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

Library of Congress

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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