Colonel Patrick Guiney: Boston's 'Good Knight'

By Christian G. Samito

When rebellion threatened to destroy the Union, Patrick Robert Guiney swiftly rallied to its defense, proving to be a brave fighter and one of the most articulate Irish supporters of his adopted country. Perhaps his greatest legacy was a collection of Civil War letters running through nearly three years service in the Army of the Potomac and revealing incisive comments on politics, military strategy and superior officers, along with painting a fascinating picture of life for a citizen soldier in command of a regiment.

Born in Parkstown, County Tipperary, on January 15, 1835, Guiney immigrated with his father as a boy (his mother and brother joined them a few months later) and grew up in Maine during a period of great hostility toward Irish Catholics. Spending most of his youth laboring in factories and machine shops, the work did not appeal to young Patrick's growing intellectual spirit. In October 1854, Guiney achieved his dream of entering the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, although he left when his funds ran low after a year's study. After briefly considering a career in the theater, Guiney decided to pursue a law career and was admitted to the bar in 1856.

In September 1858, Guiney moved to Boston, where he practiced law, wrote for the Boston Times, and looked forward to a bright future. On January 8, 1859, he and Jeannette Margaret Doyle married in Boston's old Catholic cathedral and the young couple moved to Roxbury, a pleasant suburb at the time. Soon afterward, Guiney became involved in public affairs, winning a seat on the Common Council of Roxbury and joining the Irish Charitable Society. Their first-born son died in infancy but Jennie, as Guiney liked to call her, gave birth to Louise Imogen Guiney on January 7, 1861. She grew up to be an eminent poet.

When the Civil War erupted, Guiney immediately joined a regiment of Boston Irishmen being raised and led by Colonel Thomas Cass. Despite having a young wife and four-month-old daughter, a spirit of patriotism welled up in the young Irishman, and he felt that duty and honor required him to support what he called "a cause bright and grand as the Sun." Cass began forging his rough

The departure of the 9th Massachusetts must have been similar to this scene in New York City showing the 7th New York Militia marching off to war.

civilian volunteers into disciplined soldiers during several weeks of training at Camp Wightman, located on an island in Boston Harbor. On June 11, 1861, the regiment mustered into service as the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and Guiney accepted a commission as captain of Company D.

On June 24, the 9th Massachusetts paraded through the crowded streets of Boston to the State House, where it accepted its regimental colors of an Irish green flag bearing a concise warning to enemies: "Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked." The young captain's beloved Jennie undoubtedly stood in the crowd, craning for a last look before her husband traveled to the seat of war, as the regiment was to begin its journey down to Washington the next day. The Bay Staters arrived in the Federal capital several days later and took position in defense of the city, passing the next couple months in skirmish duty, drilling and the construction of a small fort. During this time, Guiney rose in rank to become lieutenant colonel and second in command of the 9th Massachusetts.

Early on March 10, 1862, the Irish Americans broke camp as Major General George McClellan mobilized his army for an offensive to capture Richmond, joining the rest of the army to travel by boat to the Peninsula. When the Federal army confronted Confederates entrenched around Yorktown, the 9th Massachusetts deployed in a forward position during the ensuing siege. McClellan advanced and maneuvered after the Confederates retreated from the historic village, pushing his army closer to the Confederate capital. On May 27, the 9th prepared for its first battle in the open field and delivered a decisive charge late in the battle at Hanover Court House to win the sobriquet it carried through the remainder of the war: "Fighting" 9th.

This appellation proved well deserved at the Seven Days battles before Richmond, where the Irishmen distinguished themselves with their courage. At Gaines' Mill, the 9th deployed in advance of the Union line to harass and slow a Confederate force crossing the mill creek. Afterward, the "Fighting" 9th took its place in the Union line until repeated Confederate assaults caused the weary blue line to buckle and retreat. Too sick to stand, Cass relinquished command to Lieutenant Colonel Guiney, and the Irishmen formed the retreating Federal column's rearguard. It seemed as if the relentless onslaught of Southerners would engulf the 9th Massachusetts and Guiney realized he needed to act to prevent capture of his men.

The Irish color of the 9th, carried by the very fortunate "Jack" Berry at Gaines Mill.

As Guiney ordered his color-bearers forward and called out, "Follow your colors, men," hundreds of Irish voices joined in a shout as they lunged toward the Rebel line, their Irish and National banners defiantly waving before them. The Fighting 9th bought a few precious moments in which to withdraw before having to repeat the procedure again, something they did nine times in all with the Confederates often but 60 yards away. Ten colorbearers fell while holding the United States flag, while Sergeant "Jack" Barry of Company B, holding the Irish standard aloft, came out of the fray unscathed. So valiant were the charges that both "Stonewall" Jackson and a German observer mistook the regiment for the entire Irish Brigade, due to the green banner signifying the "Fighting" 9th's presence on the field.

A few days later, the Federal army took up a defensive position on Malvern Hill and the Irishmen were again in the thick of the fight. The "Fighting" 9th helped repulse Confederate attempts to capture a nearby artillery battery, after which a bullet struck Cass' cheek, knocking out six teeth before passing through the roof of his mouth and exiting near his ear, a mortal wound from which he died on July 12. The regiment proved it had become a finely honed weapon at the Seven Days, but Irish valor came at a cost -- the Fighting 9th lost a total of 421 troops during the battles before Richmond.

Harper's Weekly
A wounded soldier is carried from the field at the Battle of the Wilderness.

After Cass died, Guiney received promotion to colonel and commanded the 9th in the ensuing campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. On May 5, 1864, the first day of the Wilderness, the 9th joined in an assault with the rest of their division. As the attack fell apart, Confederates captured two Federal cannon and placed a Southern banner near them. Guiney led his men into a maelstrom of bullets in an effort to recapture the artillery, and the regiment let out their Irish yell before charging forward. Almost instantly, powerful volleys drove them back. A bullet hit above Guiney's left eye, destroying it and the surrounding bone. The regiment had to retreat, having lost 12 officers and 138 men in a period of ten minutes. The regiment lost another 101 men during the battle of Spotsylvania, for a total of 251 casualties during the period of May 5-19, 1864.

His wound was thought to be mortal, and most surgeons did not want to put Colonel Guiney through the agonizing operation to remove the lead slug. Yet, Guiney refused to give up and upon regaining consciousness in a Union hospital, insisted on the operation. Jennie went down to Washington and brought her wounded husband home to Roxbury, slowly nursing him to recovery. Upon completion of its term of service, the 9th returned to Boston on June 15, 1864 as their recuperating commander mustered his strength and turned out to lead them to Faneuil Hall, where he and other dignitaries addressed these Irish American defenders of the Union.

College of Holy Cross Rare Books
Jeanette (Jennie) Guiney at age 62. Could she be reminiscing over one of Patrick's letters in the photo?

During his service, Guiney wrote a series of beautiful letters to his wife running from June 4, 1861 to April 7, 1864, which discuss life in the regiment and army, from training to combat, from camp under a starry sky to receiving absolution by the regimental chaplain before going into battle. In reading Guiney's words, one can have a fuller appreciation of what motivated civilians to volunteer for war and the privations they suffered in service to their country. Furthermore, the personality of an Irish Catholic soldier shines through, and Guiney's intense love for his wife and child, anxiety for the victorious conclusion of the war, and the burdens of leadership are common themes in his writing.

Guiney's letters are all the more illuminating and significant in that they were written by a man atypical from those that he led. Beneath a seemingly smooth rise to Colonel, tension with several officers and the Boston Irish community plagued Guiney's tenure in command. Most Irish Americans lived in poor conditions at the time and became staunch Democrats. They felt hostility toward a Republican Party marked by nativism, temperance activists, and abolitionists, whose work to free the slaves seemed to threaten Irish labor. In contrast, Guiney was an educated lawyer living in a Boston suburb and came to support the Lincoln administration and liberation of blacks from the shackles of slavery. Not content to remain silent with his liberal 

College of Holy Cross Rare Books
Patrick Guiney in 1874, at age 39. His face shows the price he paid for his devotion to duty. His daughter Louise (pictured below) wrote on the back of this photo, "dear, dear boy!"

views, Guiney professed his beliefs in word and deed, making clear his political stance and individuality of thought. While many of his troops genuinely loved him, several officers and prominent North End Irishmen troubled Guiney at every turn and the political cohesion of the Irish American community is illustrated by their treatment of one who broke from its ranks.

After the war, Guiney began participating in civic affairs once again, this time as a celebrated war hero. Despite nativist prejudice against him, the Irish Catholic went on win appointment as an assistant district attorney in 1865 and later ran for a Congressional seat. On May 26, 1866, President Andrew Johnson signed a brevet promotion making Guiney a brigadier general "for gallant and meritorious service during the war," with rank to date from March 13, 1865. Nonetheless, Guiney's health remained shattered after his war wound, and he sometimes felt so dizzy that he needed to grasp nearby objects for support and bathe his head in an effort to relieve the pain. These problems prompted his resignation from the district attorney's office in October 1869, although he ran and won election for the office of Register of Probate and Insolvency for Suffolk County in November 1871.

On March 21, 1877 -- the last day of his life, at the age of 42 -- Guiney sat at his desk, with daffodils in a glass before him. Earlier that day he had dined with a friend and at 5:30 left his office and visited the barber's room at the St. James Hotel. Afterward, he was crossing Franklin Square to his house when he coughed up a bit of blood and knew death drew near. Nobly, Guiney took off his hat, knelt by a tree and died. A child who knew 

College of Holy Cross Rare Books
Patrick Guiney's daughter, Louise, age 31.

Guiney ran from his playing to reach his soldier friend, but Guiney had already passed. Two nearby citizens recognized him and carried the lifeless body to his home. A large cortege assembled for his funeral as the body was brought to rest at Holyhood Cemetery, Brookline.

Patrick Robert Guiney is not a famous man of history nor did he aspire to be. He came to America as an Irish immigrant, went on to become a lawyer, command a regiment in the epic struggle of United States' history, and afterward, set out to serve as a government official in a time of discrimination and hostility against Irish Catholics. Devoted to Church and country, his greatest passion remained his family, the love of his wife Jennie and smile of his little daughter. And, as Louise Guiney later wrote of him, "Whenever the Church and the state have the final roll call ... the good knight of Boston who was my father will be remembered."

You can contact Chris Samito by email at:

If you would like to read more about the Patrick Guiney and the 9th Massachusetts, Chris Samito is the editor of "Commanding Boston's Irish Ninth," published by Fordham University Press. The Ninth Massachusetts Infantry, which saw duty with the Army of the Potomac, was composed primarily of Irish immigrants and their descendants who hailed from Boston. One officer, Patrick R. Guiney, eventually rose to command the regiment as a colonel prior to suffering a service-ending wound in 1864. Read his story in -Commanding Boston's Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel P...

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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