In the 1860’s Queenstown (now Cobh) was a busy seaport and its townspeople were used to seeing naval vessels coming and going. Such was the case on the night of November 2, 1863, when the USS Kearsarge dropped anchor, to the east of the “Spitbank” lighthouse. In pursuit of the Confederate raider CSS Florida, the Federal ship came into port to take on coal and avoid a storm that was brewing out at sea but in the weeks that followed it was the cause of a political storm.
Early the following morning her captain, John Winslow, left his vessel to pay a courtesy call on Edward Eastman, U.S. consul in Cork City and it was left to his executive officer, James Thornton, to meet with the local port official who informed him that “As Queenstown was a neutral port his ship would be allowed to remain for 24 hours before she would be required to leave.” Thornton replied that the ship would leave when its captain decided to do so and not before!
Some of the crew of the “Kearsarge” were local to Queenstown and nearby towns. James Haley, captain of the forecastle, from Ringaskiddy, was granted leave to visit family. While onshore it seems that Haley encouraged a number of local youths to join the ship in spite of Britain’s “Foreign Enlistment Act, 1819,” which forbade any warring nation from the recruitment of British citizens on British soil or waters. It seems that it was common practice for any visiting warship to be approached by large numbers of young men wishing to join, so it was not unusual for Ringaskiddy boatman John Dunn to approach the “Kearsarge” with the eager youths -- John Sullivan; Edward Pyburn, Thomas Murphy, George Patterson and Denis Leary -- wishing for a new life.
Onboard the men were given a thorough medical exam with Queenstown native Edward Lynch being rejected because of his height. Other Queenstown men that went through this process included Patrick Kennedy, Thomas Verling, Daniel O’Connell, John Connolly, John Murphy and Michael Ahern, recently let go from Scott’s Shipping Agents.
Early on the morning of November 5, the Kearsarge weighed anchor having replenished not only its store of coal but also its crew!
The Confederate agents operating in Queenstown, Robert Dowling and Lt. John Capston, alerted British Authorities to the illegal recruitment that had occurred. One of the men who went on board the Kearsarge, Patrick Kennedy, was accepted into service and given a short leave in order to say farewell to his family, but he failed to return to the ship and it is possible that Kennedy was in the employ of the Southern agents. Thus, he was able to inform them on the recruiting of while in harbour. On being made aware of the breach of British Law, the Foreign Secretary, Earl Russell, urged the British ambassador to formally complain to U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, while Russell also made his own views known to the U.S. ambassador in Britain, who vehemently denied any wrongdoing as the warship continued her voyage, heading to Brest in northern France.
However, on December 7, as the Kearsarge approached the entrance to Cork Harbour, 16 men, including some of those previously named, were put into a pilot boat and returned to Queenstown. The U.S. authorities claimed that these men had “secreted themselves” on board and having been discovered by the time they reached France, the men were given the opportunity to join ship or be returned home. Each man opted to join but they were still put ashore, without explanation and once ashore taken into custody.
A flurry of letters and telegrams between British and U.S. authorities led to the men being removed, U.S. Consul Eastman claimed that the men were illegally onboard the Kearsarge, and Captain Winslow, knowing this, didn’t wish to leave them in Brest, where the CSS Florida was also berthed, as he feared they would enlist with the Confederate vessel.
Kearsarge Executive Officer James Thornton formally reported on December 7 that the ship had been thoroughly searched prior to leaving Queenstown and that a large number of persons had been ejected -- some by force from the ship. Others had been hidden, with the help of crew members and not discovered until at sea. The men were allowed to stay on board as they pleaded destitution, given naval uniforms to replace the rags they wore at the time, on them all agreeing to return to Queenstown.
Russell noted the differences in the reports of Consul Eastman, Captain Winslow and Lt. Thornton and refused their authenticity. He was instrumental the following March in the trial of six of the men at Cork Crown Court on a charge of violating the Foreign Enlistment Act -- the first time this happened in Ireland.
The trial opened on March 14, 1864, before Mr. Justice Keogh, Attorney General Thomas O’Hagan prosecuting, the U.S. and British governments were legally represented by a large team of solicitors and barristers; the Confederacy was represented by an observer to ensure a fair trial while the six accused, still dressed in their naval uniforms, had to represent themselves.
The six men immediately stumped all present when they entered a plea of “Guilty!” with one stating that … “They didn’t think it was any harm!”
Both Keogh and O’Hagan complimented the men on their admission and before proceeding O’Hagan addressed the court saying that he had no wish to punish the men but to “highlight and uphold the Foreign Enlistment Act.” He did admit that he felt the men may have tried to enlist in order to better themselves.
Mr. Justice Keogh began his own summing up by praising the defendants and Attorney General for their conduct before embarking on what was seen as a highly politicised speech, expressing regret at the large number of Irish casualties in the war and the lack of foresight of the British military system in “failing to harness the sense of adventure of young men by not building more military installations around Cork Harbour in the cause of the British Sovereign.” When he had finished, the courtroom burst into sustained applause and when this had died down, Justice Keogh promptly released the men without charge.
While the six men that stood in Cork Crown Court, seem to have disappeared into history. two of the others mentioned went on to achieve high honours.
Captain of the Forecastle James Haley, or “James Healy” as he was known in the Navy, would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his part in the action between the Kearsarge and CSS Alabama in June 1864.
His citation reads: "Acting as captain of a gun during the bitter engagement, Haley exhibited marked coolness and good conduct and was highly commended by his division officer for his gallantry and meritorious achievement under enemy fire."
(Left: "Sinking of the CSS Alabama" (1922), by Xanthus Smith.)
The second man was the recently redundant Michael Ahern, aka Michael Aheam. It seems that Ahern’s penmanship made him, on Captain Winslow’s orders, Paymaster Steward as well as being responsible for writing some of Winslow’s reports. Ahern was still on board Kearsarge in June of ’64 and participated in the action against the Alabama and, like James Haley, would receive the Medal of Honor.
Ahern’s citation reads: “Served on board the U.S.S. Kearsarge when she destroyed the Alabama off Cherbourg, France, 19 June 1864. Carrying out his duties courageously, PmS. Aheam exhibited marked coolness and good conduct and was highly recommended by his divisional officer for gallantry under enemy fire.”
The following is a list of some of the individuals, and home places, involved in “The Queenstown Affair":
Ringaskiddy: James Haley; John Sullivan; Edward Pyburn; Thomas Murphy; George Patterson; Denis Leary
(The last five names were possibly from Ringaskiddy as they were brought from there by boatman John Dunn.)
Queenstown: Patrick Kennedy; Thomas Verling; Edward Lynch; John Murphy; Michael Ahern; Daniel O’Connell (Whitepoint); John Connelly (Bishops Street)
“Cork and The American Civil War: the Queenstown Affair of 1863”: Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Journal 2016.
“American Government in Ireland, 1790-1913”: Bernadette Whelan
“The Irish in The American Civil War”: Damian Shiels
Cork Examiner newspaper, November 4, 5, 6; December 7 1863; March 12 & 14 1864.
“Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in The War of The Rebellion, Series 1 Vol. 2-Operations of Cruisers-Union 1 January 1863-31 March 1864. pgs 562-566.