Fighting Irish: 5 Irish Generals of the American Civil War

Fighting Irish: 5 Irish Generals of the American Civil War

Matthew - January 26, 2017

The Civil War saw neighbors, brothers, and even fathers and sons take up arms against each other, each side believing completely in the Union or the Confederate cause. The bloodshed spilled during the Civil War was not confined to native born Americans. Many men from other countries fought for both North and South and gave their lives between the bloody years of 1861-1865. Perhaps most notable is the sacrifice of Irish Americans during the War Between the States.

The Great Irish Famine of the 1840s and and 1850s forced scores of Irish men and women to flee their native land in search of better opportunities, and many began new lives in the United States. When war threatened to rip the United States apart in 1861, Irish men eagerly signed up to fight for their adopted homeland. An estimated 150,000 Irish Americans fought for the Union during the Civil War, along with roughly 20,000 for the Confederacy. The Union ranks included 7 Generals born in Ireland, while Confederate forces were led by 6 natives of Erin’s Isle. Below are 5 of the men born in Ireland who rose to the rank of General during the American Civil War.

Fighting Irish: 5 Irish Generals of the American Civil War
General Thomas A. Smyth. Wikipedia

Thomas A. Smyth

Smyth was born in Ballyhooly, County Cork on December 25, 1832. He was the son of a poor farmer, and he decided to make a new life for himself in American in 1854. The Irishman settled in Philadelphia, and labored as a wood carver and a carriage and coach maker.

Smyth was an adventurous young man, and he signed on as a mercenary for General William Walker’s expedition to Central America to search for fortune. The brash young adventurer traveled with Walker’s men through Nicaragua. He returned to Philadelphia three years later, married, moved to Delaware, and continued to work as a carriage maker.

In Delaware, Smyth helped establish an Irish militia known as the National Guards. When the Civil War erupted, Smyth enlisted with an all-Irish unit, the 24th Pennsylvania Infantry. He rose to the rank of Captain fighting alongside his countrymen in the early part of the Civil War. In late 1861, Smyth was commissioned as a major with the 1st Delaware Infantry.

Smyth fought in many bloody battles, including Antietam, Chancellorsville, and he was wounded at Gettysburg. He was promoted to Brigadier General during the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia in October 1864. For the next six months, Smyth commanded the 2nd Division of the Gibraltar Brigade, an infantry brigade in the Army of the Potomac. On April 7, 1865, General Thomas A. Smyth was shot by a sniper through the mouth near Farmville, Virginia. The bullet left Smyth paralyzed, and he was brought to a nearby tavern. He died two days later, on April 9, the same day General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union forces.

Fighting Irish: 5 Irish Generals of the American Civil War
“Fighting Tom” Sweeny, the one-armed Union General. Wikipedia

Thomas William Sweeny

To earn the name “Fighting Tom,” a man must experience a great deal of battle. That was certainly the case with Thomas “Fighting Tom” Sweeny. The Irishman was born in County Cork in 1820, and emigrated to New York City in 1833. During his voyage across the Atlantic, young Tom Sweeny was swept over the side of the ship, and survived over 30 minutes in the frigid water until he was rescued. The toughness shown by the young boy would be a staple of his adult life as well.

In 1846, Sweeny got his first taste of the military. He joined up with the 2nd New York Volunteers, and went on to fight in the Mexican-American War. During that conflict, Sweeny was wounded at the Battle Churobusco in August 1847. As a result of his injury, Sweeny’s right arm was amputated after the battle. Sweeny’s bravery and heroism caused his fellow soldiers to call him “Fighting Tom.”

Sweeny then went on to fight in the Yuma War against various Native American tribes in present-day California and Arizona in the early 1850s. When the Civil War began, Fighting Tom Sweeny was named a General almost immediately. He fought in many Civil War battles, including Shiloh, the Battle of Atlanta, and the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri. Sweeny’s fighting spirit was not only reserved for the enemy. In 1864, Sweeny engaged in a fistfight with another Union General, Grenville Dodge. Fighting Tom was court-martialed for the brawl, but was later acquitted. After the Civil War, Sweeny focused his passion and energy on another cause he believed in.

Like many other Irish Americans, Sweeny was a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to an Ireland free of British rule. In 1866, Sweeny participated in the ill-fated invasion of Canada the Fenian Brotherhood. The Irishmen’s goal was to hold the transportation infrastructure of Canada hostage in exchange for Ireland’s freedom. Needless to say, the plan did not work out as Sweeny as his men had hoped, and Ireland remained under British rule. Sweeny retired to Long Island, New York, where he resided until he died in 1892 at the age of 71.

Fighting Irish: 5 Irish Generals of the American Civil War
General Patrick Cleburne. Franklin Home Page

Patrick Cleburne

Unlike Generals Smyth and Sweeny, Irishman Patrick Cleburne became a commander for the Confederate forces during the Civil War. Cleburne was born in 1828 in Ovens, County Cork. He served in the British Army, rising to the rank of Corporal. Cleburne crossed the Atlantic and settled in Helena, Arkansas in 1849. There, he found work as a pharmacist, and he also started a newspaper. Cleburne believed in the Confederate cause, and he joined up with a local militia.

In March 1862, nearly a year into the Civil War, Cleburne was named a Brigadier General. Throughout the course of the conflict, Cleburne would rise to the rank of Major General, and he remains the highest-ranking Irish-born officer in American military history. During the war, Cleburne commanded his men in several battles, including Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Pickett’s Mill. He was shot in the face and wounded at the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky in August 1862.

Cleburne returned to the battlefield and earned the nickname “Stonewall of the West” due to his bravery, strength, and his use of key strategic points such as hills and ridges in battles in Tennessee and Georgia. General Robert E. Lee called Cleburne “a meteor shining from a clouded sky.”

In 1864, the Confederate forces were clearly in trouble, and General Cleburne proposed freeing and arming slaves to help the South’s war effort. His proposal fell on deaf ears, however, and the fight raged on. On November 30, 1864, at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, south of Nashville, Cleburne was shot and killed as he led a charge against a Union position. Patrick Cleburne’s legacy is very evident throughout the South. Counties are named after him in Alabama and Arkansas, as well as the town Cleburne, Texas.

Fighting Irish: 5 Irish Generals of the American Civil War
Statue of Cleburne in Ringgold Gap, Georgia. Pinterest

Fighting Irish: 5 Irish Generals of the American Civil War
Michael Corcoran, far left, with members of the Fighting 69th. Library of Congress

Michael Corcoran

Although Michael Corcoran had lived in the United States for over a decade by 1860, his heart still belonged to his native Ireland. That year, Corcoran was a Colonel in the 69th New York Militia, and he refused to march in a parade honoring the visiting Prince of Wales in New York City. The feisty Irishman’s refusal, due to his opposition of British treatment of his homeland, made him a bit of a minor celebrity in New York. Before grabbing headlines, Corcoran was born in County Sligo in 1827, the son of a British Army officer.

He settled in the U.S. in 1849 and worked at a tavern in New York City. Corcoran enlisted as a private in the 69th New York Militia, and was a Colonel by 1859. The famed 69th went on to become known as “The Irish Brigade.” Corcoran became involved in local politics during the 1850s. Democratic leaders in New York knew that the influential Corcoran could help deliver the important Irish vote in elections, and his services were relied upon.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Corcoran was named General and he led his regiment to Washington, D.C. to help protect the capital. Although Corcoran had great admiration for his native Ireland, he also dearly loved America. He was quoted as saying, “One half of my heart is Erin’s, and the other half is America’s. God bless America, and ever preserve her the asylum of all the oppressed on the Earth, is the sincere prayer of my heart.”

Corcoran was captured during the First Battle of Bull Run, and was held prisoner until an exchange in August 1862. He recruited many more Irish soldiers into his unit and other New York regiments, which became known as the Corcoran Legion. Corcoran led his men at the Siege of Suffolk, Virginia and at the Battle of Deserted House, also in Virginia. On December 22, 1863, General Corcoran was thrown from his horse near Fairfax, Virginia. He sustained a fractured skull and died at the age of 36.

Fighting Irish: 5 Irish Generals of the American Civil War
Monument to the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg. Wikipedia

Fighting Irish: 5 Irish Generals of the American Civil War
Painting of the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, March 1862. Rare Maps

Walter P. Lane

Walter Paye Lane was another Irish-born man who went on to become a General for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Lane was a native of County Cork, and he emigrated to the U.S. as a young boy in 1821. His family eventually ended up in Kentucky. When he was not yet 20-years-old, Lane relocated to Texas, along with many other men who were inspired by the call for Texas independence in 1836.

Lane stayed in Texas after the Lone Star State gained its independence, and he fought in the Mexican-American War, rising to the rank of Major. When the Civil War began in 1861, Walter Lane was one of the first Texans to call for secession from the United States. Lane joined the 3rd Texas Cavalry, and fought in many clashes, including Pea Ridge, Chustenalah, as well as other battles in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. He was badly wounded during the battle of Mansfield, Louisiana on April 8, 1864. Walter Lane was promoted to General on the last day the Confederate Congress met, March 18, 1865.

Lane settled in Marshall, Texas after the Civil War, and helped establish the Texas Veterans Association. He became active in local politics, and with the help of his brother, formed a white citizen’s party that ran all African-Americans out of Marshall and Harrison County. Lane claimed the town was now “redeemable.” The former Civil War General remained in Marshall until he died in 1892 at the age of 74.

All 5 of these Civil War Generals were born across the Atlantic Ocean in Ireland. But, they, along with tens of thousands of their countrymen, fought for their adopted country because of their belief in what they regarded as a new, free way of life, whether they took up arms for the Union or for the Confederacy.