December 1991

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Rockwell's Civil War "Henry"

The Rifle and the Rifleman


Robert F. McNamara

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

Part II

Mulligan's Irish Brigade

The Irish Brigade had been ordered to Maryland on June 14, 1862. After minor service at Antietam, it had been assigned to the command of General Benjamin F. Kelley, who had been charged with the protection of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the railhead for Federal supplies in Western Virginia. General Kelley's Army of Western Virginia established its base at New Creek Station. New Creek Station and many other locales in the Army's district would become a part of West Virginia when that state entered the Union on June 20, 1863. From 1862 to 1864 Kelley's troops were engaged in mountain guerrilla warfare at its worst. Confederate bushwhackers like John D. Imboden and John H. McNeill sprang ambushes, attacked supply trains, destroyed the property of Virginia Unionists, rustled cattle, and committed various other depredations; and then succeeded all too often in evading the Yanks sent in pursuit. During part of the campaign Mulligan was acting brigadier general, commanding not only his own brigade but several (West) Virginia regiments.

O'Dwyer enlisted on August 1, 1862, and was mustered in as a private on September 14. Therefore when he joined his Company "C," it had already summered on the front. Col. Mulligan took ample time to train his soldiers, new and old, for the informal type of combat that Kelley's army was engaged in. (Gen. U. S. Grant, who had observed Mulligan in Missouri the previous year, would remember him as "a gallant man," but one who "had not been educated as yet in his new profession." But by the fall of 1862 the Colonel had fine-honed his skills as a military leader.)

At least as early as November 22, 1862, Edmund began sending letters "From Mulligan's Command" to the New York Tablet. The "Miles" letter written on January 14, 1863, gives a fair example of the frustrations of mountain fighting.

On January 2, he writes, a Rebel force of 1800 cavalry attacked the 116th Ohio Regiment at Moorefield (at present in West Virginia). That evening the Mulligan Brigade was ordered to relieve its comrades. After a forced march of 40 miles, they reached the field of battle completely worn out, only to find all quiet.

Bivouacked that night in the local court house and churches, they were at least able to get a little rest. The next day, however, Rebel Captain McNeill and 90 soldiers captured a Union wagon train bound for Moorefield. Learning that McNeill's camp was only eight miles away, the 23d set out on another forced march at 2 A.M. on January 6. They trudged over very rugged land and had to wade the serpentine Potomac seven times in order to reach their goal by daybreak. But when they did arrive, they learned to their dismay that the enemy had decamped the night before and were now tented a safe 20 miles away.

There was an interesting sequel to this Federal setback. Captain McNeill had met Col. Mulligan when the Rebels took him captive in Missouri two years before. When he learned that the same officer was pursuing him in Virginia, he sent him his compliments through a farmer bound for Moorefield. Mulligan reciprocated the greeting through the same ambassador. It was another illustration of the chivalry that so often manifested itself in this war of "brother against brother."

Despite such frustrations, General Kelley's army eventually won the upper hand in its defense of the Baltimore and Ohio. In a letter written to the Tablet from Greenland Gap on March 17, 1864, Edmund said that during the past month scarcely a day had passed without the arrival in their camp of Confederate deserters or fugitives from the Rebel draft. The war was far from ended, but it seemed clear that the Southern morale was declining.

In April 1864, the Irish Brigade was granted a furlough. I have found no letters written by Private O'Dwyer in this month. Quite likely he was able to return to Chicago for a merited rest.

When the 23d came back to the front, it received a new assignment. The Confederates now planned to sweep northward through the Shenandoah Valley, with the national capitol itself as a goal. Col. Mulligan's regiment was detailed to assist General Franz Sigel in stemming this advance. Sigel's forces were defeated at Newmarket, although Mulligan ably covered his retreat. General David Hunter, named to replace Sigel, had no better luck: he had to yield to the enemy at Lynchburg. Therefore, when Southern General Jubal Early began his march north on July 2, 1864, who was to stop him?

General Philip Sheridan was given the job. The Irish Brigade was placed under him, and under him it would suffer grave losses. On July 24th, it took part in a battle at Kernstown, near Winchester. At the height of the battle, two bullets struck James Mulligan and toppled him from his horse. At almost the same moment his aide, Lt. James H. Nugent, was killed. Nugent, aged 19, was not only on the Colonel's staff, he was his brother-in-law. Mulligan's soldiers, at their own risk, gathered about the wounded commander to carry him to safety. But he ordered them to take flight for their own protection, and cried out after them, "Boys, don't lose the colors of the Irish Brigade!" Wounded twice more, the dying Colonel fell into the hands of the Southern forces. To their credit, they treated him with every courtesy, but he died on July 27th.

Ed may have participated in the Kernstown engagement of the 24th, but he was at Harpers Ferry, some 30 miles distant, when he learned of his commandant's death.

His next letter to the Tablet, written on August 2nd, was a fervent obituary. "No more devoted or valorous friend of the Republic breathed," he said, "than our lamented Mulligan." Nor was this merely his own opinion. Other regiments that had served under him (notably the West Virginians) were equally impressed by his unselfish leadership and his fairness to all. The enemy themselves had held him in high respect. "Never did he look better," Edmund recalled, "than when riding along the line of battle at Winchester; his penetrating eyes flashing as he beheld his brigade the last in yielding to the pressure of the enemy, he exclaimed, 'Give it to them, brave Virginians; stand firm, 23d!'"

On the very day Ed wrote this letter, Chicago was honoring its own hero with a splendid funeral. President Lincoln also awarded Mulligan posthumously the commission of Brevet Brigadier General. But his brigade remained in the field, although consolidated because of its many casualties. On September 3-4 the Mulligan men engaged in heavy but inconclusive action at Berryville. However, General Sheridan routed the Rebels at Winchester on September 20-21, and at Strasburg on September 21-22, taking hundreds of prisoners. O'Dwyer hailed these two victories as a reparation for the loss of "our lamented Col. Mulligan."

I found no letters to the Tablet dated later than September 27, 1864. However, Edmund did write to his sister Ellin from Kernstown on November 20th. He reported the stunning victory of Sheridan at Cedar Creek on the 19th, when the General, galloping in from Winchester, rallied his scattering troops and turned the Confederate triumph inside out. Ed himself was not in the battle. A month before, his outfit had been sent to the rear to guard a drove of cattle. They had enjoyed the respite, particularly because it gave them the opportunity to drink fresh milk—a rare item on the military menu. He and his comrades were back in Winchester by the 19th, but were not sent over to Cedar Creek.

Skirmishing continued in the Winchester district, Ed told his sister, but heavy action was not anticipated during the winter months. "The war is progressing successfully," he wrote. "Nearly everywhere victory is crowning our arms. It ought to be gratifying to you all, for it is the shortest and surest way to peace."

This was the last family letter that Private O'Dwyer mailed from northern Virginia. General Sheridan, having halted Early's advance toward Washington, was transferred to the Army of the James, then busily engaged in approaching Richmond from the southern part of the state. The 23d Illinois joined him on this new front around the beginning of March.

But before we recount Edmund's role in this last phase of the war, we must try to answer the question, when did Henry Number 2780 become part of his gear?

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
© 1991, Robert F. McNamara
Index to articles by Robert F. McNamara
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