The first months of the newly dawned 20th century found Peter Keefe drawing his final breaths in his rural home of Corloughan, Co. Kilkenny. The 60-year-old had the comfort of his nearest relative Betsy by his side, and the knowledge that he was leaving the world surrounded by those who knew and loved him. Such an end had in no way been guaranteed. Beneath the sheets lay the evidence–or rather the absence–that proved how close he had been to death once before. The story behind that absence was what set this otherwise seemingly ordinary local apart from his neighbours. For Peter Keefe had lived the last three and a half decades of his life without a left leg. The incredible tale behind its loss was the stuff of dime adventure novels. It had taken place a world away from Corloughan, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War: a tale of seamanship, raiding, racism, incarceration, escape tunnels and prison breaks. (1)
Back in the first half of the nineteenth century, Peter Keefe, like many of his fellow Kilkennymen, had decided to depart Ireland. He may be the 22-year-old Peter Keefe recorded as arriving in New York from the Kangaroo on 2nd April 1862. Whatever his motivations–perhaps he was drawn to the promise of adventure and potential prize money–on 12th October 1863 he enlisted in the Union Navy. His rating of Able Seaman was thanks to previous naval experience he had acquired– Peter’s profession was recorded as “mariner”. The recruiter at the New York rendezvous jotted down that he was 23-years-old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, and had grey eyes, dark brown hair and a ruddy complexion. Some previous run-in or mishap had left him with a scar on his left leg, and he bore as a tattooed memento of previous adventures the letter “S” and a star on his right wrist. Peter had signed on for a 12 month stint; he duly headed off to meet up with his new crewmates aboard the brig USS Perry. (2)
By late 1863 the Perry had already seen twenty years service, travelling much of the globe. Her most recent assignment had been off the North Carolina coast, where she had captured two Confederate vessels, one a heavily laden blockade runner. Peter would have hoped for more of the same as they made sail southwards once more, bound for duties with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. They had been off the Confederate coast for about a month when on 5th December they spotted what appeared to be a Rebel vessel fitting out at Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina. The Perry couldn’t close with the suspected blockade runner (the schooner Cecilia) from the sea, so her commander–Acting Master Samuel Gregory–devised an alternative plan. In an effort to reach the runner and destroy her, he would land a shore party. (3)
Acting Ensigns W.B. Arrants and George Anderson (whose father was from Dublin) were assigned the task of leading the operation. In the preceding days, both men had been ashore scouting the area, while a number of refugees had also come aboard with local information. In the end, the Perry‘s shore-party made for the coast in two cutters, carrying 22 sailors, the Acting Ensigns, the Acting Assistant Paymaster, and the Master’s Mate. When they made landfall on Magnolia Beach, the plan called for one group–which included Peter–to cross to the shallow inlet through the dunes and set fire to the Rebel blockade runner. In the meantime, the remainder would stay behind to guard the boats. In order to execute the scheme, the attacking party carried a keg filled with tarred rope yarns and a bottle of turpentine. Almost as soon as Peter and the others dashed off across the sand, things began to unravel. Later recriminations would lead to conflicting accounts of events, but what is apparent is that the Union Tars were spotted almost immediately. Dashing towards the Confederate schooner, Arrants and his men were in the midst of the drifts when Rebel cavalry suddenly appeared. As the screaming horsemen galloped straight towards them, the sailors sought to make a desperate stand around one of the dunes. At the same time, they frantically signalled to the Perry for support, only to find that the brig could not bring her guns to bear on their position. Meanwhile, a second batch of mounted Southerners galloped down the beach towards the cutters, but a shot from the Perry drove them off. To the dismay of Arrants, Peter Keefe and the others, rather than retreating this second squadron of Rebels immediately wheeled towards them, firmly cutting off their line of retreat. The brief, vicious firefight that developed over the next few minutes saw five of the beleaguered northerners fall wounded, with the cornered Yankees accounting for one Confederate killed and three injured. But with the situation clearly hopeless, Arrants instructed his men–including Peter–to lay down their arms. (4)
A total of fifteen of the Perry‘s crew were captured, among their number the 17-year-old son of the brig’s commander. If anything, the immediate aftermath of the little band’s surrender was more brutal than the firefight itself. The cavalry detachments, reportedly from the 5th and 21st Georgia Cavalry, appeared to be in merciless mood. John Pinkham, the 25-year-old Coxswain of the Perry, lay blood-soaked in the sand, pierced by a bullet through the hip. The New Hampshire native had proudly declared his patriotism through his tattoos– he had two stars, an Eagle, and the word “Liberty” inked into his chest. As Peter looked on, one of the Rebel officers ordered Pinkham to stand up. When he couldn’t comply, the Confederate drew his revolver and shot him through the spine, roaring “kill the damned Yank”. Incredibly, Pinkham survived, but the bullet paralysed him for the remainder of his life. Incensed, Irish American sailor Michael Tobin decided to exact revenge. When the trigger-happy officer next turned to him and ordered him to give up his weapons, Tobin advanced with his arms outstretched, as if in compliance. But when fifteen yards distant from his captor, he raised his gun and fired. The bullet missed the officer, striking and killing his mount. In the confusion that followed Tobin made a bid for freedom, sprinting off across a salt marsh in the direction of the woods beyond. Quickly recovering their composure, the Rebel cavalrymen set off in pursuit. The brief chase came to an end when the Irishman was downed with a bullet in the leg. Michael is likely the seasoned sailor of that name whose tattoos had been described back in New York a few months previously. On his left forearm he carried an image of a dancing woman, together with the initials “F.E.” and “M.T.” [Michael Tobin]. On his right forearm he bore a crucifix, while his back and belly were marked with numerous scars. Michael Tobin would never have another opportunity at freedom. Nine months later he became one of the thousands to succumb to the woeful conditions of Andersonville prison camp, Georgia. (5)
The nervous tension that must have consumed the captured Federal sailors as all these incidents played out is difficult to imagine. Peter and the rest of the party must have had serious concerns about whether they would live through the remainder of the day. Worse was to come for the lone African American among them–Landsman George Brimsmaid. The Confederates seemed enraged by his presence, ordering the “Yankee – –” to “get in line there with your n***er brother”. When they reached the cavalry’s woodland encampment, George was separated from his comrades by two Confederates and a civilian. It is possible they suspected he was one of the African American refugees who had recently sought refuge aboard the Perry. George was herded through the camp, one of the men striking him over the head with his sabre. A few minutes later the white sailors heard a loud yell, followed by the report of two guns. The two cavalrymen soon returned; they had strung George up from a nearby tree using a horse’s halter, before discharging two charges of buckshot into his chest. Simply for being African American, George had been butchered in cold blood. (6)
Initially some of the Confederate cavalrymen reportedly wanted to kill the remaining sailors, simply because they had been serving with an African American. But as the adrenaline dissipated, they eventually took to treating the wounded. That afternoon Peter and the surviving prisoners began the long trek south, headed in the direction of Charleston. While Peter and the mobile walked, the most severely wounded bounced along in an old wagon. Unfortunately for the prisoners, the detachment of ten Confederates accompanying them were led by the officer Michael Tobin had tried to kill, and he insured it was an arduous trip. After an exacting march, the prisoners spent their first night in a ramshackle log hut. As they lay wet and cold on the manure-covered floor, Peter was kept awake by the groans of the wounded. The following morning, while the injured went to the hospital in Georgetown, Peter and the others were housed in the local jail, where they would pass the next five days. Eventually their journey to Charleston continued, where they arrived to witness the affect of the Union operations against the city and Harbor. But even this was not their ultimate destination. After a period it was decided to move the prisoners on once more, inland to Richland County Jail in Columbia, South Carolina–the location where Peter Keefe’s life would be forever altered. (7)
The Richland County Jail in Columbia was a three-story building. The naval officers were initially housed in the main masonry structure, which they shared with local civilian prisoners. Peter and around sixty other ranks were confined in an old wooden barracks in the prison yard. With news that prisoner exchanges had been suspended, it was evident that none of the men could look forward to going home anytime soon. As a result, it wasn’t long before the officers and men alike began to contemplate escape. The position and layout of the prison made tunnelling an attractive option, and soon “tunnel mania” was rampant. However, it was a threat to which their guards proved alive– a major effort by the officers was discovered just as it neared completion. Peter was one of the ringleaders of a second effort, one that he and the other enlisted men led from within their accommodation:
The barracks had a wooden floor. Two boards were removed, and an excavation made to the rear of the building. The exit was in an adjoining garden. Not much skill in engineering was displayed on their [the enlisted men’s] part. They simply dug until they felt like stopping. The distance from the surface was ascertained by pushing a stick up through the ground. It was left there projecting above the surface. (8)
Apparently the protruding stick alerted the Confederates. Rather than expose their knowledge, they instead placed a guard detachment in the garden, there to lie in wait. Their intention was to allow the escapees to emerge, and then gun them down. When the moment seemed right, the enlisted men and officers congregated at the tunnel mouth to make their attempt. The first man in was Peter Keefe from Kilkenny. When he raised himself up through the tunnel exit, he caught sight of the trap, and shouted a warning to those behind him. On his hands and knees in the garden, he decided to make a run for it. As he did so, the Rebels fired, shattering his left knee. The attempt had failed, but Peter’s warning had prevented any of his comrades from injury. The price he paid was the loss of his left leg. (9)
The operation to amputate Peter’s leg was carried out at the nearby Second North Carolina Hospital, located in the buildings of South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina). The surgeons took his shattered limb at the knee. He was soon joined in the ward by his Irish American shipmate, Acting Ensign Anderson, who had fallen sick in the prison. The two men whiled away the days in conversation, and chatting and joking with two of the female orderlies. Anderson later remembering that the amputation of Peter’s leg “was skilfully done, but it took a long time for the stump to heal up. He [Peter] did not care so much for the loss of the leg as he did for the failure of the plan to escape.” The extent of Peter’s disability meant he had no chance of returning to service, and the Confederates decided to exchange him. His dramatic year in the Union service came to an end with his discharge for disability on 12th November 1864. (10)
In 1866 Peter Keefe was granted a pension for full disability by the American Government; the loss of his leg rendering him “entirely unable to earn his daily bread”. For a number of years he moved around within the United States–first Boston, then New York, and later Albany–but ultimately he decided his future lay at home in Ireland. He headed back to Kilkenny in late 1871 or early 1872, where he would manage his affliction for almost 30 before his death on 1 June 1900. By then, his American pension had risen to $36 per month, enabling him to enjoy some modicum of comfort despite his circumstances. Whether he shared his remarkable Civil War experiences with his friends and neighbours remains unknown. If he did, the story of how he came to lose his leg must have surely have become an iconic one in the locality. It would have wowed all who heard it, to be whispered in hushed tones by all who encountered the one-legged old sailor on his travels about the highways and byways of Kilkenny. (11)
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(1) Calendar of Wills; (2) New York Passenger and Crew Lists, Naval Enlistment Rendezvous; (3) Report of Acting Master Gregory, Waterloo 1902: 243-244; (4) Ibid., Report of Acting Ensign Anderson, Waterloo 1902: 252-255; (5) John Pinkham Pension File, , Waterloo 1902: 255-256, Naval Enlistment Rendezvous, Report of Acting Ensign Anderson; (6) John Pinkham Pension File, Waterloo 1902: 256-257, Naval Enlistment Rendezvous, Report of Acting Ensign Anderson; (7) Waterloo 1902: 259-264; (8) Ibid.: 275-294; (9) Ibid.: 294; (10) Ibid.: 296, Green 1916: 388-389, Keefe Pension File; (11) Keefe Pension File;
Calendar of Wills, Entry for Peter Keefe, 12 March 1902.
Naval Enlistment Weekly Rendezvous.
New York Passenger and Crew Lists.
Peter Keefe Pension File.
John Pinkham Pension File.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series 1, Volume 15. Report of Acting Master Gregory, U.S. Navy, Commanding U.S. Brig Perry.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series 1, Volume 15. Report of Acting Ensign Anderson, U.S. Navy, Commanding Boats from the U.S. Brig Perry.
Edwin L. Green 1916. A History of the University of South Carolina.
Stanley Waterloo (ed.) 1902. The Story of a Strange Career.