He’s the voice of Irish rugby on RTE radio, a passionate Munster man who would never dream of allowing any provincial preference to become apparent in his broadcasts. Allegedly. But today we’re talking about the other Michael Corcoran, Fenian, soldier and confidant of Abraham Lincoln.
The story begins in 1860. The occasion is the proposed visit of the Prince of Wales to New York. The Prince had been gracing Canada with his presence and was invited south. In order to avoid the attentions of Irish desperadoes he journeyed to New York incognito. Being a member of the royal family, however, he chose not to travel as plain old Mister Smyth (probably with a ‘y’), but selected the assumed name of Baron Renfrew. He had a perfect right to do so as it happened to be one of his many titles. Doubtless for the sake of brevity and anonymity he chose to forego the rest of the Renfrew name, which goes ‘Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland’.So quite a comedown really for poor old Bertie.
The plan was that on his arrival the Prince was to be greeted by an honour guard of New York Militia Regiments. This, in theory, was to include the famous ‘Fighting 69th’, a regiment of committed Irish nationalists. When its commanding officer, Colonel Michael Corcoran, from Ballymote, Co.Sligo, was informed of the plan he refused absolutely to parade his regiment before the heir to the throne of England. The fact that he was a member of the growing Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, was likely to have influenced his attitude.
His insubordination in the face of the man who would be Edward VII (but not for another forty years or so) caused him to be arrested pending a court martial. Fortunately for him Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, intervened on his behalf. Well at least he did so in the sense that the Confederate army fired on Fort Sumter and the American Civil War began.
It was deemed wise to release Corcoran without the need for a court martial. In return the Sligo man offered to recruit new Irish members to the 69thto bring it to full strength. He sought 1000 men. He could have got five times that number. It was a period of profound innocence. No one knew what war was really about. It was all a big adventure.
The 69th found out very quickly what exactly it was all about. They went into action in the defence of Washington, DC, on 21 July, 1861 on the banks of a Virginia river in the first major battle of the war. It was Bull Run if you were fighting for the Union in the Civil War – Manassas if you were with the Confederates in the War Between the States. It was a battle in which the Union army offered a powerful demonstration – of exactly how much it had to learn about warfare. The Union forces were overwhelmed by the greycoats. The 69th, abandoned and isolated, attempted to beat an orderly retreat in the midst of the shambles that surrounded them. Corcoran was wounded in the leg. He, and a number of his men were taken prisoner. When the Union threatened to execute a captured Confederate naval commander for piracy the Confederacy selected Corcoran to be shot in retaliation. It was quite a tribute to his leadership qualities and his importance. Fortunately for the Irish Colonel both sides backed down.
The Confederates offered to release Corcoran on parole. All he had to do was guarantee not to rejoin the Union Army and continue to fight against them. On those terms Corcoran preferred to stay in prison. Then, in November, 1861, a Union ship intercepted an English steamer on the high seas and removed two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, who were on their way to England. Her Majesty’s government was livid and, for a brief period, there was a genuine threat that Britain would enter the war on the Confederate side. Of course, this did wonders for Irish recruitment in the North, though probably not as much in the South. Corcoran, who had been promoted to Brigadier General while he was in prison, was exchanged for the two southern diplomats. So impressed was President Lincoln with the Irish officer’s refusal of parole, that he invited him to dinner in the White House.
Corcoran, far from opting out of the war, as the Confederacy would have preferred, raised a force of eight Irish regiments, in a Legion that was called after him. He himself rose to become a Corps commander until he was thrown by his horse and died, tragically and pointlessly, in 1863. As far as we know the Prince of Wales sent no flowers to the funeral.
Michael Corcoran from Ballymote in Co. Sligo, American Civil War General and dedicated member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was born, one hundred and ninety one years ago, on this day.
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