This Week in the History of the Irish: December 25 - December 31

DOMHNAIGH -- On Dec. 25, 1808, Stephen Clegg Rowan who would serve in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War and later be promoted to admiral, was born in Dublin. Rowan immigrated to America with his family in 1818, settling in Ohio. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1826, and by 1837 he had been promoted to Lieutenant. Rowan served as the executive officer on the Cyane, off the coast of California during the Mexican War.

(Left: Library of Congress - Commodore Stephen Rowan.)

He commanded several detachments of sailors and marines in shore actions, including the recapture of Los Angeles. Rowan was in command of the Pawnee at the beginning of the Civil War and was credited with directing the first naval shot of the war during the efforts to end the Confederate blockade of the Potomac River. He also commanded the first amphibious assault of the war, which captured Alexandria, Virginia. Rowan commanded a squadron during Gen. Ambrose Burnside 's operations in North Carolina, during the capture of Roanoke Island. By mid-July 1862, he was promoted to Commodore. During operations against Charleston in 1863, his ship, New Ironsides, was hit over 150 times. For much of 1864, Rowan commanded all naval forces in North Carolina. When the war ended, Rowan's career in the Navy continued to flourish; he was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1866 and Vice-Admiral in 1870. He retired from the navy in 1889 and died near Washington, D.C. in 1890.

Brig. Gen. Thomas Smyth

DOMHNAIGH -- On December 25, 1832, Thomas A. Smyth, one of the finest Irish-born Union generals of the American Civil War, was born in Ballyhooley, Co. Cork. Smyth worked on his father's farm in Ireland until 1854, when he immigrated to the U.S., settling in Philadelphia. He worked in his uncle's carriage business for a while but the young man's thirst for adventure led him to join in William Walker's revolutionary excursion into Nicaragua. He survived that escapade and returned to the U.S., moving to Delaware and once again working for his uncle. When rebels fired on Fort Sumter, Smyth did not hesitate -- he raised a company that joined the Irish 24th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The regiment saw little action, and when the regiment mustered out after 3-months, Smyth was not satisfied that he had yet done his part in the war. He got an appointment as a major in the newly formed 1st Delaware Volunteer Infantry. The 1st Delaware would eventually join the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac, arguably the hardest fighting corps in that army's history. The 1st was mauled at Antietam on September 17, 1862, suffering 30% casualties. In December, Smyth became Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment, and in February 1863 he took command as colonel. Smyth's regiment fought in all the major battles of the Army of the Potomac in 1863, and at Gettysburg, Smyth commanded a brigade. In February 1864, Smyth was given command of the famous Irish Brigade in the absence of Col. Richard Byrnes.

Byrnes returned in May and Smyth moved to command of the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Corps, but during his command of the Brigade, he won the admiration and respect of many in its ranks. Smyth finally got a long-deserved star in September, as he was promoted to Brigadier General for his gallant performance at Cold Harbor. During the Petersburg campaign, Smyth was in command of a division at various times through the final days of the Appomattox Campaign, including April 7, 1865, at the battle of Farmville. During the fight, Smyth was shot through the mouth by a Confederate sniper. Smyth held on for two days, finally dying on April 9, the same day Lee surrendered. He was the third officer who had commanded the Irish Brigade to die in combat. An Irish enlisted man had been the first soldier killed in the Civil War and Irish-born Thomas Alfred Smyth was the last Union general killed during that long, bitter struggle. Truly the Irish had given the last full measure of devotion to their adopted land.

MÁIRT -- On December 27, 1969, Dan Breen, one of the most famous IRA leaders during Ireland's War of Independence, died in Dublin. Breen was born in Grange, Donohill, Co. Tipperary, on Aug. 11, 1894. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1912 and the Irish Volunteers in 1914. Breen took part in the ambush at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary, commanded by Sean Treacy on Jan. 21, 1919, often considered the start of the war. Breen was involved in several famous incidents during the war. On May 13, 1919, he took part in the rescue of Sean Hogan near Knocklong, Co. Limerick. Sean Treacy was once again in command as he, Breen, and Séamus Robinson boarded a train on which RIC officers were transporting Hogan. In the ensuing shootout, two policemen were killed and both Treacy and Breen were seriously wounded, the first of four times that Breen would be wounded in the war, but they succeeded in freeing Hogan.

Recovered from his wounds, Breen then took part in the Dec. 19 ambush at Ashtown, near Dublin, attempting to kill the commander of the British army in Ireland, Lord John French. French escaped, probably because he was in the first car of the column, rather than the 2nd, as the IRA expected. Breen was wounded again, this time in the leg. By the spring of 1920, it had become too dangerous for Treacy and Breen in Tipperary, as the British had put a price on their heads. They were transferred to Collins' unit in Dublin, operating as part of his assassination squad. On Oct. 11th, they were trapped in a house in north Dublin by a British raid. They managed to shoot their way out of it, killing two British officers, but both were also wounded again, Breen the more seriously. This may have saved his life, as he was still in the hospital (under a false name) three days later when British agents again located Treacy. This time Treacy was killed.

After the war, Breen supported the Republican side and was arrested and held in Limerick prison for several months, but was released after going on hunger strike. He won the seat from Tipperary in the Dáil and was the first anti-treaty TD to take his seat in 1927, but he lost it in the election later that year. He moved to the United States for a short time during the Prohibition era and reputedly ran a speakeasy, but returned to win back his seat in the Dáil for Fianna Fáil. He would hold it from 1932 to 1965. He published his account of the war, "My Fight for Irish Freedom," in 1924. After his death, his body was returned to Tipperary and buried in Donohill with an estimated 10,000 mourners in attendance.

Read more about Dan Breen in: "Tipperary’s Dan Breen: The Hardest Hard Man"

SATHAIRN -- On December 31, 1602, Dónall O'Sullivan Beare and his clan began their epic march to Ulster. O'Sullivan had supported Hugh O'Neill in his fight against Elizabethan England's attempts to destroy Gaelic Ireland once and for all. The cause O'Neill and O'Sullivan fought for was probably doomed after O'Neill's defeat at Kinsale in 1601, but the fight went on, nonetheless. In 1602, O'Sullivan and men were besieged in their County Cork stronghold; in the end, their only hope was to somehow make their way to Brian O'Rourke in Leitrim and from there join with O'Neill in the north and unite to continue the contest. To do so they would have to fight their way through the English and other Irish clans who had submitted.

(Right: WGT photo by Joe Gannon: Carriganuss Castle, an O'Sullivan castle just outside of Glengarriff.)

On December 31, O'Sullivan and about 1,000 of his clan, more than half of them female dependents of his soldiers, departed from Glengarriff to begin their heroic journey through enemy territory. Throughout the march, they were harassed and attacked by both the English and their Irish allies. Battling the winter elements as well, their numbers dwindled through death from wounds or disease and many more were left behind due to exhaustion, but O'Sullivan never wavered. When O'Sullivan's clan finally reached O'Rourke at Leitrim Castle, only 35 of his followers had arrived safely with him, but his achievement in arriving at all was extraordinary. Like the other Gaelic chieftains, O'Sullivan was eventually forced to leave Ireland for exile on the continent. O'Sullivan settled in Spain and continued to plead with the Spanish government to send another invasion force to Ireland. King Phillip III gave O'Sullivan a knighthood, pension, and the title Earl of Bearhaven, but never that which he desired most, another chance to free his homeland. Many generations of O'Sullivan's family would later achieve prominence in Spain. In 1618, Dónall O'Sullivan Beare was killed in Madrid by John Bathe, an Anglo-Irishman, but the legend of "O'Sullivan's March" lives on.

SATHAIRN -- On December 31, 1783, Commodore Thomas Macdonough, a hero of the War of 1812, whose family was from Dublin, was born in the Delaware town then known as "The Trap," but now renamed in his honor, "McDonough." Thomas joined the U.S. Navy in 1800 as a midshipman and spent the first years of his naval career fighting pirates, including the famous Barbary Pirates operating out of Tripoli. When the War of 1812 broke out, Macdonough, then a lieutenant, was made the commander of all the Navy's forces on Lake Champlain, an extremely important post due to the threat of British invasion from Canada.

(Left: Commodore Thomas Macdonough by Charles Stuart Gilbert)

The opposing sides built their fleets on the Lake through most of 1813. In August of that year, British General Sir George Prevost began his invasion from Canada. Moving along the western edge of Lake Champlain, he hoped to use the guns of his fleet to help cover his advance. The British army outnumbered the Americans better than two to one, but Prevost needed to use the Lake to supply his army, thus the fleet of Thomas Macdonough became a prime target of the British fleet on Lake Champlain. The two fleets were fairly evenly matched, but the guns of the British ships had an advantage in range. Macdonough came up with a brilliant plan to negate this advantage. He anchored inside Plattsburgh Bay in such a manner that the British couldn't fire at them from long range and had to come around Cumberland Head and approach them head-on, presenting their bows to the American guns. From there it became a close-range slugging match, more to the liking of the Americans. Onboard his flagship, the Saratoga, Macdonough fired the first shot, hitting the Confiance, the flagship of Captain George Downie, commander of the British fleet. Macdonough continued to work the gun through the fierce 2 ½-hour battle. Twice his men were sure he had been killed as he was knocked out and lay on the deck. But twice he rose and returned to action. Finally, with Capt. Downie dead, and their ships devastated, the largest ships of the British fleet struck their colors, and their gunboats ran for home. On land, General Prevost had engaged the American land forces as the British fleet attacked. When it became apparent the American fleet was victorious, Prevost knew that further movement south was futile; he broke off the attack and retreated toward Canada. Thomas MacDonough's fleet had ended the British invasion; it was one of the greatest victories in the history of the U.S. Navy. For his enormous contribution to the momentous victory, Congress had a medal was stuck in MacDonough's honor, and New York and Vermont presented him with huge tracks of land. Thomas Macdonough continued his Navy career after the war. On November 10, 1825, he died of consumption aboard ship while commanding the U.S.S. Constitution.

Battle of Stone River, Near Murfreesborough, by Kurz & Allison.

SATHAIRN THROUGH LUAIN -- From December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863, Irish-born Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne commanded a division at Murfreesboro (Stone's River), Tennessee, site of one of the fiercest battles of the Western theater of the American Civil War. In early December 1862, the transfer of Confederate Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner had created a vacancy for a division command in Braxton Bragg's Army of the Tennessee. There was no man in that Army who could breath a word against the promotion of Patrick Ronayne Cleburne to that post, nor the promotion to major general that went with it. Usually, the months of December and January were quiet times, with soldiers in winter camps, but Federal Gen. William S. Rosecrans intended to drive Bragg's army from Tennessee, winter or no. Bragg awaited his advance along Stone's River, just west of Murfreesboro. On the morning of the 31st, Cleburne's division was on the Confederate left. Attacking at dawn, Cleburne fell on the corps of Federal Gen. Alexander McCook, which held the Federal right, and drove the corps from the field. Federal Gen. Thomas Crittenden, observing from a distance, said it was the first time the Army of the Cumberland had ever seen such panic. A second line was formed by the Federals, but Cleburne's men drove them as well. They continued to drive the enemy until they ran out of ammunition and energy. Later, Confederate Corps commander William Hardee expressed his belief that if a fresh division had followed up Cleburne's, Rosecrans' entire army would have been routed. Night fell, however, and the two armies brought in the New Year sleeping on their arms. Rosecrans' army was badly whipped, but it stayed put on January 1st. Bragg was cautious and only probed to discover if the Federals were still there. The Federals had fortified their position to the west of the river, in front of Cleburne; Bragg decided to attack them east of the river. This attack, by Breckinridge, was successful at first but was then met by 58 Federal artillery pieces and shredded. Bragg would retreat the next day. Though his army had abandoned the field, Cleburne's performance in his first battle as a major general had been outstanding. His eventual rise to corps command seemed certain, but factors away from the battlefield would prevent that.


No coward in the ranks is seen,
When gallant Smythe (sic) appears,
Men kindle at his voice and mien,
And move on with gay cheer.
Smyth's spirit moves the glowing mass,
Deeds past their power to do;
Yet while such things you bring to pass,
There's not a star for you, Tom Smyth,
There's not a star for you!

        -- From "There's not a star for you, Tom Smythe" by Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, the poet laureate of the Irish Brigade, written before Smyth finally got that star. Apparently, Reynolds did not know the correct spelling of Smyth's name.

"Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces ... The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected..."
        -- Dan Breen on the Soloheadbeg ambush.

Dónall O'Sullivan
From 'The History of Ireland' by Abbe Mac Geoghegan.

"Treacy had stated to me that the only way of starting a war was to kill someone, and we wanted to start a war, so we intended to kill some of the police whom we looked upon as the foremost and most important branch of the enemy forces ... The only regret that we had following the ambush was that there were only two policemen in it, instead of the six we had expected..."
-- Dan Breen on the Soloheadbeg ambush.

'Hurra! For Freedom!' Came from our van;
'Hurra! For Freedom! Our swords - we'll feed 'em!'
Then down we crashed, Through the wild ford dashed,
And the fray began!

Horses to horses and man to man,
O'er dying horses and blood and corpses
O'Sullivan, our general, thundered;
And we not slack to slay at his back,
'Til the flight began.

        -- From a poem by Dr. Joyce about one of the many fights during "O'Sullivan's March," this one against the son of Viscount Barry at Bellaghy Ford.

"The firing was terrific, fairly shaking the ground, and so rapid that it seemed to be one continuous roar, intermingled with the spiteful flashing from the mouths of guns, and dense clouds of smoke soon hung over the two fleets....."
        -- Julius Hubbell, a witness to the Battle of Plattsburgh

'Gen. Cleburne has been a Brigadier under my command for about a year, and he has given unmistakable proofs of military talent of a high order. He unites the rare qualities of a strict disciplinarian, a brave and skillful leader and a popular commander.'
-- Part of Gen. William Hardee's recommendation for Patrick Cleburne's promotion to division command.

December - Nollaig


25, 1808 - Stephen Rowan (USN Admiral - US Civil War - Dublin.)
25, 1820
 - Thomas Sweeny (Union General - Co. Cork)
25, 1829 Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore (Bandmaster, Co. Dublin.)
25, 1832 - Thomas Smyth (Union General - Ballyhooley, Co. Cork)
25, 1844 - Rev. Rev William Steel Dickson (Presbyterian minister, United Irishmen supporter - Ballycraigy, Co Antrim)
25, 1844 - Jennie Hodgers (As Albert Cashier she served as a Union soldier in US Civil War - Belfast)
29, 1829 - Father John B. Bannon (Confederate Chaplain, Roosky, Co. Leitrim.)
31, 1744 - Edward Hand (General, American Revolution, Clyduff, Co. Offaly.)
31, 1783 - Thomas Macdonough, U.S. Naval war hero, "The Trap," Delaware


25, 1824 - William Lawless, United Irishmen and officer in Napoleon's Irish Legion, dies in Paris.
25, 1916 - Irish prisoners interned at Frongoch are released.
25, 1920 - Major John McKinnon, commander of H Company of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC kills Irish Volunteers John Leen & Maurice Reidy in Ballymacelligott, Co. Kerry.

27, 1849
- James Fintan Lalor, Young Irelander, dies.
27, 1904
 - Opening of Abbey Theatre, Dublin
27, 1920
 - Crown Forces surround an Irish Volunteer fund raising dance at Caherguillamore House, near Bruff, Co. Limerick. Five Volunteers and one Black & Tan were killed and over 120 Volunteers were captured.
27, 1969 - Dan Breen, IRA leader during War of Independence, dies.
28, 1918
 - Sein Fein wins 73 of 108 seats in all-Ireland election.
28, 1918
Countess Markievicz declared to be the first woman elected to the House of Commons.
29, 1876 - The Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language is formed.
29, 1899 - Fr. Sylvester Malone, early Catholic leader in New York, who was born in Trim Co. Meath, dies in Brooklyn.
29, 1920 - The East Cork Brigade of the Irish Volunteers ambush an RIC patrol in Midleton, killing two constables. A reinforcement convoy from Cork City is then ambushed enroute in Carrigtwohill, killing one more constable. This was followed by the destruction of 6 houses in the first "official" reprisals against civilian property sanctioned by a new British government policy.
31, 1602 - Dónall Beare O'Sullivan begins his long march to Ulster.
31, 1759 – Brewery is leased at St. James Gate, Dublin by Arthur Guinness.
31, 1776 – Irish-born General Richard Montgomery of the Continental Army is killed at the Battle of Quebec.
31-Jan 2, 1862-63 - Irish-born Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne commands a division at battle of Murfreesboro (Stones River), TN.ormed.

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Tags: American Civil War, Irish Freedom Struggle, Military History, On This Day, United States


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