Book Review: Patrick Henry Jones, Irish American, Civil War General and Gilded Age Politician

In September 2011 I had the great pleasure of meeting Mark Dunkelman and his wife Annette in Cork, Ireland. Many readers will be aware of Mark’s exceptional and inspiring work on the 154th New York Infantry, which is surely unsurpassed by any other regimental scholar of the Civil War. Mark’s incredible grasp of the history of the unit and it’s men has allowed him to repeatedly bring readers beyond purely narrative military history, exploring wider aspects of service such as motivation, morale and memory. I have personally found many of the themes elucidated by Mark highly influential in my own approach to examining the Irish experience of the conflict. To date, his publications on the 154th have included The Hardtack Regiment: An Illustrated History of the 154th Regiment New York State Volunteers (with Michael Winey), Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death and Celebrity of Amos HumistonBrothers One and All: Esprit de Corps in a Civil War Regiment, War’s Relentless Hand: Twelve Tales of Civil War Soldiers, and Marching with Sherman: Through Georgia and the Carolinas with the 154th New York. If you are interested in discovering the types of historical examination that are possible at the regimental level, then these works are a must. It was the continuation of such efforts that took Mark and Annette to Ireland in 2011. It was a visit that led to not only an extremely enjoyable night in Cork City, but has, I am pleased to say, also now resulted in another addition to Mark’s corpus on the 154th New York. This latest publication is of special significance for those interested in the Irish experience, as it has as its focus the one-time Colonel of the regiment, Westmeath man Patrick Henry Jones.

Patrick Henry Jones: Irish American, Civil War General and Gilded Age Politician by Mark H. Dunkelman

Patrick Henry Jones: Irish American, Civil War General and Gilded Age Politician by Mark H. Dunkelman

It is often remarked that there has been more written about the Irish experience of the American Civil War than on any other ethnic group, a statement which is undoubtedly true. However, there remains– to my mind at least– many aspects of the Irish experience that still warrant significant attention. The concentration of effort has largely been focused on military histories of the Irish Brigade, or on certain famed Irish individuals of the era, such as Thomas Francis Meagher and Patrick Cleburne. This is of course an issue that is consistently being addressed, notably by academic scholars in the United States and Britain who are widening our understanding of the Irish experience significantly. Despite this, there is much to be done. As yet (and somewhat surprisingly) we have no history of the Irish Brigade which comprehensively examines that unit’s story beyond its battlefield experiences. We have no history at all of Corcoran’s Irish Legion; little work has been carried out on the overwhelming majority of Irish who served in non-ethnic units; virtually nothing has been done on the Irish in Union Navy, where 1 in 5 Jack Tars were of Irish birth. Another area which would benefit from more attention are examinations of Irishmen who rose to senior rank. Outside of the likes of Meagher and Cleburne, such works are rare (though not wholly absent- for a comprehensive listing see the Biography section on the Books page here). For example, Michael Corcoran has never been the subject of a biography, nor has Thomas Alfred Smyth, regarded as the most effective Union Irish General of the war (though a book on Smyth is in preparation). It is in this context that Patrick Henry Jones: Irish American, Civil War General and Gilded Age Politician has arrived, and it is an exemplar of the potential value of such avenues of research.

Anyone familiar with Mark Dunkelman’s approach to history will not be disappointed with this book. As should be the case, the biography examines Jones’s life in full, placing the Irishman’s Civil War service in the context of his life experience. The first chapter deals with the family story around Clonmellon, Co. Westmeath, where Patrick was born on 18th November 1830, and the circumstances which led the family to emigrate to New York. It was here that Patrick would begin his long-standing connection with Cattaraugus County, a connection that ultimately led him to command of the 154th New York. But much was to happen prior to this.

Upon reaching adulthood, Patrick Henry Jones spent much of the pre-war years working as a journalist for papers such as the Cattaraugus Republican, the Buffalo Republic and the Buffalo Sentinel before eventually settling on a career in the law. On the face of things, Patrick’s ante-bellum career path provides an example of just how far an Irish emigrant could rise in the United States. However, his family experience was significantly more nuanced than this. In fact, the Jones’s faced significant Know-Nothing prejudice in 1850s Cattaraugus, which would ultimately split the family. It led Patrick’s parents and siblings to depart for new prospects in Garryowen, Iowa, an undertaking which is explored is some detail in Dunkelman’s book. In so doing, Patrick was left alone to forge his future in New York, something which he did with ever increasing success. Defying the potential handicap of his origins, he became a mainstay of his local community in Ellicottville, where he combined his professional work with an increased social profile. Then came 1861, and war.

Of the book’s 11 chapters, two are taken up with Jones’s life in Union blue. This began in 1861 as a Second Lieutenant in the Allegany Chamberlain Guards, which by happenstance would end up becoming a part of the 37th New York Infantry, the ‘Irish Rifles’, although Jones’s company was made up of Cattaraugus County men. The sometimes difficult dynamic between the Allegany soldiers and the Irishmen is a fascinating aspect of what followed; one imagines such tensions would have been trying for Jones. The Cattaraugus troops also disliked their ineffective Colonel, John McCunn, an Irishman inculcated in the corruption of Tammany Hall, and a man who one soldier described as “graceless, godless, unmitigated, forward and backward, blarneying, duplicity-dealing McCunn.” The difficulties among elements of the regiment’s leadership in the war’s early days are well assessed by Dunkelman; they would eventually lead to the demise of McCunn and his removal from command. His replacement was the competent regular Samuel Hayman, under whose tutelage Jones military career began to flourish. Patrick Henry Jones’s performance would eventually see him rise to the Colonelcy of the 154th New York Infantry in late 1862, a regiment composed of eight Cattaraugus county and two Chautauqua county companies. It was a further mark of the Irishman’s position within his local New York community. The regiment formed part of the 11th Corps, which had trying times ahead at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Jones missed the clash in Pennsylvania due to being wounded and taken prisoner on the former battlefield. When he returned to his men in late November 1863 they had moved to the Western Theater, and it was in the West during 1864 that Jones would do much sterling service commanding one of Sherman’s brigades, service which would eventually see his promotion to Brigadier-General in 1865.

Dunkelman charts the ups and downs of Jones military career in detail, but for me the most impressive aspects of this book are the chapters that follow 1865, as we discover how self-made Irishmen like Jones could seek to advance their careers in the Gilded Age political arena. Although like most Irishmen he started out as a Democrat, Jones was one of a relative minority among his countrymen who switched allegiance to the Republican party. Jones moved to New York city, and was there selected as the 1865 Republican candidate for Clerk of the Court of Appeals. Such was Jones’s popularity that many of his normally Democratic inclined fellow Irish supported him. The cut-throat political world of patronage and corruption that was the hallmark of New York politics and which Jones sought to navigate are the focus of the subsequent chapters, which effectively chart Jones rise and fall. During his political career the Westmeath native would enjoy much success, which included taking over Charles Graham Halpine’s term as Register and establishing close connections with noted men of the era, such as Horace Greeley. In 1869 President Grant demonstrated just how far Jones had come when he nominated him Postmaster of New York, a position of immense influence, particularly with respect to patronage.

The book not only seeks to demonstrate how Jones navigated the politics of the age, but in the important chapters Irishman and Veteran and Miles O’Reilly’s Halo it examines Jones position as a member of the Irish-American community of New York, as a veteran of the Civil War, and as a bridge to Irish-American support for the Republican party. As someone who for many years pinned his colours to the Republican mast, as opposed to Tammany Hall, these chapters provide a particularly useful insight for those interested in this aspect of the New York Irish experience. It is here we learn of Jones’s efforts to remember Daniel O’Connell, his public interactions with the Fenian movement, his efforts to support Irish cultural events, his support of the New York Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, and of is role as President of the Irish-American Savings Bank. As has been discussed on this site before, the use of the Irish Brigade’s history as a mechanism for the Irish-American community to demonstrate their contribution to the Civil War and Union was a central facet of how the Irish in the north chose to remember the conflict. Despite never serving with the Brigade, Jones recognised this importance, becoming one of the incorporators of the Irish Brigade Association. These two chapters alone are worth the price of the book for anyone interested in the Irish of New York, particularly given Jones position– navigating as he did his roles as an American, an Irish-American, a Cattaraugus county man and a long-time Republican.

Throughout this book one is increasingly impressed with the character of Patrick Henry Jones, who comes across a likeable, honest and hard-working individual. The final chapters deal with Jones’s gradual embroilment in both financial setbacks and scandals, as well as the bizarre circumstances surrounding his ultimate political decline. The latter centred around his unwished for involvement in one of the most notorious crimes of Gilded-Age New York, namely the 1878 theft by grave-robbers of the body of Alexander T. Stewart, who had been an exceptionally successful Irish-American entrepreneur. A media-frenzy was created when news broke of the removal of the body. It was the misfortune of Patrick Henry Jones to be the man that the body-snatchers wrote to as they sought to receive a ransom for the return of the remains. Although clearly keen not to be involved, Jones felt duty-bound to aid in the recovery in any way he could. Unfortunately his reputation would be forever tainted as a result, with allegations that he was acting as a willing agent of the grave-robbers rather than a reluctant intermediary gaining traction. His connection to the case would dog him for the rest of his days.

Patrick Henry Jones returned to the Democratic party in 1880, but he would never again hold major political office. He maintained his law offices and eventually moved to Staten Island. His final years were characterised by ill-health, financial difficulties and an alcohol problem. A former comrade said of him in 1888, perhaps rather harshly, that he was “generous, kind-hearted, and gentle and brave, he was a noble and specimen of a true man– whiskey destroyed him prematurely.” Jones suffered a stroke in 1898 and ultimately died of heart failure of 23rd July 1900, leaving behind a poverty-stricken widow. It proved a sad end for a man who had achieved so much.

Mark Dunkelman’s biography of Patrick Henry Jones has helped to rescue this significant 19th century Irish-American figure from obscurity. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the Irish-American community of New York or the Irish experience in America generally. I was honoured to be asked to read a preview copy of Mark’s book prior to publication, and to provide my thoughts on it for the dust jacket. Those thoughts succinctly demonstrate my views on the work:

“Mark H. Dunkelman’s Patrick Henry Jones: Irish American, Civil War General, and Gilded Age Politician is an important addition to the body of work on Irish Americans in the Civil War era. Outside of the most celebrated figures, biographies of significant Irish-born leaders who participated in the conflict are relatively sparse, making this study all the more valuable. The author expertly charts the rise and fall of Jones from his native Ireland through his life in America, as he sought to steer a path through the challenges, opportunities, and pitfalls presented to him by the Civil War and subsequently by New York City’s Gilded Age political scene. What emerges is a picture of a likeable, hard-working man, who was ultimately undone by a series of financial setbacks and an unwished-for association with a bizarre grave-robbing scandal. This book takes the reader far beyond Patrick Henry Jones the Civil War brigadier general, placing his service in the broader context of a life filled with accomplishment and, ultimately, disappointment. Dunkelman’s book is an exemplary work, demonstrating the historical dividends that the detailed biographical examination of Irish American figures such as Jones can bring.” 

This is an excellent book– buy it! (you can do so here).

*I am grateful to Louisiana State University Press for providing a review copy of this book.

References

Dunkelman, Mark H. 2015. Patrick Henry Jones: Irish American, Civil War General and Gilded Age Politician. 288 pp.

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Categories: Book Review, New York, Westmeath

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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3 Comments on “Book Review: Patrick Henry Jones, Irish American, Civil War General and Gilded Age Politician”

  1. August 23, 2015 at 9:10 pm #

    Thanks for alerting us to this book, Damian!

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