John Dooley's Civil War

John Dooley’s Civil War

Richmond native John Dooley served in the First Virginia Infantry Regiment between 1862 and 1865. The Dooleys were one of the South’s most prominent Irish-American families, and counted figures such as John Mitchel amongst their family friends. Both during and after the conflict John Dooley recorded his experiences in the Confederate army, offering an insight into not only Irish service in the Army of Northern Virginia but also Southern Irish advocacy of the Lost Cause. Robert Emmett Curran has compiled a new edition of Dooley’s writings, published as part of Peter S. Carmichael’s Voices of the Civil War series with The University of Tennessee Press.

John Dooley’s father John Senior had emigrated to the United States from Co. Limerick in 1832. He eventually became the owner of an extremely successful hat-making business, the Great Southern Hat and Cap Manufactory, based in Richmond. A pre-war Captain of the ‘Montgomery Guards’, John Senior served at First Manassas with the Irish militia unit, which by now formed part of Company C, 1st Virginia Infantry. John was forced to resign due to advancing years in April 1862; his eldest son James received a dangerous wound at the Battle of Williamsburg a month later which would also eventually force his departure from the 1st Virginia. John junior joined the regiment in August 1862 at the age of 20, thus maintaining the family’s connection with the unit.

Some of John Dooley’s writings about the American Civil War have been previously published by Joseph T. Durkin, in his 1945 John Dooley, Confederate Soldier: His War Journal. However much of this was abridged and large parts of Dooley’s original writings omitted, principally as a result of the confused nature of the archive. Dooley did not write a straightforward narrative account of his time in Confederate service; instead his diary is formed from a number of different manuscripts written at different periods of his wartime and post-bellum life. Initially serving as a Private in Company D of the 1st Virginia, Dooley was present at battles such as Second Manassas, Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg. He had risen to become a Lieutenant in Company C by the time of the Gettysburg Campaign, where he was wounded and taken prisoner during Pickett’s Charge. He spent the following years as a prisoner of war, before being paroled in February 1865 during the Confederacy’s dying days. A devout Catholic, John Dooley decided to become a Jesuit after the war’s conclusion. He died at an early age in 1873 as a result of TB, perhaps brought on by his prolonged time in the field and in prison.

There are many interesting details to be found in John Dooley’s writings about the Civil War. He communicates the often monotonous life of soldiers on campaign (and later in prison), and the tedium and repetition that such an existence involved. His description of being a part of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg is a fascinating insight into the experiences of one the participants in that most famous of Confederate assaults. Dooley reserves his most vivid descriptions of the battlefield and it’s aftermath for his time as a wounded soldier awaiting treatment on the field at Gettysburg, when he encountered a horrifying array of wounded and disabled men during his long wait at a field hospital. Amongst the other common themes in Dooley’s writings are his family’s close relationship with the Irish patriot John Mitchel. John Mitchel’s son Willie served with Dooley, and the two were friends-Willie was among those killed during Pickett’s assault at Gettysburg. Dooley provides an interesting account of his and fellow Confederate parolee’s efforts to keep up with the ever shrinking Confederacy after Appomattox in 1865, as they journey from town to town in Virginia and North Carolina seeking to keep up with the fleeing administration and searching out Confederate forces.

One of the more interesting aspects of John Dooley’s service is that he held the unique position in the 1st Virginia Infantry of being the only non-commissioned soldier to be accompanied by his own slave, Ned Haines, presumably one of the 10 listed as belonging to the Dooley family in 1860. Ned joined Dooley on campaign in 1862 and was with the Irish-American as far as Gettysburg, helping to forage and construct shelters for him and his messmates throughout the Eastern Theater. We learn nothing of Ned’s fate following Dooley’s capture in the summer of 1863.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Dooley’s writings are how he clearly reworked certain passages of text to have it form a document that was unstinting in its support for the Lost Cause. Curran in his introduction describes the Lost Cause as those seeking to portray the Confederacy as ‘a decent, honorable community seeking independence to preserve its way of life; God-like military leaders and their courageous, fallen soldiers, defeated only by superior numbers and industrial might; a collective identity as victims who ironically survive; and the hope that God in His providence will someday bring their cause to fruition.’ Time and again Dooley returns to discuss the waves of foreign hirelings (including Irish) that are duped into Union service to fight against the Confederacy. After his capture at Gettysburg Dooley describes how he chastises an Irish Union soldier who had fought with John Mitchel in 1848: ‘how could he consistently turn his back on his principles, and for the pitiful hire of a few dollars do all in his power to crush a brave people asserting their rights of self government; and now that he was engaged in the cause of tyranny, fighting against honesty, justice, and right, and moreover against those very gallant young men he was seeking to hear of [the Mitchel family], what, we asked, would Mr. Mitchel think of him? The poor fellow’s eyes filled with tears.’ (1)

This extensive publication draws to a close with an 1870 poem written by Dooley which brings forth his post-war views about what defeat had thus far meant for the South. Here the unfettered capitalism of the North has been unleashed on the Southern States, leading to widespread corruption and the stripping of the region’s identity and way of life. Interestingly his view on aspects such as slavery remained unchanged, as he was convinced that former slaves had been forced to give up what he saw as a relatively secure and benevolent way of life for one where they would have to fend for themselves on the lowest rung of a cruel and uncaring society: ‘When in the South did ever the humblest slave, Like beast uncared, sink in the Potter’s grave. When have the hardest working slaves been known To be in want of bread or greasy bone? When worked so hard beneath the master’s whip As northern matrons pinched by hunger’s grip; Pale, wretched by the weary candle’s light They pass away like shadows in the night.’ (2)

Robert Emmett Curran has done an excellent job of editing these important writings, which provide a window into the war and post-war views of some of the more affluent members of the Southern Irish-American community. Copious notes present valuable additional detail which compliment Dooley’s narrative, particularly with regard to later ‘Lost Cause’ additions. For anyone seeking to understand the viewpoints of many of those Irish and Irish-Americans who fought with and staunchly supported the Confederacy, John Dooley’s Civil War is an essential addition to your bookshelf.

(1) Curran (ed.) 2012: xxv, 174; (2) Ibid: 412


Curran, Robert Emmett (ed.) 2012. John Dooley’s Civil War: An Irish American’s Journey in the First Virginia Infantry Regiment. 516pp.

*I am grateful to The University of Tennessee Press for providing a review copy of this book