In Pursuit of Lincoln's Assassin: Roscommon-Born James Rowan O'Beirne (Part 1 of 2)

On Sunday April 16, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton was in his office dealing with the sudden blow of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln two nights earlier, at Ford’s Theater. He pondered how to hunt down and capture the conspirators, for in addition to the President, Secretary of State William H. Seward was attacked and almost killed lying in his sick bed and Seward's son desperately wounded. He came to a sudden decision, sat at his desk, grabbed paper and pen, jammed the pen into an inkwell and began to write his strong strokes blotting the paper:

Major O’Beirne, you are relieved of all other duty at this time and directed to employ yourself and your detective force in the detection and arrest of the murderers of the President and the assassins who attempted to murder Mr. Seward and make report time to time.

And so begins the vital role of the Ballagh, County Roscommon native in one of the most famous criminal pursuits in American history. 

Tomorrow, Sunday, the 26th of April, marks the 150th anniversary of the death of John Wilkes Booth. The death of the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln on 14th April culminated the experience of James Rowan O’Beirne’s service in America's Civil War. 

O'Beirne's journey literally begins on September 25, 1840, when Eliza Rowan O’Beirne and Michael Horan O’Beirne became the proud parents of James, in Ballagh, Elfin Parish.

O'Beirne's father descended from an ancient Irish family. Michael, a lawyer, immigrated to New York in 1832 and became a member and later partner of the Roche brothers. His mother, Eliza, was also descended from ancient Irish stock. Gregory Dillon, first President of the Irish Immigrant Savings Bank, was an uncle of Eliza's, and a cousin was Robert J. Dillon, one-time District Attorney of New York City.

Fighting the Confederacy, Stumping for the GOP

O'Beirne, with his family, arrived in New York City when nine months old, according to a biography in the New York Metropolis. His early schooling was at St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan, and he later enrolled in St. John’s College (now Fordham University). There he earned a Master of Arts in 1853, having been valedictorian of his class. He later received the degree a Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree.

O'Beirne entered the firm Roche, O’Beirne & Co. He left the firm shortly after and started his own practice. O’Beirne’s career trajectory is not typical of the tens of thousands Irish pouring into America as a result of The Great Hunger. Still, his father was a contemporary of Michael Doheny, Richard O’Gorman, Thomas Francis Meagher, John Mitchel, and Smith O’Brien, leaders of Young Ireland movement. The profile in The New York Metropolis suggests the O’Beirnes knew or even associated with leaders of the Irish Republican Union, formed in response to British bungling of famine relief and subsequent efforts to create a liberation army to free Ireland. 

Confederate troops in Charleston, South Carolina, opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, resulting in President Lincoln's call for 75,000 militia to put down the rebellion. O’Beirne enlisted as a private on April 17, in Company I of the famed Seventh New York Infantry. He left for Washington with the regiment. With the immediate threat to Washington abated, he mustered out with the Seventh, on June 3, 1861.

We next find O'Beirne as part of the 37th New York Volunteer Infantry (left: their regimental flag), as an ensign. His muster rolls show he joined the regiment when it arrived in Washington. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant and then captain of Company C. He fought in every action the regiment participated in -- the siege of Yorktown; Williamsburg, where he was cited for meritorious conduct; Seven Pines, where he was again cited for gallantry in holding the line; Seven Days; Second Bull Run; Fredericksburg; and Chancellorsville. 

At Chancellorsville, he was hit in the head and stunned by a minie ball during the III Corps' midnight attempt to regain the main Union line. Later in the battle, he was hit by a bullet through the right lung, and was discharged from the Army while still convalescing from his wound on June 22, 1863.

O'Beirne was in the city during the New York City Draft Riots, which took place from July 13-16. The rioters were predominantly Irish immigrants who resented the fact that a man with $300 could buy his way out of military conscription. James undertook the thankless task of convincing New York’s Irish citizens to vote Republican. In mid-July, he appeared before a Medical Board and pronounced unfit for field service. This seemed to signal the end of O’Beirne’s active participation in the war. He pondered his options on how to contribute to the nation’s efforts to end the rebellion. One option he weighed was serving as a full-time speaker for New York’s Republican Party.

O’Beirne already had experience in the no-holds bar, take-no-prisoners tumult that was New York City politics. According to a resume written in his own hand, he returned to New York City at the request of Thurlow Weed (right), a friend and political advisor to William H. Seward and Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and New York Governor Edwin Dennison Morgan, and Chester A. Arthur, quartermaster general of the New York State Militia and a future president.

He was to penetrate the heavily Democratic precincts of the city and convince its Irish voters to enlist and stifle what O’Beirne called “treasoning and plotting” against the Federal government. His service reaching out to these recent immigrants of Erin was in part intended to show the rest of the nation that the Irish deserved the full rights of citizenship as reward for the sacrifices Irishmen had made to secure a Union victory over the Confederate forces. The Army discovered a way for him to remain in uniform and aid the crushing of the Rebellion.

In the summer of 1863, the manpower pool that fed the Union armies was drying up. The enormous casualties suffered, for no apparent gain, especially the futility of the Army of the Potomac fighting battles they consistently lost against a weaker, poorly supplied but superbly led army, had twice taken the war to the Northern states.

At a small town named Gettysburg, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee's supreme gambled and failed with horrendous losses, but still managed to slip back over the river to Virginia, his army intact. Battle losses and the expiration of many regiments' enlistment, particularly among the New York Volunteers, had weakened the Federal Army.

Thousands of men, like James O’Beirne, incapacitated by their wounds or sickness, could no longer take the field, and were discharged. The Invalid Corps was conceived to use these men to restore to combat able-bodied men serving as guards for military prisons, prisoner-of-war camps, and administrative and logistical staff. The Invalid Corps' name was soon changed as the soldiers with wry humor used I.C. -- "Inspected and Condemned" -- to mark everything, from salt beef and pork barrels, as useless. The name was quickly changed to Veterans Reserve Corps. Initially two battalions, the First performed guard duty and provost duty in towns and cities across the Union; the Second staffed offices of various departments and hospitals.

O’Beirne wrote the War Department asking for transfer into the new corps. His application was strongly endorsed by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, along with numerous senior officers with the Army of the Potomac. On July 22, 1863, O’Beirne was commissioned captain in the Invalid Corps and re reported for duty under Colonel R.H. Rush. At that point, O'Beirne seemed an unlikely pursuer of the killer of Abraham Lincoln in the future.

Read part two here.

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Tags: American Civil War, Roscommon

Comment by Bill O'Neill on April 25, 2015 at 6:46pm

I like it!

Comment by The Wild Geese on April 27, 2015 at 3:36am

Very interesting, Bill.  Thank you!  You should upload a profile picture when you have a second.  Cheers!

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