A Brief Conflict, Part 3 of 3 of 'The Pope's Irish Battalion'

By Robert Doyle

* Part 1 of 3: A Call to Arms
Part 2 of 3: Engaging the Enemy

From a contemporary woodcut.
Soldiers in Garbaldi's army.

Robert Doyle continues the story of the Irishmen who answered the Pope's call for help against Sardinian invaders. After the Papal army's defeat, these Irishmen go on to demonstrate their valor in other armies, in other continents.

On September 27, at the lunette of San Stefano near the town's citadel, the Irish finally clashed in open combat with General Fanti's troops. Firstly they held their fire as the Sardinians advanced up the small hill. When the attackers were within range and poised to fire, the Irish unleashed a deadly fusillade from their ramshackle muskets before charging, bayonets fixed, at the shocked and retreating Italians. Given their civilian background, it was a remarkable feat of bravery and military acumen by the Irish against veteran, battle-hardened soldiers.

The Pro Petri Sede Medaglia
For their service, each officer and enlisted man was awarded the Medal for Gallantry -- the Pro Petri Sede Medaglia -- by Pope Pius IX. The medal is a circular silvered nickel silver (maillechort) medal with hollow center with inverted Latin cross within a circular ring in the form of a scaled mythical creature swallowing its own tail, on ornate swivel suspension with ribbon bar; the face circumscribed 'PRO PETRI SEDE' (literally 'For the seat of Peter,' meaning for the Vatican) above, and 'PIO o IX o P o M o A o XV' ( = Pius IX Pontifex Maximus 15th year, for the 15th year of the reign of Pope Pius IX = 1860); the reverse circumscribed 'VICTORIA OVAE VINCIT MUNDUM FIDES NOSTRA' (The victory of our flock conquers the world with our faith). The medal above belonged to Myles Keogh.

Nonetheless, the Sardinian navy kept up an unrelenting barrage on the fortifications which defended the entrance to the harbor. On September 28, after 10 days of combat, a battery occupied by the Papal forces, probably its magazine, took a direct hit. With this lucky strike, General Cialdini's forces had fatally weakened the Ancona defences, giving a tearful Lamoricière little option but to order the raising of a white flag on the city's battlements.

After just 18 days, the Papal War of 1860 had ended, with between 70 and 100 Irish soldiers thought killed or wounded in action during those few weeks in September. Overall, the Pope's army received reasonable treatment from the victors, who were mindful that the eyes of the Catholic world were upon them. Three days after Ancona's siege, the Irish enlisted men were separated from their officers, all destined for imprisonment in Genoa. The latter sailed on the ship "Count Cavour," while the rank and file travelled overland.

On arrival in Genoa, the Irish officers were kept in a large barracks but granted a "parole d'honneur" to visit the nearby town if they wished. Despite this relatively loose form of imprisonment, one rumor that troubled the Irish officers was that they were to be transported to Malta, imprisioned there and denied food to compel them to join the British army. However, this never came to pass, and after three to four weeks of imprisonment, the officers were released and the vast majority of the Pope's Irish battalion returned home. For their service, each officer and enlisted man was awarded a commemorative service medal -- Medaglia di Pro Petri Sede -- and all those who fought were declared "meritorious of the Catholic Church, the Holy See and all human society."

In further recognition of the Irish endeavors in battle, Papal officials decided to form a Company of St. Patrick to serve in the reorganized but greatly reduced Papal army. Becoming part of the Papal Zouaves, the Irish contingent never numbered more than 50, with Frank Russell retained as captain and the company's initial commanding officer. However, the onset of the American Civil War a year later prompted many of these Papal soldiers to answer a call to arms from Lincoln's government, with the Irishmen preferring the renewed thrill of battle over the mundane duties of Vatican service. Shortly after, the Company of St. Patrick was disbanded and Irish involvement in protecting Rome, the repository of all sacred to the Catholic world, had ended.

Courtesy of Little Bighorn Battlefield
Myles Keogh (left) stands beside George Custer in a photo taken during a picnic near Fort Lincoln in the summer of 1875.
The Battalion's Legacy

Some of the men of the Pope's Irish battalion went on to have distinguished military careers, particularly in the Union ranks during the American Civil War. Patrick Clooney, who fought so doggedly in the streets of Perugia, died while rallying the men of the Irish Brigade at Antietam. Fellow Waterford man, Dan Keily (Ancona), was horrifically wounded at Port Republic while leading a daring charge of Ohio cavalry, and J.J. Coppinger (Spoleto) established himself as one of the Union army's most redoubtable fighters, ending the war as a general. Probably the best known of the Pope's Irishmen was Myles Walter Keogh (Ancona), whose impressive service in the Union ranks gained him a post-war captain's commission in the famed 7th Cavalry. Keogh was killed along with General Custer and 200 hundred other troopers fighting Sioux and Cheyenne warriors at the iconic Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Library of Congress
Captain JJ Coppinger during his service in the US Army on the staff of cavalry commander Alfred Torbert, July 1864.

Since Ireland cherishes its history, it is remarkable how little is commonly known in Ireland about these Irishmen's involvement in this conflict. Although identifiable Irish units existed within the British army, this was a unique situation for that era, with Irishmen, representing their homeland, fighting with bravery and aplomb alongside men from Europe's military superpowers. They garnered praise from all, friend and foe, who witnessed their actions.

However, to the victors go the spoils, and, understandably, surviving statues and memorials in Italy honor those on the reunification side. Although hailed as heroes on their return to Ireland, the deeds of the Battalion of St. Patrick are nearly forgotten with the passing of time. Hopefully, the brief war's recent 150th anniversary will provoke renewed interest in the valiant Irishmen who fought in the Pope's army. As the American historian, Brian C. Pohanka, once insightfully remarked, "Without memory, we have no deeds." WGT

"The Irish Battalion in the Papal Brigade, 1860," by G.F. Berkley (1929)
Major Myles O'Reilly


Orders of Battle, Battalion of St. Patrick, September 1860

Perugia - September 13
One company (143 soldiers & 2 officers) under the command of Captain James Blackney (County Kildare).

Spoleto - September 17
Three companies of the Battalion of St. Patrick (312 soldiers & 15 officers) under the Battalion Commander, Major Myles O'Reilly (County Louth). Major O'Reilly commanded 645 men in total at Spoleto including 150 Italians, 160 Swiss, and 24 Franco-Belgians.

Battle of Castelfidardo - September 18
One company (102 soldiers and 3 officers, including 16-year-old 2nd Lt. James D'Arcy, from Dundalk, County Louth) under the command of Captain Martin Kirwan (County Roscommon).

Siege of Ancona - September 18-28
Four companies of St. Patrick's Battalion (440 soldiers and 16 officers).

Captain 'Count' Frank Russell

Company Commanders

  • Captain Timothy O'Mahony, County Cork, formerly of the Austrian Army.
  • Captain Frank Russell, County Louth.
  • Baron Guttenberg, Austria.
  • Captain Patrick O'Carroll, County Kildare, formerly of the
    18th Royal Irish Regt.

Further Reading:

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Tags: Garibaldi, Pope's Irish Battalion,


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