Tag Archives: US Civil War

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.”

‘KEENANS CHARGE’ The Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863


Captain Peter Keenan was born in 1834 to Irish parents at the town of York in the rural North West of the State of New York. By 1861 he was living in Philadelphia. He helped recruit the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry. He was appointed Captain, Company C, 19 August 1861. He was promoted to Major of the regiment 15 October 1862. According to the Pleasonton version, at the Battle of Chancellorsville,

“he was ordered by General Alfred Pleasonton, after the rout of the 11th corps on the right wing, to charge the advancing enemy in a wood, and hold them in check until the artillery could be got into position. He charged with his regiment, which numbered fewer than 500 men, so impetuously that the Confederates were startled, and hesitated to advance from the wood, until the guns were ready to rake the column as it emerged. Keenan met an inevitable death at the head of his men, many of whom fell with him, but the sacrifice enabled General Pleasonton to hold Stonewall Jackson’s corps in cheek and save the army from rout.”

His life is the subject of ‘To the Knife: The Biography of Major Peter Keenan, 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry’ by Charles C. Kelsey. His famous charge which is on a par with the Charge of the Light Brigade a decade earlier is also immortalised in the following poem by George Parsons Lathrop (1851-1898).


The Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863

The sun had set;

The leaves with dew were wet:

Down fell a bloody dusk

On the woods, that second day of May,

Where Stonewall’s corps, like a beast of prey,

Tore through with angry tusk.

“They’ve trapped us, boys!”

Rose from our flank a voice.

With a rush of steel and smoke

On came the rebels straight,

Eager as love and wild as hate;

And our line reeled and broke;

Broke and fled.

Not one stayed—but the dead!

With curses, shrieks, and cries,

Horses and wagons and men

Tumbled back through the shuddering glen,

And above us the fading skies.

There’s one hope, still—

Those batteries parked on the hill!

“Battery, wheel!” (‘mid the roar)

“Pass pieces; fix prolonge to fire

Retiring. Trot!” In the panic dire

A bugle rings “Trot!”—and no more.

The horses plunged,

The cannon lurched and lunged,

To join the hopeless rout.

But suddenly rode a form

Calmly in front of the human storm,

With a stern, commanding shout:

“Align those guns!”

(We knew it was Pleasanton’s.)

The cannoneers bent to obey,

And worked with a will at his word;

And the black guns moved as if they had heard.

But, ah, the dread delay!

“To wait is crime;

O God, for ten minutes’ time!”

The General looked around.

There Keenan sat, like a stone,

With his three hundred horse alone,

Less shaken than the ground.

“Major, your men?”

“Are soldiers, General.” “Then

Charge, Major! Do your best;

Hold the enemy back at all cost,

Till my guns are placed;—else the army is lost.

You die to save the rest!”

By the shrouded gleam of the western skies,

Brave Keenan looked into Pleasanton’s eyes

For an instant—clear, and cool, and still;

Then, with a smile, he said: “I will.”

“Cavalry, charge!” Not a man of them shrank.

Their sharp, full cheer, from rank to rank,

Rose joyously, with a willing breath—

Rose like a greeting hail to death.

Then forward they sprang, and spurred, and clashed;

Shouted the officers, crimson-sashed;

Rode well the men, each brave as his fellow,

In their faded coats of blue and yellow;

And above in the air, with an instinct true,

Like a bird of war their pennon flew.

With clank of scabbards and thunder of steeds

And blades that shine like sunlit reeds,

And strong brown faces bravely pale

For fear their proud attempt should fail,

Three hundred Pennsylvanians close

On twice ten thousand gallant foes.

Line after line the troopers came

To the edge of the wood that was ring’d with flame;

Rode in, and sabred, and shot— and fell;

Nor came back one his wounds to tell.

And full in the midst rose Keenan tall

In the gloom, like a martyr awaiting his fall,

While the circle-stroke of his sabre, swung

Round his head, like a halo there, luminous hung.

Line after line—aye, whole platoons,

Struck dead in their saddles, of brave dragoons

By the maddened horses were onward borne

And into the wavering vortex flung, trampled and torn;

As Keenan fought with his men, side by side.

So they rode, till there were no more to ride.

But over them, lying there shattered and mute,

What deep echo rolls?—’Tis a death-salute

From the cannon in place; for, heroes, you braved

Your fate not in vain; the army was saved!

Over them now—year following year—

Over the graves the pine-cones fall,

And the whippoorwill chants his spectre-call;

But they stir not again: they raise no cheer.

They have ceased. But their glory shall never cease,

Nor their light be quenched in the light of peace.

The rush of their charge is resounding still

That saved the army at Chancellorsville.

by: George Parsons Lathrop (1851-1898)