In the finale of John Concannon's series on Michael Corcoran, hundreds of Irishmen join his newly formed Irish Legion, and he dies just three days before Christmas 1863, only 36 years old. Part 5 of 5.
By John J. Concannon
|Photo by Kevin O'Beirne
A reproduction of the green regimental flag of the 155th NY - Corcoran's Legion
Thousands of Irishmen flocked to join Corcoran's Brigade, which was soon called Corcoran's Legion, and sometimes known as the "Irish Legion. " With several other military groups known as "Irish Legions," the name applied to the unit became, in time, the "Corcoran Legion."
Six regiments were raised within six weeks and, under the command of General Corcoran, went off to train at Camp Scott on Staten Island. One of the six was the newly named "Sixty-Ninth Regiment, National Guard," to distinguish it from the original 69th, now known as the "Sixty-Ninth New York Volunteers." The "69th Volunteers " were at the front, under the command of Colonel Robert Nugent, serving as one of the five component units of the "Irish Brigade." The Brigade was under the command of General Thomas Francis Meagher.
In November 1862, the Corcoran Legion broke camp and went to Newport News, Va.; a month later moving on to Suffolk, Va., reporting via General Corcoran, to General Peck, commanding. The Legion picketed the Dismal Swamp area and constructed large fortifications around Suffolk.
... living up to the boast "never retreated and was never defeated. "
In mid-January 1863, General Corcoran was visited by William Welch, President of the Board of Aldermen, and a delegation from the Common Council of the City of New York. He was presented with "a magnificent sword, which he treasured and wore with great pride."
On the 30th day of January, the Legion fought its first engagement. General Corcoran, commanding the Legion and other troops, marched to meet Confederate general Robert Pryor and a large force of Confederates. The battle of Deserted House, about 10 miles from Suffolk, was a brilliant victory for General Corcoran and the Legion. Major General Peck complimented Corcoran's troops for the "gallant bravery" they displayed and noted that "most of the regiments were under fire for the first time and furnished those others so unfortunate as not to have taken part in the expedition with examples of patriotism worthy of imitation."
The Corcoran Legion gained an unmatched reputation, living up to the boast "never retreated and was never defeated. " During 1863, the Legion took part in half a dozen campaigns in Virginia—in the siege of Suffolk; Edentown Road; Blackwater; Franklin; and Sangster Station. EDITOR'S NOTE: Corcoran led the legion and then a division during the Suffolk (Virginia) campaign in April 1863. While there he was involved with a regrettable incident. While riding with fellow Fenian leader John O'Mahony, Corcoran shot and killed Lt. Col. Edgar Kimball of the 9th New York Infantry. Corcoran was ordered to face a court-martial in the case, but it was never convened.
As Christmas 1863 approached, the Legion found itself encamped near Fairfax Court House, Virginia. On the morning of December 22nd, Corcoran felt indisposed, nevertheless he attended Mass celebrated in the chapel tent by the Legion's chaplain, Father John Gillen. Then, as planned, General Corcoran rode, in company with several officers of the Legion, to meet and escort his old friend, General Meagher, to the Fairfax railroad station. Meagher, who had been on a brief pre-Christmas visit to the camp, was returning to Washington. Corcoran saw General Meagher off, and for the return ride to the camp, he changed to the spirited horse that General Meagher had been riding.
|Library of Congress
General Corcoran, a crack horseman, was impressed with Meagher's steed, gave the horse his head, and away horse and rider went, outdistancing, for a time, the accompanying officers. When the officers caught up, they saw General Corcoran dismount, hold the bridle for a moment, then slump to the ground. When his companions reached him, Corcoran was unconscious. He was carried to his quarters, where he lay for hours, breathing heavily.
Word spread through the Corcoran Legion and the Irish Brigade that the gallant Corcoran was dying. Soldiers flocked to his quarters. It was a pitiful scene. Corcoran had recently remarried (after the death of his first wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Heeney Corcoran). The second Mrs. Corcoran, a youthful and pretty woman, sat benumbed and grief-stricken. Soldiers, by her permission, filed around the bed, bidding a last farewell to their friend and fallen leader. Corcoran passed away a few hours after he was stricken, dead at the age of thirty-six.
It was widely reported and widely believed that General Corcoran "fell or was thrown from his horse, causing his death. " But evidence contradicts that assumption. In an article for the American Irish Historical Society Journal of 1913-1914, Dr. John G. Coyle, General Corcoran's biographer, wrote: "Although it is commonly believed that General Corcoran died as the result of a fall from General Meagher's horse, Dr. John Dwyer (the Irish Brigade's Cork-born Surgeon) is the authority for the statement that the fall to the ground did not occur until Corcoran had stopped the horse and dismounted and that the true cause of death, as certified by Army Medical Director Reyburn, was 'cerebral apoplexy.' That is, 'a stoppage in the flow of blood to the brain.'" Or what we laymen call "a stroke."
|whose "memory is sweet to all men of Irish blood, whose name is hallowed as a patriot by all Americans"|
This finding was strongly supported by the "ill disposition " Corcoran had complained of early that morning.
A funeral service was held in the chapel tent for the General. On Christmas Eve, the remains were removed to the Fairfax railroad station for transport to New York City. In New York, the remains were met by the city's Committee of the Common Council and by Meagher, Colonels McMahon, McIvor, Murphy, Reed, and others. The General's body lay in state in the Governor's Room of New York's City Hall. The U.S. Army's commanding officer in the Department of the East, Major General John A. Dix, ordered all flags in the harbor lowered to half mast on December 26, the date of Corcoran's funeral in New York.
The body was viewed by thousands as it lay in state in old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mott Street. In the "out-of-the-country" absence of Archbishop John Hughes, the Archdiocesan Vicar General, Bishop William Starrs, delivered the eulogy at a Solemn High Mass. Thousands followed the cortege to Calvary Cemetery in Queens where final honors were paid "Gallant General Michael Corcoran."
Captain D. P. Conyngham of the Irish Brigade, in his history of the Brigade, wrote on the passing of Corcoran: "Thus died, in the prime of manhood, as brave a soldier and as sterling an Irishman as ever lived. He was a loss to America, for his name and reputation were talismanic to collect his countryman to his standard. He was a loss to Ireland, for the dearest wish of his heart was to live to strike for her independence; and from his experience as a soldier, his wisdom as a general, and his prudence and foresight as a man, who knows what he would have accomplished had he lived?"
On January 30th, 1914, a bronze memorial tablet of General Michael Corcoran was unveiled and presented to the Sixty-Ninth Infantry National Guard of the State of New York by the Columbian Assembly, composed of Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus and the Sixty-Ninth Infantry N.G.N.Y.
The inscription of the tablet reads as follows:
Died in the Service of the U .S., Dec. 22nd, 1863. TABLET TO MEMORY OF GENERAL MICHAEL CORCORAN, Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory,
For many years, there was no public memorial of any kind to this gallant Irish American soldier, "a noble manly man, devoted to his adopted country, enduring privations and perils in her behalf, offering all on her altar all that man can give—service, devotion, liberty and life."
Then, the Knights of Columbus and the 69th Infantry, National Guard, New York, placed a Corcoran Memorial Tablet on the wall of the 69th Regiment Armory, Lexington Avenue and 26th Street, New York. It was unveiled and dedicated on January 30, 1914, the 5lst anniversary of the first engagement and victory of Corcoran's Legion at Deserted House, Virginia.
Once more, the man whose "memory is sweet to all men of Irish blood, whose name is hallowed as a patriot by all Americans" is recalled and honored—this time, at his last resting place. The headstone that marks this patriot grave in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, N. Y., has been re-created and rededicated (April 29, 1990) through the labors of Michael Corcoran's native county group in New York—the County Sligo Men's Social and Benevolent Association.
NOBLE SON OF SLIGO,
NEVER RETREATED, NEVER DEFEATED,
YOUR LIKES WE WILL NEVER SEE AGAIN.
©1990-2004 John J. Concannon
About the Author: Flushing, N.Y., resident John J. Concannon,email@example.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.
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