Saturday, April 23, 2011

SRO event launches Irish commemoration of America’s Civil War

Dublin, Ireland - April 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter, and with it the onset of America’s long and bloody Civil War. Two days later, the first recorded fatality of the five-year conflict occurred, with the death of Tipperary-born Federal Army Private Daniel Hough. Tens of thousands of native Irish would go on to die in the war.

(L to R above: Dr. Patrick Geoghegan, Professor Tom Bartlett, Robert Doyle and Dr. Úna Ní Bhroiméil.)

Hough served in the Federal garrison and, just as his command had surrendered to the Confederate forces, was killed by a misfired Union shell. Hough’s death is suggestive, if not defining, for of all the countries that provided combatants to the conflict, the Emerald Isle can claim the greatest connection to what one Irish historian termed “a huge event in world history.” Well more than 100,000 Irish emigrants served in defense of the Union, while nearly half that number fought under the flag of the Confederacy.

As the United States began its sesquicentennial commemorations of the war this month, The National Museum of Ireland organized and hosted a weekend of special events in Dublin. On April 16, eminent Irish historians presented a program of public lectures on their countrymen’s role in the war.

The program, titled “The Fighting Irish? Exploring the role of the Irish in the American Civil War,” was chaired by Dr. Úna Ní Bhroiméil. Presenters included Patrick Geoghegan, broadcaster and associate dean of research at Trinity College Dublin, and Tom Bartlett, professor at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. The speakers captivated a capacity crowd, dozens more than the 120 fortunate enough to gain seats in the Palatine Room, within the Museum of Decorative Arts and History in Collins Barracks, Dublin.

Bartlett outlined the roots of the conflict and the reasons for the South’s defeat after, as he put it, a “war of exhaustion and attrition.” According to Bartlett, the hordes of Irish emigrants who landed on the Eastern Seaboard during the 1850s and 1860s became an integral part of the Northern states’ superior resources, serving not just as soldiers but also as factory workers and laborers. Bartlett reminded those in attendance that while the war is perceived to have been a fight against slavery, the vast majority of the Irish chose their cause simply by dint of their location during the conflict.

Geoghegan addressed the Irish military experience in the war and brought to life many of the Irish-born characters, some not universally known. One such personality was Galway-born Confederate artillery commander Dick Dowling, who inflicted the war’s most one-sided defeat of Union forces when, it is reputed, he saved Texas from invasion at Sabine Pass in 1864. The silver medals (right) presented to Dowling and his men were hung on green ribbons in recognition of the Irish roots of Dowling and many in his command.

Another of Erin’s unsung participants, Geoghegan suggested, was musician, composer and bandleader extraordinaire Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore. A Union general gave Gilmore, another Galway man, the task of reorganizing military music. Gilmore’s most enduring legacy may well be writing the lyrics to the iconic song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and then pairing it with the tune of another Irish ballad to give America the song it knows so well today.

Also of surprise to many present was Geoghegan’s account of the role played by over 580 nuns and religious sisters in the war, 308 Irish-born. Tending to the sick and wounded under extreme conditions, the nuns were held in such respect that they could move freely between both Yankee and Rebel positions.

A co-producer of biographical website, Robert Doyle (left), presented, recounting the wartime career of Myles Walter Keogh. Although probably best known as the Irish officer who served in George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry before being killed during “Custer’s Last Stand,” Keogh’s impressive military service in the Union Army stands as an equally enduring legacy of the Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, native.

Keogh received his “baptism of fire” at the Battle of Port Republic, where he almost captured a surprised General “Stonewall” Jackson. Keogh also served with valor in the command of Brigadier General John Buford, a hero of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, where Keogh was promoted after “gallant and meritorious conduct.”

Ending the war as a lieutenant colonel, Keogh had the distinction of leading the final cavalry charge of the war at the Battle of Salisbury in April 1865, three days after Confederate commander Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomatox to Major General Ulysses S. Grant, himself the grandson of a Tyrone emigrant.

Attendees posed numerous questions during the post-presentations question-and-answer session. Considering as well that many dozens had to be turned away from the event, the Irish public seems finally engaged in the effort to better understand the role that their countrymen and, indeed, countrywomen, played in one of the most far-reaching moments in American history.

In light of the enthusiasm on display, the April 16th event seems likely to be a precursor to commemorations and other public offerings in Ireland acknowledging the key role of the Irish in the American Civil War. Stay tuned to for more about Ireland’s embrace of its veterans of the Irish nation’s “other Civil War.” WGT

1 comment:

Chef of Hell Kitchen 2011 said...

Professor Tom Bartlett in the photo seems to be pretty board. :)