The 17th Wisconsin Infantry was formed mainly from men of the Badger State’s Irish community. It spent its war in the Western Theater, fighting at engagements such as Corinth, Champion’s Hill and Atlanta, and participating in the March to the Sea and Carolinas Campaign. The Irishness of the unit was manifested through flags like that carried by Company B, emblazoned with the Maid of Erin harp and ‘Wisconsin’s Irish Brigade’. One of the members of Company B was a Drummer Boy called Francis Keegan from Chicago, Illinois. He enlisted on December 10th 1861 and went off to war with his older comrades. On the 3rd October 1863 The Big Blue Union paper from Marysville, Kansas ran a story about the boy, which in turn it had drawn from the Memphis Bulletin. This related a chance encounter that Francis (or Frank) had with his regiment following the siege of Vicksburg:
AN INCIDENT OF THE CAPTURE OF VICKSBURG
When the 17th Wisconsin Regiment left for the seat of war in the West, a lad named Francis Keegan joined it at Chicago, in the capacity of a drummer boy. He was the son of a poor mother, who, by her own industry was endeavoring to support a family of four little children. Too small for a soldier, or to earn a living at any other business, he yet desired to relieve his mother of his support, and determined to go to the war as above mentioned. He was with his regiment during the siege and at the surrender of Vicksburg. As the prisoners were paroled and marched out, in the first man to pass the point where Frank was station [sic] he recognized his father, whom he supposed to be dead- he having left home for California several years ago, since which time he had never been heard from. The surprise of each may be imagined.
Through the intervention of Frank, who was a favorite among the soldiers, the father was very kindly treated, and on renouncing his false allegiance, and taking his oath to support the government, was furnished with money to visit his family at the north. Thus the little drummer boy not only relieved a hard working mother, and served his country bravely, but was the means of uniting again a long separated family. Strange incidents occur in this unhappy war.
It remains unclear what elements of this tale are true or have been embellished for the sake of providing readers with a ‘good news’ story during wartime. Frank did not continue to serve in the ranks of the 17th Wisconsin, and is listed as having ‘deserted while on furlough’, perhaps to provide further assistance to his hard pressed mother. Regardless of the circumstances, this story of the chance encounter between father and son during the height of the Civil War is indeed a poignant one.
References & Further Reading
The Big Blue Union, October 3rd 1863: ‘An Incident of the Capture of Vicksburg’
Wisconsin Adjutant General’s Office, 1886. Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of Rebellion 1861-1865. Volume II