I recently came across a series of 1861 letters written between three notable members of nineteenth century Irish America. The authors were the Archbishop of New York, “Dagger” John Hughes; Father Bernard O’Reilly, who had served as the 69th New York State Militia’s Chaplain at Bull Run; and a young Irish veteran of the Italian wars, in search of a new career in America. These letters–and the background to their fascinating story–are detailed below.

In September of 1861 John Joseph Coppinger landed in the United States. The Midleton native, who hailed from one of the most prominent Catholic families in Co. Cork, was fresh from active service with the Irish Battalion during the 1860 Papal War. Unlike the majority of his fellow Irish immigrants, Coppinger knew precisely where his future lay when he stepped off the boat. He was one of a number of former Papal officers who had spotted opportunity with the coming of the American Civil War (read more about them by clicking here). The rapidly expanding United States Army was desperate for experienced men, and was willing to offer permanent regular commissions in order to obtain them. For ambitious young men like Coppinger, this was a godsend. When he arrived in America, it was in the expectation that his much-needed combat experience would bring him just such a position, and with it an opportunity to carve out a career. So it was little surprise to the newly arrived Corkman when on 30th September 1861 he was commissioned as a Captain in the 14th United States Infantry. It sparked a career that would end 37 years later, at the rank of Major-General of Volunteers, and in command of the IV Corps during the Spanish American War. Following his death on 4th November 1909, John Joseph Coppinger was interred in a prominent position in Arlington National Cemetery. For those of you interested in a detailed account of Coppinger’s career, you can read my piece on him over at my Midleton Heritage site by clicking here.

John Joseph Coppinger pictured during the American Civil War while serving on the staff of General Torbert (Library of Congress)

What is fascinating about this series of letters is that they reveal the moment when Coppinger decided to embark on an American military career. They also provide pointers as to how he went about securing his commission. I have reproduced each of them chronologically below. The first letter in the sequence reveals how Coppinger decided to broach the topic of service in the United States. His first port of call was not with America, but rather was a letter directed to the Ecole Libre de l’Immaculée-Conception a Paris Vaugirard, the Jesuit College of the Immaculate Conception in Paris. In the late summer of 1861 one of the residents there was Father Bernard O’Reilly. Born in Mayo in 1820, O’Reilly had emigrated to Canada at sixteen. Ordained in Quebec in 1843, he had ministered to Famine victims stricken by disease in 1847, before becoming a Jesuit and moving to New York and St. John’s College in Fordham. When war came in 1861 he had served as chaplain for the 69th New York State Militia during the Bull Run campaign, leaving for Europe shortly after his duties at the front had ended. On 27th August 1861, Father O’Reilly sat down to compose the following, which was clearly a response to a letter sent to him by John Joseph Coppinger in Midleton:

Paris, 27th August 1861

My dear Sir,

I have just received your note of the 22d with Father Ryan’s letter, and without losing a moment, I hasten to comply with your request.

I am most confident that the President of the U.S., together with General Scott, will gladly avail himself of services so valuable as yours.

As the fear you express of having to quit the service at the end of three months, this is now out of the question, – no regiment being mustered into the U.S. service for less than three years.

Sure I am that an officer of your tried worth will be gladly accepted in the regular army for ever.

I enclose a letter to the man of all others the most able, and, in the present circumstances, the most anxious to secure to our beloved Country, the efficient aid of of Irish valor and experience, the Most Reverend the Archbishop of New York. He is revered by the President, the Secretary of State, and General Scott, and what man can do for you, he will do–

I add, moreover, a letter to Mr Secretary Seward himself– Nor am I without a hope that my poor name may also serve you in Washington.

You will find in New York Captain Meagher, Judge Daly and others, who will be delighted to see you, and promote the object of your visit to America.

Meanwhile, wishing you every success in your patriotic mission to my adopted country, I remain,

My dear Sir,

your Obedt Servt in Christ

B. O’Reilly S.J.

The letter Father Bernard O’Reilly wrote from Paris back to John Joseph Coppinger in Midleton. The priest was fresh from the front, where he had served as the Chaplain to the 69th New York State Militia at First Bull Run (NARA)

Although we do not have Coppinger’s letter, clearly he had asked Father O’Reilly for his advice on how to secure a position in the American army, and wanted his recommendation to present to the powers that be. It also exposes some of the Midleton man’s concerns. Coppinger did not want to quit his Papal position for the United States if he was only going to secure three-months service, the term which the 69th had served. Father O’Reilly was able to point towards the recruitment of three-year volunteer regiments to allay these fears. In any event, O’Reilly was confident that Coppinger would secure a permanent position in the regulars. He also undertook to intercede on Coppinger’s behalf with Archbishop Hughes of New York. “Dagger John” was the most powerful and influential Catholic in the United States, and played a central role in securing commissions for the Papal officers. The other letter Father O’Reilly committed to write was to the U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward. Coppinger was set on heading to America, and would do so armed with the Jesuit’s reference. Father O’Reilly told the young officer to call on Thomas Francis Meagher, who he had served with in the 69th, and Judge Charles Daly, one of the most prominent Irish American citizens of New York, upon his arrival. Although the priest forgot to include the letter for Seward in his reply to Coppinger, he did give him a letter to take to Archbishop Hughes. It read as follows:

Paris 27th August 1861

Most Reverend and revired Father,

I know you will be glad to hail the arrival in the U.S. of so distinguished and experienced an officer as Captain Coppinger. After having devoted his sword to the cause of Pius the IXth, he is now anxious to use it in support of that cause which is the most holy after the Pontiff’s, the cause of true liberty in America.

We sadly need military men of Captain Coppinger’s tried worth, and I have no doubt, but that he will meet with a hearty welcome not only in New York, but in Washington. I trust too, that your Grace will add your powerful recommendation to the strong claim of his many merits.

If I be permitted to add a word about myself, I shall merely say to my ever kind Father that I trust to be able to return in about four months from the date of this letter. I am now suffering under an attack of Bronchitis which I brought with me from Virginia.

In France, people entertain the strangest notions about our troubles; – it were worse than useless to try to set them right. There are men however who know us well, and judge us most correctly– such as the Editors of the Correspondant, and among them M. Auguste Cochin, Mayor of Paris, whose late article is a very remarkable one– I am to see him tomorrow.

As to local politics, I know of nothing that can either surprise or interest you.

Hoping that our good God will preserve you long, and praying on your people and their venerated Father every choicest Grace. I remain, with the most profound respect,

Your Grace’s devoted Servt and Son

B.O’Reilly S.J.

I took the opportunity a few years back of visiting John Joseph Coppinger’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery–at a time when I had a bit more hair! (Damian Shiels)

Father O’Reilly had taken the opportunity to fill the Archbishop in on his own intentions, which included returning to the United States after he had recovered from an illness contracted during the Bull Run campaign. The “notions” he referenced was widespread pro-Confederate sentiment that he was encountering in France. John Joseph Coppinger received this letter in Midleton, and then wrote his own covering letter to send on to Archbishop Hughes. This fascinating communication amounts to Coppinger’s “pitch” for a position in the American Army. It is all the more interesting given the illustrious military career it helped to launch. Dated 10th September 1861, it reads as follows:

Midleton County Cork


10th September 1861

My Lord ArchBishop

I beg leave respectfully to enclose a letter from the Revd Fr O’Reilly which I regret circumstances deprive me the pleasure of presenting in person much as I should desire to do so.

There being no immediate prospect of active service in Rome I should like to serve in America, yet as accepting a commission in the U.S. Army might lead to my leaving that of his Holiness I should like to know if I could reckon on a lengthened or on a permanent service.

In fact were it possible to obtain promise of a Company before leaving this Country it would be very desirable and greatly facilitate my arranging with the Roman War Office for renewal of leave of absence or otherwise as might be most advisable.

Having held a Commission 5 years in the British Service may be of itself a qualification added to which I take the liberty of enclosing a few lines cut from the appendix of General Lamoricieres official report.

Father O’Reilly mentions a letter to Secty Seward this he forgot to enclose.

I make no allusion to the cause nor to the way so many of our poor Country men have so nobly upheld it, both speak for themselves!

Trusting to your Graces kindness to excuse the liberty I have taken in thus troubling you.

I remain with sincere respect

Your Graces Obedt Servt

John J Coppinger Captn & c

His Grace

The Arch Bishop of New York

John Joseph Coppinger again laid out his hopes for a permanent position in the American Army– he wanted to forge a career. He also wanted to try for a rank similar to that which he had enjoyed in the Papal service, and so requested a Company, which would see him commissioned a Captain. Coppinger decided not to wax lyrical about the cause of Union, but did make reference to the large numbers of his fellow countrymen who had already enlisted to help preserve the United States. Perhaps most fascinating are the Corkman’s efforts to underline his credentials, by citing his service in both the British and Papal military. The cuttings from the official report he alluded to also survive, and are reproduced below. The relevant sections noted Captain Coppinger’s “bravery and coolness” and “courage, coolness and judgement” along with his distinguished efforts in repelling an enemy assault.

The clippings that John Joseph Coppinger prepared in Midelton, Co. Cork from the Official Report by the commander of the Papal Army, Christophe Léon Louis Juchault de Lamoricière. He sent the clippings to Archbishop John Hughes of New York in the hope of gaining a commission in the American Army (NARA0

The final letter in the sequence was written by Archbishop Hughes himself, for the attention of Secretary of State William H. Seward, one of the most powerful people in America:

New York Sept 26, 1861

My Dear Governor,

I enclose you the proposal of Captain Coppinger to join the Federal Army. That he is a brave and experienced officer is unquestionable. He served five years in the British Army–and through the campaign in Italy under the Papal Government. I enclose the papers addressed to me for your inspection. Should the proper authorities be willing to accept his services, as he proposes, a line from you to that effect will greatly oblige, as ever,

Your devoted fa Servt

+ John Abp of New York

Hon Wm H. Seward

Secretary of State


As we know, four days later John Joseph Coppinger was commissioned as a Captain in the United States Army. The rest, as they say, is history.

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The conclusion of the letter John Joseph Coppinger wrote in Midleton to Archbishop Hughes of New York (NARA)


Catholic Encyclopaedia

Heitman’s Register and Dictionary of the U.S. Army

John Joseph Coppinger Correspondence