Historically, we have tended to view the Irish American experience of the Civil War through the lens of ethnic formations such as the Irish Brigade and Corcoran’s Irish Legion. Yet of the c. 250,000 ethnic Irishmen who donned Union blue during the fighting, only a tiny proportion did so in such regiments. As I am wont to stress, we need to raise our view beyond these ethnic units if we want to gain a fuller, more complete understanding of how Irish America experienced the conflict, and responded to the war as it developed. In order to demonstrate this, I want to examine the desperate struggles of a single, small Federal brigade during one day of battle from an Irish perspective. This brigade contained no Irish units– yet their list of dead was laden with Irish Americans. The battlefield I have selected is that of Second Bull Run. Fought in late August 1862, few “ethnic” Irish regiments suffered major losses there. Yet the scale of involvement of men drawn from major urban areas–particularly New York City–guaranteed it was a devastatingly costly experience for Irish America. This was nowhere truer than on the portion of the field held by the 5th and 10th New York Infantry.
The afternoon of 30th August 1862 found the small brigade of Colonel Gouverneur K. Warren located near Groveton, deployed in support of Lieutenant Charles Hazlett’s Battery D of the 5th United States Artillery. Warren’s command consisted of c. 1050 men of the 10th New York Infantry, known as the “National Zouaves”, and the 5th New York Infantry, known as “Duryée’s Zouaves”. Neither of them were “Irish” units. Rather their formation was strongly influenced by the Zouave craze that swept through the North in the wake of the charismatic Elmer Ellsworth, immediately prior to the conflict. While we don’t view them as “Irish”, as with dozens of other Federal units geography guaranteed a strong Irish representation within their ranks. Both regiments had primarily recruited in Manhattan, home to the largest ethnic Irish community in the United States– a community that would be proportionately over-represented within the Union military. (1)
As the 30th August 1862 wore on, it looked as if Warren’s brigade may escape serious fighting. Six of the 10th New York’s ten companies were deployed as skirmishers facing west on Lewis Lane, where they were involved in some desultory exchanges with their Rebel counterparts. Suddenly, a little after 4pm, their enemy stirred. The grayclad skirmishers began to surge forward, followed moments later by an overwhelming Confederate battle line. Where all had seemed relatively calm just moments before, Warren’s small brigade was now facing into the teeth of a massive Rebel assault. With battle flags and banners arrayed along their lines, thousands of Longstreet’s Corps bore down on the New Yorker’s position. Leading the Southerners into the fray were the famed fighters of the Texas Brigade. (2)
The sight must have been awe-inspiring and terrifying in almost equal measure for the men of the 10th. It’s unlikely that in the mere seconds before contact their minds had a chance to turn to home, but plenty of them may have spent time earlier that day conjuring images of family and friends back in New York. Former machinist John Johnston had likely thought of his young 21-year-old wife Catherine (née Duggan), whom he had wed just over two years before. The couple had not yet started a family by the time John had marched off to war. Sam McMullen would have worried for his daughter’s future. Like many step-migrants, he had spent time in England, where he married fellow Irish emigrant Sarah Reed in Liverpool in 1854. They had emigrated to New York in 1855 aboard the City of Mobile, but their American dream soon withered on the vine. Perhaps sparked by the death of their baby daughter Margaret, the couple’s relationship began to collapse. A second daughter, born in May 1858, had also been named Margaret “in memory of the first child.” After Sam had enlisted, Sarah moved in with another Irish emigrant, named Charles Duffy. The New York Zouave had discovered her adultery when he went home on furlough at Christmas 1861. The breakdown of the family complete, the couple’s young daughter had gone to live with a friend of Sam’s, the girl having apparently been “abandoned” by her mother. Such was the sorry situation for the McMullens as the Rebel yell pierced the air and descended on the 10th New York skirmishers. Neither Johnston or McMullen would survive contact with the Texas Brigade. For them and the rest of the National Zouaves, there was “barely time to discharge their pieces once before the rebels were almost upon them.” Their efforts at orderly retreat to the main line quickly turned into a mad dash for safety, with screaming Rebels thundered after them. (3)
As the 10th’s skirmishers scrambled for the dubious safety of the main line, they partially blocked the field of fire of the hastily assembled 5th New York’s left, who’s view of events was already obscured due to a wood in their front. The 10th’s reserve companies moved into line beside the 5th, in an effort to extend the position and to give their fleeing skirmishers a rallying point. Nonetheless, given what the 5th were facing, they had little choice but to commence firing before the last of their brigade comrades were clear. With the Confederates threatening to engulf the position, the 5th opened up. An officer of the 10th felt he and his men “could not blame them [the 5th], for the ‘rebs’ followed us up so close in line of battle that they were fairly upon our heels.” More of the skirmishers fell, while many others kept running. The shock of the assault and converging Confederate fire quickly threatened the complete collapse of the 10th. Color Sergeant William Duff, the son of Irish emigrants who had married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1837, crumpled under the regimental flag. He died nine days later while being evacuated to Alexandria aboard the steamer Knickerbocker. The regimental standard was seized by Sergeant Daniel Dougherty, who was immediately “riddled by bullets”, succumbing 18 days later in a Washington D.C. hospital. Ultimately, the colors fell into the hands of the 18th Georgia Infantry. Irish Americans were dropping everywhere. John “Tailor” MacHale–his nickname apparently an allusion to the profession that employed so many of the New York Irish–was another to be gunned down. The fighting was so ferocious, so confused, and so quick, that few knew just who was left dead or alive. William Johnson hadn’t witnessed the fate of Irish Sergeant Alexander Finlay, but was told that evening by another soldier that he had seen the Irishman “in the fight and…that he saw him killed the person[‘s] name who told me I can[not] recollect. It was generally understood in the Regiment that…Finly was killed in that Battle.” Finlay, who effectively disappeared in these catastrophic few minutes, had married fellow Irish emigrant Nancy McQuillan when they were both 21 in 1857. His death left his young widow to care alone for their four-year-old son Alexander Junior. (4)
Enveloped in front and increasingly on flank, the 10th’s defence inevitably collapsed. They began to stream away to the east across Young’s Branch and towards Chinn Ridge. Some managed to drag the occasional wounded man with them. One of those lucky few was Corporal Hugh Reilly, from Castlerahan, Co. Cavan. His parents had married there in 1836, emigrating when he was a baby in 1842. Another with a troubled home background, his parents were effectively estranged, with Hugh’s mother Mary Ann accusing his father Charles of periodical abandonment through the 1850s and 1860s. Hugh’s father was also a Union soldier, having lied about his age to serve in the 1st New York Engineers. His son Hugh’s battlefield reprieve was shortlived. He died from his injuries nine days after the battle. 20-year-old Thomas McAvoy was similarly taken from the field, and similarly had challenges at home. His parents had married in Galway in 1842, and after his father’s death his mother Mary had remarried. Her new husband had soon abandoned her and her young family before the war. Thomas hung on until 24th October 1862. The next month Mary received the following letter:
U.S. General Hospital
Prince St. Alexandria Va.
Nov 21 1862
I opened your letter received this day i[n] order to return and answer it. Your son Thomas McAvoy (Private Co F 10th NY Vols) died at this Hospital Oct 24th 1862 from the affects of a gunshot wound and was buried near Alexandria
Your Obedient Svt
Whilst bad enough for the 10th New York, the collapse of the National Zouaves was a disaster for the 5th. Already taking horrific losses, they were now subjected to a brutal enfilading fire raking their line. The ordeal for the 5th had begun to ramp up from the moment the 10th’s skirmishers had engaged the Confederate assault. Stray bullets began to slam into their main line. Pennsylvanian-born Irish American Patrick Brady “fell without saying a word…was dragged a few paces to the rear where he undid his body belt himself. He died there without a complaint.” Only moments passed before three Rebel regiments advancing behind the fleeing skirmishers started to pour lead into the Duryée’s Zouave’s line. It was the need to respond to this devastating onslaught that prompted the order to commence firing, despite the predicament of some of the skirmishers. Little wonder, as the enemy were now within 100 yards, and more and more of the brightly attired zouaves were beginning to crumple. One recalled the situation, as “the balls began to fly like hail from the woods…their fire directly increasing into one unceasing rattle, the air was full of deadly missiles; it was a continual hiss and sluck, the last sound telling that the bullet had gone into some man’s body.” (6)
The near envelopment of the 5th caused what was, in very real terms, a slaughter. Among the many who faced it were classic representatives of ethnic Irish “step migrants”. These were those men born into Irish families in Britain and Canada who usually regarded themselves as ethnically Irish, but who tend not to be counted among the Irish American contribution to the war [the classic exemplar of this type of Irish American is Canadian-born Peter Welsh, of the 28th Massachusetts]. The most notable at Bull Run was Frank Spellman, a member of England’s Irish community. Frank had married Irish emigrant Fanny Doyle in Manchester in 1860 prior to their move to America. On 30th August 1862, the carver and gilder demonstrated the patriotic fervour that many recent ethnic Irish emigrants displayed in the cause of Union. Serving as Color Sergeant, Frank was struck seven times and was “bleeding from every pore” yet he succeeded in saving the regiment’s colors. Unfortunately, operations undertaken to save his life failed. A comrade remembered that “shot all to pieces at Manassas…he died trying to hum a hymn” [for another example of this form of patriotism, which played out only shortly afterwards on Chinn Ridge, see the story of Mike Brady, Color Bearer of the 75th Ohio, here]. (7)
The 5th New York’s line began to dissolve, but some refused to yield. Six foot two inch Sergeant William McDowell from “Kilmoor” in Ireland (possibly Co. Wexford), a former bartender and fireman with New York’s Washington Truck Company No. 9, had been struck in the torso but kept his place when he might have sought relief in the rear. Although he supported his widowed mother back in New York, in the heat of battle his commitment to duty remained paramount. He was soon felled where he stood, taking a bullet to the forehead. John Hearn was another who faced the torrent of death flung at the New Yorkers. His widowed mother Bridget waited for news of her youngest son more than 5000 km away in Raheen, Co. Waterford. Her son had been a coachman in New York for four years prior to joining up, and had regularly remitted money across the Atlantic to her. This was something he continued from the ranks of the zouaves, but all aid stopped when his lifeless body slumped to the ground on the little knoll where the 5th made their stand. (8)
Those who could escape from this “Vortex of Hell” attempted to do so, following on the heels of the 10th New York. How far Patrick Bergen, got–if he got anywhere–remains unknown. The Moyne, Co. Tipperary native had emigrated to America with his parents, but his end came at Second Bull Run. His twin brother Martin was then serving with the 62nd New York Infantry. Martin afterwards claimed that when the 5th was falling back from Bull Run he met them and asked the adjutant about his brother. He was told his twin had been killed and that “the enemy had his body.” Inquiries with other members of the regiment confirmed this news. Their father, who had been partially blinded and permanently disabled by a gunpowder explosion and rock fall during an 1854 quarry blast, received a pension based on Patrick’s service. (9)
Incredibly, the experience of the 5th and 10th New York Zouaves lasted less than ten minutes. The disparity in numbers between attackers and defenders insured that the casualties were simply breathtaking. According to the regimental history of the 10th New York, in a “cleared space of five or six acres…the bright red uniforms of Duryee’s Zouaves, and the blue blouses of our own regiment, covered the ground thickly.” The 10th New York suffered at least 37 fatalities during the engagement. The 5th New York’s losses were mind-boggling. Of their c. 550 men, 300 became casualties, at least 120 being killed or mortally wounded. Their suffering represents the greatest number of fatalities sustained by a Union regiment in a single battle during the entire Civil War. (10)
Beyond looking at some of the personal stories associated with Irish Americans in the Zouaves, I wanted to gain some insight into just how many of the killed and mortally wounded were drawn from Irish American communities. With this in mind I turned to the fatalities named in the regimental histories and analysed each of the names using a combination of nativity data and surname analysis. Given the fact that many Irishmen carried surnames that were not distinctly “Irish”, this method almost always underestimates Irish ethnicity. It should also be noted that the lists provided in the regimental histories are not entirely accurate. Nonetheless, this approach does allow us to gain an impression of just how an action such as this–one that did not involve “Irish” units–could impact the ethnic Irish.
10th New York Infantry “National Zouaves“
Of the 37 men of the 10th listed as killed or mortally wounded, 17 of them–just under 46%–have indicators of Irish American ethnicity (Table 1).
|REGIMENT||COMPANY||TOTAL LOST||IRISH AMERICAN?|
|10 New York Infantry||A||7||1|
|10 New York Infantry||C||5||1|
|10 New York Infantry||E||1||1|
|10 New York Infantry||F||3||1|
|10 New York Infantry||G||3||2|
|10 New York Infantry||H||4||1|
|10 New York Infantry||I||9||5|
|10 New York Infantry||K||5||5|
Table 1. Potential Irish American fatalities in the 10th New York at Second Bull Run (Damian Shiels)
5th New York Infantry “Duryée’s Zouaves”
The 5th New York had less of an Irish American character, but still contained significant indicators of Irish American ethnicity. Of the 123 men compiled in that list, at least 29 of them were Irish Americans, almost 24% of the total, or one in four (Table 2).
|REGIMENT||COMPANY||TOTAL LOST||IRISH AMERICAN?|
|5 New York Infantry||A||5||0|
|5 New York Infantry||B||17||4|
|5 New York Infantry||C||14||2|
|5 New York Infantry||D||13||2|
|5 New York Infantry||E||16||4|
|5 New York Infantry||F||11||2|
|5 New York Infantry||G||14||4|
|5 New York Infantry||H||9||3|
|5 New York Infantry||I||12||6|
|5 New York Infantry||K||11||2|
|5 New York Infantry||Unknown||1||0|
Table 2. Potential Irish American fatalities in the 5th New York at Second Bull Run (Damian Shiels)
As outlined above, there is little doubt that these totals underestimate the Irish American ethnic element among the Zouave dead. Despite this, a little less than one in every two of the 10th New York’s fatalities, and a little less than one in four of the 5th New York fatalities were likely Irish American. This translates into almost 50 dead, creating a ripple effect that would have impacted and influenced hundreds among New York’s Irish American community.
The purpose of this “deep dive” into the fate of two regiments during a single afternoon of the war has been to demonstrate the centrality of such experiences–replicated hundreds of times across the 1861-1865 warzone–to the story of Irish American involvement in the conflict. The fortunes of ethnic Irish American formations dominated the small number of Irish American newspapers in operation during the Civil War, and had a disproportionate impact on contemporary Irish American opinion. Nonetheless, while extremely important, these ethnic regiments have been far too dominant in influencing how we perceive, discuss and remember Irish American involvement today. The engagements that truly rocked Irish American communities were those battles where regiments drawn from major urban centres– particularly from New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Boston– suffered major losses. This was true no matter the character or “ethnicity” of the unit involved. Undoubtedly, there were few days worse for the New York Irish than those at the very end of the summer of 1862, near the old battlefield of Bull Run.
A postscript to the experience of these Irish Zouave is the story of another of their number, Martin Lawless. The Company I private was not with his comrades on the Bull Run battlefield on 30th August 1862. Yet it was also a day his family would remember. Martin’s parents had married in Rahoon, Galway in 1838. After their emigration, Martin’s mother died in New York in 1849. The boy headed out to work at an early age, going to a printing office at twelve, before moving to a porter’s position at 406 Broadway aged thirteen. In 1858 he relocated to New Haven, Connecticut to take up an opportunity as a clerk in a grocery store. But he was back in New York to become a National Zouave during the war, serving in the ranks until 6th August 1862. It was then, at Harrison’s Landing, that Martin took ill with Typhoid Fever. Hospitalised, he lingered on for 24 days, passing away in Newport News, Virginia on the very day that his friends and comrades were being gunned down in their droves near Groveton. It was not only Rebel bullets that brought death to Irish Americans during the American Civil War. Battles brought intermittent, intense, sharp shocks to these urban communities, but it was disease that sounded the constant low drumbeat of loss for Irish America through the great struggle of the 1861-65.
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Appendix–Known and Probable Irish Americans KIA/Mortally Wounded with the 5th and 10th New York Infantry at Second Bull Run, 30th August 1862
|Bergen, Patrick||5 New York Infantry||B|
|Blake, Richard||5 New York Infantry||E|
|Bradley, John||5 New York Infantry||I|
|Brady, James||5 New York Infantry||E|
|Brady, Patrick||5 New York Infantry||G|
|Cabe, John||5 New York Infantry||I|
|Coleman, Denis||10 New York Infantry||I|
|Collins, Charles||5 New York Infantry||B|
|Dillon, Edward||5 New York Infantry||I|
|Dougherty, Daniel||10 New York Infantry||K|
|Duff, William||10 New York Infantry||I|
|Finlay, Alexander||10 New York Infantry||K|
|Flynn, William||5 New York Infantry||F|
|Foley, John||10 New York Infantry||C|
|Hannon, John||5 New York Infantry||I|
|Hearn, John||5 New York Infantry||I|
|Heffernan, John||5 New York Infantry||H|
|Johnson, John||10 New York Infantry||I|
|Kavanagh, George||10 New York Infantry||I|
|Kent, John||5 New York Infantry||H|
|Kerr, John||5 New York Infantry||E|
|Kiernan, Patrick||10 New York Infantry||K|
|MacHale, John||10 New York Infantry||A|
|Mahon, John||5 New York Infantry||D|
|Mallin, Henry||10 New York Infantry||E|
|McAvoy, Thomas||10 New York Infantry||F|
|McCarty, James||5 New York Infantry||D|
|McCauley, Denis||5 New York Infantry||C|
|McDowell, William||5 New York Infantry||G|
|McGeehan, George||5 New York Infantry||E|
|McGirr, Edward||5 New York Infantry||F|
|McKenna, Patrick||5 New York Infantry||B|
|McLoughlin, Charles||10 New York Infantry||K|
|McMullens, Samuel||10 New York Infantry||I|
|Milligan, John||5 New York Infantry||I|
|Mulkey, William||10 New York Infantry||G|
|O’Brien, Denis||5 New York Infantry||C|
|Plumb, Francis||5 New York Infantry||K|
|Reilly, Hugh||10 New York Infantry||G|
|Rooney, Thomas||5 New York Infantry||G|
|Ryan, Patrick||10 New York Infantry||K|
|Shannon, William||5 New York Infantry||K|
|Spellman, Francis||5 New York Infantry||G|
|Sullivan, John||10 New York Infantry||H|
|Ussher, James||5 New York Infantry||H|
|White, John||5 New York Infantry||B|
(1) Hennessy 1999: 366-373, Pohanka 2012: 366-273; (2) Ibid., Cowtan 1882; (3) Johnston Pension File, McMullen Pension File, Cowtan 1882; (4) Hennessy 1999, Pohanka 2012, Cowtan 1882, Duff Pension File, Finlay Pension File; (5) Reilly Pension File, McAvoy Pension File; (6) Hennessy 1999, Pohanka 2012, Daveport 1879; (7) Ibid., Spellman Pension File; (8) Pohnaka 2012, Davenport 1879, McDowell Pension File, Hearn Pension File; (9) Bergen Pension File; (10) Cowtan 1882, Pohanka 2012;
Widow’s and Dependent’s Pension Files of the 5th and 10th New York Infantry.
Cowtan, Charles W. 1882. Services of the Tenth New York Volunteers (National Zouaves) in the War of the Rebellion.
Davenport, Alfred 1879. Camp and Field Life of the Fifth New York Volunteer Infantry.
Hennessy, John 1999. Return to Bull Run: The Battle and Campaign of Second Manassas.
Pohanka, Brian 2012. Vortex of Hell: History of the Fifth New York Volunteer Infantry.