If destruction be our lot – the tragedy of Civil War


Union Soldier reloading by Randy Steele

Union Soldier reloading by Randy Steele

I have always had a great interest in the American Civil War. As a boy I read plenty of material about the conflict. Lincoln was almost as big a character as his outsized memorial in Washington, from his humble origins, to his powerful oratory at Gettysburg, and finally his dramatic and tragic death. More is known in Ireland about the American Civil War than our own similar bloodletting 90 years ago. Part of the reason for this is how the american conflict is perpetuated in popular culture. In the mid 80’s we watched the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ with a Confederate flag emblazoned on the roof of the iconic 1969 Dodge Charger, better known of course as the ‘General Lee’. One of the big TV hits at the time was a mini-series called ‘North and South’ starring a young Patrick Swayze.  The saga tells the story of the enduring friendship between Orry Main born into a South Carolina planter – slaveowning family, and his friend George Hazard from a Pennsylvanian mill owning family. The pair had become best mates while attending West Point. Soon they find themselves and their families on opposite sides of the Civil War. One bi-product of watching the series was that I perfected my pronunciation of Charleston in a southern drawl, “Chawstunh”.

It was with great surprise that I later learned that my Grandfathers uncle had fought on the Union side. Recently arrived in the US he and his two sisters headed from New Orleans up the Mississippi to a riverside town in Illinois. It was an exciting time along the busiest river highway in the world. It was the world recreated in the fiction of Mark Twain, inhabited by characters like ‘Puddenhead Wilson’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’. In the summer of 1862 my great granduncle voluntarily joined the 84th Illinois Infantry. Why a recently arrived immigrant would join a fight which really wasn’t his fight is a mystery but thousands of young men like him did the same. In a few months the new recruits were fighting their way through Kentucky and into Tennessee. There my uncle came a cropper in the fields around the town of Murfreesboro on New Years Day, 1863. Luckily he survived and after a few months was back with his regiment in the hell fire of Chickamauga and Chattanooga. Finally the Union broke into Georgia and split the Confederacy in half. My Great Granduncle wasn’t part of the infamous drive by Sherman to the sea. Instead his regiment headed back towards Tennessee via Huntsville, Alabama. There were some final battles but the end of the war and victory was in sight. My Great Granduncle returned to Illinois where he was to marry, raise a family and where he now lies resting in the cemetery at Keithsburg.

In reading about the American Civil Wat, I happened upon this sad tale recently. Civil War, as we well know in this country, can literally tear a family apart, pitting brother against brother or father against son as each rallies to the flag of the cause that captured his heart. As Lincoln said at the outset, “if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher”. There is no more dramatic evidence of this than the encounter that took place on the American Civil War battlefield at Malvern Hill July 1, 1862. Captain D. P. Conyngham was an officer in the Irish Brigade and described the incident shortly after the war:

“I had a Sergeant Driscoll, a brave man, and one of the best shots in the Brigade. When charging at Malvern Hill , a company was posted in a clump of trees, who kept up a fierce fire on us, and actually charged out on our advance. Their officer seemed to be a daring, reckless boy, and I said to Driscoll, ‘if that officer is not taken down, many of us will fall before we pass that clump.’

‘Leave that to me,’ said Driscoll; so he raised his rifle, and the moment the officer exposed himself again bang went Driscoll, and over went the officer, his company at once breaking away.

As we passed the place I said, ‘Driscoll, see if that officer is dead – he was a brave fellow.’

I stood looking on. Driscoll turned him over on his back. He opened his eyes for a moment, and faintly murmured ‘Father,’ and closed them forever.

I will forever recollect the frantic grief of Driscoll; it was harrowing to witness. He was his son, who had gone South before the war.

  Ivan Terrible after killing his son

And what became of Driscoll afterwards? Well, we were ordered to charge, and I left him there; but, as we were closing in on the enemy, he rushed up, with his coat off, and, clutching his musket, charged right up at the enemy, calling on the men to follow. He soon fell, but jumped up again. We knew he was wounded. On he dashed, but he soon rolled over like a top. When we came up he was dead, riddled with bullets.”

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