On This Day 21 September 1827 birth of General Michael Corcoran

 

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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.

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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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On This Day – 3 August 1868 Death of Charles Graham Halpine

 

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One of the great Irishmen of the American Civil War came from the town of Oldcastle, [Co.Meath.] Miles O’Reilly of the 47thNew York regiment, was twice reduced to the ranks for acts of insubordination but, otherwise, served the Union Army with distinction.

Except, of course, that he didn’t.

In reality Miles O’Reilly was a fictional character, created by a genuine Oldcastle man, the journalist, poet and soldier Charles Graham Halpine. But to the Union troops Miles was one of them, as real as General Ulysees Grant. And, on foot of his creation, for a brief period Halpine became one of the most read satirists in the USA, needling his own side in the Civil War and later, lampooning the corruption of New York City politics. He also risked his life to allow African Americans to assume a more meaningful role in the conflict.

Halpine was born in 1829. He was the son of Rev. Nicholas John Halpin a Church of Ireland curate in Oldcastle, Co.Meath who doubled as editor of the militantly unionist and Protestant Dublin Evening Mail who might not have been happy that his son was born in the year of Catholic Emancipation. Halpine flunked out of Trinity College at an early age and tried his luck, first in London, and then in New York. In the latter, his talent as a writer quickly emerged and had then to be set aside when the American civil war began in 1861.

Halpine possessed a wicked sense of humour. He was an accomplished literary hoaxer. A case in point, his most outrageous coup, involved a notorious pirate named Albert W.Hicks, who was the last man executed for piracy in the USA. He was hanged on Bedloe’s Island – where the statue of Liberty now stands – on 13 July 1860.

Halpine, bored with the news of the day, invented a story claiming that Hicks had been resuscitated after his hanging, and was making ready to exact retribution on the people of New York. Like Orson Welles and his infamous War of the Worldsbroadcast, the report caused consternation. For years afterwards there were people who believed that Hicks had actually made his escape, post mortem, from Bedloe’s Island.

After enlisting in the Union army in 1861 Halpine found himself operating as adjutant general in the staff of the maverick Union general David Hunter in South Carolina. Hunter, unilaterally and without Federal approval, began to recruit black soldiers around South Carolina and formed the first black unit in the Union army, the 1stCarolina (Africa descent). When this was challenged in Congress, and the black soldiers were described as ‘fugitive slaves’ Halpine was recruited to write a riposte to Hunter’s opponents. He rose to the occasion in style, describing Hunter’s recruits as:

 

A fine regiment of loyal persons whose late masters are ‘fugitive                 rebels’ … they are now, one and all, endeavouring with                                     commendable zeal to acquire the drill and discipline required to  place them in a position to go in full and effective pursuit of their  … traitorous proprietors

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For that, and related offences, Halpine and Hunter were placed on a Confederate death list, to be hanged immediately upon capture.

But his signature contribution to the war effort was the creation of the entirely fictional, but thoroughly believable, Private Miles O’Reilly, whose military career was avidly followed by readers of the New York Herald.

O’Reilly was a bad poet given to sarcastic gibes on the course of the war and the complete uselessness of the generals who were fighting it.  Halpine had him ‘clapped in irons’ for a poem about an overcautious Union Admiral, Rear Admiral John A.Dahlgren, or Dahlgreen as Miles labelled him for rhyming purposes. Dahlgren liked to preserve the integrity of his ships by never actually sending them into battle.

Miles was cashiered for writing this little ditty.

 

Oh! Dahlgreen,

It’s aisy to be seen

You like dry land so well

That seasick you’ve never been

I’ll not keep score

Your fleet is built for speed

What a pity that it never leaves the shore’

 

Halpine then has Miles pardoned by the President himself who immediately summons the Bard of Oldcastle to the White House to discuss policy. There Miles addresses Lincoln in the following terms.

 

Private O Reilly says that he was born at a place they call Ouldcastle . . .       and he is emphatic in declaring that he and seventeen of his O’Reilly          cousins, sixty-four Murphy cousins, thirty-seven Kelly cousins, twenty-        three Lanigan cousins. together with a small army of Raffertys,    Caffertys, Fogartys, Flanigans, Bradys, O’Rourkes, Dooligans, Oulahans,          Quinns, Flynns, Kellys, Murphys, O’Connors, O’Donnells, O’Driscolls,         O’Mearas, O’Tooles, McCartys, McConkeys, and McConnells— all his         own blood relations, many of them now in the service, and all decent   boys—would be both proud and happy to enlist or re-enlist for twenty years, if his Reverence’s Excellency the President would only oblige         them by declaring war . . .  against England.’

 

As it happens Halpine himself had met Lincoln on many occasions when he was assigned to work with the general staff in Washington. He regularly visited the White House with documents requiring Lincoln’s signature. The President had actually discussed with Halpine the possibility of being assassinated and described how easy it would be to murder him.

After the war Halpine continued to operate behind his alter-ego and turned Miles  on the corrupt machine politicians of New York. Sadly a burgeoning political career – Halpine’s not O’Reilly’s – ended when he died prematurely at the age of only thirty-eight. Had he lived he was set fair to become a significant figure in post-war American politics or letters, whichever he chose.

Charles Graham Halpine, creator of the pugnacious Meathman, Miles O’Reilly, died one hundred and fifty years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – 15 September 1803 Abraham Lincoln and Robert Emmet

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They are two very different orations. One is short, a mere two hundred and sixty-nine words, and lasting barely three minutes. The other is in excess of  three thousand words, and must have taken closer to half an hour to deliver. The longer speech was given by a man marked for a judicial death, the shorter by one who would be mown down by an assassin’s bullet.

Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States of America, was born five years after the execution of the young rebel United Irishman, Robert Emmet, but the coincidental connections between the two men are compelling and inescapable.

Both were Republicans, both are perceived by their acolytes as martyrs. Emmet, a post-Enlightenment Irish Republican, atoned for the hapless nature of his one-day rebellion on 23 July, 1803 in Dublin, by making the single most famous, effective, and affecting speech in Irish nationalist history. Lincoln was one of the founder members of the anti-slavery Republican party, and its first successful Presidential candidate in 1860. His election precipitated the debilitating four-year American Civil War. His Gettysburg address was a model of rhetorical clarity, creativity and brevity.

Emmet’s speech, made after his conviction for high treason in Green Street courthouse in Dublin, is famous for its passionate peroration, made as he faced death by hanging the following day.

 

Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them rest in obscurity and peace, my memory be left in oblivion and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.

 

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, made on 19 November 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—scene of a bloody and decisive battle four and half months earlier—is more famous for its iconic opening line.

 

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

 

But, did Emmet’s speech influence the creation of the most famous short oration in history? Very likely. As a boy in Indiana (where his family had migrated from Kentucky) Lincoln is known to have learnt Emmet’s valedictory off by heart. As a gangly teenager he would often deliver it as a party piece, for dignitaries visiting Perry County, where he lived.

More than a quarter of a century later, at the first Republican National Convention, in New York, in 1856, where Lincoln was defeated for the party’s vice-presidential nomination, the convention Chairman was a New York Judge and politician, Robert Emmet, the Dublin-born nephew of his celebrated namesake.

In February, 1865 Lincoln, was reviewing the death sentence on a young Confederate spy. He was considering an appeal for the boy’s life from a Delaware Senator, Willard Saulsbury, who had once referred to the President as ‘a weak and imbecile man’. So, you would assume, not much hope there.

Saulsbury, however, was both frank and astute in his appeal to Lincoln. He wrote

 

You know I neither ask or expect any personal favor from you or your Administration … All I ask of you is to read the defence of this young man … compare it with the celebrated defence of Emmet, and act as the judgment and the heart of the President of the United States should act.

 

Saulsbury knew his man. The death sentence was duly commuted.

In 1939 the distinguished playwright Robert Sherwood, won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. The significance of the play is in Sherwood’s middle name, Emmet. He was the great-great-grandnephew of the executed patriot. It was as if the Emmet family, having accepted the homage of the young Lincoln, was repaying the compliment.

 

Emmet would have been proud of the famous peroration of his celebrated acolyte.

 

We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

 

Robert Emmet, was awaiting trial and probably writing the signature speech that Abraham Lincoln would later learn by heart, two hundred and fourteen years ago, on this day.

 

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On this day –Drivetime – 22 January 1879 James Shields elected Senator for Missouri

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James Shields from Co.Tyrone was an extraordinary Irishman though his name is virtually unknown in his native country. He had an uncle of the same name who emigrated from Ireland and became a U.S. senator for Ohio. Not to be outdone James Shields Jr. left Ireland at the age of twenty and went on to represent not one but three states in the U.S. Senate. A unique achievement unlikely ever to be repeated.

He started in Illinois – where he had also been a State Supreme Court justice. From 1849 he served one term as a US Senator. His election was helped by what came to be known as the ‘lucky Mexican bullet’. This he had stopped while a brigadier general in the Mexican-American war in 1846. His opponent for the Illinois seat was the incumbent Sydney Breese, a fellow Democrat. A political rival wrote of Shields’s injury “What a wonderful shot that was!  The bullet went clean through Shields without hurting him, or even leaving a scar, and killed Breese a thousand miles away.” He is also unusual in that he replaced himself in the Senate. When he was first elected it emerged that he had not been a citizen of the USA for the required nine years. He had only been naturalized in October 1840. So his election was declared null and void. However, he would have been entitled to take his seat after a special election was called to replace him, as he had, by then, been naturalized for the required period. So he stood again and won the seat for a second time.

Failing to be re-elected six years later he moved to what was then the Minnesota ‘territory’ from where he was returned in 1858 as one of the new state’s first two senators after Minnesota achieved statehood. Later, during the Civil War he distinguished himself as a Union General and then settled in Missouri.

He had obviously taken a liking to the Senate chamber because he contrived to get re-elected to that house from Missouri in 1879 at the age of 73. He died shortly after taking office.

But Shields is possibly even more important for something he didn’t do.

In 1842 he was already well-known in his adopted home of Illinois. He was a lawyer and was serving in the state legislature as a Democrat. After one of those periodic economic recessions hit the nation in the 1840s Shields, as state auditor, issued instructions that paper money should no longer be taken as payment for state taxes. Only gold or silver would be acceptable. A prominent member of the Whig party, one Abraham Lincoln, took exception to the move and wrote an anonymous satirical letter to a local Springfield, Illinois newspaper in which he called Shields a fool, a liar and a dunce. This was then followed up by his wife-to-be, Mary Todd, with an equally scathing letter of her own. When Shields contacted the editor of the newspaper to find out who had written the second letter Lincoln himself took full responsibility. A belligerent Shields, accordingly, challenged the future US president to a duel. The venue was to be the infamous Bloody Island in the middle of the Mississippi river, dueling being illegal in Illinois.

Lincoln, having been challenged, was allowed to choose the weapons and set the rules. He did this to his own considerable advantage, opting for broadswords as opposed to pistols. While Shields was a crack shot he was only 5’9” in height, as opposed to Lincoln’s towering 6’4”. When the rivals finally met on 22 September 1842 Lincoln quickly demonstrated his huge reach advantage to Shields by ostentatiously lopping off a branch above the Irishman’s head with his weapon of choice.

When the seconds, and other interested parties, intervened peace was negotiated between the two men, though it took some time to placate the pugnacious Shields and persuade him to agree to shake hands with Lincoln.

The man who might have abruptly ended the life and career of Abraham Lincoln, and radically changed the course of American history, James Shields from Co.Tyrone, was elected as Senator from Missouri, 136 years ago on this day.

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A day of American Civil War events at the Hay/Kells Festival 25 June 2015 – www.hayfestival.org/kells 

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2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the cataclysmic American Civil War. Up to 200,000 Irish-born soldiers participated in this divisive conflict, on both sides. 150,000 fought for the Union in units like the Irish Brigade and Corcoran’s Irish Legion while 20,000 fought for the Confederacy – the most famous of these being Gen. Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, the highest-ranking Irish officer on either side of the conflict.

We will be marking this anniversary with a day of talks and music at the 3rd annual Hay/Kells Festival on 25 June. We are delighted that we have managed to get together the acknowledged experts in this field and will be putting them under one roof for the day – the roof in question is that of St. Columba’s Church of Ireland, Market Street Kells, host to the recent Gallipoli 100 weekend of commemorative events.

The line up for the day includes …

10am: Damien Shiels
Damien Shiels is author of the definitive and highly influential work The Irish in the American Civil War.

11am: Glen Gendzel
American historian Glen Gendzel talks about the story of California in the American Civil War.

12pm: Robert Doyle
Robert Doyle tells the story of Carlow-born Civil War veteran Myles Keogh on the anniversary of his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

2pm: Myles Dungan
The presenter of the RTÉ Radio 1 History Show will highlight the life of Oldcastle Civil War veteran, the author and journalist Charles Halpine, and his hilarious creation Myles O’Reilly.

3pm: Tom Bartlett
Thomas Bartlett of Aberdeen University talks about President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

4pm: David Gleeson
David Gleeson (The Green and the Gray) looks at the Irish who fought for the Confederate States of America between 1861 and 1865.

At the same venue at 8.30 Myles Dungan combines forces with Matthew Gilsenan of the Celtic Tenors in The Blue, the Gray and the Green an evening of Irish music associated with the American Civil War. This will include classics like Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore, He is far from the land, No Irish Need Apply, Paddy’s Lamentation, Shenandoah, When Johnny comes marching home and many more.

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You can book for all the events on 046 9240055 / 9240081- or via the Hay Festival / Kells website here

If these guys could be there you can be sure they would …

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ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND ROBERT EMMET – www.soundcloud.com/irishhistory

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On this day – 20 September, 1803

They are two very different orations. One is short, a mere 269 words and lasting barely three minutes. The other is in excess of 3,000 words, and must have taken closer to half an hour to deliver. The earlier speech was given by a man marked for a judicial death, the later by one who would be mown down by an assassin’s bullet within eighteen months.

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States of America, was born five years after the execution of the young rebel United Irishman, Robert Emmet, but the bizarre connections between the two men are compelling and inescapable.

Both were Republicans, both are perceived by their acolytes as martyrs and both have become elements of two distinct Pantheons. Emmet, a post- Enlightenment Irish Republican, atoned for the hapless nature of his one day rebellion on 23 July, 1803 in Dublin by making the single most famous, effective and affecting speech in Irish nationalist history. Lincoln was one of the founder members of the anti-slavery Republican party and its first successful Presidential candidate in 1860. His election precipitated the debilitating four year American Civil War (or the War Between the States if you happen to be a southerner). His Gettysburg address was a model of rhetorical clarity, creativity and brevity. Ironically, the principal speaker on the day was Edward Everett, an unsuccessful Vice Presidential candidate in 1860. His speech was a whopping two hours long. In central Pennsylvania. Outdoors. In November.

Emmet’s speech, made after his conviction for High Treason in Green Street courthouse in Dublin, is famous for its passionate peroration, made as he faced death by hanging the following day.

‘Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them rest in obscurity and peace, my memory be left in oblivion and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.’

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, made on 19 November, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetry at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, scene of the decisive battle four and half months earlier, is more famous for its iconic opening line  – ‘Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’

Emmet’s speech marked the death of one man – Lincoln’s grieved at the sacrifice of thousands. They do, however, have one thing in common. No one is agreed on what exactly was said. There are five extant versions of the Gettysburg address and as many of Emmet’s Speech from the Dock.

But did Emmet’s speech influence the creation of the most famous short speech in history? Very likely. As a boy in Indiana (where his family had migrated from Kentucky) Lincoln is known to have learnt Emmet’s valedictory off by heart. As a gangly teenager he would often deliver it as a party piece for dignitaries visiting Perry County, where he lived.

More than a quarter of a century later, at the first Republican National Convention, in New York, in 1856 the explorer and ‘pathfinder’ John C. Fremont was chosen as the party’s Presidential nominee. Soundly defeated by William L. Dayton for the Vice Presidential slot was Abraham Lincoln. The Chairman and keynote speaker at the Convention was a New York Judge and politician, Robert Emmet, the Dublin-born son of Thomas Addis Emmet (United Irishman and 1798 revolutionary) and nephew of his celebrated namesake. In his speech Emmet attacked the rival Democratic Party and how its newly chosen standard bearer, James Buchanan, had proven himself to be aligned with slave interests.

In February, 1865 Lincoln, who had been forced to grapple with many grave moral dilemmas during the Civil War, was reviewing the death sentence on a young Confederate spy. He was considering an appeal for the boy’s life from a Delaware Senator, Willard Saulsbury. The identity of the petitioner alone would have been enough for lesser men to have arbitrarily confirmed the sentence. In January, 1863, Saulsbury had referred to the President as ‘a weak and imbecile man, the weakest that I ever knew in a high place.’

Saulsbury was both frank and astute in his appeal to Lincoln. He wrote –  “You know I am no political friend of yours. You know I neither ask or expect any personal favor from you or your Administration . . . All I ask of you is to read the defence of this young man, (Saml B. Davis) unassisted by Counsel, compare it with the celebrated defence of Emmet, and act as the judgment and the heart of the President of the United States should act.”

Saulsbury knew his man. The death sentence was duly commuted.

In 1939 the distinguished playwright Robert Sherwood, friend of Dorothy Parker and one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. It starred Raymond Massey, who later reprised the role in the 1940 film version directed by James Cromwell. Massey, after playing the role 472 times on Broadway, seemed to take on the form and characteristics of Lincoln. He spoke and dressed like him. This caused his friend, the playwright George S. Kaufmann, to observe that ‘Massey won’t be satisfied until someone assassinates him.’  The significance of the play is in Sherwood’s middle name, Emmet. He was the great-great-grandnephew of the executed patriot. It was as if the Emmet family, having accepted the homage of the young Lincoln, was repaying the compliment.

Emmet  would have been proud of the peroration of his celebrated acolyte – ‘ . . we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’

Robert Emmet, died on a scaffold in Thomas Street in Dublin 210 years ago, on this day