In the late morning of 17th September 1862, the first elements of Major-General William B. Franklin’s Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac arrived on the Antietam battlefield after a forced march. The bloodiest day in United States history was already in full swing, and Franklin’s lead unit, Colonel William H. Irwin’s 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division, was thrown immediately into the fray. Amongst Irwin’s men was Clare native Richard Curran, Assistant Surgeon in the 33rd New York Infantry, the ‘Ontario Regiment’. The Irishman would soon be involved in a desperate struggle to keep wounded men alive in the midst of an inferno of enemy fire. (1)

Richard Curran in Later Life

Richard Curran in Later Life (U.S. Army Medical Department)

Richard Curran was born in Ennis, Co. Clare on 4th January 1838 (some sources cite 1834 as his year of birth). He emigrated with his family to the United States in 1850, and attended Harvard Medical School from where he graduated in 1859. With the outbreak of war Curran helped to raise two companies for service in upstate New York, before enlisting as a 22-year-old in the 33rd regiment. He initially mustered in as a Private in Company K on 22nd May 1861, but given his medical expertise he became Hospital Steward on 1st October that year, rising to Assistant Surgeon on 15th August 1862. (2)

When Curran arrived on the Antietam battlefield he had little time to seek out other surgeons before his unit were ordered forward. With no instructions as to where to report, he determined to follow his regiment into the action. Irwin’s brigade, of which the 33rd New York formed a part, were ordered into fighting on the Union right, and around noon they charged towards the Confederate positions near the Dunker Church. Although initially successful, the advance came to a halt when the 33rd and 77th New York on the brigade right were struck by a savage flanking volley from the West Woods. The brigade regrouped and rallied behind a ridge east of the Hagerstown Pike, where they would remain for much of the day. However they were far from safe, and those men wounded in the assault were now subjected to a merciless fire from sharpshooters and artillery. (3)

The Charge of Irwin's Brigade around the Dunker Church at Antietam

The Charge of Irwin’s Brigade around the Dunker Church at Antietam (Library of Congress)

Richard Curran had made it through the attack safely, and now took the time to assess the situation facing the 33rd New York. He remembered: ‘The ground of the battlefield at this point was a shallow valley looking east and west. The elevated land on the south was occupied by the Confederates, while the slight ridge on the north was held by our troops and batteries. From this formation of ground it was impossible for our wounded to reach the field hospital without being exposed to the fire of the enemy.’ Curran decided that he had to do something to help these men. Despite being repeatedly told to go to the rear lest he be killed, the Irish surgeon refused and moved between the wounded, administering what aid he could. (4)

As the day dragged on Assistant Surgeon Curran looked around to see if there were any suitable locations to gather the wounded men in a temporary field hospital. He finally found what he was looking for: ‘Close to the lines, and a little to the right, were a number of straw stacks. I visited the place and found that many of the disabled had availed themselves of this protection. Without delay I had the wounded led or carried to the place, and here, with such assistance as I could organize, although exposed to the overhead firing of shot and shell, I worked with all the zeal and strength I could muster, caring for the wounded and dying until far into the night.’ Curran remained worried that the straw stacks offering frail protection the men would catch light, as they were still being subjected to heavy fire. While the Clareman was treating the leg of one wounded soldier he briefly turned away to get a dressing for the injury. Turning back, Curran was horrified to see that the unfortunate man’s leg had in the meantime been carried off by a cannonball. (5)

The Temporary Field Hospital set up by Richard Curran behind Haystacks at Antietam (Deeds of Valor)

The Temporary Field Hospital set up by Richard Curran behind Haystacks at Antietam (Deeds of Valor)

The bravery of Richard Curran at Antietam did not go unnoticed. In his official report of the fighting Colonel Irwin wrote: ‘Asst. Surg. Curran, Thirty-third New York Volunteers, was in charge of our temporary hospital, which unavoidably was under fire; but he attended faithfully to his severe duties, and I beg to mention this officer with particular commendation. His example is but too rare, most unfortunately.’ Curran stayed with the 33rd New York until they mustered out on 2nd June, 1863, but the medical man still felt he could offer more to the Union cause. Less than a month later, on 1st July, he became Assistant Surgeon in the 6th New York Cavalry, before joining up with the 9th New York Cavalry to serve as their Surgeon dating from 5th September 1864. He finished his war with the 9th, being discharged for the final time on 17th July, 1865. (6)

Richard Curran opened a drug store in Rochester, New York after the Civil War, and became active in politics with the Republican Party. He became an Assemblyman in the New York Legislature before being elected Mayor of Rochester in 1892. Curran was awarded the Medal of Honor on the 30th March 1898, nearly 36 years after the events to which it referred. His citation read: ‘Voluntarily exposed himself to great danger by going to the fighting line there succoring the wounded and helpless and conducting them to the field hospital.’ The Ennis native continued to spend his later years in Rochester, where he died on 1st January 1915 and was laid to rest in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. (7)

(1) Sears 2003: 256, New York State Military Museum: 33rd New York; (2) Medal of Honor Recipients from Harvard University, A-G Report 1902; (3) Beyer & Keydel 1901: 81, Official Records:409; (4) Beyer & Keydel 1901:81; (5) Beyer & Keydel 1901:81-82; (6) Official Records:411-12, A-G Report 1902, Civil War Pension Index Card; (7) Troy Weekly Times 10th March 1892, Proft 2002: 837;

References & Further Reading

Beyer, Walter F. & Keydel, Oscar F. 1901. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor. Volume 1.

Medal of Honor Recipients from Harvard University

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

New York State Military Museum: 33rd New York

Official Records Series 1, volume 19, Part 1, Chapter 31. Report of Col. William H. Irwin, Forty-ninth Pennsylvania Infantry, commanding Third Brigade, of the battles of Crampton’s Pass and Antietam

Proft, R.J. (ed.), 2002. United States of America’s Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients and their Official Citations, Fourth Edition

Sears, Stephen W. 2003. Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam

Troy Weekly Times 10th March 1892: Political Posies. Floral Tributes to the New Mayor of Rochester

Richard Curran Civil War Pension Index Card

Richard J. Curran Grave

Antietam National Battlefield

Civil War Trust Battle of Antietam Page