A previous post on the site explored the role of James Rowan O’Beirne in the hunt for John Wilkes Booth following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. When Journalist Jody Moylan got in touch with regard to American Civil War veterans who were natives of Roscommon, O’Beirne immediately sprang to mind. Jody was captivated by O’Beirne’s story and published a piece last January in the Roscommon Herald on this most remarkable man. With the approach of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln film it seems an appropriate time to reproduce Jody’s piece here- many thanks to him for sending it on.
On the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War little in Ireland is known about one Roscommon man’s significant contribution.
Falling from the presidential balcony of the Ford Theatre, having leaped over the railings after he had landed the gunshot that would eventually kill Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth already knew he was a wanted man.
What he didn’t know was that Major James Rowan O’Beirne was to lead that hunt, and what he didn’t care to know was that O’Beirne was from Kilrooskey.
After Booth had bolted on horseback from the Washington theatre on that Good Friday night, April 14,1865, Lincoln was rushed to a boarding house across the street, where he lay dying.
O’Beirne escorted vice-president Andrew Johnston to the president’s bedside, after the second in command had himself avoided a similar fate when his would-be-killer George Atzerodt lost his nerve at the crucial moment.
Secretary of State William Seward wasn’t so lucky after a simultaneous attack saw him receive multiple stab wounds at the hands of Lewis Powell.
Merely days after Republican forces had restored the Union to end the American Civil War its top-brass had now received a damaging blow by Confederate sympathisers who, however late in the day, were intent on extracting their own pound of flesh.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton circled the wagons in the back room of the infamous boarding house and issued O’Beirne with orders that he was “relieved from all other duty at this time, and directed to employ yourself and your detective force in the detection and arrest of the murderers of the President, and the assassins who attempted to murder Mr. Seward”.
The Roscommon native had, at this stage, vast experience in the theatre of war. As captain of the 37th New York ‘Irish Rifles’ Infantry he was badly wounded by sniper fire to the chest, head and right leg at the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, on a day that was the second bloodiest in the entire American conflict.
Acting on Stanton’s instructions Major O’Beirne made his way through the capital’s streets in the small hours of April 15. He barged through the front doors of Kirkwood House, where Atzerodt had failed to go through with his orders. There O’Beirne discovered the room where the conspirator had been holed-up, and subsequently fled from. A loaded revolver was found under Atzerodt’s bed pillow and a Bowie knife was also seized. These discoveries led directly to Atzerodt’s arrest five days later at his cousin’s house in Germantown, Maryland.
O’Beirne’s main quarry, though, was Booth. An actor by trade and an idealist, he was far from any villainous stereotype. The fugitive was noted at the time for being “impossibly vain, preening, emotionally flamboyant, and possessed of raw talent and splendid élan”. With the help of a map of the upper Potomac that was picked up at Atzerodt’s quarters, a goose chase ensued along its banks that lasted for 12 days, where Booth sheltered from his Roscommon hunter in a thicket of pine.
When Booth crossed state boundaries into Virginia O’Beirne pinpointed him to the Garrett farm, a residence near the town of Bowling Green. The Major telegrammed war secretary Stanton, waiting for his cue to make a decisive move.
Here, by all accounts, office politics took over and Stanton pulled the Kilrooskey native from the case. Much of the lucrative reward on offer was to go to a personal favourite of Stanton’s – Lafayette C. Baker.
Along with his agents Baker finished the job Major O’Beirne had begun, smoking Booth out of a barn before he succumbed to gunfire. If O’Beirne’s monetary reward of $2,500 was paltry when compared with the hand he played at a crucial time in American history, his achievements thereafter are notable only in their magnitude.
Born to Michael Haran O’Beirne and Eliza Rowan on September 25, 1839 (US Census, 1900), James spent his formative days at a family home in the townland of Cappagh near Kilrooskey, close to a place locally known as ‘Beirne’s Cross’. But Roscommon in those days was particularly ravaged by the Famine and the O’Beirnes took flight across the Atlantic where James’ father had numerous family connections.
James briefly trained as an attorney before signing up as a private in the 7th New York Militia at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. His “gallant, distinguished and meritorious service” during the war led to a conferral of the high rank of Brigadier General in September, 1865.
Far from resting on his laurels, and despite his war wounds, the now General O’Beirne made an exit from the battle ground, going on to become a journalist and reporter for several newspapers, most notably the Washington Sunday Gazette as well as Washington correspondent for the New York Herald. On one particular assignment for the Herald he was said to have rode alongside the legendary General Custer during the Indian wars.
In February 1880, O’Beirne was amongst the welcoming party for the arrival of Charles Stewart Parnell on his stateside trip, a visit where the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party addressed Congress. As only the fourth foreign leader to address the House Parnell was the first Irishman to do so. James O’Beirne is credited by The New York Times as having been the key component in bringing that about.
The Cappagh man spent a period as second in command at immigration on Ellis Island, during the 1890s, watching over the many fellow Irish men and women who passed through America’s largest gateway.
One of the more interesting honours bestowed on O’Beirne was decoration by the Venezuelan government, after he had ensured the securing and safe passage of a United States gunboat for the country’s former president, General Jose Antonio Paez, who died in exile in New York.
Befitting a man whose life was all encompassing, in January 1891 Brigadier General James Rowan O’Beirne received the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government, the Congressional medal of honour, for actions of bravery “beyond the call of duty” during the Civil War.
In retirement he died on February 17, 1917 at his New York residence, 352 West 117th Street. After his wife before him, Martha S. Brennan, had passed away he was survived only by his daughter, Gertrude Marie. Gertrude remained childless and as a result he has no direct descendants.
His grave at Calvary cemetery in Queens serves us now as a great reminder of possibility, as well as the achievements of ex-patriots. He remains, at once, one of the county’s great sons and a legend to live up to. But impossible, surely, to surpass.
Note – To commemorate the close to 200,000 Irish who fought in the American Civil War plans for a monument and trail connecting over 40 Irish sites of interest are in their formative stages. For information on this and more, go to irishamericancivilwar.com