Formed in late 1862, the early war experience of Brigadier-General Michael Corcoran’s ‘Irish Legion’ is often forgotten. Their first major battles would not come until 1864, when they suffered severe casualties during Grant’s Overland Campaign. However, their initial taste of Rebel fire had come over a year earlier, on 30th January 1863. This engagement, which became known as the Battle of Deserted House or Kelly’s Store, would bring the Irishmen their first victory- and their first casualties.

Brigadier-General Michael Corcoran (Library of Congress)

Brigadier-General Michael Corcoran (Library of Congress)

Corcoran’s Legion was made up of four New York regiments (five were initially raised, but the 175th New York did not serve with the Brigade). These were the 69th New York National Guard (182nd New York), 155th New York, 164th New York and the 170th New York. Although a number of the Legion’s soldiers had previous combat experience, notably in the 69th New York State Militia at First Bull Run, in early 1863 the majority had yet to ‘see the elephant.’

Michael Corcoran and his men had been sent to southern Virginia and the Union outpost of Suffolk, which guarded the western approaches to the Federal naval yards at Portsmouth and Norfolk. Here they formed part of the VII Corps, consisting of three divisions under the command of Major-General John J. Peck. On their arrival, Brigadier-General Corcoran assumed command of the 1st Division.

The lead-up to the Legion’s first fight began on 25th January. On this date Confederate Brigadier-General Roger Atkinson Pryor began an advance towards Suffolk at the head of some 1,800 troops, hoping to disrupt Union activity in the area. Crossing the Blackwater river, by the 29th he had closed to within ten miles of Suffolk, halting at Kelly’s Store. Peck ordered Corcoran to take a force of 4,800 troops and drive back the Rebels. The Sligo man’s force included a sizeable portion of his Legion- the 69th New York National Guard, the 155th New York and two companies of the 164th New York; the remainder of the 164th New York and the 170th New York did not participate in the expedition. (1)

All was now set for the Irishmen’s baptism of fire. At 1 am on the morning of 30th January Corcoran commenced his march towards the enemy. Many of the men in the Legion could not contain their excitement, trying to burn off their nervous energy by singing as they marched. Orders came down for the 69th and the 155th to keep silent so as not to alert the enemy to their presence. Conditions were harsh on the rain-sodden roads, and during the nine-mile trek a number of the men lost their footwear to the mud and were forced to proceed without them. Corcoran initially brought his command to Nansemond County Poor House, where he halted his men for a ten minute rest; he then advanced on Kelly’s Store and the Rebel positions. (2)

The Confederates had set up a defensive line astride the Suffolk road, a half-mile to the west of Kelly’s Store near the ‘Deserted House’ which would later give the battle its name. Corcoran’s advance guard of cavalry and artillery were the first to run into these positions shortly before 4am, and the fight commenced. The Rebel artillery had ranged the approach road and so were able to maintain a deadly fire on the advancing Federals, who quickly sought to bring their own cannon into the fight. At 5.15am, Corcoran decided to order up his infantry, initially calling up the 167th Pennsylvania Militia. They failed to obey the instruction, forcing the Irish General to ride to their position to investigate the delay. He found that their Colonel had been seriously wounded in the barrage, and the unit was now in a hopeless state of confusion and disarray. He turned next to his own men, the 69th New York National Guard and 155th New York (with the two 164th New York companies attached); the Legion’s first taste of action was at hand. (3)

The Virginia countryside was still shrouded in early morning darkness as the Irishmen advanced, moving along the road which cut through woods on either side. Some tried to remain light-hearted- Private Thomas Burns, a 19-year-old Corkman in the 69th, told his comrades jokes as they pressed forward into the unknown. Moving into a gully near the unfortunate 167th Pennsylvania, the Legion came into range of the Confederate artillery, and were ordered to lie down. Trees and houses were ripped apart during the ferocious barrage that followed. Some of the virtually leaderless Pennsylvanians now attempted to retreat- in the process one individual incurred the wrath of Captain Eugene O’Sullivan of the 164th New York, who he nearly knocked over in his eagerness to escape. Exhibiting that there was often no love lost between the Irish and their fellow immigrants, O’Sullivan roared: ‘You Pennsylvania Dutch son of a gun! If you don’t go back at a double quick, I’ll put this sword to the hilt in you!’, a rebuke which appeared to have the desired effect. (4)

The Battle of Deserted House, Virginia, 1863 (War of the Rebellion Atlas- Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections)

The Battle of Deserted House, Virginia, 1863- click to enlarge (War of the Rebellion Atlas- Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections)

In defence of the Pennsylvanians, the fire under which they had been exposed was extremely heavy, as the Legion were finding out. A piece of spiralling shrapnel struck the canteen of the 69th’s Captain Michael Kelly, carrying away his elbow. 30-year-old Sergeant Thomas Woods took a shell fragment in the stomach, killing him, while 28-year-old Private William Campbell was mortally wounded, struck in the leg and abdomen. Campbell had time to pull out his prayer-book which he gripped in his hand as he died. 44-year-old Private Andrew Grimes of the 164th also took a shell wound, becoming that regiment’s only fatality of the battle. The position was especially exposed for those on horseback, as General Corcoran discovered when a shell carried away the horse of the man beside him. A quick death was not to be the lot for all those struck in the Legion’s ranks. 40-year-old Private Thomas Stone likely knew he was done for when a shell struck him in the intestines and groin- he was administered to by Donegal native Father Paul Gillen, and died some four hours after he was hit. The shell that crushed the pelvis and abdomen of 35-year-old Private Cornelius Coleman caused even more suffering for this Irishman, who spent four days in silent agony before his death four days later. The realities and horrors of war in 1860s America had come home to the men of the Legion. (5)

Just after 6am Corcoran decided to clear the artillery from his front, and ordered a bayonet charge. This was led by the 30th Indiana and 130th New York, while the other regiments of Corcoran’s command, including those of the Legion, advanced behind in successive waves. Some thirty Rebel prisoners were taken by the Federals; the 69th New York’s Postmaster Ferris got involved in a footrace trying to catch one escaping Confederate, but found that he was hampered as a result of having lost his shoes on the march, and so his better-shod quarry escaped. Sergeant Julius Phillips of the 155th New York was more fortunate, capturing three of the enemy, while Private Henry Rice and Corporal Patrick Lenehan of the 69th New York brought in two more. The outnumbered Confederates fell back some two miles, before deciding to make a stand with some artillery and infantry. The 69th were again called to action to support a Federal battery, and successfully contributed to the repulse of a Rebel infantry attack. The pursuit was suspended at this point, and the exhausted men halted for some much-needed breakfast. Although a further advance led to some sharp skirmishing, Corcoran decided to call a halt and return his command to Suffolk. The Legion’s first fight was over. (6)

Prior to their withdrawal, the men of the Legion took the opportunity to explore the mornings battlefield. Privates Terence McMurry, Tom McLoughlin and Pat Ward of the 69th New York were delighted to happen upon an abandoned house with the breakfast table set, and were quick to take full advantage. General Corcoran had a less pleasant experience upon entering the Mulholland House in search of a cup of coffee, discovering floors awash with blood from the Confederate field hospital that had been located there. The Federal surgeons had set up under some trees by the road-side where they had undertaken the unpleasant task of dealing with the wounded. Among those who had limbs left behind on the Battlefield of Deserted House were two members of the 69th; 19-year-old Private Eli Pitts, who had his leg amputated at the thigh, and 35-year-old Private John Kearns, who lost his arm. (7)

The Battle of Deserted House was a sideshow in the American Civil War, but it had a lasting impact on the members of Corcoran’s Irish Legion. The reminiscences of one witness just two weeks after the fight illustrates the profound impact of this first action:

And now that this battle of Deserted House is fought and won, what does it amount to? The Legion has gained honor and glory, but what is honor and glory? I believe, with Falstaff, that ‘honor will not set a broken leg.’ What is to make up for the sufferings of the wounded? What for the distress of the deserted wives and children of the unhappy men who have fallen on both sides? Who will solace them? Who will feed them? Where the romance of a soldier’s life lies, I have yet to find out. Anything but romance may be now seen in the funeral processions through the streets of Suffolk, and in the miseries of the cold, dreary hospitals, where the surgeons have to go through seas of red tape to get the smallest necessary. I know one who is trying in vain, for the past four months, to get a broom for his hospital. Oh, that the movers of this war had themselves to participate in the active duties of warfare, we would then soon have an end of it. (8)

The fighting at Deserted House would be all but forgotten following the devastating losses sustained by the Brigade during the 1864 Campaign, but for the families of the dead, and the injured and maimed, it would be an ever-present for the rest of their lives. The Corcoran Legion losses at the engagement were as follows:

69th New York National Guard Infantry

Company B- Sergeant Thomas Woods (Killed- shell wound to stomach), Private Eli Pitts (Wounded- leg amputated at the thigh, discharged), Private John Kearns (Wounded- arm amputated, discharged)

Company C- Private Thomas Stone (Killed- shell wound to intestines and groin), Private William Campbell (Killed- shell wound to leg and abdomen)

Company D- Private Cornelius Coleman (Killed- shell wound to hip and abdomen), Corporal James Meehan (Wounded- shell wound to arm, discharged), Corporal John D. Cassidy (Wounded- shell wound of hand, also later wounded at North Anna), Private Patrick Ryan (Wounded- bullet wound of thigh, later killed at Boydton Plank Road)

Company E- Private Phillip Griffin (Wounded- slight wound of foot, later wounded at Petersburg)

Company F- Captain Michael Kelly (Wounded- shell wound of right elbow joint, discharged disability 1865)

155th New York Infantry

Company B- Sergeant Patrick Walsh (Wounded- slight wound and contusion of left knee, Veteran Reserve Corps, 1865), Sergeant Richard Wallace (Wounded- slight contusion of both knees)

164th New York Infantry

Company I- Private Andrew Grimes (Killed- shell wound of arm and side)

Company F- Private Daniel Schneider (Wounded- compound fracture of leg) (9)

(1) Official Records: 139-41, (2) Official Records: 136, New York Irish American, Steel 2001: 87-88; (3) Official Records: 136-7, New York Irish American, Steel 2001: 93; (4) New York Irish American, AG Report, Official Records: 137; (5) New York Irish American, Official Records: 167, Steel 2001: 93; (6) New York Irish American, AG Report; (7) New York Irish American, Official Records: 137; (8) New York Irish American; (9) New York Irish American, AG Report;


Wills, Brian Steel 2001. The War Hits Home: The Civil War in Southeastern Virginia

New York A.G. 1902. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1901

New York Irish American 14th February 1863: The Battle at ‘Deserted House’. The ‘Corcoran Legion’ in Their First Fight

Official Records Series 1, Volume 18, Chapter 30. Report of Brig. Gen. Michael Corcoran, U.S. Army

Official Records Series 1, Volume 18, Chapter 30. Report of Col. William McEvily, One hundred and fifty-fifth New York Infantry