The Civil War’s Neglected Irish


It’s often cited that 150,000 Irish fought for the Union and 40,000 for the Confederacy. These statistics are further substantiated by the 123 Irish-born, who were awarded our nation’s highest distinction, “The Medal of Honor.

Hopefully the day will come when the following four Irishmen and their deeds will be as equally prominent as those of The Irish Brigade:


Major General Phillip Sheridan – Cavan

Appomattox – Lee to Grant: “I telegraphed to Lynchburg, directing several train loads of rations to be sent….” There was a stir among the listeners, and they looked at Sheridan, for, unknown to Lee, he had captured the rations that had come down from Lynchburg.  Sheridan maintained his silence so as not to further add to Lee’s distress.

One of the great Union generals, Sheridan had designs on running for President.  To be elected, however, he had to be native born.  In his memoirs, he stated his birthplace as Albany, NY. Conversely, his Irish mother claimed he’d been born on the boat coming over.  Boston, Sandusky, Canada, and New York were other birthplaces mentioned. Matthew Smith, the author’s great-grandfather and Sheridan’s close neighbor in Beagh Upper, County Cavan, avowed he had witnessed the infant Phillip being carried to the quay in his mother’s arms. 

Regardless of his debatable place of birth, Sheridan’s accomplishments exceeded those of any other Civil War battlefield commander. Grant credited Sheridan for saving Rosecran’s Army at Stones River. Sheridan made a name for himself at Missionary Ridge, cleared the Shenandoah Valley of Jubal Early’s Army, defeated JEB Stuart at Yellow Tavern, and ran Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to ground at Appomattox. 


Major General Patrick Cleburne – Cork

In December 1864, Confederate General Cleburne, to his credit, petitioned President Jefferson Davis to free any slave, and their family, if they would enlist in the Confederate Army. The petition was denied.

Cleburne’s valor in battle earned him the nickname, “Stonewall of the West.”

Putting to good use the experience gained while serving in the British Army as an enlisted man with the 41st Regiment of foot, Cleburne knew how to command the ordinary soldier, and they returned his respect many times over. Like numerous others, his port of entry determined which side of the War Between the States he’d serve. The Arkansas lawyer and businessman, owning no slaves, held to the belief: “… that all government derives its validity from the consent of the governed. They are about to invade our peaceful homes. We only ask to be left alone.”

Although the two were in the same battles several times, Cleburne clashed only once directly with fellow Irishman, Phillip Sheridan, and that at Stones River. Twice, once at Shiloh, and then again at Missionary Ridge, Cleburne defeated the renowned Union General William Tecumseh Sherman.

A horseless Cleburne, with drawn sword, used his hat to encourage his men forward at Franklin, Tennessee.  His last recorded words before participating in Hood’s senseless frontal assault, were: “Well, Govan, if we are to die, let us die like men.”

Colonel Patrick O’Rorke – Cavan

Little Roundtop, Gettysburg – Chamberlain’s irrefutable triumph on the Union’s left flank may never have come to pass if Colonel O’Rorke and his 140th New Yorkers hadn’t appeared in the nick of time.

Because of the stirring tale by Michael Shaara in the great saga The Killer Angels, the struggle for Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg will always be remembered as the day saved by the heroics of Colonel Chamberlain and the 20th Maine.

Arriving at Little Round Top just as the 16th Michigan’s right flank was disintegrating, O’Rorke visualized the gravity of the situation. Not allowing his men to halt even to load their weapons, decked out in his new Zouave uniform, he drew his sword and yelled his last words. “Down this way, boys!”

The 140th trailed after as O’Rorke fell with a minié ball through the neck. Following the battle, the curious counted 17 bullet holes in the Confederate sharpshooter.

 Colonel Dennis O’Kane – Derry

Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg – “This crest will not be taken from us.”  Unsheathing his sword and unfurling the regiment’s green flag with the Pennsylvania arms on one side and an Irish wolfhound, sunburst, and round tower on the other, O’Kane shouted: “Let your work this day be for victory or death.”

           By the Battle of Gettysburg’s third day, the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers of the Philadelphia Brigade numbered a scant 258 officers and men.  This proud Irish regiment under the command of Colonel O’Kane, named after their heroes the New York 69th, lay behind a three-foot high stone wall in front of The Copse of Trees, yards away from where the wall angled to the right, and awaited the Confederate charge they knew was coming.  The hours-long ordnance barrage had ceased and the silence enveloping Cemetery Ridge was deafening.  Many looked longingly at their primed twelve buckshot to the load, three to five guns to a man, retrieved from the dead after they had recaptured Brown’s artillery from Wright’s Second Georgia Battalion, during day two of this epic battle.   O’Kane, knowing the clump of trees directly to the rear of his undermanned regiment was the target of Lee’s artillery, walked behind his prone troops, encouraging them to be true to their state and their heritage.

Stench from dead horses and men stagnating in the 90-degree heat, made their position unbearable.  Then, as the black artillery smoke cleared, 15,000 Butternuts, in parade fashion, left the shelter of the woods.  After they crossed Emmitsburg Road, the Union artillery carved huge gaps in their lines. But the holes were soon filled, and the Rebels kept coming.  Hays’s Third Division on the Union right and Stannard’s Vermont Brigade on the left moved forward to channel the attackers toward O’Kane. When the Rebels approached to within 50-yards of the stone wall, the muskets of the Irish cut loose. The next few minutes saw a slaughter unequaled in American History. 

O’Kane watched as his men on the left moved from the wall. They may have moved, but by God, they did not show their backs.  Then to his disgust, the two companies of the Pennsylvania 71st, positioned between his men and The Angle, broke for the rear. He swiftly ordered Companies I, A, and F to wheel right and fire enfilade at General Armistead and his men who’d crossed the wall where the 71st had deserted. 

Armistead and 150 Confederates were inside the Union lines. But what had they to meet? Rifles, bayonets, and clubbed muskets.  Men on both sides rapidly fell. Hundreds rushed to assist the 69th.  The struggle lasted but minutes.  After touching a Union gun for support, Armistead fell. The Confederate survivors threw down their arms and were sent without guard to the rear.

Pickett’s charge and the Battle of Gettysburg came to its end at Bloody Angle.

During the skirmish, a minié ball passed through O’Kane’s abdomen. He died in the early morning hours of July 4, 1863.  O’Kane went to his maker without knowing that while the remnants of his regiment tended to the prisoners and the wounded, others not on the wall were hastily gathering up the scattered battle flags and hence, the glory.

Not a single medal, let alone the medal of Honor, was awarded to the men of the Pennsylvania 69th. It took until 1999 for the City of Philadelphia, and until 2005 for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to finally honor their Irish sons.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s