Irishmen in the American Civil War

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 2 (March/April 2010), Letters, Letters, Volume 18


—As Lar Joye pointed out (HI 18.1, Jan./Feb. 2010), the story ofIrishmen in the Confederate Army is less well known than that of thosewho served with the Union. There is another category of Irishmen whohave received little attention—those who served in regular Union armyor in volunteer regiments that had no connection to the Irish brigadesthat are so well known. I have been researching one such soldier.
Peter Cavanagh from Cappancur, near Tullamore, Co. Offaly, joined theregular Union army in Newport, Kentucky, in 1860. In early 1861, beforethe start of the war, he was part of a small party of recruits,probably mostly Irish, who travelled from Newport under the command ofCorkman Thomas Sweeny to St Louis. They were to take part in one of thefirst actions of the war on 10 May 1861 when Union troops captured CampJackson in St Louis. Later that year they took part in the battle ofWilson’s Creek in south-west Missouri, a Southern victory and a battleon a similar scale to Bull Run but, like these Irishmen, much less wellknown. This group, with up to 50 per cent Irish membership, foughttogether right up to the end of the war in many major battles. Theirunits were almost as Irish as the well-known Irish brigades, but littlehas been written about them.
Cavanagh came back to Ireland in 1867 on leaving the army. I find thetiming intriguing as it was the year of the Fenian rising. His earlycommander, Sweeny, was a well-known Fenian and commanded a Fenianattack on Canada. Sweeny proposed to Cleburne that they join forcesagainst the common British enemy after the war. Cavanagh was close toSweeny for much of the war and that he was a returning Fenian is highlyprobable, but I have not been able to find any evidence to support it.
I would be pleased to hear from any reader who may have information onIrishmen serving in non-Irish units of the Union army or returningFenian veterans. We may eventually be able to fill in the gaps and morefully understand the Irish contribution to the American CivilWar.

—Yours etc.,
Newgarden, Castleconnell, Co. Limerick


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