Reporting the War in Irish Newspapers: Correspondence from the Petersburg Front

A constant stream of information about the American Civil War made its way to Ireland between 1861 and 1865. This came in forms such as family letters home, but it was also a hot topic for Irish newspapers. Some, such as James Roche’s strongly pro-Union Galway-American (later printed in Dublin as the United Irishman and Galway American) focused on the conflict more than others. Another was the Irish People, the organ of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the sister organisation to the American Fenian Brotherhood. These Irish newspapers even circulated among Federal troops at the front, and some contributed letters to its pages. The letter below, written by First Sergeant Robert O’Driscoll, demonstrates not only how quickly news could cross the Atlantic, but also highlights the dual concerns of many Irish-American Fenians in the Union military. (1)

'Freedom to Ireland', an 1866 Irish patriotic lithographic by Currier & Ives, 1866 (Wikipedia)

‘Freedom to Ireland’, an 1866 Irish patriotic lithographic by Currier & Ives, 1866 (Wikipedia)

The doings of the Fenian Brotherhood in the Army of the Potomac have been discussed on the site in the past (see Michael Kane’s guest post here). The Fenian Brotherhood and Irish Republican Brotherhood were revolutionary organisations that were committed to bringing about an Irish Republic. In the early war years, many Fenians had viewed the conflict between North and South as an ideal opportunity for their members to gain much-needed military experience, hoping it would enable them to return home and foment rebellion from a position of strength. In Ireland, IRB leader James Stephens depended on the contributions of American Fenians (headed by John O’Mahony in New York) to sustain the organisation at home. In 1863 Stephens decided to establish a newspaper, the Irish People, to help finance the IRB and to serve as its mouthpiece.(2)

The newspaper secured premises on 12 Parliament Street in Dublin, and produced its first issue on 28th November 1863. Although it did not take the staunchly pro-Union stance of the Galway-American (which Stephens disliked, particularly as he saw it as promoting emigration to America), news of the American Civil War was nonetheless a key theme for the publication. The paper was produced in 16 pages, with each page three columns in width; of these two full columns were consistently dedicated to the war raging in America. Subscribing to the newspaper became a way for Fenians in America to show their support for the cause, and by April 1865 some 600 subscriptions had been taken out in the United States. Eventually the Government in Ireland moved to suppress the newspaper, raiding its offices and shutting it down on 15th September 1865. (3)

The Irish People of 6th August 1864 carried the below letter, written by First Sergeant Robert J. O’Driscoll of Company D, 88th New York Infantry, Irish Brigade. O’Driscoll gives an account of the Brigade’s participation in the Overland Campaign and the initial assaults around Petersburg. Aside from his chronicle of the campaign, the Irishman also has interesting things to say about Fenian involvement in the Union army. It is worth noting that the letter appeared in the Dublin paper less than a month after it had left the Petersburg trenches. As for the writer himself, Robert J. O’Driscoll was 27-years-old when he enlisted as a private in Company D on 29th March 1864. His rise through the ranks would continue beyond First Sergeant; he was promoted to Second Lieutenant on 13th October 1864. He would never realise his dream of returning to Ireland to fight for its liberation- Robert was killed in action outside Petersburg- just over three months after he wrote this letter- on 17th October 1864. (4)

James Stephens, leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (National Archives)

James Stephens, leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (National Archives)

TO THE EDITOR OF THE IRISH PEOPLE.

Camp before Petersburg, July 10, 1864,

8tth Regt. N.Y.V., Irish Brigade.

DEAR SIR- On yesterday I had the pleasure of receiving for the first time a copy of your honest journal, dated June 6. I cannot tell why this is so, being a half-yearly subscriber. I can assure you this is the first copy I have seen since the commencement of our present campaign, and only by chance did I get a peep at this. I need not tell you with what pleasure I read its contents, and glad did I feel at the Cork prisoners being so nobly sustained. We expect the paymaster round in a few days to visit us: should he do so, I will see what can be done in our brigade for my old neighbours.

Sir, thinking that, perhaps, something from the brigade may not be unwelcome to you or your readers, I give you a few words:- On the 3d of May, on which memorable morning the Irish Brigade, mustering about 2,000 effective men, struck tents and, under command of Colonel Smith,* of the 1st Delaware Regiment, crossed the Rapidan river, thereby commencing our march to Richmond. Ah, sir, this road to Richmond is a rough and dark one to journey upon; one now dyed with some of the best American and Irish blood. To describe the numerous engagements which our brigade participated in, from the 3rd of May until now, is more than my time and, probably, your valuable space would admit of. On the morning of the 5th we commenced the battle of the Wilderness, where the carnage so horrible that the recollection of it causes the strongest of us to shudder.

We were more or less engaged up the evening of the 11th, when we though we would be relieved, our ranks being rather thinned, and being dreadfully fatigued we were ordered to lie down in a meadow; we had scarcely done so when “fall in” was whispered in our ears by our commanding officers. Jumping up we were surprised to be in front of our enemies, our skirmishers steadily advancing. It being not yet day, we could not form an idea where we were advancing upon; however, we were not kept long in suspense, for whiz, whiz, came the grape and canister into our midst, when the order was given to “fix bayonets, charge.” As day broke, we found in our front a battery of forty-two pieces of rifled cannon, with Johnson’s division of 8,000 men, who were waiting for reinforcements to come up to attack us. When we advanced, some of our boys sung out, stop your firing, do you want to murder your own men? They stopped immediately, we closing upon them. I will leave you to judge of their surprise, as line after line of our corps, Hancock’s, fell pell-mell on their almost impregnable works. Those at the outward works fought desperately, but being out-numbered, they had to give way. Their rear guard advanced, and tried hard to drive us from the works, and until our fellows opened the captured cannon upon them we did not succeed in taking General Johnson with 8,000 prisoners. Often since have I heard them sing out across the Confederate lines. “Well, Yank, you had it soft at Spotsylvania, but look out next time.” We were then relieved of Colonel Smith, and handed over to Colonel R. Burns, of the 28th Mass., who commanded us through the battles of North Anna and Tullapatomy Creek, when on the 3rd June he fell mortally wounded, leading the brigade against a battery at Coal Harbour, where we suffered a gallant defeat. The Corcoran Legion suffered heavily too in this charge. Coal Harbour is ten miles E.N.E. from Richmond. Colonel P. Kelly had now taken command of us, having been detained up to this in New York on special duty. Being ordered again to march, we arrived at daybreak on the morning of the 16th of June in front of the now famous city of Petersburg, where we had temporary rest until the 3rd p.m. when we were ordered to advance in front, and throw up breastworks preparatory to a grand charge, which was to come off at six o’clock the same afternoon. Under a pretty smart fire from the enemy, our “boys” succeeded in finishing their works, wearied out by constant marching and fighting we laid down on our stony pillows, trying to snatch a moment’s slumber, but were doomed to disappointment. At a distance of nine hundred yards, and in an oblique direction lay the rebels in a line of strong intrenchments, supported by heavy artillery, together with a large force of concealed infantry, who, the moment we showed ourselves gave us an uncomfortably warm reception. To storm the enemy at the point of the bayonet was our duty. Our brave fellows were well aware of the task before them- to run nine hundred yards through thickly brambled ground, under a cross-fire from an obstinate foe, before we could grapple with him, was no pleasant sensation; yet jokes were passing round as merrily as if we were preparing for a visit to Ireland.

At six o’clock, p.m., Colonel P. Kelly gave the order, “Attention, Battalion! Fix bayonets! Forward! Charge!” Colonel D.F. Bourke first leaped the works, when the rebels opened a withering fire upon us, which nearly stunned us. How any one of us escaped is a miracle. It was here our veteran Captain D.F. Bourke proved the soldier. Cool and self-possessed, he called, “Halt! Close up!’ which our poor shattered regiment immediately did. “Forward! Charge!’ On, on we continued, every step costing us the lives of dozens of our bravest comrades, before we reached the enemy. General Hancock, seeing our condition, sent forward Birney’s “command” to support us. We succeeded in driving the enemy from his position- but at what a sacrifice of human lives! Our gallant Colonel P. Kelly fell in the early part of the fight, which was an irreparable loss to us, while our remaining officers were all more or less maimed, amongst whom were Captain D.F. Bourke, with our veterans, Captains O’Driscoll and O’Shea, and Lieutenant Sweeney. The gallant 69th, 63rd, 116th P.A., with the 28th Mass., suffered similarly with outs. For the nest three days we were partially engaged, when we were ordered to take up our position inside our outside entrenchments, there to enjoy, as best we may, that rest so long and so anxiously looked for. I fear our stay here will be but short. Since I commenced to write this our waggons are ordered to fall back ten miles to the rere, a sure signal that a storm is brewing.

On yesterday I strayed over to the Corcoran “Boys,” to enquire how my Fenian Brothers were getting along, I met our friend Captain Welply, in splendid fighting condition, and as zealous as ever in the old cause. [Welply was later killed in action at Ream’s Station]

He, with Captain O’Rourke, are heart and soul for our deal old land, and they are well aided by the entire legion. It is remarked by all that when a daring act is performed by any one, the boy is sure to be a Fenian. I remember once, and often heard it repeated in America, that here was a splendid school for Irishmen to become soldiers. True, but can poor Ireland afford to pay so dearly for her military knowledge, when at such training we lose men like Corcoran, Brennan, William O’Shea, young Mitchel, with thousands of splendid true men. Then, in God’s name, it is time poor Ireland should cease patronising such schools. Oh, yes, Irishmen, no matter how ardent you may be for military fame, I implore you to suppress “for a time” your noble feelings, and, in the words of Mr. O’Mahony, “remain doing garrison duty in Ireland until we get the order to push forward to relieve you. That such an order may be soon and sudden, is the fervent prayer of all my countrymen in the American army, and you, sir, I presume, are aware of that fact.- Yours sincerely,

ROBERT J. O’DRISCOLL,

1st Sergeant, Co. D., 88th Regt., N.Y.V.,

Irish Brigade. (5)

Parliament Street in Dublin, looking towards City Hall. This is where First Sergeant O'Driscoll's letter from Petersburg arrived to the newspaper offices in 1864 (Wikipedia)

Parliament Street in Dublin, looking towards City Hall. This is where First Sergeant O’Driscoll’s letter from Petersburg arrived to the newspaper offices in 1864 (Wikipedia)

*Thomas Alfred Smyth from Ballyhooly, Co. Cork. A Fenian himself, he would become the last Union General to be mortally wounded in combat, dying in April 1865.

(1) Ramon 2007: 141-2; (2) Ibid; (3) Ibid: 146-7, 159; (4) New York Adjutant-General, Irish People 6th August 1864, Ramon 2007: 178; (5) Irish People 6th August 1864.

References

New York Adjutant-General 1893. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York, Volume 31

The Irish People Saturday 6th August 1864. To The Editor Of The Irish People.

Ramon, Marta 2007. A Provisional Dictator: James Stephens and the Fenian Movement.

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Categories: 88th New York, Battle of Petersburg, Fenians, Irish Brigade

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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4 Comments on “Reporting the War in Irish Newspapers: Correspondence from the Petersburg Front”

  1. Barry
    December 21, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    I am seeking information about an Irish relaion of mine who fought for the north and fell at Gettysburg. His name is Captain James Rorty.
    Best wishes.

    • January 8, 2015 at 11:20 am #

      Hi Barry,

      James Rorty is quite a man to be related to! He was from Donegal town and was a noted Fenian. If you put ‘Rorty’ into the search box on the right hand side of the website page (scroll down a bit to find it) you will find a few articles that mention him. The late Brian Pohanka also wrote a small booklet about him that you should look to get. Do you know how you are descended from him?

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. February 2, 2015 at 5:10 pm #

    An excellent letter from the 88th. Thanks for the post… I now have even more research to do.

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