Sligo man Michael Corcoran became a close confidant
of Abraham Lincoln. A hero to the Irish soldiers in both
the Union and Confederate armies.
His life was a classic heros quest, but like countless
others, that of a man not a myth. Mary McDonagh of Carrowkeel
married Thomas Corcoran of Kilmacallan. He had served in
the British Army from 1806 to 1817, in Nova Scotia and the
West Indies. Their only child, Michael, was born on 21st
September 1827 in Carrowkeel. He went to school, probably
in Ballymote, until he was eighteen years old.
In August 1845, Thomas Corcoran died at age 59. Michael
had to find work that paid enough to support his mother
because his fathers army pension ceased at death.
A fungus destroyed most of the potato crop that autumn;
his wages were sorely needed. He applied to the Revenue
Police and was accepted into the January 1846 class.
Cadet Corcoran was a lean sixfoot, two inches tall, with
clear blue eyes, brown-auburn hair, and a fair complexion.
A career army artillery officer had reorganised the Revenue
Police in 1836, building the corps into an an efficient
and effective light infantry unit. Basic training took place
at the depot in Dublin and lasted six weeks. The cadets
had classroom instruction and drill practice. A teacher
explained the revenue laws and their duties in applying
them, including the use of force. A drill sergeant taught
them strict military conduct and discipline, and the care
and use of arms.
Private Michael Corcoran was assigned to serve at the depot
in Creeslough, Donegal, at a salary of one shilling and
three pence per day. The revenue police walked miles daily
to disrupt distilling operations, destroy the equipment,
spill the poítín, and then arrest the men
and march them to jail.
Michael was promoted to private first class at the end of
the year, at the onslaught of the famine, the potato crop
had rotted again. The winter of 1846-1847 was fiercely cold
and snowy, and disease and starvation escalated. Suffering
increased through 1847 as paupers were evicted and families
broken by unemployment, death, and immigration.
Some of the revenue police reacted covertly with either
violent or non-violent insubordination. Private First Class
Corcoran became a Ribbonman in 1848, undertaking midnight
missions. Michael kept up his double life for almost two
years, and then for reasons unknown, resigned abruptly from
the Revenue Police, boarded the British bark Dromahair exactly
two and one half weeks later, and sailed out of Sligo Bay
on 30 August 1849.
There is inconclusive evidence that he was on the run.
The passage was quick and uneventful and he stepped onto
South Street in New York City, found work as a clerk-bookkeeper
for a Mr. John Heaney, the proprietor of Hibernian House,
a tavern at 42 Prince Street, across the street from (Old)
St. Patricks Cathedral in downtown New York.
Michael lived over the tavern, as did the Heaneys. Corcorans
mother immigrated to New York a year later. Michael became
an American citizen as soon as he was eligible, married
Mrs. Heaneys niece, Elizabeth, and managed Hibernian
House for Mrs. Heaney after Mr. Heaney died in 1854. That
tragedy was compounded by the death just days later, of
Mary McDonagh Corcoran, from cholera, at the Hibernian House
where Michael and Elizabeth were caring for her.
Corcoran joined a state militia regiment as required for
all able-bodied young men, and there he met several veterans
of the 1848 Young Ireland attempt at revolution. Thomas
Francis Meagher and John Mitchel also came to New York City
after escaping from exile in Tasmania, but Mitchel moved
his family to the South, and Meagher had had enough of revolution,
and did not get involved. Corcoran did; he embraced it.
There was freedom and opportunity in America but also violent,
ugly, virulent bigotry directed at immigrants, especially
the Irish ones, and Catholics. Both John OLeary and
James Stephens admired him. John OMahony, Michael
Doheny and John Savage were among his closest friends.
Michael had enlisted as a private in the 69th Regiment;
he served in every rank and was promoted to captain within
three years. This was a state militia unit composed of citizens,
not soldiers. None of them had the military knowledge and
experience, with arms, drilling, and protocol, that Corcoran
did, and, he was a natural leader.
The first time the 69th was activated, to keep the peace
after a riot, the brigade inspector recorded that Captain
Corcoran had a well-known reputation as the best,
if not the very best, infantry officer in the 4th Brigade
He was a rising star in Democratic politics, that is, Tammany
Hall: he could deliver the Irish vote. Before long, Mike
(as they called him) was the district leader, a member of
the judicial nominations committee, an elected school inspector
for his ward, and a member of the Fourteenth Ward General
Committee. Michael had still another option for his future.
In 1858 James Stephens and Thomas Clarke Luby founded the
Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Dublin and planned
to expand the organisation. Consequently, John OMahony
founded the Fenian Brotherhood in New York City the following
year. Michael Corcoran was the first one, and thus the first
American, to be sworn in.
Not long afterward, he was elected colonel of the 69th Regiment
as well as military commander of the Fenians. Tammany Hall
gave him a patronage job in the post office with the highest
salary he ever had. Then it all fell apart.
Just one event put an end to Michaels easy success
and initiated the trials he would have to endure and overcome.
In late 1860, the nineteen-year-old Prince of Wales visited
New York City during a tour of Canada and the United States.
There would be a parade, fireworks, banquets, a ball; society
doyennes panted for an invitation to the ball. Colonel and
Mrs. Corcoran were invited, as were the colonels of all
the local militia regiments. Colonel Corcoran wrote a polite
note declining the invitation. One assumes that Mrs. Corcoran
was not pleased.
Colonel Corcoran also refused to order his men to parade
in honour of the prince because they had voted not to, with
his approval. They had lived through a famine during which
more than 1 million Irish people emigrated and more than
1.5 million died, many believed from Britains tepid
Many New Yorkers were outraged that this ingrate Irish immigrant
had the effrontery to insult the royal guest of the city,
and demanded that he be removed from his federal job, that
his citizenship be revoked, that he be thrown out of the
country. Colonel Corcoran was court-martialed.
During the trial: Abraham Lincoln was elected president
of the United States; the southern states (whose economy
depended on slavery) began seceding from the Union; the
Irish community in San Francisco, California sent Corcoran
a one-pound gold medal, and the one in Charleston, South
Carolina sent an ornate gold-tipped palmetto cane, both
in admiration of his integrity and for backing his men.
Michael attended a state Democratic convention in Albany
(New York), where he was noted as one of the prominent
Democrats, but then contracted an illness so debilitating
that he was confined to bed for several weeks. Fort Sumter
was fired upon in April 1861 and the Civil War began. President
Lincoln called for volunteer militia units to defend Washington,
D.C., and the 69th Regiment voted to answer the Presidents
Colonel Corcorans court-martial was dropped and the
69th prepared to go to war. At that time, Michael Corcoran
was also the acting chieftain of the Fenian Brotherhood
because OMahony was in Ireland attending a funeral.
Corcoran wrote a letter to the regiment assuring the men
that his active duty would be good practice for the liberation
of Ireland. Flag-waving New Yorkers cheered the regiment
as it marched to the transports pier; the colonel
rode in a carriage because he was still too weak to walk
or ride a horse. After a short stay in Annapolis, Maryland
the 69th went to Washington, D.C., and encamped and commenced
training on the Georgetown University campus.
Captain Thomas Francis Meagher had raised a company, the
Irish Zouaves, and soon joined them. The Union army invaded
Virginia after that state seceded from the Union in late
May, and the regiment occupied Arlington Heights where they
built Fort Corcoran in record time. The militia units had
been activated for three months duty and were within
days of returning home in late July when combat exploded
near a creek called Bull Run, near the town of Manassas.
The weather was stifling hot and so was the day long battle,
which the Confederates won, routing the Yankees and chasing
them back to Washington.
Michael Corcoran was wounded in the leg, captured, and imprisoned
in Richmond, Virginia with men and officers from his and
other regiments. His captors repeatedly offered him parole/release
from captivity if he would vow not to take up arms again
- but he always refused. Also, he would not leave his men.
Several officers and men were transferred to an island prison
in Charleston, South Carolina, among them Colonel Corcoran.
Michael asked for money in his letters, for his men. Most
of them were poor and had no means to buy warm clothing
as winter approached. The prisoners of war were moved to
an old, damp jail in the city, where one day in November
a Confederate officer informed Corcoran that he was now
hostage. He would be the first officer hanged in retaliation
if the Union hanged some southern privateers the Yankees
regarded as pirates.
Michaels name had been drawn first by lot; other officers
in turn would also be hanged if the pirates were executed.
Colonel Corcoran was put into solitary confinement in a
drafty unheated tower, the cells for condemned prisoners.
The sanitary conditions were poor and the nutrition inadequate.
Michael, growing more feeble by the day, became deathly
ill from typhoid fever and was removed from the tower. He
had barely recovered when a raging fire in the city moved
towards the jail - which was locked. The guards had been
sent to fight the fire. Smoke, ashes and burning embers
swirled around the prisoners, but the fire bypassed the
building. Colonel Corcoran did his duty as a prisoner of
war: he ordered an escape. The men fashioned a rope from
bed ticking eyelets and anchored it at a second floor window.
One man went down to test the rope but the others refused
to leave until their colonel was out. Michael got down and
the next man was starting, when some soldiers came running
around the corner and seized them. They thought their prisoners
were fleeing only the fire, which destroyed more than a
dozen square blocks in the city.
On New Years Day, 1862, the captives were sent by
train to Columbia, South Carolina, and two months later
to a prison in Salisbury, North Carolina. During all that
time Corcoran remained a hostage under constant threat of
hanging. He heard that his political friends in New York
had been lobbying Congress to have him freed in a prisoner
exchange, a common procedure that benefited everyone. The
South refused. It was learned that the authorities believed
that he was as much a hero to the Confederate Army Irish
soldiers as he was to the Union Irish soldiers, and they
feared that if Corcoran were released, those soldiers would
desert the South and fellow him north. Finally, in August
1862, Colonel Corcoran was exchanged for a southern colonel.
Great celebrations greeted the exchanged prisoners when
they arrived in Washington, D.C. Colonel Corcoran dined
with President Lincoln who made him a Brigadier General.
He asked Michael if he would prefer to lead an existing,
leaderless regiment, or recruit his own. All through his
ordeal Corcoran had dreamed of leading his beloved 69th
Regiment into battle again, but alas, the 69th was now part
of the Irish Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Thomas
Michael returned to New York to recruit Corcorans
Irish Legion. On the day of his arrival, the largest crowd
ever seen in New York packed the lower part of the city.
When The Irish Legion was sent to Fairfax, Virginia; Corcoran
was subordinate to the commander there. Then he received
a telegram: his wife had died suddenly. Michael went back
to New York to Washington, called upon President Lincoln
and asked to be transferred to a combat zone. He also learned
that the court martial had not been preferred yet because
none of the commanders of the districts he had passed through
would do so. Lincoln would consider the transfer request.
Corcoran wrote Lincoln a gracious thank-you note but waited
in vain for a reply. Then one day in camp, he fainted. After
fainting again, he requested leave to go back to New York
to consult a physician. The doctor said he was debilitated
due to the prolonged imprisonment, malnutrition and exertion;
that he needed to rest, eat oatmeal, and drink barley water.
Frail and exhausted, Michael got married instead. His bride
was John Heaneys eldest granddaughter. He returned
with her to Virginia. The brigadier general in charge was
about to leave; Lincoln had made him an ambassador. Brigadier
General Michael Corcoran was the new division commander
in that theatre.
In November the Fenian Brotherhood held its first national
convention, in Chicago. Corcoran did not attend, but as
the military commander of the Fenians he was made a member
of the five-man central council. Although Thomas Francis
Meagher had resigned his commission, he still spent time
visiting some of the camps. Michael invited him and Mrs.
Meagher to stay with the Legion at Christmas.
Corcorans new mother-in-law would also come down from
New York for the holiday. On the day the ladies were to
arrive, Michael woke up feeling unwell. Nonetheless, he
went to 6am mass as usual, had his coffee, and then accompanied
his guest to the railway station. Meagher was going to Washington
to meet the ladies and escort them back to camp.
After adjusting the picket lines along the railroad, Corcoran
turned back towards camp, riding ahead of his escort party.
The men saw him suddenly raise his hand as he rode around
a curve in the road, out of their sight. They quickly caught
up with him. General Corcoran was lying in a ditch having
a violent convulsion; his face was purple. The men commandeered
a wagon and rushed him to the doctors at camp. It was about
two oclock in the afternoon.
The doctors thought a blood vessel had burst in the brain,
causing his fall from the horse; there was little they could
Michael died at eight oclock that evening of 22nd
December 1863, without regaining consciousness. He was thirty
six years old.
His body was embalmed and arrived back in New York on Christmas
Day. He lay in state in the Governors Room in City
Hall (where other officers - President Lincoln - would lie).
The flags in the city flew at half-staff. After the requiem
mass at (Old) St Patricks Cathedral on Mott Street,
he was interred in Calvary Cemetery, Long Island City, in
Queens County, with his mother and first wife.
- courtesy of the Sligo Champion