As the war heats up, Michael Corcoran is "on ice" in Southern prisons, and will soon be in danger of becoming a pawn in a dangerous game of bluff between the warring governments. PART 3 OF 5.
By John J. Concannon
The Confederates confined Colonel Corcoran to "Liggon's Tobacco Warehouse," which had been converted to a military prison, in Richmond, Virginia. Three days after the battle [Editor's Note: July 24, 1861], Corcoran wrote to his Quartermaster friend, J .B. Kirker (a New York-born Irish-American), explaining his situation:
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Libby Prison, a converted tobacco warehouse in Richmond. Liggon's prison probably offered similar rigors.
My dear captain: I know you will regret to hear of my being a prisoner. The circumstances connected with the affair are easily told. My regiment was twice engaged during that hard contested fight on the 21st inst. and left the field with the thanks of General MacDowell for its services. I brought the men off in admirable order, having formed a square to defend against the cavalry who were advancing on us. I moved in the square until reaching a wood, and having to pass through a defile and over very broken ground, I had to march on flank until I reached the road, where we got mixed up with other regiments who were returning in disorder. I soon ordered a halt to correct our line, and scarcely had the order been given than the cavalry were seen advancing upon us. Immediately the other two regiments went over the rail fence and mine with them.
|We lost many a brave and manly spirit on that day.|
I dismounted (my horse being wounded) and followed, took the colors and called out to rally around them. My voice was drowned amid the roar of the cavalry carbines and the discharge of artillery, consequently only two officers, Captain Mclver and Lieutenant Edmond Connolly, with nine privates, were all I had. This delay caused our capture.
The cavalry surrounded us at a small house which I was about to use as a means of defense and captured my gallant little band. Many others were captured in the same field who had fallen down from exhaustion, making a total of prisoners from the Sixty Ninth of thirty-seven, who are all here and a list of whom I send you for publication and information of their friends.
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We lost many a brave and manly spirit on that day, which fills me with the deepest sorrow. My beloved Acting Lieutenant-Colonel Haggerty was the first who fell, and I am fearful Captin Meagher, who acted as a major, as I have not seen him since the fight, nor seen any person who could give me any information.
My imprisonment is deeply embittered for the want of knowledge of the fate of my beloved soldiers since my last sight of them. Proceed to Washington at once and get the Regiment to New York at the expiration of its term of service, also please to communicate my case to the Secretary of War. Believe me.
Your sincere, affectionate friend, MICHAEL CORCORAN Colonel Sixty-Ninth Regiment, N. Y.S.M.
Among Colonel Corcoran's fellow prisoners in the Richmond military prison was a "civilian spectator" at the battle of Bull Run. He was the Honorable Alfred Ely, a Congressman from Rochester, New York. The U.S. prisoners formed an association among themselves and elected Ely as president and Corcoran as treasurer. Not that there was much money to "treasure" and that small sum soon ran out and could not be replaced. Congressman Ely was destined soon to play an important and critical role in Corcoran's life.
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Federal prisoners in Castle Pinckney, in Charleston harbor.
In the fall of l86l, Colonel Corcoran was transferred from Liggon's prison to Castle Pinckney in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Here, for a time, his prison lot improved considerably. Colonel Corcoran wrote from Castle Pinkney: "The people of Charleston treated us with considerable courtesy on the occasion of our arrival and departure from that city.
Another favorable change in our treatment here is that the officers have the liberty of the island on which the castle is situated from reveille to retreat, and are allowed the liberty of the interior yard during the aforesaid hours. This is quite a change from Virginia hospitality, where we had not been permitted one moment for air or exercise during the fifty days of our detention in the ever-monotonous tobacco factory. "
Colonel Corcoran told of a visit from the Bishop of Charleston, Patrick Neisen Lynch (a native of Clones, County Monaghan), who "handed me all the funds in his possession and of which I stood in the great need and of the good sisters of our faith residing in Richmond who rendered aid and comfort to the afflicted and attended to the wounded at the hospital. "
|'THE IRISH AT FIRST MANASSAS':|
Corcoran ended his letter with a plea that "the rank and file of the different regiments should be seen to as soon as possible. Many are suffering much from want of clothing and change of undergarments. Many are without shoes, coats or bed covering, and face a cheerless prospect with the near approach of cold weather. "
Suddenly and dramatically, Colonel Corcoran's situation changed. Changed for the worst, in an historical episode that has no equal in the annals of U.S. warfare. It began on July 22, 1861, when the U.S. Navy captured one Walter W. Smith, "prize-master" of the schooner Enchantress and his five-man crew from the Confederate privateer, Jeff Davis. These were seamen specially trained to bring ("prize") ships captured by the Confederates quickly and safely into ports in the South.
The Union wanted to put the heat on a questionable war-time naval practice of engaging privateers to prey on American shipping. They planned to make an example of this adventurer Smith and his crew, who made a private business of capturing Union ships for the "prize" money.
Smith was tried for "piracy" in a six-day trial in a U. S. Court in Philadelphia in 1861, convicted of that charge, and sentenced to hang. The rest of the crew were tried on the same charge, convicted, and also given the death sentence. The word went out that the U.S. had every intention of hanging "Privateer" Smith and the others. As soon as the verdict reached Confederate Army headquarters in Richmond, Acting Confederate Secretary of War Judah Philip Benjamin moved swiftly and boldly. He issued an order for Confederate Brigadier General John Winder to choose a like number of prisoners from among the Federals held by the Confederacy, including a high-ranking officer who would receive from the Confederacy the exact same treatment that the Union visited on Smith.
Picked to do the selecting by lot as to which of the high-ranking Federal prisoners would stand as hostage for the life of Smith was the civilian prisoner, still incarcerated in Liggon's prison in Richmond, Congressman Ely of Rochester, New York. Ely drew the name of Colonel Corcoran of New York's 69th Regiment. When the word reached Castle Pinckney, Corcoran was immediately locked up in the local jail in the city of Charleston.
END OF PART 3
About the Author: The late John J. Concannon was a former national historian of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. This series is derived from a monograph he wrote for the unveiling of a new gravestone for Michael Corcoran in 1990.
©2001 John J. Concannon