Beyond a relative handful of individuals such as Thomas Francis Meagher, it is surprising just how little we know about the lives of many senior Irish officers during the American Civil War. The latest guest post illuminates the story of one of the more remarkable. Joseph O’Keeffe was an emigrant from a notable Irish family who enjoyed a distinguished — if all too brief — career in Papal and United States service. The piece that follows is the product of painstaking research by Jessica Weatherbee, who has shown inspiring dedication in peeling back the layers of history to reveal the detail of this fascinating life. I am delighted that she agreed to share her work with readers of the site. Jessica takes up Joseph’s story:
On a mild, hazy afternoon in Washington DC, a young Irish immigrant, confined to a hospital bed after five years of adventurous exploits, took his final breath. Surrounded by friends and loved ones, he left an impressive military record behind him, forged on two continents. His broken body was laid to rest as a young nation struggled to recover from four years of fratricidal conflict. The American Civil War had exacted a hefty toll on both sides, many of whom are today largely forgotten. One of them was Joseph O’Keeffe, a man who had lived more in his 23 years than most people could in as many lifetimes.
Joseph O’Keeffe was born on 3rd August 1841 in Dublin, Ireland, and baptized in the parish of Blanchardstown on the 12th. (1) His father, also named Joseph, was a successful distiller who had worked for a time in Jamaica. (2) His mother, Arethusa O’Callaghan, was the daughter of Ignatius O’Callaghan, friend and accountant to Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s famed Liberator. (3) The family was devotedly Roman Catholic, and one of young Joseph’s uncles, William Delany, served as Bishop of Cork from 1847 to 1886. (4)
Sometime between 1843 and 1845, the O’Keeffe family immigrated to Canada, first settling in Canada West (now Ontario), where the father succumbed to typhus in late 1845. (5) Arethusa, now a single mother with one son and four daughters, moved the family to Chambly, some 700 miles to the east. (6) From there, they settled in the St. Antoine neighborhood of Montreal, where Arethusa worked as a music instructor. (7) The young family probably felt more at ease in Montreal, with its high preponderance of Roman Catholics.
About 1858, Joseph O’Keeffe, now a young adult, returned to Ireland at the behest of his paternal uncles. It was their intention to enroll him in the Clongowes Wood School, but the events of 1860 had other plans for him. (8) Italy, in its struggle to unite its scattered kingdoms into one cohesive nation, had encroached on the Papal States in the middle of the peninsula. Unnerved by the imminent threat of the approaching Piedmontese and Garibaldian forces, Pope Pius IX sent out a plea for help in protecting his temporal possessions. The response in Ireland was enthusiastic; after all, Pius IX had provided aid to the Emerald Isle during the dark days of the Great Famine. About 1,300 Irishmen heeded the call and came to Italy between early May and mid-June 1860. (9) O’Keeffe, carrying four letters of recommendation from Cork prelates, including one from his uncle, Dr. Delany, probably arrived in early June. (10)
The whole disorganized affair was doomed from the start, as many promises to the papal troops were broken, and too few of the volunteers had military experience. Regardless, they fought with zeal and impressed their commanding officer, General de Lamoricière. O’Keeffe, as an educated member of the upper middle class, received a commission as sub-lieutenant and was stationed at the imposing Rocca Albornoziana in Spoleto. (11) The men and newly-minted officers had little time to make the transition from civilian to military life, as the Piedmontese forces attacked Spoleto on 16th September 1860. After a valiant but futile defense that lasted 12 hours, the papal forces defending the Rocca were forced to capitulate. From there, O’Keeffe and his fellows faced a short term of imprisonment in Genoa. (12)
After the final battle at Ancona, the triumphant Piedmontese annexed Naples. The Irish prisoners of war were allowed to return home in late October, but 40 remained, including O’Keeffe, and were formed into an honor guard for the Pope, the Company of St. Patrick. (13) O’Keeffe stayed with the company until 24th May 1861. (14) He probably grew bored with the largely ceremonial duties, but remained in Rome, where the Company’s surgeon, O’Flynn, noted that “his military enthusiasm is becoming more and more fervid every day.” (15) In November of that year, Archbishop of Dublin Paul Cullen reported, “I have had very late accounts from Rome. The Pope is quite well and the city perfectly quiet. One of the Brigade, Captain O’Keeffe, nephew of Dr. Delaney [sic] of Cork, is commanding a detachment of the late King’s party in Naples.” (16) It seemed that O’Keeffe had found his calling, and a much great conflict would soon test his mettle.
The American Civil War was already well underway, and the great contest was not going so well for the Union. In an effort to recruit men who had “seen the elephant”, Archbishop John Hughes and Secretary of State William Seward sought out Papal War veterans, including O’Keeffe, whom they hoped would espouse their cause. (17) O’Keeffe and several others were convinced, including Myles Keogh and Daniel Keily, good friends of O’Keeffe’s, and John Coppinger. The Irish officers bid farewell to Rome and sailed for New York City, arriving in April 1862. (18) The three friends were commissioned captains on the staff of Brigadier General James Shields and thrust directly into the martial fields of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Shields, though an amiable and accomplished man, was no match for General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson; in a matter of three months, he was relieved of his command, and O’Keeffe and Keogh were reassigned to the staff of cavalry officer Brigadier General John Buford. (19)
Duty under Buford proved to be challenging but invigorating, and the “twin aides”, as Keogh and O’Keeffe came to be called, garnered much praise from their venerated commander. (20) In a letter to the Adjutant-General, Buford complimented the two, noting their dashing gallantry. (21) Both “twins” received wounds during the Second Battle of Bull Run. (22)
September of 1862 saw Buford reassigned to administrative duties, so his twin aides were placed on the staff of General George McClellan for the Antietam campaign. Shortly thereafter, McClellan was relieved of command, and O’Keeffe and Keogh rejoined Buford in time for the Army of the Potomac’s winter encampment. (23) The spring of 1863 saw renewed action for the cavalry corps with Stoneman’s Raid, a series of maneuvers designed to harass the Confederates and meddle in their supply chains. Despite the torrential rains that foiled their progress, the cavalrymen remained dutiful, and Buford’s aides shone through with their model conduct. (24)
O’Keeffe’s life would take a turn for the worse in the epic all-cavalry Battle of Brandy Station on 8th June 1863. Buford gave the young captain permission to assist Captain Wesley Merritt of the 2nd US Cavalry, whom he aided “greatly with his advice and labor.” (25) The two personally led a charge of the regiment, in which O’Keeffe’s horse was killed, falling upon him and pinning him to the ground. (26) Unable to free himself, O’Keeffe was shot in the foot and taken prisoner by the rebels. For the second time in his life, the dauntless Hibernian was a prisoner of war.
O’Keeffe spent the next six months in Richmond’s infamous Libby Prison, where Union officers suffered physical and mental deprivations. It must have been exceedingly frustrating for O’Keeffe to be on the sidelines as battles continued to rage. Lieutenant Colonel Federico Cavada, who was imprisoned around the same time, made note of a jolly Irishman who tried to regale his fellows with jokes and songs. It is quite possible that he was referring to O’Keeffe. (27)
Fortunately, Captain O’Keeffe survived his wound and imprisonment and was exchanged very close to Christmas Day, 1863. (28) He next found himself in Annapolis, Maryland, that “Paradise on the Severn”, home of the parole camps. It was in that fair city that he was reunited with his “boon companion”, Myles Keogh, who was now serving on General George Stoneman’s staff after the untimely death of General Buford. (29)
Once the formal exchange took effect, the young officer was assigned to the staff of General Philip Sheridan in June 1864. O’Keeffe found that he liked the pugnacious little New Yorker; the feeling was entirely reciprocated, as O’Keeffe was chosen to accompany Sheridan on his momentous ride to Cedar Creek, Virginia, an exploit that reversed a seeming Union defeat and turned it into a victory. (30) “Little Phil” would later refer to O’Keeffe as one of his “most efficient staff officers.” (31) His jolly and adventurous demeanor gained him popularity with his brethren officers and the enlisted men alike. Major George “Sandy” Forsyth, also a Sheridan aide, described O’Keeffe as a “gallant Irish gentleman” who “loved fighting for chivalry’s sake.” (32)
But the monotonies of staff duty would compel O’Keeffe to resign his position as Sheridan’s aide-de-camp and accept a commission as senior Major in the 2nd New York Cavalry. His motive was simple: to “gain more experience in active fighting.” (33) The regiment was doubtlessly pleased to receive him, and the move was made official in November 1864. His regiment would eulogize him many years after the war, at the dedication of the 2nd New York monument on the Gettysburg battlefield. (34)
O’Keeffe’s cruel fate came on 1st April 1865 just outside Petersburg, Virginia, at an important intersection known as Five Forks. There Sheridan’s men surprised the Confederates in a desperate confrontation that became known as the “Waterloo of the Confederacy.” O’Keeffe, under Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Pennington, was deployed very near to the intersection, and while leading a charge far in advance of the 2nd New York was struck in the back of the right knee by a canister ball. (35) Bleeding profusely, O’Keeffe managed to drag himself a short distance away from the carnage before a group of his fellows, led by Lieutenant Colonel Mortimer Birdseye, managed to carry him to the rear. (36) Shortly thereafter, news of a Union victory reached the men, and O’Keeffe, “faint from pain and loss of blood…raised up and gave three cheers, and sank back exhausted.” (37)
The young immigrant’s knee wound caused considerable trauma to the femoral artery, and brought his days as an active serviceman to an end. His first hospital stay was at City Point, Virginia, where the femoral was ligated. (38) Suffering from anemia and edema in the injured leg, he was transferred from City Point to Armory Square in Washington, DC, where doctors Henry Parry and C. A. Leale took charge of his care. (39) Afterwards, per his own request, he was transferred to nearby Providence Roman Catholic Hospital, where it was found necessary to amputate the injured limb. (40) O’Keeffe died on 31st May, 1865, just 48 hours after the operation, with one of his sisters, his good friend Myles Keogh, and numerous other members of his military family at his bedside. (41) His sister made arrangements to have his remains transported to Montreal, where they would be interred next to his mother, who had died during the summer of 1862. (42) He was laid to rest in the parish of Notre Dame, probably in the sprawling Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery. (43)
Joseph O’Keeffe, a young man lauded by his contemporaries as a “monument to his profession”, made a great impression in his short lifetime. (44) Those who knew him unstintingly characterized him as “a thorough gentleman in every respect”, a man who was “so brave, so passionate, yet so gentle, so manly and generous”. (45) His is a life that certainly deserves greater recognition among the ranks of the Irish Americans who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Perhaps the Reverend Mr. Boyle, in his eulogy pronounced over Joseph O’Keeffe’s casket at St. Peter’s Church in Washington, DC, stated it best: “He blended greatness with amiability. He was a true soldier.”
- Joseph O’Keefe baptismal record (1841), Diocese of Dublin, National Library of Ireland microfilm.
- The Laws of Jamaica Anno 5 Victoriae 1841-2. Kingston: Govt. Printer, 1842: 13.
- William Delany to Tobias Kirby, Cork, May 22 1860, The Kirby Collection, Irish Pontifical College, Rome.
- Diocese of Cork and Ross. Most Rev. William Delany. Retrieved from www.corkandross.org.
- The Cork Examiner, November 28, 1845.
- 1851 Canada Census, accessed at www.findmypast.com.
- Mackay, R W Stuart. Mackay’s Montreal Directory, New Edition, Corrected in May & June, 1861-62. Montreal: Owler & Stevenson, 1862: 170.
- Joseph O’Keeffe obituary, The Cork Examiner, June 27, 1865.
- Corcoran, Donal. The Irish Brigade in the Pope’s Army 1860. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2018: 66.
- The Kirby Collection, Irish Pontifical College, Rome.
- The Irish Times, September 22, 1860.
- Corcoran, p. 140.
- Langellier, John P., Cox, Kurt Hamilton, and Pohanka, Brian C., editors. Myles Keogh: The Life and Legend of an “Irish Dragoon” in the Seventh Cavalry. El Segundo: Upton and Sons, 1998: 59.
- Cryan, Mary Jane. The Irish and English in Italy’s Risorgimento. Etruria: ArcheoAres, 2011: 160.
- “Letter from Rome”, The Tipperary Vindicator and Limerick Reporter, September 17, 1861.
- Newman, Jeremiah. Maynooth and Victorian Ireland. KG, 1983: 184
- Langellier, et. al., p. 61.
- Ibid, 62.
- Ibid, 70.
- Army and Navy Journal, July 15 1876, p. 793.
- Brig. Gen. John Buford’s letter to Adj. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, accessed at collections.theautry.org.
- Longacre, Edward. General John Buford: A Military Biography. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1995: 109.
- Langellier, et. al., pp. 71-2.
- “Stoneman’s Raid—Buford’s Report”, accessed at regularcavalryincivilwar.wordpress.com.
- Stricker, Major Mark R. Dragoon or Cavalryman, Major General John Buford in the American Civil War. Master’s Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 1994: 165.
- The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 12, 1863.
- Cavada, Federico Fernandez. Libby Life. Philadelphia: King & Baird, 1864: 87.
- Penfield, James Allen. The 1863-1864 Civil War Diary of Captain James Penfield, 5th New York Volunteer Cavalry, Company H. Crown Point, NY: Penfield Foundation, 1999: 144.
- Luce, Edward Smith. Keogh, Comanche, and Custer. Ashland, OR: L. Osborne, 1974: 23.
- Convis, Charles L. The Honor of Arms. Tuscon, AZ: Westernlore Press, 1990: 37.
- Wittenberg, Eric J. Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. Washington, DC: Brassey’s Inc., 2002: 218.
- Forsyth, George A. Thrilling Days in Army Life. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1900: 143.
- Foster, John Y. New Jersey and the Rebellion: A History of the Services of the Troops and People of New Jersey in Aid of the Union Cause. Newark, NJ: Martin R. Dennis & Co., 1868: 752.
- New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga. Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg, Vol. III. Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon Co., 1900: 1098.
- Lidell, John A. Surgical Memoirs of the War of the Rebellion. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1870: 233.
- Hewett, Janet. Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Serial 9). Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Pub. Co., 1994: 888-89.
- Foster, p. 752.
- Personal correspondence from Brian Pohanka to the author, 2003.
- Joseph O’Keeffe obituary, The Cork Examiner, June 27, 1865.
- Notre-Dame-des-Neiges burial record (1865), diocese of Montreal, Library and Archives Canada.
- Joseph O’Keeffe obituary.
- Murphy, Charles J. Reminisces of the War of the Rebellion, and of the Mexican War. New York: F. J. Flicker, 1882: 54; Foster, p. 752.