Born Engineer Records Adventures Of Ancestor In US Civil
Scealta Uibh Fhaili with Ger Scully
A Cappincur born engineer, Michael A MacNamara has recorded
the adventures of his great grandfather, Peter Cavanagh
in the American Civil War.
In an article submitted to the Tribune this week, Mr MacNamara,
an engineer based in Castleconnell, Co. Limerick, charts
the life and times of his ancestor from his activity in
the US military to his death in his native Offaly in 1871.
The Limerick based engineer grew up in Colehill in a house
where there was a collection dusty documents from the middle
of the nineteenth century.
I came across them casually and I was told that they
belonged to my great-grandfather, Peter Cavanagh. I wasnt
very interested until some years ago when I took a closer
look. There was an old school excerise book of about 100
foolscap pages and a number of documents about his service
in he US army. I found a record of schooling during the
Famine years. There were also military records that mentioned
a number of engagements during the American Civil War. He
seemed to have been in the Wild West after the war and then
he returned to Ireland in 1867, the year the Fenians rose.
Mr MacNamara decide to find out more information about the
Americian Civil War and wrote to the National Historic Battlefields
in connection with some of the locations mentioned in the
Peter Cavanagh, son of Nicholas Cavanagh of Cappancur and
Mary McLeroy of Kilbeggan, was born in Cappincur in 1824.
There is no record other that of his baptism until he starts
tuition with Patrick Glowry from Cloneyglin, Kilbeggan in
1844. The 100 pages or so of the surviving exercise book
were written between 1844 and 1849. Unfortunately, there
is almost no personal information and after it finishes
there is no record of what happened then or for the next
Mr MacNamara adds: In 1860, he joined the US army
at Newport, Kentucky, a town across the Ohio River from
Cincinnati. Over the following months a number of others,
who were to be his companion for the next seven years, also
signed on , and the majority of them was Irish. There was
a fellow Offaly man, James Brennan. They became members
of Company F of the 2nd Regiment of Light Artillery. Practically
every county in Ireland was represented.
1860 was a very important year in American history. Slavery,
but by no means only slavery, was creating an ever-widening
rift between the free or abolitionist north and the slave
holding south. Abraham Lincoln, opposed to the spread of
slavery, was elected president in November and the tensions
between the North and South were close to breaking point.
These recruits in Newport must have been aware of the possibility
of conflict when they enlisted.
In December 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United
States and by the time Peter Cavanagh and his comrades headed
south to Saint Louis, Missouri in March 1861, most of the
southern states had followed South Carolina out of the Union
and into the independent Confederate States of America.
They were heading into the place where the two opposing
sides would face off. Missouri was a very divided state,
on the cusp of the two opposing forces.
Mr MacNamara continues: Corkman Thomas Sweeney commanded
this group of about 35 recruits who made the journey to
Missouri the following March. Sweeney was a veteran of the
Mexican war in which he lost an arm. He had a fiery personality
and one report spoke of him as a red-faced Irishman with
more guts than judgement. Another said that he spoke three
languages: English, Irish and obscenity. He soon became
a general. Most of all, he is known as the man who led a
Fenian contingent into Canada. Despite his one arm, he took
on General Dodge in a fistfight during the siege of Atlanta,
which landed him in trouble for not the first time, but
he survived it.
The war started in April 1861 with the Shelling of Fort
Sumter in Charlestown Harbor, Saint Carolina. Conflict soon
came to Saint Louis.Missouri was a front line state where
both sides were evenly represented. The Governor, Claiborne
Jackson, was a secessionist and had organised the state
millitia at Camp Jackson, just outside Saint Louis. The
intention was clear; to use these troops to deliver Missouri
to the confederacy. In one of the first actions of the war,
Union troops, including Sweeney and his men, captured Camp
Jackson on May 10. It was captured without bloodshed, but
in later fighting in the city, 28 people died. Two civilians
who would later play a major part in the war, witnessed
the action as bystanders.These were US Generals Grant and
William Tecumseh Sherman, both of who wrote of it in their
memoirs. It was a minor incident, but had important consequences.
It set the scene for the success of the Union forces in
Events then speeded up and the two sides entered into open
conflict. Peter Cavanagh and his colleagues were involved
in battles across the state, culminating in the epic conflict
at Wilsons Creek in August 1861. They had chased the
Governor up the Missouri River and captured the state capital
of Jefferson City. A number of minor skirmishes followed
until the two substantial armies faced each other in the
southwestern corner of the state. At Wilsons Creek,
General Lyons, commander of the Northern forces, became
the first general officer to die in the war. Peter was close
to him when he was killed, as part of the US Second Regiment
of Light Artillery. Wilsons Creek was a major battle,
the biggest in Missouri,on the scale of Bull Run in the
north, and they were fought within days of each other and
with approximately the same casualties and result. The North
lost, but the exhausted Southerners could not take advantage
of the victory. On the Southern side that day were men such
as Cole Younger, William Quantrill and Jesse and Frank James,later
to become famous outlaws, but who fought as irregular troops
at Wilsons Creek and fought throughout the war as
guerrillas. Among the many who would achieve fame on the
Northern side was Wild Bill Hickock.
In the winter of 1861, this group of men of 2nd Regiment
of Light Artillery formed the core of a new regiment. They
retreated toward Saint Louis to regroup. They were included
in the newly formed Missouri troops that were mustered into
supporting the Union cause. They were part of the newly
formed Company M of the 1st Regiment of Missouri Light Artillery
and would have an illustrious part to play in the years
During 1862, they were involved in the conflict in Missouri,
Mississippi and Alabama. Early in the year, they fought
at New Madrid and Island Number 10, in southeastern Missouri
on the Mississippi River. They fought in major battles like
Iuka and Corinth. In early 1863, they travelled down the
Yazoo River to attempt to capture Vicksburg. Vicksburg was
of major importance as it controlled the Mississippi River
and was almost impossible to capture in a frontal attack
from the west. On the morning of the first day of Battle
of Corinth in 1862, they experienced a major earthquake
as the two large armies faced each other. This part of America
is earthquake prone; New Madrid, where they had fought in
1862, has been destroyed in such an earthquake, so severe
that it changed the course of the Mississippi River and
destroyed the town.
In the following year, 1863, they were part of Grants
force that set out to split the Confederacy through the
capture of Vicksburg. They had tried the years before but
had failed in the attempt on the Yazoo Pass Expedition to
take the city from the northeast. They had tried to dig
canals around it on the west. Now General Grant went down
the west bank of the Mississippi, crossed below the city
at Bruinsburg, and came in from the southeast to attack
the city. This was an innovative move by Grant, as he was
cut off from his support and had to live off the land. Major
battles were fought, particularly at Champion Hills, east
of Vicksburg, where the men of Company M suffered hardship
and ill health. They sacked and burned the state capitol
of Jackson, leaving it, as William Faulkner later wrote,
as a city of chimneys, where pigs rooted in the streets.
Company M was part of the force that lay siege to Vicksburg
and were near the Shirley House to the east of the city.
While under siege, there were a number of bloody and costly
attacks on the defenses. When there was no hope of rescue,
General Pemberon surrendered the city to Grant, ironically
on July 4th, Independence Day.
The Confederacy was split in two and, as Grant stated, the
Mississippi flowed unmolested to the sea. It was one of
the crucial events of the war.
Peter Cavanagh had been promoted to corporal at Holly Springs,
Mississippi, in 1862. Now after Vicksburg he was promoted
to sergeant. The vacancy arose because the unfortunate Sergeant
Silkman was demoted to the ranks for dereliction of duty,
being drunk on duty and insulting a superior officer. Clerly,
the victory was well celebrated.
After this, Peter spent several months on the hospital ship
Woodford, on the Mississippi, suffering from miasmatic fever.
This was a disease, thought to be caused by breathing the
foul air from the marshes. Over the previous 18 months,
he had been exposed to life in the swamps of the Mississippis
delta, that region between the Yazoo and Mississippi north
of Vicksburg, during the Yazoo expedition. The land along
the Yazoo is very low and there was constant flooding. The
Mississippi is held within its banks by levees built along
it. The Yazoo can be connected to the Mississippi at its
northern end by breaching the levee and this raised the
water level over the surrounding countryside. It was done
to try and facilitate the passage of boats. It didnt
work and the army lived in very unhealthy conditions of
dampness. These conditions caused the miasmatic fever and
it would later affect him on his return to Ireland.
After the victory at Vicksburg they were engaged in mopping
up operations in Mississippi, heading eastward to Jackson
and Meridian. They then went on the Red River Expedition
through Louisiana and almost into Texas. This was not a
success, and they returned to Vicksburg. While too much
water was the problem on the Yazoo, too little water in
the Red River hindered the passage of the boats and they
often became stranded.
At this time for some reason, they agitated to be returned
to their original company, Company F of the regular army.
Several petitions were served on the Missouri Governor and
the Secretary of War. After much consideration, it was agreed
and they were shipped east and reenlisted in Company F when
they reached Georgia. They were now part of Shermans
attack on Atlanta and his later march through Georgia to
the sea. However, before that, Atlanta stood in the way.
As the army approached Atlanta, they fought a major and
bloody battle at Kennesaw Mountain and Battery F was part
of it. Victory could not be achieved , so Sherman by passed
Kennesaw to the south, crossed the Chattahoochee River and
laid seige to Atlanta. Major battles were fought around
Atlanta. At what is known as the Battle of Atlanta, Battery
F was destroyed and its guns captured. There were serious
casualties but Peter Cavanagh was unharmed. Close to the
spot where Battery F was defeated, General McPherson died
during the battle.
After the battle was won, they settled into a siege. As
artillery, they had an important role in the siege, as they
had at Corinth, Jackson and Vicksburg. The position of the
defenders was unsustainable and eventually the city surrendered.
Sherman destroyed the city and expelled the entire population.
Not a single building remains in Atlanta from this period.
Peter next turned up as part of General Thomasi army that
defeated the Southerners at Nashville, Tennessee. At this
stage, in December 1864, the fate of the South has been
determined. It was now only a matter of time until the final
surrender at Appromattox Courthouse in Virginia. The war
was over and Peter Cavanagh had survived.
After the war, the company was sent to Fort McHenry, near
Baltimore, Maryland. From there they sailed south of Central
America, crossed the Isthmus and sailed up the west coast
of Mexico, stopping at Acapulco en route San Francisco.
In San Francisco, they were part of the garrison set up
to defend the coast and San Francisco Bay from Fort Point.
This building, in the Presidio, still survives at the southern
end of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is now a museum and is
largely concerned with this period. Fort Point was considered
a hardship station, with constant fog and cold spray breaking
over the fort.
They were soon on the move again, this time north to the
Western Territories. This is the area that later became
Washington State. They were sent to Fort Vancouver, which
is across the Columbia River from Portland Oregon. It too
survives as a museum.
Life here was also hard. Sherman, who had served here before
the war, said that many of these outposts, while allegedly
being called forts, were little more than holes in the ground.
One of their purposes in occupying this territory was to
keep an eye on the British. The border between Washington
and British Columbia was still in dispute. At this time,
the final Indian wars in the northwest were a decade away.
Life seemed to have been relatively uncomplicated if not
The last job Peter was asked to perform was in 1867 when
he was ordered to escort a military prisoner from Fort Vancouver
to Fort Cape Disappointment. Fort Cape Disappointment is
on the Pacific at the northern side of the Columbia River
estuary. It is the point where Lewis and Clark reached the
Pacific coast in 1805, after the first epic transcontinental
crossing. The trip from Vancouver is over 100 miles and
was certainly by water. There are few roads today; there
was none then. Having safely delivered the prisoner, he
then transferred another prisoner across the river to Fort
Steevens in Oregon.
In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia.
In order to show the flag and to provide fishery protection,
Company F was to be sent to Saint Pauls Island in
the Pribilof group in the Bering Straits. This would have
been an even greater hardship station. It is one of the
most remote parts of the US. It has a very harsh climate,
with the islands enveloped in fog for most of the year.
On the journey there the Company was ship wrecked on Cook
Inlet, Alaska, with the loss of the boat and all property.
Peter wasnt with them on this trip. His tour of duty
was over in Vancouver in July and he did not re-enlist.
Maybe it was the prospect of Saint Pauls Island that
made up his mind, but in any event, he returned to Ireland
In September 1867, he married Margaret Tiernan from Rahugh
near Kilbeggan and went to live in Cappancur. They had two
daughters, Margaret and Mary Ann. Peter died in 1871, diagnosed
with TB. He is buried in the cemetery, almost across from
his house, in Cappincur. He may have survived the Civil
War, but he was certainly a casualty.
There is no record of individual actions on the part of
Peter Cavanagh during the American Civil War. However, he
was constantly involved in combat from the full duration
of the war from 1861 to 1865. He saw a great deal of the
country and had first hand experience of the two most prominent
generals of the war. He may have survived the battles but
he was certainly a Civil War casualty. Most deaths of combatants
during the war were from disease rather then from battle
wounds. His was just delayed a little longer.
There may well be other records to be found that will fill
in the gaps. There is a tantalising possibility that there
was a Fenian connection. He returned to Ireland in 1867,
the year of the rising, and he had been for a long time
close to Tom Sweeny. He was in Philadelphia at the end of
1864, at a time when it was the centre of Fenian activity
and had met Irish American politicians. However, there is
no evidence of Fenian involvement.
Mary Ann emigrated to the United States. Margaret married
Patrick Donohoe of Colehill. Peters widow lived with
her daughter in Colehill until her death in 1930.
Peter Cavanaghs story is interesting for a number
Much has been written about the Irish regiments that fought
on both sides of the Civil War. Both of the companies with
which Peter Cavanagh served were probably as Irish as any
of the Irish regiments. Few of those in Irish regiments
fought for such an extended duration. And yet, little seems
to be known about these Irishmen who fought as northern
or southern soldiers in the war. When examined, their contribution
is probably much more important to the outcome of the war
than that of the specifically Irish regiments.
There is also the matter of which theatre of the war they
fought in. Almost all the writing about Irish participation
concerns the War in the East. It can be argued that the
events in the west and in trans- Mississippi were of equal
importance. If the simple action at Camp Jackson had failed,
then it is possible that Missouri could have joined the
Confederacy and possibly have changed the course of history.
However, there were some very major engagements that he
saw that truly did change history. The fall of Vicksburg
split the eastern Confederacy from Louisiana and Texas and
fatally weakened their ability to fight. The Atlanta campaign
of Gone with the Wind fame fatally crippled the southern
Great events happened all over the United States but these
Irishmen were part of the effort that was crucial for the
victory. They are little known because of their regiments
and where they fought. I wonder does anyone else have a
collection of similar documents?.
Courtesy of the Midland Tribune