2017 witnessed the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Fenian Rising. Although largely abortive, the events of that year proved inspirational for many in later generations of the nationalist movement. There were a number of events in Ireland to mark the occasion, particularly commemorating those individuals who participated in incidents around the country. Fenian veterans of the American Civil War– particularly those who fought to preserve the Union– played a central role in the Rising. But it is also worth reflecting on the many significant members of the Brotherhood who never had an opportunity to return to Ireland in 1867. They were not there because their lives had been snuffed out on the American battlefields of the 1860s. Almost totally forgotten in Ireland, I wanted to explore one of them– the man who Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa called “Fearless Captain Billy O’.” (1)
With fearless Captain Billy O’
I joined the Fenian band,
And swore, one day to strike a blow,
To free my native land.
~ Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Rossa’s Recollections, 1898
Grave No. 3470 at Fredericksburg National Cemetery in Virginia bears the inscription “Capt. W. O’Shea, N.Y.” William O’Shea had led Company A of the 42nd New York Infantry– the Tammany Regiment– since the spring of 1863. Wounded facing Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, he had survived to take the field once more in the 1864 Overland Campaign. On 12 May that year he was there when the Tammany men experienced one of the most horrifying clashes of the war at Spotsylvania’s Mule Shoe Salient. He was one of the multitude who did not survive. (2)
Less than eight years before his death, Billy O’Shea’s name had been a household one in Ireland. In his native West Cork he had been a member of the Phoenix National and Literary Society, a secret organisation founded by Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in the town of Skibbereen in 1856. Rossa would go on to become one of the most noted Fenians in history, and O’Shea was one of his first associates. The group’s name had been selected to indicate that “the Irish cause was again to rise from the ashes of our martyred nationality.” Growing up in one of the regions worst affected by the Famine, men like Rossa and O’Shea were convinced of the need to rid the country of British rule, and the organisation of the Phoenix Society was a response to that. The Society would eventually became a part of the newly formed Irish Republican Brotherhood, the American wing of which was known as the Fenian Brotherhood. (3)
The Phoenix Society was particularly strong in Skibbereen and O’Shea’s hometown of Bantry. It’s members set to nighttime drilling as they prepared for future action, but their activities came to the attention of the local Constabulary. In late 1858 an informer named Dan O’Sullivan Goula infiltrated the organisation, and by December the authorities had decided to move against key Phoenix members in Cork and Kerry. While Rossa and others were apprehended in Skibbereen, O’Shea was taken in Bantry. The Nation of 18th December 1858 reported his arrest and subsequent escort to Cork Gaol:
On Friday the 10th a party of fifteen of the Macroom police, under Head Constable Graham, escorted two prisoners to the county Cork gaol, one of whom was for robbery, the other, William O’Shea, was charged with being one of the members of an illegal society. He is about twenty years of age, a cabinet maker, and is from Bantry. He was arrested on Thursday night, and brought before Mr. Davis, R.M., by whom he was fully committed for trial. It is expected that some of the other members of the gang will be arrested in a few days. None of the prisoners lately arrested at Bantry and Skibbereen, it is stated, deny their participation in the illegal society; on the contrary, they boast of it. (4)
Goula gave evidence to the effect that the Phoenix Society was a secret organisation that intended to engage in armed rebellion against Britain. While the State sought additional proof to make their case, all but three of the Phoenix-men were released on bail. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Morty Moynahan and William O’Shea were remanded in custody. Maintaining that Goula was lying, the prisoners refused offers of a deal which would see them freed if they admitted conspiracy. The situation further escalated when one of the Kerry Phoenix-men, Daniel Sullivan, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Rossa, Moynahan and O’Shea stood-firm for eight months, and remained incarcerated until they eventually accepted a deal; they plead guilty in July 1859 in return for their and Dan Sullivan’s freedom. (5)
The Phoenix National and Literary Society proved inspirational for many, particularly Fenians in the United States, where a number of the organisation’s original members ultimately found themselves. American-based Fenians regularly sought to use the name “Phoenix” afterwards, through publications such as New York’s Phoenix newspaper. Echoes of the Skibbereen secret society were even manifested in Federal uniform during the American Civil War. In 1859 New York Fenians founded the Phoenix Brigade (sometimes called the Phoenix Zouaves) to train for a future Irish war; they entered service as the 99th New York National Guard in 1864 (you can find out more about them here). The 164th New York Infantry, part of Michael Corcoran’s Irish Legion, also took the field during the conflict with the appellation of the “Phoenix Regiment.”
Not long after his release from prison Billy O’Shea headed for the United States, where he took up work at his trade. He also quickly became a member of the Fenian Phoenix Brigade. On 22nd June 1861 he enlisted as a private in the Tammany Regiment, a formation that received finance from the Democratic political machine of the same name. By February of 1862 he had risen to Second Lieutenant. Though technically not an ethnic Irish unit, the 42nd was filled with Irishmen, and Billy O’Shea was far from it’s only Fenian. It’s first Lieutenant-Colonel was famed 1848 Young Irelander and one of the Fenian founders Michael Doheny. Among the other notable Fenians were Skibbereen brothers Denis and Patrick Downing, both original members of the Phoenix National and Literary Society who had been arrested in 1858; Morgan Doheny (Michael Doheny’s son); and Maurice Fitzharris (who returned to Ireland in order to take part in the Fenian Rising, see here). Michael Doheny left the unit after a few weeks, but many of the others saw hard service over the course of the conflict. At Gettysburg, the regiment faced Pickett’s Charge, an attack that took a major toll on Fenians both in the regiment and the Army of the Potomac more widely. On that occasion Patrick Downing wrote to Fenian leader John O’Mahony from the field to outline the organisation’s losses, which included the wounding of Billy O’Shea, Denis Downing and Maurice Fitzharris (you can read the full letter here). A further mark of the 42nd’s strong Irish links can be found in the amount of money the regiment gave in the weeks prior to Gettysburg for the relief of the poor in Ireland, money administered through the Fenians (you can see their names here). (6)
What of Billy O’Shea himself? We know he had a speech impediment, and his stutter was particularly noticeable when he was under strain. He also had a quick wit. An oft-quoted incident took place on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862, when O’Shea and his men were tasked with destroying the Grapevine Bridge over the Chickahominy. While engaged in the effort one of General McClellan’s aides dashed up on his horse, demanding to know who was in command. O’Shea responded “I–I–I am in c–c–command.” The aide continued: “I want to know, sir, can artillery pass over?” It was clearly apparent that they could not. O’Shea replied “I–I am in com–com–command here to s–s–see that this br–br–bridge is p–p–prop–prop–properly destroyed; b–b–but you c–c–can get artillery across if it be f–f–fly–fly–flying artillery, and ca–ca–can travel on wings.” The unamused aide turned and rode off. (7)
Another account of Billy comes following his wounding at Gettysburg. Jeremiah O’ Donovan Rossa was then in New York, where he spent the months of June and July 1863 before returning to Ireland. Years later Rossa would recall:
In July, 1863, was fought the battle of Gettysburg. The day after the battle [this timeline seems unlikely] a carriage stopped at the door of the house in which I lived at New Chambers and Madison streets. I was told a man in the carriage wanted to see me. The man was William O’Shea of Bantry, who had spent eight or nine months with me in Cork Jail, a few years before then. He asked me to sit with him in the carriage; we drove to some hospital at the west side of Broadway; he registered his name on the books, gave up his money to the clerk, was taken to a ward, and a doctor called. he was dressed in the uniform of a captain; he was a captain in the Forty-second Tammany Regiment; his uniform was all begrimed with earth; he had fallen in the fight; he had four wounds on his body–one bullet having entered in front just below the ribs and come out at the back, and another having struck him in the wrist, traveling up his hand, come out near the elbow. He remained two weeks in that hospital; walked about among the friends in New York two weeks more, then rejoined his regiment, and got shot dead in the next battle [it was 10 months before his death]. While he was in New York, a brother of his was killed in battle [his brother Daniel, mortally wounded at Gettysburg]; he had the brother’s body brought on to New York, and buried in Calvary. As he and I were coming from Calvary, we met the funeral of the wife of Colonel [then Brigadier-General] Michael Corcoran going to Calvary, and with it we went into the graveyard again…in Ireland I familiarly called him “Billy O’.” (8)
Rossa’s recollections were hazy with the passage of years, but the two had clearly spent time together in July 1863. Through the decades that followed Rossa kept a memento of Billy O’, a letter he had received just after they parted:
U.S. General Hospital, No. 1, Annapolis, MD.,
August 17, 1863.
JER– You see I lose no time in jerking you a line as soon as I can.
Do, Jer., give me credit for being so prompt and thoughtful, as it is but seldom I claim praise. Now, for the history of my route to hereT.
I got in to Baltimore very peaceably indeed. I had a little trouble of mind on the cars, but I soon got over that. My uneasiness was caused by a beautiful New York girl that was going to Washington to a boarding school, to complete her studies.
I got into Baltimore about seven o’clock the next morning after leaving you. I wanted to be here in time, so as to save my distance, as the horse jockeys say, which I did in right good order. The next day, I was admitted into this hospital where I now rest. I’d have saved three or four hundred dollars by coming here first, instead of going to New York. Kiss Cousin Denis and Tim in remembrance of me. Remembrance to Mr. O’Mahony. Send a line as soon as you get any new to
BILLY O’. (9)
Billy O’Shea’s commitment to the Union cause during the Civil War did not dull his desire to take action on behalf of Ireland, and he remained an ardent Fenian throughout. Along with a number of others in the 42nd he was active in the Army of the Potomac’s Fenian Circle (see here); as late as February 1864 his name was among a number of subscribers (and Union officers) recorded as financially supporting the production of The Irish People in Dublin, a newspaper “expressly published for the cause of Ireland’s Independence.” Ultimately though it was the United States for whom he gave his life. News of his death was first broken in the Irish-American; a little less than a month after he fell those in Ireland were reading of it. The Irish People of 11th June 1864 carried the story:
The late fighting in Virginia has cost the Fenian Brotherhood and Ireland dear. The announcement of the deaths of Capt. O’Shea, Capt. Tobin [another Fenian in the 42nd] and Lieut. Brennan [97th New York] will be received with deep sorrow by our readers. They were brave and experienced officers, whom we hoped to see in the service of their own country, to whose cause they were devoted, heart and soul. Captain O’Shea was one of the “Phoenix Prisoners” of ’58. (10)
The Irish-American had originally received the news of O’Shea’s death straight from the field, printing it in their 28th May edition. It said of he and Tobin: “…none were braver or loved Ireland’s cause more truly…cut off in the prime of their manhood, many a kind friend will drop a tear when they hear of their early deaths.” His remains were initially buried at Brown’s Farm, Spotsylvania before being removed to their permanent place of interment at Fredericksburg National Cemetery.* Despite the breadth of his life-experience, Billy O’Shea was just 26-years-old when he died. (11)
*The National Park Service Roster of Known Union Soldiers buried in Fredericksburg National Cemetery notes that the records of Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York also record his burial there, though perhaps this is a memorial to him. See here.
(1) Rossa’s 1898:174; (2) Kenna 2015:16, New York Muster Roll Database, 42nd New York Muster Roll:1049; (3) Kenna 2015:16, Rossa 1898:149, Shiels 2016: 35; (4) Kenna 2015: 16-38, Rossa 1898: 206-233, The Nation 18th December 1858; (5) Kenna 2015: 16-38, Rossa 1898: 206-233; (6) The Irish People 25th March 1865, Savage 1868:354, 267, Rossa 1898:87; (7) Wexler 2016: 147-8, Savage 1868:355; (8) Rossa 1898:383; (9) Rossa 1898:384; (10) The Irish People 20th February 1864, The Irish People 11th June 1864; (11) New York Irish-American Weekly 28th May 1864, Wexler 2016: 339;
New York Irish-American Weekly, 28th May 1864.
The Irish People, 20th February 1864.
The Irish People, 11th June 1864.
The Irish People, 25th March 1865.
The Manchester Guardian, 18th March 1859.
The Nation, 18th December 1858.
Kenna, Shane 2015. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: Unrepentant Fenian.
National Archives & Records Administration. M1064. Letters and their enclosures received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1863-70.
National Park Service. Roster of Known Union Soldiers Buried in Fredericksburg National Cemetery.
New York Muster Roll Abstracts.
New York Adjutant General. Roster of 42nd New York Infantry.
O’Donovan Ross, Jeremiah 1898. Rossa’s Recollections 1830 to 1898.
Savage, John 1868. Fenian Heroes and Martyrs.
Shiels, Damian 2016. Heritage Centenary Sites of Rebel County Cork.
Wexler, Fred 2016. The Tammany Regiment: A History of the Forty-Second New York Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864.