On the morning of 3rd November 1863, the Federal sloop of war USS Kearsarge steamed into Queenstown harbour, Co. Cork. Anchoring to the east of the Spit Light, members of her crew crowded the deck to get a look at the town. While they waited to hear if any of them would be lucky enough to be granted a brief shore pass, some of the Kearsarge officers prepared for quite a different mission. Their activities would cause a major diplomatic incident between the United States and Great Britain, which would become known as the ‘Queenstown Affair.’ Meanwhile, for one Irishman in the town, the arrival of the Kearsarge was destined to dramatically alter his life. (1)

The USS Kearsarge (Library of Congress)

The USS Kearsarge (Library of Congress)

Coal Heaver Charles Poole of the Kearsarge thought Queenstown (now Cobh) was a small town considering how busy the port was, and he remarked that the old houses on the shore gave the settlement an ‘antique’ look. For some of the crew it was a familiar sight. Quarter Gunner John Dempsey knew it well, and even encountered people who knew his family amongst those who rowed out to meet the ship. Captain of the Forecastle Jimmy Haley hailed from nearby Ringaskiddy, and was allowed ashore to visit his sister. As Queenstown was a neutral port, the local Examining Officer sought to inform the Kerasarge’s Captain, John A. Winslow, that the vessel could stay for no longer than 24 hours. However, Captain Winslow had travelled to Cork, and his deputy, Lieutenant-Commander James Thornton, told the officials that he would leave when his Captain ordered him to. The local media quickly condemned the Union warship’s actions as defiance of the law. Things had got off to a bad start. (2)

While the Captain visited Cork, the Kearsarge’s officers got to work on shore. Although the vessel was ostensibly looking for coal, the ship was also short-handed and badly needed new recruits. It was illegal for Union or Confederate vessels to recruit in British ports, but this rarely prevented them from trying. The Petty Officers began actively seeking out men in the town; Ringaskiddy native Haley alone managed to persuade five men- John Sullivan, Edward Rylurne, Thomas Murphy, George Patterson and Dennis Leary- to sign up at $12 a month. Many of the locals undoubtedly hoped that enlisting would allow them to eventually gain passage to America. Any men interested were taken on-board, where they were given a medical examination below decks. Not everyone passed muster; Edward Lynch was rejected for being too short. Others suffered from cold feet- Queenstown natives Patrick Kennedy and Edward Lynch agreed to enter as seamen but elected not to sail with the ship when she departed. In the end 16 men from Ringaskiddy and Queenstown were accepted, local men like Daniel O’Connell of Whitepoint and John Connelly of Bishop’s Street. The illegal recruits were cautioned to stay out of sight until the Kearsarge had raised anchor for fear of discovery. (3)

The modern day Spit Light at Queenstown (Cobh), Co. Cork as seen in 2012 where the USS Kearsarge anchored in 1863. The Irish Naval vessels LE Aoife (foreground) and LE Emer (bacground) highlight the continued military presence

The modern-day Spit Light at Queenstown (Cobh), Co. Cork as seen in 2012, where the USS Kearsarge anchored in 1863. The Irish Naval vessels LE Aoife (foreground) and LE Emer (background) highlight the continued military presence at this important port

Captain Winslow returned from his visit to Cork on 5th November and the sloop made ready for sea. Departing that afternoon the new men quickly found themselves subjected to the full rigours of life before the mast, as heavy seas caused most of them to become violently seasick. The Captain was keen not to flagrantly violate British law by officially signing the men up in Her Majesty’s waters. For now they would officially remain ‘stowaways.’ As the Kearsarge neared Brest on the coast of France, Winslow sent an officer ashore in a launch, together with the 16 Irishmen. Here the ‘stowaways’ were asked if they wanted to depart for shore, or if they would prefer to seek the Captain’s mercy. Unsurprisingly all chose the latter course, and they were enlisted ‘for the purpose of their support and comfort.’ The ruse was intended to circumvent any legal implications resulting from the recruitment, but unfolding events would soon place Captain Winslow in an extremely uncomfortable position. (4)

Ordinarily the incident would have gone practically unnoticed and the new men would have been quietly subsumed into the crew of the Kearsarge. However, on this occasion Captain Winslow’s luck was out. British authorities became aware of the illegal recruitment, and it was the subject of an official complaint to the United States as well as questions in Parliament. The incident quickly became major news, and was used to demonstrate a lack of respect by the Union for the British  Foreign Enlistment Act, which made such recruitment illegal. Confederate agents and sympathisers held up the incident as an example of U.S. perfidy. Confederate agents such as Lieutenant J.L. Capston were active in Queenstown at this time, and was actively corresponding about the incident. As pressure increased, Captain Winslow had little option but to create an appropriate paper trail and deny all knowledge of  illegal recruitment, while hurriedly seeking to re-embark the men at Queenstown. (5)

The main waterfront buildings in Cobh (Queenstown), Co. Cork as they appear today

The main waterfront buildings in Cobh (Queenstown), Co. Cork as they appear today

Captain Winslow wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on 7th December to inform him that: ‘A party of men, either by connivance of the crew or otherwise, were concealed on board this vessel on the night of her departure from Queenstown, the 5th ultimo. These men I learn were in expectation of being enlisted in the service of the United States after the Kearsarge had proceeded to sea, but found their mistake.’ On the same day that he wrote to Secretary Welles, Winslow had returned to Queenstown and repatriated the unfortunate men, who had once again officially become ‘stowaways’. As was later pointed out in Parliament, the fact that all the returned men subsequently pleaded guilty to enlisting with the Kearsarge suggests that Captain Winslow was being somewhat economical with the truth. (6)

When the Corkmen were returned to the port in December 1863, one man was missing. Michael Ahern, who had been working as a clerk with Messrs. Scott of Queenstown prior to throwing in his lot with the Kearsarge, was not amongst them. Captain Winslow seems to have managed to develop another ruse to keep this man aboard, as he had specific qualifications which were needed on the ship. Ahern was to become a Paymaster’s Steward. The man who on 2nd November 1863 was quietly working in a Co. Cork office would achieve an unlikely feat just over 6 months later. On 19th June 1864, the USS Kearsarge did battle with the notorious Confederate warship, the CSS Alabama, off Cherbourg, France. The rebel vessel was sent to the bottom in the fight; amongst those men commended for their actions was one Michael Ahern, who exhibited ‘coolness and good conduct and was highly recommended by his divisional officer for gallantry under enemy fire.’ On 31st December 1864, just over a year since he had been illegally recruited in Queenstown, Michael Ahern was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The only man to avoid repatriation following the ‘Queenstown Affair’ had gone on to receive the United States highest award for gallantry. (7)

(1) Marvel 1996: 202; (2) Marvel 1996: 202-3, Official Records: 489; (3) Marvel 1996: 203, Diplomatic Correspondence Earl Russell to Mr. Adams; (4) Marvel 1996: 203-204, Official Records: 565; (5) Marvel 1996: 204-5; (6) Marvel 1996: 204-5, Official Records: 563, Debate on the Kearsarge; (7) Marvel 1996: 204-5, Diplomatic Correspondence Earl Russell to Mr. Adams, Congressional Medal of Honor Society, Broadwater 2007: 7;

References & Further Reading

Broadwater, Robert P. 2007. Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients

Congressional Medal of Honor Society

Irish Emigration Database: Debate on the ‘Kearsarge’ Federal Enlistments in Ireland

Marvel, William 1996. The Alabama and the Kearsarge: The Sailor’s Civil War

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion; Series 1, Volume 2: The Operation of the Cruisers (January 1, 1863- March 31, 1864)

University of Wisconsin Digital Collections: United States Department of State- Diplomatic Correspondence Earl Russell to Mr. Adams