Tom Sweeny: He Wasn't Called "Fighting Tom" For Nothing

The dust of some is Irish earth;
Among their own the rest;
and the same land that gave them birth
Has caught them to her breast;
And we will pray that from their clay
Full many a race may start
Of true men, like you men,
To act as brave a part.

-- "The Memory of the Dead" By John Kells Ingram

Thomas William Sweeny was born in Co. Cork, Ireland, on Christmas Day, 1820, the day the Christian world celebrates the birth of the Prince of Peace. Through his life Tom Sweeny was probably called many things, but it is unlikely that Prince of Peace was one of them. Sweeny, by choice it must be admitted, enjoyed little peace in his life. He would come to be known as "Fighting Tom" Sweeny, few have come more fairly to their non de plume than he.

Above left, veteran U.S. Army and Fenian commander Tom Sweeny, superimposed on a picture of a replica of a flag presented to a local regiment of Fenians by the Fenian Sisterhood of Buffalo, N.Y. WGT Illustration by Micah Chandler

You can have information about Tom Sweeny and every other man who wore a Union star at your fingertips when you ownGenerals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Together with hisGenerals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders, it's an essential part of any good Civil War reference collection.

(A portion of your purchase price will help support "The Wild Geese Today.")

When Tom was just 12 years old he came to the US, joining his mother who was already here. Supposedly, there was a storm during the voyage and Sweeny was swept over the side of the ship by one wave only to be deposited back on deck by the next one. It sounds like, and may be, just a fanciful story that Sweeny himself may have concocted. If it's true, on the other hand, perhaps God was giving Tom a preview of the turbulent life in store for him, he would be tossed on many more stormy seas before his days were done. Like so many Irish immigrants before and after them, Tom and his mother settled in New York City. Sweeny soon found work in a law publishing firm. Around 1843 Sweeny joined a local militia group, the Baxter Blues. Here he would find his true calling; Tom Sweeny was born to be a soldier and soon he would have the opportunity to practice that profession in Mexico.

Below, "The Capture of O'Brien's Guns," a painting by Pvt. Sam Chamberlain, depicts the capture of American artillery by the St. Patrick's Battalion of the Mexican army during the Battle of Buena Vista. Tom Sweeny would lose an arm in later fighting in Mexico. Picture courtesy of Mark Day / Day Communications.

When the war with Mexico came the Baxter Blues were mustered in as Co. A, 2nd New York Volunteers. By then Tom Sweeny had risen through the ranks; he went to war as the 2nd Lt. of Co. A. On August 20, 1847, as the American army stormed a fortified convent at the battle of Churubusco, Tom Sweeny was severely wounded in the right arm. The arm had to come off. Most men would have ended their military careers at that point; "Fighting Tom" Sweeny was not comparable to most men.

Sweeny must have impressed someone in the regular army during his Mexican service because when her recovered from his amputation in March of 1848 he was offered a commission as a Lt. in the 2nd US Infantry. He would remain in the 2nd US until May of 1861, fighting Indians on the Great Plains. Advancement was slow in the US army during those years, Sweeny had just been promoted to Captain in Jan. of '61, but the pace of promotions would take a dramatic upswing after Edmund Ruffin pulled that first lanyard at Ft. Sumter in April. In May he became a Brig. General of Missouri volunteers and fought with Franz Sigel at Carthage where the Confederate forces of Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson repulsed them. At Wilson's Creek on Aug. 10 Sweeny fought under Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and was wounded severely enough to be carried from the field; but "Fighting Tom" was not finished yet, in fact, he was just getting started.

Sweeny fought "mits Siegel," that is, Franz Sigel, below right, a German nationalist who fled his homeland after a failed uprising in 1848, paralleling a similar failed effort in Ireland. U.S. Army Military History Institute

By January '62 Sweeny was back. The three-month Missouri regiment he had commanded was now mustered out, so he reentered the service as the colonel of the 52nd Illinois. "Fighting Tom" led the 52nd at Fort Donelson and then was in command of a brigade at the Battle of Shiloh in April. His brigade was heavily engaged, suffering 1,247 casualties, and Sweeny was said to have commanded it well. Sweeny was also wounded again at Shiloh but was back for the Corinth campaign. On March 16, 1863, he once again advanced to the rank of Brigadier General of volunteers.

Sweeny spent most of '63 on garrison duty in Tennessee and Mississippi and finally advanced to the command of a division in the XVI Corps just in time for the Atlanta campaign. At the battle of Resaca, GA, in May of 1864 it was Sweeny's division which flanked Joe Johnston's line and forced his withdrawal.

At this point the fates, which had been kind to him until then, at least in so far as keeping him alive and his career advancing - turned against him. Grenville M. Dodge, who achieved his rank on the strength of his political connections, was the commander of the XVI Corps -- and a famous builder of railroads after the war. As was often the case between many career officers and political generals during the war, especially when the political general held the higher rank, Dodge and Sweeny did not get along. No doubt, it was galling for men such as Sweeny, who had dedicated his life to military service, to see men like Dodge rise above them in rank. 
Their feud came to a head on July 25, 1864, in Sweeny's tent. Sweeny had in his tent that day both Dodge and another political general, Brig. Gen. John W. Fuller, who commanded another of Dodge's divisions. There was probably some imbibing of alcohol going on. Whether the alcohol contributed to the incident or not is not known, but what is known is that Sweeny's dislike of these two men got the best of him and he lost control of himself. He called Dodge a "God-damned liar" and a "cowardly son of a bitch," and struck him -- this with his only arm. Sweeny then wrestled Fuller to the ground. One armed "Fighting Tom" had lived up to his nom de plume again, taking on two men who had their full compliment of arms. Sweeny may have won this particular battle in spite of being out gunned by his opponents, but he lost the war.

Tom Sweeny, below left, found his one arm more than adequate to assault Maj. Gen. Grenville Dodge, below right, and wrestle Brig. Gen. John W. Fuller to the ground. National Archives

Dodge had Sweeny arrested, charging him with numerous offenses. Although he was cleared by a military court in Jan. '65, Sweeny's command was not given back to him. "Fighting Tom" would do no more fighting for the remainder of the war. Sweeny had certainly seen enough fighting in his life for ten men, but as the war ended he still had one more fight he wanted to win. Sweeny, like many of the Irishmen fighting in the Civil War, was a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, a revolutionary group dedicated to the liberation of Ireland. Tom hadn't forgotten that his native country was still held in bondage by the British and now he and many of the other thousands of Irish Civil War veterans planned on putting their war experiences to use in the fight for Irish freedom.

No one in the Fenian organization had more regular army experience than Sweeny and he had been appointed Secretary of War by the Fenian Senate. The Fenians came up with a unique and unusual plan to free their native land as all those Fenian veterans returned from the war. The possibility of safely crossing the ocean with a sizable force, against the greatest navy in the world, with the chances of keeping it a secret, seemed, in a word, quixotic. So the Fenians came up with a plan which many have subsequently ridiculed, but which actually had a fair chance of success. They would muster all their forces against Canada, with the hope that they could conquer all or part of it and use that as a bargaining chip to negotiate Irish freedom. A detailed retelling of the invasion will come here some time in the future, but suffice it to say, the entire force of English and Canadian militia forces in Canada was only around 28,000 and only about 8,000 of them were British regulars, so British forces in Canada were far from imposing.

"Fighting Tom" was one of the main planners of this expedition; the force he was to lead became the first to be called the Irish Republican Army. While the planning for the invasion was going on, Sweeny was dismissed from the US Army for being AWOL in Dec. 1865. Sweeny planned a three-pronged invasion of Canada and he had procured large amount of US army surplus rifles and ammunition from sympathetic US government officials. The Fenians had a genuine chance but there was one thing that they needed above all other things, the tacit approval of the US government, whose relations with Great Britain were at a low ebb following British support for the Confederacy. The government had shown signs that this might be true; what better way to twist the tail of the British lion than to tacitly recognize another government as being in control of a portion of Canada, just as England had with the Confederate government.

Find answers to your Civil War questions from A to Z in The Civil War Dictionary by Mark Boatner. (A portion of your purchase price will help support "The Wild Geese Today.")

Below right, a living historian portrays a member of Sweeny's "Irish Republican Army" at the 125th Anniversary Re-enactment of the Battle of Ridgeway in June 1991. WGT Photo / Gerry Regan

Unfortunately, after a successful beginning to their invasion under Col. John O'Neill on June 1, 1866, the Fenian plan fell apart when Buffalo Mayor John Wells, who had no love for the Fenians, asked the federal government to help stop the invasion. Gen. George Meade, a man many of these war veterans knew well, showed up in Buffalo and backed up Wells. On June 5th President Johnson declared that US neutrality laws were to be upheld, and the border was closed. With no chance of reinforcement, O'Neill withdrew; the Fenian invasion of Canada was over. Many of the officers in Buffalo were arrested, including Tom Sweeny but, though Meade had backed Wells in ending the invasion, he and the administration had no wish to alienate the Irish more than they already had; the officers were released shortly and they and many of their men were even given train passage home at government expense.

This, along with the Army's approval of Tom Sweeny's retirement from the US Army with the rank of Brigadier General on May 11, 1870, gives a good indication that the US government had encouraged the Fenian invasion. With the end of this episode, the fighting career of "Fighting Tom" finally came to an end. Sweeny lived out the rest of his days in Astoria on Long Island, NY. He died there on April 10, 1892, and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.


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Tags: American Civil War, Military History, Tom Sweeny, United States

Comment by michael dunne on September 19, 2016 at 7:30pm

there is a piece dedicated to this battle of Ridgeway in the National Museum of Ireland and interestingly points out that Canadian Independence was declared the following year of 1867. So Irish Fenianism known as 'Fenian Fever' after this battle, stampeded the royalists in Canada to set up their own independent state and not be reliant on England for defences which was over 3,000 miles away.


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