Michael Corcoran sits in his prison cell wondering if he will live or die as the warring govenments play a deadly game of "bluff." Part 4 of 5.

By John J. Concannon

The jail conditions and treatment of Colonel Corcoran were so bad that Lieutenant Edward Connolly of the 69th, also a prisoner in the Charleston jail, was moved to write to the 69th's Captain Kirker in New York, requesting that the conditions of Colonel Corcoran's confinement and treatment be brought before President Lincoln for immediate action.

Castle Pinckney in Charlestown harbor, from an old woodcut.

In his letter, Connolly suggested: "That a public meeting be got up immediately on behalf of the Colonel's case, demanding of the President that protection that he so justly deserves, and requesting the government to take immediate steps toward his liberation, for so sure as Smith, the privateer, is executed, so sure will Colonel Corcoran be hanged. Nothing short of the liberation of this man, Smith, will prevent the authorities here from carrying out their threat and they seem to be determined on it.

"On second consideration I have concluded that perhaps it may now be judicious to have Mr. O'Gorman, Judge Daly and yourself proceed immediately to Washington to see the President and suggest that Smith be exchanged for the Colonel. If the execution (of Smith) is postponed, it will make the case little better, as the Colonel will be kept in close confinement in his present quarters until Smith is disposed of, and his, or the strongest, constitution would not endure the treatment that he is now subjected to.

"He is incarcerated in a felon's cell, six by eight feet, on the upper story of this jail, no fire or heat of any kind to make the place anything like endurable, and if suffered to remain there for any length of time I fear, nay, I am confident, the result would prove fatal to him.

"I have written this without acquainting him, as I fear he would not allow me to make any such appeal. He is in fine spirits and determined to meet his fate like a true patriot. He is looked upon by all the officers and men that are in confinement as a model patriot. He has never yet complained of treatment he has received, although God knows he has had ample reason; nor was he ever heard among the fault finders of our government for the course they thought proper to take in connection with us, but when the voice of a secessionist was raised against our cause, then was he to be found prominent amongst its defenders and that is probably the reason he was selected as the first to suffer.

"If such a man is to be hung, or suffered to remain here in a felon's cell to die of disease, which he must inevitably engender (for those who have better quarters here are fast fading; many are sick with typhoid fever), the country will be deprived of the services of many a noble and patriotic soldier."

Corcoran himself had a few words to say on his predicament. Though a prisoner of war, he shared a cell in the Charleston city jail with convicted criminals. He expected that at any day or hour he would be led forth to his execution. In a letter of November 19, 1861, Corcoran wrote of this dark time: "After all the privations and insults we have been subjected to since becoming prisoners of war, and at a time sufficient to allow the worst passions to have been satisfied, we find we have yet another and worse ordeal to pass through. We have been taken from Castle Pinkney and are now in a common footing with the most depraved classes and locked up at night like felons.

"I am condemned, but I have the consolation of knowing that I have been selected with three captains and ten lieutenants to be executed as soon as it may be ascertained that Smith at Philadelphia has suffered. Neither the opportunity nor the time to accomplish the object for which I held life most sacred having arrived—that of aiding to free my native land from the galling yoke of oppression under which she has been suffering for centuries—there could be no possible other cause for which I would be content to offer up my life than in the endeavor to maintain the glorious Flag which has afforded a home and protection to me and my oppressed countrymen. It was with the most perfect willingness to do this that I left New York, watched for the approach of its enemies at Fort Corcoran, marched to and met them at Manassas and, as fortune had not crowned us with success, I made my last stand around that flag with very few, indeed, when from necessity we were forced to surrender.

Coutesy of Historical Art Prints.
The 69th NY fights to save it's regimental flag in the later stages of 1st Manassas, as painted by Don Troiani.

"I hope and trust that my wife and all my friends will as cheerfully and heroically submit to the necessity of my case as I do myself and assure all that never in my life have I felt in better health or spirits. I have much to say to you, but do not deem it expedient at this time to write it to you, but in the event of my execution, I shall endeavor to have a private letter which some of the boys may be able to deliver to you. I must however state in justice to the manly hearts that beat in the breasts of the rank and file of our fellow-prisoners that some means should be adopted to have them exchanged, for no tongue can tell, nor pen portray nor imagination conceive, what these poor fellows have suffered during the last sixteen weeks.
Sincerely and affectionately yours,
Michael Corcoran

But this dark time passed and conditions changed for the better for Corcoran, thanks to astute action by Congress. Senator Schuyler Colfax of Indiana introduced a resolution recommending that one James M. Mason, a Confederate envoy then imprisoned in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, be given the same treatment inflicted on Colonel Corcoran, unless Corcoran's conditions of incarceration were bettered. Mason, a Virginian, was an important figure in the Confederate government, and soon afterward Corcoran was transferred from the Charleston city jail and restored to the position of an ordinary military prisoner.

The Confederates offered Corcoran a parole if he pledged not to take up arms if released. Corcoran refused to so pledge. One of the first captured, Colonel Corcoran had endured a long and unusually severe imprisonment. Eventually, an exchange of prisoners was arranged between the United States and the Confederate States. In mid-August 1862, Corcoran was released after an imprisonment of 13 months.

'The noble behavior of Corcoran in his long confinement and in his numerous trials endeared him to the American public.'

President Lincoln immediately nominated Corcoran a brigadier general, dating the appointment from the Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861. Corcoran was now one of the senior brigadier generals of the Volunteers, and he received one year's full pay and allowances of a brigadier-general. Says biographer Coyle: "His romantic career, his long imprisonment, the success of his old regiment, now in the Irish Brigade, the noble behavior of Corcoran in his long confinement and in his numerous trials endeared him to the American public."

Irish Brigade historian Conyngham commented on the great change in the attitude and feelings of the general populace toward General Corcoran, the Irish as soldiers, and toward Britain. He wrote: "All classes, without distinction, united with a heartiness, truly inspiring, to do honor to a man (Corcoran) whose truly American patriotism had subjected him to such dangers and privations, and whose well-known love of Ireland had been the most permanent trait in his character. Corcoran was fully vindicated by subsequent events. "

Conyngham added: "The bitter hostility of England toward the Republic, manifested in the actions of her politicians and the material aid given to the Confederacy, justified his refusal in turning out to honor the Prince of Wales, and showed the correctness of the Irish American sentiment towards England."

On his way home to New York, General Corcoran was warmly received at every stopover point. The throngs in Baltimore and Philadelphia were particularly enthusiastic. Jersey City tendered him a public reception. He was met at the Battery in New York City by thousands of citizens. They crowded the streets and the windows of houses as the City's Common Council escorted him to the St. Nicholas Hotel. He was pressured to make an address from the balcony of the hotel and he did so. He told the overflow crowd that he would immediately recruit a fighting force and go to the front.
©2001 John J. Concannon

 

 

END OF PART 4

About the Author: Flushing, N.Y., resident John J. Concannon,narrowback@thewildgeese.com, is a former national historian of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. This series is derived from a monograph he wrote for the unveiling of a new gravestone for Michael Corcoran in 1990.

Read Part 1: From bane to toast of the nation
Part 2: Making a Stand
Part 3: 'The Luck of the Draw'

 

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 permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: 69th, American, Ballymote, Carrowkeel, Charleston, Civil, Corcoran, County, Michael, Regiment, More…Sligo, War, jail

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