Through American and Irish wars: the life and times of General Thomas W. Sweeny, 1820–1892

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

Through American and Irish wars the life and times of General Thomas W. Sweeny, 1820–1892 1Through American and Irish wars: the life and times of General Thomas W. Sweeny, 1820–1892
Jack Morgan
(Irish Academic Press, £19.50)
ISBN 0716528134

Thomas Francis Meagher: the making of an Irish American
John M. Hearne and Rory T. Cornish (eds)
(Irish Academic Press, £19.50)
ISBN 0716528134

The American Civil War, even more than the Revolutionary War, shaped the modern USA. How it also shaped the Irish-American experience is at last coming under scholarly investigation. These books study two individuals who made significant contributions to the Union side in the war.
Thomas W. Sweeny emigrated from Cork to the USA with his family when he was about twelve. He volunteered for the Mexican War and stayed on as a regular soldier, serving in California and the West. The start of the Civil War saw him stationed in St Louis, Missouri, where he and his commanding officer, Nathaniel Lyons, had to act decisively to hold the state in the Union. Despite Lyons’s death in battle, Missouri remained a Union stronghold for the rest of the war.
Sweeny went on to competently command a division at two epic battles in the west, Shiloh and Atlanta. Unfortunately, as a regular army man, he must have been frustrated to see ‘civilians in uniform’ pass him by for promotion. This led to an explosion of rage against his corps commander, for which Sweeny was court-martialled. He was found innocent (no doubt being ‘old army’ was useful), but he never saw service in the Civil War again. Instead, he turned to Fenianism, and it was he who planned—and intended to lead—the Fenian invasion of Canada in 1866.
With hindsight, it can be seen that Sweeny’s plan was beyond the powers of the Fenians to implement. He seems to have imagined himself to be Ulysses S. Grant in 1864, with a continental reach and a large, experienced army. After the defeat of the Fenians, Sweeny severed all ties with the movement. Again, his old army connections seem to have come in handy—despite going AWOL and breaking several laws, he got back his rank and served as commander of garrisons in the South before his retirement.
Jack Morgan gives us a stirring account of the adventures of this engaging and sympathetic character. There is nothing to contradict the obituary that called Sweeny ‘gallant, warm-hearted and impulsive’. Yet the book’s title promises a ‘life and times’, and it must be added that this slim volume (152 pages) does not sketch the ‘times’ of Thomas Sweeny in any great detail. For example, the milestones on the road to the Civil War are well known—events like the Dred Scott case or the John Brown raid—Through American and Irish wars the life and times of General Thomas W. Sweeny, 1820–1892 2but if Sweeny ever expressed an opinion on any of them we are not told. Similarly, despite Sweeny’s serving in the South during the critical Reconstruction period, we are not offered any backdrop of the army, the freedmen and the government confronting recalcitrant Southern whites. Perhaps, after all, Sweeny was just a simple soldier, and that may also have limited his usefulness to Fenianism.
The other volume follows the career of Thomas Francis Meagher from Young Ireland through his years of exile, the New York years, the Civil War, and finally to his years as acting governor of Montana Territory. The early essays fill out the detail of Meagher’s family, the 1848 Rising, his arrest and transportation. The later ones offer a fascinating glimpse of politics on the US frontier in the late 1860s. Meagher’s heroic stature is only enhanced by his mysterious end, and a couple of essays explore various explanations for his death.
The core essay in the ‘making of an Irish American’ is Rory T. Cornish’s ‘An Irish Republican abroad’, and unfortunately this is the most disappointing in the book. While Cornish’s positive conclusions on the character of its subject are probably true, it is still necessary to tie in Meagher’s choices with the politics of the era, and this essay fails to do that. There are puzzles about Meagher’s conduct in the US. For example, contemporaries recognised the 1860 election as a climactic event that could result in the country’s dissolution. Meagher’s friend Stephen D. Douglas was a candidate of the splintered Democrats, probably the only candidate who could present himself as both electable and a saviour of the Union. Yet Meagher spent most of that vital year in Costa Rica, engaged in a speculative venture that could have brought him enormous profit. Douglas had broken with the Buchanan administration over the admission of Kansas as a slave state, and we do not know Meagher’s position in the Democratic split.
The Costa Rica venture is deeply suspect. It was planned that the US Navy would lease two harbours, one on the Atlantic, the other on the Pacific. Only powerful politicians and government support could have made that happen. Given that the agenda of many Democrats was ultimately to acquire new slave states in Central America, the whole affair was surely more than just an entrepreneurial adventure. If Meagher was a ‘Douglas Democrat’, then the accusations quoted by Cornish from other authors about his ‘betrayal’ of the South are quite inane, because Douglas was steadfast for the Union. Meagher seems to have held to Douglas’s precepts at least in the 1850s, but Douglas died early in the war. In 1864 the Democrats turned to George McClellan, who had been fired by Lincoln as army commander. Meagher, a self-styled conservative Unionist who admired McClellan, apparently could have rejoined the Democrats with an easy conscience but chose not to. It would be interesting to understand his decision in more detail. Cornish’s essay adds little to the conventional account of Meagher’s career in the antebellum and Civil War eras.
It is very praiseworthy of Irish Academic Press to produce these books, which are the first of a series.
The major reservation with both is the lack of good maps. Jack Morgan’s book will entertain and inform those with an interest in the American Civil War and Fenianism. The book on Meagher is more for the specialist, but it is a good appetiser for John M. Hearne’s forthcoming biography of this perennially fascinating
Irish-American.
Toby Joyce

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