Sweeny at Shiloh: The Irish officer who “saved the day”

Posted on: 7th April, 2015

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

One hundred and fifty three years ago this week, one of the fiercest battles that occurred during the American Civil War raged across the swampy terrain of Hardin County, Tennessee for two days. At its conclusion, upwards of 24,000 men lay dead or wounded, or were later proclaimed captured or missing in action. Over 200,000 Irishman took part in the war effort in both the ranks of the Union and the Confederacy. However, this estimate does not take into account the many Irish-Americans born outside of Ireland who also bore arms. According to Damian Shiels, archeologist and author of the ‘Irish in the American Civil War’, for individual counties like Cork, which saw an excess of 146,000 people emigrate between 1851 and 1860, the American conflict can numerically be seen as the greatest military effort in the history of what is now the Republic of Ireland. He goes on to note, “it can safely be said that more Corkmen fought and more Corkmen died in the American Civil War than in any other conflict in history, including World War One, which drew on a significantly smaller relative population of the island.”

An unassuming grave in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery serves as the final resting place of one such individual, whose colourful story began in Dunmanway on Christmas day, 1820. After the death of his father in 1832, 12-year-old Thomas Sweeny, along with his mother and three older brothers, set sail for a new life in New York City. However, like many who made the arduous transatlantic voyage during the early 19th-century, Sweeny almost never reached his point of destination. In a particularly harrowing tale about his family’s passage that became widely circulated in his later years but was most likely first purported by Sweeny himself, it was said that he was washed overboard into the frigid waters of the mid-Atlantic, where he remained for over thirty-five-minutes before being rescued by the crew. Commenters point to the story as an early indicant of the qualities of heartiness and determination that would ultimately lead Sweeny to achieve military renown as one of the most celebrated Irish born Generals of the American Civil War.

In 1848, while Thomas Francis Meagher, William Smith O’Brien, and the Young Irelanders were entering into the pages of history for their failed attempts at rebellion back on Irish soil, Thomas Sweeny was being honoured at a reception at New York City’s Castle Garden, during which the State Governor praised his efforts and sacrifices as a soldier in the Mexican-American war. The previous year, Sweeny, who like many other Irish immigrants had enthusiastically joined a local militia company in time to serve for the outbreak of the conflict in 1846, had lost his right arm at the battle of Churubusco after being struck with a musket ball. Though he left West Cork at a young age, the concerns of his native land were never far from Sweeny’s thoughts or motivations throughout his tumultuous military career. As he lay recovering from his injuries in Mexico, he enquired about the political turmoil and excitement surrounding the budding Young Ireland movement. He noted that regardless of his wounds, if a military outbreak were to occur on Irish soil, he would arrange to participate. While the opportunity did not present itself at the time, Sweeny excitedly wrote to his family in 1856 as he fought against Sioux Indians in the Nebraska territory, that he had heard rumours of yet another revolutionary movement budding in Ireland. He concluded that, were he to “help to pull a sinewy tyrant from his throne, and raise a prostrate people from chains to liberty” it would be a “…deed that [his] children could point at on the page of history with pride.” However, like many other Irish nationalists who filled the ranks of the US Army at this time, Sweeny appeared to see no contradiction between his desire for and dedication to the idea of Irish independence, and his role in the subjugation of Native American peoples.

Although he would later reengage his interest in Irish freedom as a dedicated member and military leader of the Fenian Brotherhood in America, his longing to deliver a population to freedom would foreshadow the next major phase in his military career, and the conflict for which he is undoubtedly best remembered, that of the American Civil War.

At the outbreak of the war Sweeny found himself working in a recruitment office in New York City. However, it wasn’t long before he was mustered into action. After a number of early assignments in the war’s western theatre, including involvement at the battle of Wilson’s Creek during which he was severely injured while repelling an enemy charge, Sweeny was named colonel of the Fifty-second Illinois infantry. It was in this capacity that he found himself on April 5, 1862, in command of over 5,000 men in Hardin County, Tennessee, on the eve of the Battle of Shiloh.

During the first day of the battle, Sweeny volunteered for his command to occupy a strategically important ravine nicknamed the “Hornet’s Nest” for the intense fighting in the area. One of his men recalled the cool disposition of Sweeny amidst the chaos, noting, “The balls seemed to fill the air at this moment, the firing was so terrific, but Sweeny coolly sat on his horse, quietly smoking a cigar, ever and anon removing it and puffing forth vast quantities of smoke. A minié ball came cutting through the air, struck his cigar, and cut it off at his teeth, doing some slight injury to his moustache. Yet not a muscle moved. He quietly replaced the cigar with a fresh one and smoked away.” By the battle’s end, Sweeny’s bravery and composure was the topic of many a campfire conversation. However, the Corkman felt the effects of his heroics. During the height of the action, his horse was shot out from under him, and he himself was hit twice in his foot and remaining arm. Amongst those who were impressed by Sweeny’s actions on the day in question was the infamous General William T. Sherman, who noted that in his estimation, of all the tales of heroism that had emerged from the battle, the willingness of the one-armed officer known as ‘Fighting Tom’ to put himself and his troops in the way of danger had certainly “saved the day”.

If anyone has any questions, feedback, or requests on future topics please email me on p.mahoney2@outlook.com.

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Wave to Mary! 65-year-old Mary Nolan Hickey is running around the entire coast of the Island of Ireland to raise funds & awareness for the RNLI and is currently running the roads of West Cork.

Mary is the only woman to have completed every single Dublin Marathon (all 38 of them). She’s also completed the grueling Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert, known as the ‘toughest foot race on earth’.

To mark her 50th year involved in Athletics Mary is taking on her biggest challenge yet (even though she thought she’d already done that when completing the Dublin Marathon when she was over six months pregnant!) She wants to raise as much money as possible for the RNLI.

Mary started her epic journey in Arklow, Co. Wicklow, on New Year’s Day. She aims to cover up to 5000 kilometers, using coastal routes, over the next five months. She hopes to get back in time to get her first pension payment in June when she turns 66.

Mary will stop off at as many RNLI stations as possible, on her once in a lifetime adventure. As far as she knows no other woman has ever taken on this challenge.

Speaking about her journey Mary said:

“I wanted to prove that age not a barrier. Coming from a coastal town I have a deep affinity with our local RNLI station & volunteers and have huge admiration for the brave men and women who risk their lives to save lives at sea”.

Mary, who’s depending on the goodwill of communities along her route for accommodation, has been astounded by the response so far. “The support has been overwhelming,” she said. “I have met the most amazing and encouraging people along the way”.

To see more about Mary’s adventures, and to pinpoint her location today, check out her Facebook page - rnlilapofthemap2018.

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20th March, 2018  ·  


This Saturday the 10th March, will see some magically curious activity as local Bandon national schools compete in a Wizarding Harry Potter Quiz. The prize will be the beautiful Bandon Banshee Perpetual Cup.

As any Harry Potter enthusiast knows, Bandon has the unique honour of having a character named after the town. The Bandon Banshee, was referred to as the nemesis of Gilderoy Lockhart in the Chamber of Secrets. The book grossed €60 million in sales and was the 7th highest earning film of all time.

Locals, looking to enhance the town for young people, saw the quiz as an ideal way promote the connection. The universally absorbing book series brings young readers on a huge adventure of magic, adversity and triumph. It is also an exploration of loyalty and friendship, good and evil – so it is not only popular way to engage young people, it is a hugely positive connection.

Zoe Tennyson, one of the organisers said they were delighted with the response from schools who ran a qualifying quiz as part of World Book Day. On Saturday Bandon Town Hall will be transformed into Hogwarts Great Hall, with proceeds going Bandon Playground Group, and to cover costs of the event.

Bandon Books will be rewarding the winning team with vouchers to each of the five members. The Bandon Banshee, or Bean-sidhe na Bandaan Perpetual Cup will be hotly contested – but which school will the Banshee go to??

If you have any questions please call Marguerite McQuaid on 087 900 9494
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Ballineen Foróige Young Engineers Exhibition 23 February 2018

The inaugural Ballineen Foróige Young Engineers Exhibition will take place in Gort Mhuire Hall in Ballineen this Friday 23rd February. As part of Engineers Week 2018, leaders and members of Ballineen Foróige Club have organised an exhibition which will showcase a diverse and exciting range of engineering projects that have been undertaken by members of the club over the last few weeks, with the aid of leaders and a number of local engineers.

With the aid of local pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, along with the support of STEAM Education, a UCC based company focused on promoting science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths subjects in primary schools, Ballineen Foróige has been engaging members and leaders in all things engineering over the last six weeks. From researching, designing, and prototyping a project based on local problems, to participating in various workshops on coding and careers in engineering, Ballineen Foróige have been extremely busy in preparation for the exhibition this coming Friday night.

On the night itself, Michael Loftus, Head of Engineering at CIT, Fintan Goold, Manager at Eli Lilly and All-Ireland Cork winning Footballer, along with Geraldine Coughlan of GCA Architects & Designers, a local business, will act as judges on the night, evaluating the different engineering projects and offering some advice to the members of the club. Also in attendance will be the CEO of Foróige Seán Campbell, along with a number of local councillors, TD’s and Senators.

Leading the team of Ballineen Foróige leaders organising the event, is Rebecca Dwyer, a bioprocess engineer at Eli Lilly. Rebecca recently became a leader in the club and says that Ballineen Foróige Young Engineer Exhibition 2018 “promises to be a fun, challenging and rewarding experience for all involved and we look forward to welcoming parents, relatives, friends and members of the public to the exhibition and film screening on the evening of Friday 23rd February.” Overall, there are twelve projects entered in the exhibition. One project, led by Cian Kennefick and Charlie Nolan, members of the starting out club, examines the possibility of installing speed ramps on the road near local primary school. Fourteen-year-old Charlie says he got involved in the project as it was something to do and it gets you thinking. Cian says the most exciting part of the project was the building of the prototypes.

Both Cian and Charlie, along with thirty other members of the club will display their projects this coming Friday 23 February in Gort Mhuire Hall in Ballineen. Doors open at 8pm and the event runs until 10pm. All are welcome to attend, and admission is free. Catering, including tea and coffee, will be provided on the night.
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