Four Years of the Irish at War in Poetry & Song

As we discovered in the excellent recent guest post by University of Edinburgh scholar Catherine Bateson (see here), poetry and song could be extremely important methods for Irish-Americans to communicate their views and experiences. Readers regularly sent in their efforts to be printed in newspapers like the New York Irish American Weekly, allowing us to chart how key events of the day were portrayed in lyrical form. Although undoubtedly of varying quality, they often provide intriguing insights into how Irish people viewed the conflict that engulfed America. I have decided to take a range of these poems and songs from the pages of the Irish-American and reproduce them here. The 17 I have selected date from 1861 to 1865, and chart major events that impacted on Irish-Americans through the course of the conflict. What is notable is that so many were composed within days or weeks of the events which they describe. Some were written by soldiers at the front, others by men and women on the Home Front. The majority conform to the views that were central to the Irish-American, being strongly pro-Fenian and pro-Democrat. Some describe the exploits of regiments and brigades, others the fate of individual named soldiers, while still more served as political propaganda pieces. All are well-worth exploring. 

A Union soldier and his instrument (Library of Congress)

A Union soldier and his instrument (Library of Congress)

The first song featured in the Irish American of 15th June 1861. The 69th New York State Militia had left New York the previous April– they would fight at Bull Run on 21st July. The song notes how those in Ireland would soon hear of their performance on the battlefield. References to the struggle with the English in Ireland abound, as does imagery such as the French victory over the British at Fontenoy in 1745, where the Irish Brigade of France played a key role in determining the outcome. This is the first of a number of the writings featured in the post that were penned by Richard ‘Dick’ Oulahan. A native of Dublin, he emigrated to the United States around 1849. Dick was a committed Fenian, and would later serve as an officer in the 164th New York, Corcoran’s Irish Legion. You can find out more about him here

CAMP SONG OF THE SIXTY-NINTH

Scene– “The Sacred Soil of Virginia.”

From Malahide,

To Shannon side,

From Malin Head to Bray,

Our kindred dear,

Will proudly hear,

The tidings of the fray.

They know we’re here, in danger’s van,

Determined, loyal to a man,

And flanked by brave compeers;

Then let us win a glorious name,

That Saxon Thugs may not defame

The Irish Volunteers.

 

Young, headlong braves,

The Green Flag waves,

Oe’er foreign soil once more,

As, dyed in blood,

It victor stood,

On Fontenoy, of yore,

The birth right of our gallant band,

The danger to adopted land

And gift of famine years,

Made every Celtic heart of steel

Leap madly to the bearna boaghail– [Gap of Danger]

The Irish Volunteers.

 

Our purpose high,

To win or die,

For “Eire of the streams,”

Is still the hope

That buoys us up

And haunt’s the soldier’s dreams.

But though we may not live to see

They shamrock hills, gra gal ma chree,

The great Republic rears

A countless host, of Gaelic blood,

Who’ll stand where once their fathers stood,–

The Irish Volunteers.

 

Unconquered Flag!

No foe shall drag

Our starry standard down,

If courage true

And hands to do,

Can reckless valor crown.

Memento of a tyrant crown.

Bright beacon of our life’s young spring!

The rebel hoarde appears–

Now, comrades, let your war-shout wild

Proclaim, it still floats undefiled!

O’er Irish Volunteers!

After the 69th New York State Militia’s term of service expired it was not long before a proposal was put forward to form an Irish Brigade. Thomas Francis Meagher was given permission to raise such a brigade in September 1861, and he would later become its first commander. On 30th November the Irish-American printed a song by Thomas J. MacEvily which he had written on the 18th of that month based on the new unit, which initially consisted of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Infantry. Intended to be sung to the tune of The Star Spangled Banner, further reference is made to the Irish Brigade in French service at Fontenoy, as well as the 1691 Treaty of Limerick in 1691, the terms of which were not honoured as the 18th century progressed.

WAR SONG OF THE IRISH BRIGADE

Air– “The Star Spangled Banner”

Once more we awaken to liberty’s call,

And rise up in might in defence of the nation;

Five thousand are we, and each man will fall,

Before in our Union there is separation;

We’ll conquer, or die, and foul traitors defy,

In the midst of the battle this will be our cry:–

Up! up! with our colors, the proudest e’er seen–

The red, white and blue, and the Emerald Green.

 

Our leader is youthful, and manly and brave,

The pride of our race: and a lover of glory,

Undaunted the flag of the free we will wave,

While he leads us to fight ‘gainst a rebel or tory;

Where’er he says “go,” we will follow the foe,

And victory or death will be ours as we go,

And we’ll be up with our colors, the proudest e’er seen,–

The red, white and blue, and the Emerald Green.

 

What glorious memories will haunt every breast,

As onward we go to the battle advancing,

With sword and with musket our prowess to test.

And our trusty good chargers neighing and prancing;

Fontenoy! Fontenoy! we” ring out with great joy,

And “remember Limerick,” will come from each boy

And we’ll up with our colors, the proudest e’er seen,–

The red, white and blue, and the Emerald Green.

 

Then, onward! oh, onward! at liberty’s call;

For America’s freedom we” brave every danger,

For oh! ’tis a land that is dear to us all,

‘Tis the friend of the weary, the home of the stranger;

Then Meagher lead the way. We’re eager for the fray,

With thy spirit to cheer us we’ll soon win the day,

And we’ll up with our colors, the proudest e’er seen–

The red, white and blue, and the Emerald Green.

The Irish Brigade were not the only Irish unit raised in New York at this time, and among the others was the 37th New York Infantry, the ‘Irish Rifles.’ A poem about that unit was written by one of its members while they were based in Camp Michigan, Virginia on 10th February 1862. Printed in the Irish-American of 22nd March 1862, unlike the previous examples this does not have an overtly political agenda. Instead it seeks to conjure images of the martial scene in which the men found themselves. Following a difficult early term of service under the incompetent command of Colonel John McCunn, the 37th had been set to rights following the appointment of Samuel B. Hayman to the Colonelcy in September 1861.

A SERENADE IN CAMP

The queenly moon a mellow light

In flinging o’er the tented slope,

And music, mingling with the night,

Attunes each heart to faith and hope.

 

The neighb’ring woods harmonious grow,

And flash in echoes to the ear

Those liquid notes which sweetly flow

From serenaders playing near.

 

To morrow’s sun may glint along

The polished bayonets of our column,

For right, when battling ‘gainst the wrong,

Is ever marching onward, solemn.

 

And so the gentle slope, whose tents,

Like bells of snow, adorn the hill,

Is black with men to learn from whence

The sounds that wake the valley still.

 

Admirers of a gallant man

Wed music thus to words of soul:

“The foremost in the battle’s van,

The foremost, too, to reach the goal.

 

“With Hayman there to lead his men,

success is certain in the field;

If foiled at first, he’ll charge again.

The Thirty-Seventh never yield!”

 

The tribute of melody is hushed.

And night resumes its silent sway;

But mem’ry stores the tones which gush’d,

In praise of gallantry for aye.

The first months of 1862 saw focus switch to the Western Theater as some early Union victories arrived that year. In February, the soon to be legendary Ulysses S. Grant successfully captured Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, having already taken Fort Henry on the Tennessee. A poem was written about the journey of one Irishman, ‘Pat Rooney’, from eviction in Ireland to a new life in America with his children, and ultimately a glorious death at Donelson as he seized the flag of his adopted home. The Irish-American, which ran the poem on 24th May 1862, had taken it from the pages of the Philadelphia Sunday Transcript. I have been unable to locate a ‘Pat Rooney’ who was killed in action at Fort Donelson, so it is unclear if this poem was centred around an actual individual or if he was invented for the purposes of this compelling piece.

PAT ROONEY AND HIS LITTLE ONES

By the side of the road,

Poor Pat Rooney stood,

Without shelter or food,

For himself and his little ones.

His heart seemed to fail,

And his cheek ‘gan to pale,

As he felt the cold hail

on himself and his little ones.

 

All evicted– no home,

A future of gloom,

Like a ship ‘mid the foam.

Stood himself and his little ones

Where breakers run high,

And a dark frowning sky.

Leave naught but to die,

Were himself and his little ones.

 

And fondly he gazed,

Where the rude cabin blazed,

From which, almost crazed,

Fled himself and his little ones.

As he thought of the past,

The love laden past.

As the cold winter blast

Chilled himself and his little ones.

 

The night dark and bleak

Hid the tear on his cheek,

As hungry and weak

for himself and his little ones

He breathed forth a prayer

On that cold chilling air,

Asking Heaven to spare,

Yet, himself and his little lone.

 

And succor came soon.

Like a cloud bursting moon,

As a heavenly boon

To himself and his little ones

But deep were their sighs,

As they said their good byes,

And tearful the eyes

Of himself and his little ones.

 

No more round the hearth,

In the spot of their birth,

Will gather on earth,

E’er himself and his little ones,

Now friendless, forlorn,

Sad, weary, and worn,

From Erin now torn,

Are himself and his little ones.

 

Yes, away far away,

With sad hearts away,

They’re gone, and for aye,

Both himself and his little ones.

From the land they had loved,

From the fields where they roved,

From home far removed

Are himself and his little ones.

 

Amid ocean’s deep roar,

A gallant ship bore,

From Erin’s clear shore,

Both himself and his little ones.

And the high dashing spray,

And the billow’s wild play,

Sang a hope stirring lay,

To himself and his little ones.

 

He reaches the West,

The free sunny West,

A land of the blest,

For himself and his little ones

And raiment and food

Seemed to come in a flood

Of sweet heavenly good,

On himself and his little ones.

 

‘Twas then he avowed,

With heart full and proud,

With deep voice and loud,

For himself and his little ones.

That, come evil or good,

On the land or the flood,

With their hearts’ dearest blood,

Would himself and his little ones.

 

Prove constant and true,

To “the Red, White and Blue,

Yes, die for it, too,

Would himself and his little ones,

For Columbia smiled

Upon him as her child,

And of grief soon beguiled,

Both himself and his little ones.

 

And soon comes his chance,

He heads the advance,

With bold tread and glance,

For himself and his little ones,

in Columbia’s fight,

Upon Donelson’s height,

In defence of the right,

For himself and his little ones.

 

In the height of the fray,

His flag’s shot away;

And now a display,

For himself and his little ones,

Amid carnage and flame,

He makes, that bright fame

Will e’er link with the name

Of himself and his little ones.

 

That flag on the ground,

He reached with a bound,

And his breast wrapt it round,

For himself and his little ones;

“Come on, boys,” he cried,

As with swift running stride,

And with patriot pride,

For himself and his little ones.

 

He rushed on the foe–

But he fell, and lies low;

No more will he know

For himself and his little ones,

Of want, or ill fare,

For his soul is up there

With God, who will care

For himself and his little ones.

The charismatic Fenian and leader of the 69th New York State Militia, Colonel Michael Corcoran, had been captured at Bull Run on 21st July 1861 and was held prisoner by the Confederates until the late summer of 1862. Returning to New York a hero and a newly minted Brigadier-General, he would soon began to raise his own brigade that would become known as Corcoran’s Irish Legion. The poem is another from the pen of Richard Oulahan, who would soon be joining his old commander– it was printed in the Irish-American on 6th September 1862.

CORCORAN! THE PRISONER OF WAR.

Welcome back! welcome back! To his friends and his home,

And the loved ones who prayed for this bright day to come–

With an outburst of joy that no croaking can mar,

Let us welcome the PATRIOT PRISONER OF WAR!

When the summons went forth

To the sons of the North,

And her legions of volunteers leaped to the strife;

With a chivalrous band,

Of his own martial land,

Gallant CORCORAN tendered his sword and his life.

 

From Annapolis, fearlessly working they way,–

Watching rebels by night, laying rail-tracks by day,–

Going to bed, with a prayer, in soft Maryland mud,

Breaking bread with their muskets and calling it “good,”–

On they went without a pause,

Winning thanks and applause,

To uphold the proud flag of Humanity’s Rights!

And Fort Corcoran stands,

Giant work of their hands,

An enduring memento on Arlington Heights!

 

How they fought at Manassas and recklessly bled,

Is recorded full well by the graves of the dead;

How they rushed on the foe through the bellowing hell,

Let the widow and orphan and history tell;–

Of the patriot host,

Who were captured or lost,

By that “onward to Richmond” fanatic furore,

None evoked deeper grief,

Than our comrade and chief,

Whom we hail with a cead mille failthe galeor!

 

Give the Van and the Right of this joyous Parade,

To his own SIXTY-NINTH and the PHOENIX BRIGADE!

In those dark days of bondage his fealty and worth,

Made the blood leap with pride through the Celts of the North.

By the high hopes that cheer

His eventful career:

By the light of his life– ocean’s Emerald Star!

Let our sympathy prove,

How we honor and love,

THE YOUNG IRISH-AMERICAN PRISONER OF WAR!

The Irish Brigade’s actions at the Battle of Fredericksburg on 13th December 1862 have passed into the mythology of the Irish experience of America. The Irish-American printed the following poem, which apparently originally appeared in the Irish newspaper the Nation, on 31st January 1863. It was written by ‘Alexis.’

THE IRISH BRIGADE AT FREDERICKSBURG

Oh, well ye fought, my brothers,

In the vanguard of the free,

When your flag, above all others,

Waved its green folds gloriously;

Oh, well ye fought who perished,

For that land which was your home,

Where the exiled Celt was cherished,

Across the salt-sea foam;

 

Nor deem the deed was bootless–

Though your sun was quenched in gloom

Though the gorey field seemed fruitless,

Though your valor was your doom

Yet the tear-dimmed eyes of Erin

Shall weep no tears for you,

Nor the plain be always barren

That hath drunk that crimson dew.

 

When another war is waging

For the land which was your home

When the storm of strife is raging

On this side the sea-foam;

When a blyther queen beameth

On a deadlier, holier fray,

And the same green banner gleameth

Far in the front that day.

 

Then each heroic spirit

From the blissful halls of God

Shall call– and we shall hear it,

And on that battle sod

Shall seek a death as glorious,

In the vanguard of the free,

When the war-wave rolls victorious

O’er the wreck of tyranny

Just as those in Ireland seem to have immediately begun to eulogise the Irish experience of Fredericksburg, so too did those on the home front in America. Kate M. Boylan of Jersey City wrote the poen that follows on St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th March 1863. It was printed on 2nd May 1863:

THE IRISH DEAD ON FREDERICKSBURG HEIGHTS

Softly let thy footprints fall,

Upon this holy ground,

In reverence deep,

For those who sleep,

Beneath each lowly mound.

 

Here lieth many a noble son,

Of trodden mother land,

Whose joy thro’ life,

Was hope of strife,

For their loved native land.

 

They came from Carlow’s fertile plains,

And Wexford’s woody vales,

From Innishowen,

and green Tyrone,

And Wicklow’s hills and dales.

 

They came to seek amid the free,

Homes to reward their toil,

in which to see

That Liberty

Unknown on Erin’s soil.

 

And well they loved the chosen land;

When menaced was her might,

Each grateful heart

A willing part

Took in her cause to fight.

 

And here they lie in unblessed earth,

No kindred eye to weep;

Far, far away,

From the abbey’s grey,

Where their sires and grandsires sleep.

 

Oh! many a matron, many a maid,

Mourns in their native Isle,

For the dear ones here,

Who no more shall cheer,

Their hearts by their gladsome smile.

 

In many an ancient chapel there,

Nestled on the green hill-side,

Will the good priest pray,

On the Sabbath day,

For his boys who in battle died.

 

Let us offer too, our orisons,

For each of the martyr band,

Who nobly gave

Their lives to save

The might of their adopted land.

 

Poems were not just being written to laud the deeds of individual regiment’s and brigades. The Irish-American of 26th December 1863 shared a poem that had been sent to them on the 10th of that month, in memory of an Irish soldier who had fallen at Fredericksburg a year previously. Peter Egan of the 9th New York State Militia, which served as the 83rd New York Infantry, had enlisted aged 22 on 8th June 1861. He was promoted Corporal in November 1862, though was apparently returned to the ranks. Following his death, these lines were supposedly written by one of his comrades, J.B.B. (perhaps John B. Brady, who also served in Company C of the regiment and was wounded at Fredericksburg):

DECIUS EST PRO PATRI MORI

Pause, traveller! while you view the grave,

Where honor’d lies the soldier brave;

Young Egan, generous and bold,

A tried and proven heart of gold:

By New York State Militia, he

Remember’d long and mourn’d shall be,

When curs’d Rebellion, foul and dread,

Dar’d to disclose its hydra head;

This patriotic son of Mars,

Devoted to the “Stripes and Stars;”

Resolved to arm in nation’s right,

As loyal citizen to fight.

He fought on many a bloody field,

Nothing but death could make him yield;

On woodland, hill, on fort and glade,

His valor has been oft displayed:

He prized the Union to his core,

Lov’d but his God and parents more;

The foe, at Fredericksburg, can tell,

How fearless he advanc’d and fell;

Oh! then, for Liberty he gave

His precious life; and here’s his grave.

 

Brigadier-General Michael Corcoran ‘s Irish Legion had been formed in late 1862 and was operating in Newport News, Virginia by November. They avoided the worst of 1863’s fighting, but nonetheless had some adventures during the course of the year. On 29th August 1863 the irrepressible Richard Oulahan, now a Lieutenant in the 164th New York, had what he described as ‘a history of the rambles of the Legion in rhyme’ published:

CORCORAN’S IRISH LEGION

Keep silence for a soldier’s song,

That never yet was printed;

Not over nice, not over long,

At CENTREVILLE invented,

Where sutlers thrive, and “Eagles” swear,

And milk’s a quart a quarter–

The curse of Cromwell sent us here,

To cut the matter shorter.

Where’er we go for weal or woe,

From this ungodly region,

No tears will fall from great or small,

In CORCORAN’S IRISH LEGION.

 

We thought “Camp Scott” was bad enough,

And so it was, I reckon;

Where rain and snow, and stronger stuff,

Obeyed, “right smart,” your beckon:

But here we’re crisped, like buttered toast,

From six A.M., to sundown;

And nightly– witness, Corcoran’s host–

The floods beneath us run down.

Where’er we go, &c., &c.

 

“Old Newport News, old Newport News,”

The boys were in their glory,

With eating duck and oyster stews;

With “Bull Run,” old and hoary,

As up the course he dashed, ahead

Of thorough-bred young racers–

The Gen’ral smiled and fondly said,

“New, where are all your pacers?”

Where’er we go, &c., &c.

 

And Suffolk, with its half-starved crew,

In sorrow, treason brought her,

Recalls the tramps, the fighting too,

We had along BLACKWATER

Our “parrots” shelled the rebels out,

Whene’er they failed to fight us;

But had the knaves come right about,

‘Twould better far delight us.

Where’er we go, &c., &c.

 

They sent us down to Julien Creek,

Where swamps the fever nourish;

But only left us there a week,

Because they saw us flourish.

From Portsmouth on through Washington,

And Fairfax, to this high hill,

Where Irish Zouave, nor Irish gun,

Should ever stop with my will.

Where’er we go, &c., &c.

 

Our Colonels chafe to see us pine,

Who know we’d all with them go;

But when we drink less tea than wine,

They order us to Limbo.

So here we’re doomed to swear and sweat,

On Bull Run’s bloody borders;

Awaiting, what we hope to get,

THE GEN’RAL’S MARCHING ORDERS.

Where’er we go, &c., &c.

 

The Irish fought on both sides in the American Civil War, and in occasional, exceptional circumstances, Irish nationalists of the North had cause to mourn some of their countrymen who fell wearing Confederate gray. One of them was Willie Mitchel, the son of John Mitchel, a leading Irish nationalist and former Young Irelander who was rabidly pro-Southern in his outlook. Willie had died at Gettysburg while taking part in the assault that became known as ‘Pickett’s Charge’ (you can read more about Willie’s story here). On 21st November 1863 the Irish-American published the following poem about Willie, written by ‘P.L’ in Boston on 7th November that year. Despite the story

IN MEMORIAM

He fell where bullets showered in awful, deadly hail,

Where ranks went down like forest leaves before the Autumn gale,

Where the conflict raged the fiercest, and thickest fell the dead,

With the fight still surging round him, ’twas there his spirit fled.

 

He met death like a soldier, a true type of the land

From which he sprung; no craven fear unnerved the heart or hand;

For urging on, with battle-cheer, his broken ranks full well,

Within the foeman’s breastworks won the youthful hero fell.

 

He fell, as fell the bravest of our poor old land that day,

Upon the fatal field of blood, where brothers brothers slay.

The noble hearts, the manly arms that hoped some day to aid

The cause that lit their souls with fire, in darksome graves are laid.

 

Mourn him not with vain wept-tears; they will not wake to life

The pulseless heart that rests to-day, unmoved by woe or strife.

The flag he fell for, on the breast of him, the young and proud,

None dares gainsay to-day, at least, it is a soldier’s shroud.

 

O’er the new made grave is bending the gray-hair’d sire low,

The pang of grief that rends his heart, none, none but fathers know;

The tearless eyes are gazing down, as though their light was there;

The wintry blast of death came; rude the mountain oak is bare.

 

Unbending patriot of our land, our Mitchel true and brave,

We mourn thy loss, we grieve with thee above thy darling’s grave;

We mourn with thee this dreary day; but darker grows the pall,

To think he fell where Celt fought Celt: sure Erin claims them all.

 

The dreamless sleep of death has come, his lamp is quenched in gloom;

And where the youth, mirth and goodness reigned is the stillness of the tomb.

No wassail [?] long with sin or woe, no care to wrack the breast,

Can come to mar his sleep divine, to break eternal rest.

 

Lieutenant Richard Oulahan was wounded during 1863, forcing him to leave the 164th New York Infantry of Corcoran’s Legion due to disability. Clearly devastated at having to leave his zouave-clad comrades, he penned a farewell to them on 30th October 1863, which was published on 21st November. The Casey he mentions was the Legion’s sutler, who was captured by Mosby’s guerrillas near Fairfax and spent a short period in Confederate captivity.

CORCORAN’s ZOUAVES

(164th N.Y. VOLS)

Farewell to the light-hearted fellows,

To officers, privates and all,

Of the Corcoran Zouaves!– ever ready

To answer their commandant’s call;

In the van, on each new expedition,–

Returning to camp, in the rear,–

Performing, like soldiers, their mission,–

“Breaking ranks”, with a bound and a cheer.

 

Running out twenty miles to Blackwater,

And, after a brief bivouac,

Or a six hours’ fight at the river,

Singing Irish airs all the way back;

With the beat at a hundred or over,

And the dust like a Liverpool fog,

You might think they were off for a wrestling,

As pleasantly homeward they jog.

 

Had the Chief of the Legion ten thousand,

Such fleet-footed fellows as you,

How they’d scatter the “Confeds” of Fairfax,

Ad the morning breeze scatter the dew!

O! the wild Irish shout sounds terrific

From a column of Young Irish braves!

And red is their track through the battle,

And thick is the red field with graves!

 

Boys, wherever you follow McMahon,–

Or Mosby or White to ensnare,–

I’ll bw with my old comrades in spirit,

The robbers of Casey to scare;

Or we play, after “taps,” with the Major,

For a dozen of “Dan’s” bottled ale;

Though we called it “first-rate” in Virginia,

We prefer Michael Connolly’s “pale.”

 

Well, we’ve had pleasant times around Suffolk,

Guarding Portsmouth and Edenton roads;

With a concert of drums in the morning,

And, all night, with the song of the toads–

But farewell! when your talking o’er bygones,

Think of one who has ever been true,

Whatever his faults or his failings,

To friendship, the Legion, and you!

Brigadier-General Michael Corcoran died following a riding accident on 22nd December 1863, plunging much of the Irish community in New York into mourning. You can read more about the circumstances surrounding his demise here. A poet who gave her name only as ‘Mary’, wasted no time in getting her feelings on paper. In Montreal in January 1864 she penned this poem, which was published in the Irish-American on the 30th of the month:

WRITTEN ON HEARING THE DEATH OF GENERAL CORCORAN

‘Tis ever thus with Irish hearts;

When joy is beaming round,

A mourning veil is ever near,

To mock each mirthful sound;

When honors fresh are round them,

Or victory’s smiles are bright,

Then comes some crushing sorrow,

To wither and to blight;

 

‘Tis best, perhaps; it teacheth

Our idols are but clay;

It brings us back from roaming,

Points a truer, higher way–

A road which, through long ages,

Our fathers nobly trod,–

One made for ever royal

By the footprints of  a God.

 

Oh! yes, the Cross shall ever

Our earthly portion be;

For, are we not the followers

Of the King of Calvary?

And, though we win our laurels

In each bright path to fame,

They’ll be to us all worthless,

If we lose our ancient name.

 

But one short day of triumph

Had our Saviour on this earth;

But once aloft the palm-branch waved,

Then came a felon’s death;

And we, His humble chosen ones,

Can ask no more than He.

Cling close, O sons of martyrs,

Unto the sacred Tree!

 

With sorrowing hearts we’ll plant it

Above our hero’s tomb;

Above where fond, bright hopes lie,

With manhood’s early bloom:

While Erin with her tear and smile,

Unrolls her scroll of fame,

And writes, in sunlight penciling,

Beloved Corcoran’s name.

 

1864 would see a wave of carnage engulf communities North and South, and Irish-America was no different. Mrs. Sinclair Lithgow was upset to hear of the death of Captain Edmond Butler of the 69th New York National Guard Artillery (182nd New York) of Corcoran’s Irish Legion. He was killed in action at the Battle of Cold Harbor on 3rd June that year. Butler had enrolled as a First Lieutenant on 3rd September 1862 at the age of 27, and had ultimately risen to Captaincy in July 1863. He died leading Company C of the regiment in the assault (you can see an image of him here). The poem was printed on 23rd July 1864:

THE LATE CAPTAIN E.K. BUTLER

Far away where Southern breezes

Gently kiss the dews of morn,

And the golden sunbeams shining,

All nature to adore,

Lay a young and gallant hero,

Whose placid face, wore smiles of lore

For around his couch were gathered

Hosts of angels from above.

 

Oh! ’twas sad to listen to him,

As on his dying bed he lay:

“Bear, bear me to my mother,

Comrades, hear me oh! I pray.”

Softly, sweetly, then he murmured:

“Oh! that she would to me come!

But ah! cold death is o’er me creeping,

Soldiers, I am going home.”

 

Fainter, weaker he was growing,

We know it was his last long sleep;

As we crept to smooth his pillow,

Oh! ’twas hard our tears to keep.

What a smile played o’er his features!

What a look of joy, of love!

Oh! God, we felt our noble Captain

Soon would dwell in Heaven above.

 

And as death was fast approaching,

He awoke from slumber sweet,

Calling loudly for his brothers,

Praying they may once more meet.

“Soldiers, have I done my duty?

Can I meet my God on high?

I have fought alone for freedom,

And I’m now content to die.

 

“When you write, oh, tell my father

That I wished him by my side–

Tell him, too, that his own Edmond

Bravely, like a soldier, died.

And my sisters, (Heaven bless them!)

Soon they’ll miss me from their side;

But there’s one endearing comfort

To know I, for my country, died.

 

“Comrades, dear, press closer to me,

‘Tis my wife I’d speak of now:

Tell her how I sadly missed her,

When death’s seal was on my brow.

And my children– can I leave them?

They were all my life and love.

Oh! never, never can I see them,

Till we meet in Heaven above.”

The terrible casualties of the summer of 1864 caused such devastation to the reinforced Irish Brigade that it was (temporarily) broken up. This news was met with dismay by ‘Bessie’ of Clifton, L.I., who had the following eulogy published on 30th July 1864:

THE IRISH BRIGADE

“Our Brigade exists no longer”– they have gone– the good the true;

Pulseless now, the gallant hearts that a craven feat ne’er knew.

They fell, midst the crash and carnage of the battle’s cruel storm.

Where the sod, beneath fierce trampling feet, was red with life blood warm,

Where shirked and moans commingled with th’ artillery’s thundering peal,

Where were ghastly heaps of mangled forms, and the clash of gleaming steel.

While thick and fast, upon their ranks, poured burning shot and shell.

With their green flag floating o’er them, they proudly fought and fell.

 

“Our Brigade exists no longer.” Ah [illegible]

That sentence said, a burthen of sorrow, deep [illegible],

In grief is Erin shrouded, and sad is her [illegible] wail,

While she mourns her fallen sons, far, far from Inisfail.

They have gone forever, that gallant band, whose glorious, proud array

Filled the treacherous Saxon’s heart with hatred and dismay.

They have fallen in the glory of their manliness and pride–

Ah, would that ’twas for “the dear old land beyond the sea” they died.

 

Down trodden and oppressed they fled, poor Erin, from they shore;

But did thy sons forget thee then? Ah no, machree, asthore!

When thy “sunburst” o’er them glittered, and the thrilling martial strain

Rang out, bold, defiant, o’er Southern hill and plain,

How throbbed the fiery Celtic hearts, and leaped to their lips the cry–

“Oh, if this were but for Ireland, how gladly would we die.”

But that band– those chiefs- who proudly hoped to strike for Erin yet–

Their fate– “an exile’s lonely grave”– ‘neath stranger skies have met.

 

They had hoped to free from the tyrant’s chain the dear old “sainted Isle.”

And again behold its emerald sod, unprofaned by Saxon guile;

And their hearts throbbed high at the welcome thought of meeting the hated foe

That had wrought on our beautiful Island home such bitter wrong and woe.

Their hopes, bright dreams, alas! themselves, with the mournful past, have fled;

But their memories hat, ’round Erin’s brow, a halo of glory shed,

And their names and deeds will be cherished bright in that “Isle beyond the waves.”

And many a tear and tender thought will be given the lonely graves,

Where sleep poor Erin’s exiles– “proud sons of the glorious Gael”–

Not e’en their dust a resting place many find in Innisfail.

Much of talk that Autumn was of the impending Presidential election between incumbent Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan, darling of the Irish Democrats (to see one Irish-American’s view, see here). The newspaper was filled with pro-McClellan sentiment, and they printed a range of supporting poems and songs, three of which are reproduced below. The first, The Cry is Mac, My Darling was first printed in the New York World and printed in the Irish-American on 17th September 1864 was to be sung to the tune of ‘Oh, My Nora Creina Dear.’ It was written by an Irish soldier in the 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps, in the field on 5th September 1864.

THE CRY IS MAC, MY DARLING

AIR– “Oh, My Nora Creina dear.”

 

Mac, my darling, proud I am

To heat that you’ve been nominated:

Last we met at Antietam,

Where you the rebel might abated.

In the seven days’ fight I stood

Beside you on the hills and meadows,

And while our brave boys poured their blood,

We knew your heart was throbbing with us!

Oh my Captain, dear and true,

The coward tongues that would ignore you,

Are base as false– thank Heaven they’re few!

Your soldiers trust you and adore you.

 

Abe may crack his jolly jokes,

O’er bloody fields of stricken battle,

While yet the ebbing lifestide smokes

From men that die like butchered cattle;

He, ere yet the guns grow cold,

To pimps and pets may crack his stories;

Your name is of the grander mould,

And linked with all your brightest glories!

Oh, my General, dear and true,

The lying tongues that would defame you,

Are base as false– thank Heaven they’re few!

For as our chosen chief we claim you.

 

They say– these dogs of currish heart,

Who never heard a bullet whistle–

You’d let the Union drift[?] apart

Like down flakes from a shaken thistle;

They say, of Captain– but the words

Stick in our throats– we can’t adjust ’em,–

But lift to Heaven our dinted swords

And answer only this: “We trust him!”

Yes, oh friend of rights and laws,

Depsite the sneers of fool or crave,

Where hearts beat highest for the cause,

You have your home, your shrine and haven!

 

With patient toil and pitying breast

You sought your soldier’s blood to treasure,

Nor ever tried the cruel test,

How much we could endure to measure;

They feared you, for they saw your love;

To winn success they would not let you,–

But while the white stars shine above,

The boys you led will ne’er forget you!

Yes, oh Captain! loved and true,

Desert you– we would perish rather;

Thank Heaven the hearts are not a few

That call you brother, friend and father!

The second example of this 1864 election propaganda music was printed on 8th October (having originally appeared in the New York World). It was composed in direct response to a quote in the Chicago Platform, which had claimed that if elected, McClellan would ‘take steps to bring about a cessation of hostilities.’

WAR DEMOCRATIC VIEW OF McCLELLAN’S NOMINATION

CORPORAL CASEY SOLUS. AIR: Ould Ireland, You’re my Darling.

May I niver taste bite nor sup-tonight

But I joy to hear the story,

For the rebels’ll catch in McClellan their match,

An’ we’ll soon have “payce”wid glory!

Such “steps” he will take as’ll make ’em awake

To a sinse of their secession[?],

An ‘wid thrayson denied on a bloody bed,

Of the war we’ll have “a cessation!”

 

CHORUS OF SOLDIERS. AIR: Yankee Doodle

That’s the kind of talk for us,

That’s the peace we covet,–

Treason dead on a bloody bed,

And out starry flag above it!

 

CORPORAL CASEY AS BEFORE:

Little Mac’s the man ‘wid a handsome plan

For an airy “payce” attainin’,–

Wid threbble might to purshue the fight,

Decisive thriumphs gainin’!

We do hate an’ abhor every form o’ war,

We but fight for con-cilliation,

An’ wid thrayson dead on a bloody bed,

Of the war we’ll have a “a cessation!”

CHORUS OF SOLDIERS AS BEFORE:

That’s the kind of talk for us,

That’s the peace we covet,–

Treason dead on a bloody bed,

And the Stars and Stripes above it!

 

CORPORAL CASEY AS BEFORE:

Och! the hour is nigh to see them fly

In wild confusion scatthered,

From their broken lines an’ their murdherin’ mines

An’ their earthworks torn an’ tatthered!

Wid a fiery brand in wan stout hand

An’ an olive branch in the other,–

They’ll all come back undher “Little Mac,”

An’ we’ll have an end o’ the bother!

 

CHORUS OF SOLDIERS AS BEFORE:

That comes home to the Southern heart,

That’s the way to strike it.–

“The brand in hand if you still withstand,

The olive branch if you like it.”

The final pro-McClellan song was composed by T.F.L. and was printed on 22nd October 1864. Granuaile was Grace O’Malley, the famed Irish ‘Pirate Queen’ of the 16th Century.

THE IRISH FOR McCLELLAN

AIR– Graineumhial [Granuaile]

 

McClellan’s a soldier right sterling and true;

McClellan’s a statesman and patriot too;

McClellan will, therefore, receive, without fail,

The votes of the sons of OLD GRAINEUMHAIL.

 

McClellan’s accomplished– his head is well stor’d

With learning as deep as with strength is his sword;

Our freedom, now lost, he is sure to reveal–

So let him have your votes, sons of GRAINEUMHAIL.

 

His motto we know, ’tis “The Union Once More;”

That word, “Abolition,” he’ll ever ignore;

Additional taxes he will not entail,

He therefore commanded us from GRAINEUMHAIL.

 

McClellan’s a CELT in his every vein;

O’er this great Republic he’s worthy to reign;

Like Marshals MacMahon, O’Donnell, and Neil,

He’s a lineal descendant of GRAINEUMHAIL.

 

Then so for McClellan, let all, with one voice,

Proclaim him the chief of [illegible] choice–

His aid he’ll withhold now when we’re going to deal

The great stroke of Freedon for GRAINEUMHAIL.

 

At the conclusion of the war the remnants of the regiments and brigades marched home. On 19th August 1865 the Irish-American printed a song written by ‘N.J.W.’ on 9th August. He had reportedly witnessed the ‘painful and distressing’ disappointment of a young woman who sought her brother in the ranks of the returning Corcoran Legion, and was inspired to compose it to the air of The Exile of Erin.

“OH! WHERE IS MY BROTHER?”

“AIR– The Exile of Erin.”

 

Oh, where is my brother? ’twas here that we parted,

And here, he has said, he would meet me again;

Is he lost to me now; shall I stay broken-hearted,

Through this cold, bittler world to see him in vain?

As in safety he passed through each battle’s commotion.

Whilst the sight of the dead caused his heart sad emotion,

It was then that he said, with a brother’s devotion,

His sister might hope to embrace him again.

 

Oh, where is my brother: to foul wicked treason

Has he fallen a victim– where does he remain?

Has “The Legion” come home to deprive me of reason–

Have I hoped, have I prayed for my brother in vain?

In sorrow and plain, Oh! not thus would he leave me,

To weep in despair, with no kind friend to cheer me,

Kind Heaven look down, from this anguish relieve me,

Not here can I hope to embrace him again.

 

Oh, where is my brother? by that green banner torn,

Did he stand ‘mid the heat of the battle’s red glare,

When it passed through the fire, by my brother ’twas borne:

It appears to me now like a cloud of despair.

Is my brother lost to the cause that he cherished,

Is it thus, like “a soldier of fortune,” he perished;

Does his heart beat no more for he mother that nourished

His childhood with fond and affectionate care?

 

Oh, where is my brother?– in her chains still unbroken,

By her children deserted, his mother doth sleep;

By the Nations despised, amid sorrows unspoken,

In the grasp of the tyrant doth Erin still weep.

Will it ever be thus by the exiles forsaken,

Will their mother no more from her slumbers awaken,

Shall the power of the despot remain thus unshaken

To bind her for ever, in slavery’s keep?

 

Oh, where is my brother? in accents distressing,

She cried, as the soldiers were passing away;

Then her brother, ’til now his emotion suppressing,

Replied– I am here, thy fond love to repay!

The exiles you speak of are banded together,

Their hearts are unchanged, like the heart of your brother;

They live to redeem, in the cause of their mother,

The pledge they have taken in battle’s array.

References

New York Irish American Weekly

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Categories: Music, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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7 Comments on “Four Years of the Irish at War in Poetry & Song”

  1. wildaruth@comcast.net
    November 15, 2015 at 9:08 pm #

    I can not say how much I appreciate your generosity of spirit in sharing your knowledge of our people. I love studying the Civil War because it was such a heartbreaking epoch of this nation. Learning about my Irish family’s important place in the war thrills my soul! Thank you!Sincerely, Karen Willoughby Sent from Xfinity Connect Mobile App

    • December 10, 2015 at 8:24 am #

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks so much for reading and I am glad you are enjoying the site!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. November 16, 2015 at 1:04 pm #

    Great post, Damian! These poems and songs say so much about these Irish men and women.

    • December 10, 2015 at 8:23 am #

      They certainly do Finola, and thanks for the continued support of the site!

  3. John Murphy
    November 16, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

    As one would expect, the Irish brought their talents for literature as well as their spirit to America. A wonderful contribution.
    Thanks for this report.

  4. November 21, 2015 at 12:32 am #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

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