It has been a while since the site has looked at one of the Irish-born Medal of Honor recipients from the American Civil War. Issues regarding recording of nativity means there is, as yet, no definitive total number for Irish-born men who earned this award during the conflict. Each time I investigate the figure evidence emerges which adds further names to the list. You can explore the names of 146 of the men I have compiled here; since it was last updated I have come across more probable Irish-born recipients. Today’s guest post looks at one of the naval recipients of the award, Waterford’s Patrick Murphy- a man who after the war would become embroiled in events surrounding the Fenian Invasion of Canada. The post author is James Doherty, a Waterford native who has carried out extensive research on that city’s military past and Waterford involvement in conflicts such as the American Civil War. James has been at the forefront of efforts to see Irishmen and women impacted by the American Civil War recognised in Ireland, and also played a key role in the creation of the 1848 Tricolour Celebration events in Waterford City.
Patrick Murphy was born in the City of Waterford, Ireland on 15th January 1823 and was baptised in St Patricks Church three days later. The City of Waterford in that era was a thriving port and it was no surprise that the young Murphy took up a career as a sailor. At the age of fourteen Murphy joined the merchant trade and after several years joined the British Navy, serving on-board the HMS Montreal. (1)
1844 saw Murphy in Erie, Pennsylvania where the United States government were commissioning the USS Michigan to patrol the Great Lakes. Murphy gained employment during the construction stage of the Michigan and was employed as a seaman when she put to sea. In naval terms Murphy would have been considered a plankowner. A plankowner is a member of the crew who served on a ship when it was first commissioned. Being with the ship from the start gave the crew members bragging rights in that they ‘owned’ one of the main planks on the deck of the vessel. Historically in US naval tradition the plankowner or his widow could petition the Navy for a piece of the deck planking when the vessel was decommissioned.
Murphy was injured in 1849 while the Michigan was firing a salute for the visiting US Vice President Millard Fillmore. The Michigan had only one gun mounted, meaning that the same gun had to be rapidly fired in succession to affect the salute. This practice had worked satisfactorily the previous week when a salute was fired for the President, Zachary Taylor. However on this occasion, on the eleventh shot, the sponger missed a spark causing a premature explosion. Murphy was serving as gun captain and was injured in the blast. The two Boatswain’s Mates serving the cannon, Peter Gilbert and John Robertson, were not so lucky, and were killed in the blast. (2)
With the outbreak of the Civil War Murphy served on the USS Metacomet. June 1864 saw the Metacomet under Commander Jouett join the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, capturing the British registered blockade runner Donegal in early June. In an effort to deny the port of Mobile Bay to the Confederacy a Union fleet under Admiral Farragut entered the estuary on the 5th August, with 17 Union ships engaging the smaller Confederate force. The Confederate ram Tennessee fought against overwhelming odds but was eventually forced to strike its colours. (3)
It was at Mobile Bay that Murphy would join the ranks of over a hundred and forty Irish Born combatants that would be awarded the Medal of Honour. Murphy was serving as Boatswain’s Mate during the engagement and his Medal of Honour Citation read as follows: during action against rebel forts and gunboats and with the ram Tennessee in Mobile Bay, 5th August 1864. Despite damage to his ship and the loss of several men on board as enemy fire raked her decks. Murphy performed his duties with skill and courage during throughout a ferocious 2 hour battle which resulted in the surrender of the rebel ram Tennessee and the damage and destruction of batteries at Fort Morgan. (4)
Murphy had married his wife Bridget in 1845 and after the Civil War ended he returned to Erie. They had two sons; William died in infancy and James would later become an actor in Cleveland. Murphy had developed his own stake in the mercantile trade before the conflict, purchasing a schooner called the William Adair in 1853. He continued his interest in trade whilst serving in border patrol aboard the Michigan after the war.
It was his service on the Michigan in 1866 that provided another notable event in Murphy’s life. 1866 saw the ill-conceived and ill-fated Fenian invasion of Canada. The Fenians hoped to take part of Canada and use it as a bargaining chip with the British Government to secure the independence of Ireland. Although the plan seemed far-fetched on the ground the Fenians had many advantages. They were well armed and veterans of the Civil War and the enemy they opposed (mainly Canadian militia) had never fired a shot in anger. Their plan was that a force of over a 1000 men would cross into Canada and take and hold ground near the town of Ridgeway.
The night of May 31st saw the first wave of Fenian troops cross the Niagara River in small boats. Only one obstacle stood in their way- the formidable USS Michigan. The captain of the Michigan was Commander Andrew Bryson who was under strict orders to prevent a diplomatic incident by stopping any Fenian incursion into Canada. Commander Bryson was aware of the build-up of Fenians on his side of the Niagara and the ship had a full head of steam up on the night of the 31st. As the Fenians started to cross the river Bryson gave orders to get under way. However the Fenians had disabled the Michigan in the simplest way possible. Its assistant engineer James Kelley’s sympathies lay with the Fenian cause and he had enticed Murphy into a drinking spree. Murphy was the Michigan’s pilot and Bryson wouldn’t put into the lakes without the now insensible Murphy. (5)
It was 3pm the next day before the steamer finally set sail, preventing Fenian reinforcements from crossing the Niagara. After a brief skirmish the Fenian raid fizzled out and its commanders realised the situation was hopeless. Its leaders faced arrest and the Michigan escorted the rank and file Fenians back across the Niagara River. The level of Murphy’s complicity in delaying Michigan’s departure is impossible to ascertain. This blemish on his military record didn’t seem to affect his career however, as he was awarded his Medal of Honor in 1870. Murphy retired from the Navy in 1885 and was an active member of the GAR. Boatswain Patrick Murphy passed away on 1st December 1896.
In 2009 Murphy’s grave was re-dedicated and given the appropriate Medal of Honor marker. The Battle of Ridgeway and the life of Patrick Murphy are remembered in the Erie Maritime Museum. Thanks to LindaBolla of the Maritime Museum for help in preparing this article.
(1) Nelsons Biographical Dictionary (Erie); (2) Guardian of the Great Lakes by Bradley Rogers; (3) Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships; (4) Medal of Honor Recipients 1863-1973 (US Government) (5) Against the Grain (The Fenian Invasion) Timothy Bohen;
Bohen, Timothy 2012. Against the Grain: The History of Buffalo’s First Ward.
Rogers, Bradley A. 1996. Guardian of the Great Lakes: The U.S. Paddle Frigate Michigan.
United States Government 1973. Medal of Honor Recipients 1863-1973.