Thursday, July 10, 2014

“The Irish Lion is an Ass.”

This tale is about bullies. Here’s how it begins:

After the Battle of Bull Run, Union forces counted up their casualties. Irvin McDowell’s defeated army had lost forty officers missing in action. Some of these officers were dead, but others had been captured by the Confederates and were now being held as prisoners of war. Due to curious diplomatic circumstances, the Union army could not negotiate their immediate release. The enemy held most of them in custody for a year.  The Confederates held onto their captives tightly, using them as bargaining chips, either to spur the release of captured Confederate diplomats (James Mason and John Slidell) or to prevent the execution of captured Confederate privateers (who were being tried as pirates in Union maritime courts).

Consequently, the captured Union officers bounced around from prison to prison. They started out at Castle Pinckney, and then went to Libby Prison, and finally, they went to Salisbury. Much like American POWs today, Union citizens knew the names of these prisoners. Their incarceration made them into minor celebrities, of sorts. Undoubtedly, the most well-known prisoner was Colonel Michael Corcoran, the commander of the 69th New York State Militia. Corcoran was an Irish exile who had caused a considerable stir back in October 1860 when he refused to turn out his regiment for a parade intended to honor the visiting Prince of Wales. The affront angered many native-born Americans; in response, New York’s state militia commander initiated charges of “disobedience of orders” against Corcoran.  The Irish colonel stood a controversial court-martial, one that dragged on for months.

(Here is Colonel Michael Corcoran, the controversial commander of the 69th N.Y.S.M., later commander of the Irish Legion.)
After the militia call-up of April 15, 1861, state authorities suddenly dropped the charges against Corcoran and released him from arrest. They hoped this show of mercy might convince him to terminate his veneer of Irish nationalism and take up arms on behalf of the Union. For Irish-Americans everywhere, the moment was critical. Prior to the war, Corcoran had told fellow Irishmen to ignore the problems caused by southern secession; they should stay out of the war against the rebellion. Irishmen’s true war was against Britain, he said, not the Confederacy. However, the 1860-1861 court-martial seemed to have changed his mind; after the charges were dropped, Corcoran proudly marched the 69th N.Y.S.M. down the main thoroughfares of New York City, bound for the battle-front.

Thus, Corcoran was free from New York custody for only three months before he ended up as a prisoner of another government. This time, it was the Confederate States of America that held him behind bars. Even though all of the captured U.S. officers suffered alike, Corcoran, it seems, believed he endured greater abuse than the others, and this, in turn, caused friction between him and his fellow captives. An ugly incident occurred in May 1862 when the Bull Run officers were still confined at Libby. Major Israel Vodges, a West Pointer who had been captured at the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, had been, as one observer wrote, “particularly indiscreet and severe in denouncing his compulsory association with the Irish members of our party.” An Irish lieutenant from Corcoran’s regiment overheard Vodges’s foul words and went to inform Corcoran about them. Another officer, Colonel Orlando B. Willcox, considered it best if someone diffused the anti-Irish sentiment right away. He went to Corcoran and made an attempt to convince him to say something publicly, something that might confirm Irish-Americans’ devotion to the Union cause. Essentially, Willcox wanted Corcoran to say that they were all in this war together, that the Irish were not fighting merely to prepare themselves for a coming rebellion against Great Britain.

(This is Major Israel Vodges--shown later on in the war, wearing brigadier general's insignia. He started the anti-Irish sentiment among the Union prisoners.)

Corcoran’s reply disappointed Willcox. He snapped back with equally vicious language. In fact, Corcoran indulged in anti-Semitism. He told Willcox that he would not associate with a “Damned Jew” (meaning Vodges). Willcox wrote:

I arose and went over to Colonel Corcoran, who lay on the floor near by, and denounced the proceeding as disgraceful to us all, and I requested the colonel to nip the thing in the bud—which he alone could do. I found him also very much put out with the major, and he flatly refused to comply at first, saying that the “d—d ‘Jew’ deserved a rousting,” and it was not until we had quite an argument and I convinced him that the major was “but a half-crazy mathematician” that he consented to interfere, saying it was only to oblige me.

Corcoran’s reluctance to speak to the other officers displeased Willcox. Indeed, Corcoran’s defamation of Willcox’s friend Vodges caused anti-foreign hatred to arise within him. Willcox admitted to being jealous of Corcoran’s popularity and he also admitted to being covetous at all the perks Corcoran received from the prison guards. (For instance, Willcox claimed that the guards never searched Corcoran’s mail, but they routinely opened his own.) Writing to his wife, Willcox revealed his true feelings about the Irish colonel:

The Irish Lion is as near an ass [as] can be, & yet he not only overshadows us all at home but has more privileges here than any one. I can speak my heart to no one but you on the subject, but it galls me to the quick to have a low-bred, uneducated, selfish, cunning foreigner toadied by our too generous people on all occasions. When I add to that he came into the war with no love for the country but at the instigation of Bishop [John R.] Hughes to practice himself & his countrymen in arms for acting in Ireland, you can still judge better of my indignation. Yet his name is mentioned in Congress & every where before mine & every other. Why, my dear, he has not expressed one intelligent idea, even on the subject of the war, in the whole nine months I have been with him.

(This is Colonel Orlando Bolivar Willcox, shown here later in the war with the rank of brigadier general. At Libby Prison, he tried to make people apologize for their anti-Irish and anti-Semitic slurs, but failed.)

In this particular incident, it would be pointless to say who was right and who was wrong. Surely, both the foreign-born officers and the native-born officers contributed to the toxic environment. The main point is this: Willcox’s letters revealed a deeply-divided, xenophobic officer corps. Even the suffering they endured inside the Confederacy’s horrible prison pens could not bring them together. You might think that the officers would have put aside their differences for the good of the cause, but alas, as experience has often shown, the bullies of life often rise to the occasion unbidden.

(This image was made by a Union veteran, Otto Botticher. It depicts Union officers who had been taken prisoner in 1861 being held at Libby Prison. You will note that Willcox and Corcoran stand in the center of the image.)

(Here's a close-up of Willcox and Corcoran. As Willcox's letters revealed, these two men would never have been so chummy.)
(Here is another image done by Botticher, this one depicting a baseball game played by Union prisoners at Salisbury Prison. Again, Botticher depicted Willcox and Corcoran. Can you pull a "Where's Waldo"? Do you see them?)
(Here's the close-up, if your Waldo skills failed you. That's Willcox on the left, Corcoran on the right.)


  1. Great post. As Willcox's letters point out, the suspicion that Corcoran and other Fenians had ulterior motives to fight for the Union was rife. This issue is usually glossed over in the mostly romantic studies of the Union Irish units, and I'd really love to see a serious, fresh look at it. How about starting with the 69th NYSM and how its members decided to migrate to Volunteer regiments - or decided not to.

    On a side note, Corcoran's cadaverous appearance in photos after his release has often been pointed to as proof of his mistreatment. But to me, he doesn't look any less healthy in them than he did in photos taken before Bull Run. And for the record, I am second generation Irish on my mother's side ;-)

  2. Hey, Harry! I tend to agree with you about Corcoran's gaunt appearance. Even in April 1861, several NYC newspapers noted how thin he appeared, and they claimed that Corcoran had been mistreated during the court-martial proceedings! So, I think you're right. I think he was just naturally slender and some folks who were interested in churning up attention used his appearance as a way to do it.

    One my graduate students wrote up a lengthy study of the 69th NYNG (aka the 182nd NYV). He estimated that about 800 Fenians enlisted in Corcoran's brigade in 1862. He argues that the Fenians only became interested in the war after Corcoran's release, not before. Meagher's Irish Brigade, by contrast, was practically devoid of Fenianism.

  3. At a presentation I made back in 2011, a woman approached me and stated emphatically that "most" of the men of the 69th NYSM enlisted in the 69th NYSV. I told her I wasn't so sure. She was very unhappy with me, making some sort of comment about how the current NG traces itself to and includes as its own battle honors won by the Irish Brigade regiment. I decided not to get into it with her, since I don't think anyone has the hard numbers to support either position.