Defender of the Faith: Commander Aids Pope, U.S. Army

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

Cork-born John Joseph Coppinger brought his military talents to the Pope and the U.S. Army

By Brian C. Pohanka

The most successful career enjoyed by any Irish veteran of Papal service was that of John Joseph Coppinger, who retired with the rank of Major General after 46 years in the U.S. Army.

Coppinger was born at Middleton, County Cork, on October 11, 1834. He was one of six children of William Joseph Coppinger and Margaret O'Brien. The family name, according to some accounts was of Norse origin, though it is also possible it was originally Norman, or French, with variants being Coppin, Coppen and Coppens. Some Coppingers were Protestant, but John's branch was staunchly Catholic, and his ancestors had long been established as prominent citizens of Cork.

In 1857 John J. Coppinger entered the ranks of the Warwickshire Militia with the rank of ensign. By 1860 he had been promoted Lieutenant, but left his position in the Yeomanry for what he saw as a higher duty. In 1860, when Pope Pius IX called upon Catholics throughout Europe to rally to the defense of the Papal States, Coppinger was one of over 1,400 young Irishmen who made their way to Italy. Perhaps because of his earlier military service, Coppinger was appointed Captain and placed in command of the Second Company in Major Myles O'Reilly's Battalion of St. Patrick.

Along with Major O'Reilly, Coppinger was part of a 327-man Irish contingent

Courtesy Brian Pohanka
Colonel Coppinger (seated right) with fellow officers in Washington at the close of America's Civil War. Seated in center is fellow veteran of the Papal Battalion of St. Patrick, Brevet Brigadier General Daniel J. Keily. Standing at center is Brevet Brigadier General Alanson Randol, who served with Coppinger in the battles at Five Forks and Appomattox.

who joined elements of six other nationalities in the defense of the fortress of Spoleto -- a walled city in Umbria. Posted within the ramparts of the venerable castle of La Rocca, and vastly outnumbered by their Piedmontese foe -- on September 17, 1860, the Irish waged a gallant but hopeless defense. Coppinger's company held the gateway to the fortress against the charge of the elite Bersaglieri -- and hurled back the initial assault after a sharp and at times hand-to-hand grapple during which Coppinger was slightly wounded. The defenders were soon forced to capitulate, but Captain Coppinger's conspicuous bravery won him two Papal decorations: the Medaglia di Pro Petri Sede (For the Chair of Peter) and the Ordine di Piano (Order of Pius).

In September, 1861, following the defeat of all Papal forces and bored with his ceremonial duties at the Vatican where he served in a small Irish company -- as did future Civil War officers Myles Keogh, Daniel Keily and Joseph O'Keeffe -- Coppinger took the opportunity of a leave of absence to seek a commission in the Federal forces then battling in America. With the assistance of Archbishop John Hughes of New York and Secretary of State William H. Seward, Coppinger received a commission as Captain in the 14th U.S. Infantry. During the fight at Second Bull Run on August 30, 1862, Captain Coppinger was shot through the neck -- a near fatal wound that for a time left him partially paralyzed. Out of action for nearly six months, Coppinger eventually regained his health and after service at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg was 

As a soldier, I consider him a model

appointed to the staff of Brigadier General Romeyn Ayres. From May 1864 to January 1865 Coppinger served on the staff of General Alfred Torbert, commander of the cavalry in Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah. The swashbuckling Irishman was awarded brevets for his gallantry in the battles of Trevilian Station and Cedar Creek.

In the last months of the war, Coppinger received promotion to Colonel of the 15th New York Cavalry, and led the unit at Five Forks and Appomattox -- receiving another slight wound in one of the final skirmishes before Lee's surrender. General Custer, in whose division Coppinger served, wrote that the Colonel's "ability as an officer is of the highest order. ... As a soldier I consider him a model."

After being mustered out of volunteer service, Coppinger rejoined the 14th U.S. on the Pacific coast. In 1866 he was transfered to the 23rd U.S. Infantry, and 

Courtesy Brian Pohanka
Lieutenant Colonel Coppinger, 18th US Infantry, a photo that dates to the late 1880s.

won another brevet for his actions in a clash in the Indian Wars. For most of 1871 he enjoyed an extended leave of absence that took him to Egypt, where he visited former U.S. General Charles Stone, now commanding the Army of the Khedive. On his way back to America, Coppinger visited his sisters, then living at "Tivoli" near Cork City.

During 1872 Coppinger, then serving in California, weathered a potentially disastrous scandal when newspaper correspondent Thomas Cash accused the dashing Captain of seducing his wife, Ellen Cash. The journalist's charges appeared in a lengthy story on the front page of the July 21, 1872 San Francisco Chronicle, in which Coppinger was characterized as "a gay Lothario in epaulettes ... a roue and a bold, unprincipled adventurer ... a serpent." Coppinger denounced the charges as "infamous falsehoods," and demanded a court of inquiry. His request was refused, and in time the scandal was all but forgotten.

Courtesy National Archives
General Coppinger during his service in the Spanish American War.

Coppinger's postwar climb up the ladder of promotion continued with his commissions as Major in the 10th US Infantry (1879), Lieutenant-Colonel, 18th U.S. Infantry (1883) and Colonel commanding the 23rd US Infantry (1891). In April 1895, he was promoted to Brigadier General in the Regular Army, and during the Spanish-American War of 1898 he received the additional star of Major-General of Volunteers.

...these gallant Irish gentlemen -- dear old boys...

Despite his unquestioned soldierly skills, Coppinger's career received an additional boost from an important political source. In February 1883, the 49-year-old Irishman married Alice Stanwood Blaine, daughter of powerful Maine Senator and Presidential contender James Gillespie Blaine. The Colonel's marriage to a Washington belle 25 years younger than himself surprised the Blaine family and Washington society alike, though the service at the Blaine mansion on Dupont Circle was one of the most lavish weddings in the capital's history -- and was attended by President Chester A. Arthur and his entire Cabinet.

Seven years later Alice Blaine Coppinger died during a flu epidemic. She left her grief-stricken husband with two small sons, Blaine and Conor Coppinger -- both of whom would eventually graduate from Georgetown University and pursue careers in law.

General Coppinger died at his home in Washington on November 4, 1909, and after funeral services at Saint Matthew's Cathedral, he was buried at Arlington Cemetery under a stone carved in the shape of a Celtic cross.

Virtually forgotten today, even to students of military history, Coppinger's eulogy might well be the same tribute he penned in 1894, honoring his old comrades, Keogh, Keily and O'Keeffe:

"They came directly from Italy, where they were lieutenants in the Pope's service. They went directly to the field in Virginia. They fought, they died -- these gallant Irish gentlemen -- dear old boys -- God bless them."

  • Read about Myles Keogh, an Irishman who served in the U.S. Army after fighting in the Papal army in Italy.

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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Tags: American, Civil, Coppinger, John, Joseph, Pope, War


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