing, or suffered a rush of blood to the head in what was his first battle. Maybe as he had shown in the past he was eager to set an example for his men.
James Haggerty was the first man of the 69th New York State Militia to die in the Battle of Bull Run. His experience of combat lasted a matter of minutes before he was killed, leaving behind a widow and infant daughter. Later in the year Thomas Francis Meagher, Captain of Company K (Meagher’s Zouaves) of the 69th and future commander of the Irish Brigade, said that of all the regiment’s dead at Bull Run Haggerty was ‘Prominent amongst them, strikingly noticeable by reason of his large, iron frame, and the boldly chiseled features, on which the impress of great strength of will and intellect was softened by a constant play of humor and the goodness and grand simplicity of his heart- wrapped in his rough old overcoat, with his sword crossed upon his breast, his brow boldly uplifted as though he were still in command, and the consciousness of having done his duty sternly to the last still animating the Roman face -there lies James Haggerty- a braver soldier than whom the land of Sarsfield and Shields has not produced, and whose name, worked in gold upon the colors of the Sixty-ninth, should be henceforth guarded with all the jealousy and pride which inspires a regiment, wherever its honor is at stake and its standards are in peril. (7)
(1) McLaughlin 1992; (2) McLaughlin 1992, 1860 Census (3) McLaughlin 1992, Shea 1861: 104; (4) Shea 1861: 105; Conyngham 1867: 24, 26, McLaughlin 1992; (5) Conyngham 1867: 28, Shea 1861: 106; (6) Official Records: 369, 372 (7) New York Times
*It should be noted that James H. McLaughlin’s book, quoting Thomas Francis Meagher, places this incident on 21st July at the Battle of Bull Run itself. However, Sherman’s brigade was subjected to artillery fire at Blackburn’s Ford on the 18th, and neither he nor Kelly make reference to a sustained barrage prior to Haggerty’s death on the 21st. On that basis the account in The Fallen Brave has been followed here.
References & Further Reading
Conyngham, David Power 1867. The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns
Davis, William C. 1977. Battle at Bull Run
McLaughlin, James H. 1992. James Haggerty of Tir Conaill
Shea, John Gilmary (ed.) 1861. The Fallen Brave
Official Records Series 1, Volume 2, Chapter 9. Report of Col. William T. Sherman, Thirteenth U.S. Infantry, commanding Third Brigade, First Division
Official Records Series 1, Volume 2, Chapter 9. Report of Capt. James Kelly, Sixty-ninth New York Militia
New York Times 30th August 1861 ‘The Monster Festival; Aid for the Widows and Orphans of the Sixty-ninth Regiment’