Cappincur Born Engineer Records Adventures Of Ancestor In US Civil War

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 wasn’t 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 documents.
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 11 years.

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 the state.

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 Wilson’s 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 Wilson’s 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. Wilson’s 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 Wilson’s 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 ahead.

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 Grant’s 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 Mississippi’s 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 didn’t 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 Sherman’s 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 very comfortable.

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 Paul’s 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 wasn’t 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 Paul’s Island that made up his mind, but in any event, he returned to Ireland immediately.

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. Peter’s widow lived with her daughter in Colehill until her death in 1930.
Peter Cavanagh’s story is interesting for a number of reasons.

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 Confederacy.
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
February 2005