Michael Corcoran, Ballymote-born military hero . . . the man and the myth
On August 30th, 1849, 22-years old Michael Corcoran, from Carrowkeel, Ballymote, sailed from Sligo Harbour arriving in New York a penniless and unknown emigrant. Fo...
His life was a classic hero’s quest, but like countless others, that of a man not a myth. Mary McDonagh of Carrowkeel married Thomas Corcoran of Kilmacallan. He had served in the British Army from 1806 to 1817, in Nova Scotia and the West Indies. Their only child, Michael, was born on 21st September 1827 in Carrowkeel. He went to school, probably in Ballymote, until he was eighteen years old.
In August 1845, Thomas Corcoran died at age 59. Michael had to find work that paid enough to support his mother because his father’s army pension ceased at death. A fungus destroyed most of the potato crop that autumn; his wages were sorely needed. He applied to the Revenue Police and was accepted into the January 1846 class.
Cadet Corcoran was a lean six-foot, two inches tall, with clear blue eyes, brown-auburn hair, and a fair complexion. A career army artillery officer had reorganised the Revenue Police in 1836, building the corps into to an efficient and effective light infantry unit. Basic training took place at the depot in Dublin and lasted six weeks. The cadets had classroom instruction and drill practice. A teacher explained the revenue laws and their duties in applying them, including the use of force. A drill sergeant taught them strict military conduct and discipline, and the care and use of arms.
Private Michael Corcoran was assigned to serve at the depot in Creeslough, Donegal, at a salary of one shilling and three pence per day. The revenue police walked miles daily to disrupt distilling operations, destroy the equipment, spill the poítín, and then arrest the men and march them to jail.
Michael was promoted to private first class at the end of the year, at the onslaught of famine: the potato crop had rotted again. The winter of 1846-1847 was fiercely cold and snowy, and disease and starvation escalated. Suffering increased through 1847 as paupers were evicted and families broken by unemployment, death, and immigration.
Some of the revenue police reacted covertly with either violent or non-violent insubordination. Private First Class Corcoran became a Ribbonman in 1848, undertaking midnight missions. Michael kept up his double life for almost two years, and then for reasons unknown, resigned abruptly from the Revenue Police, boarded the British bark Dromahair exactly two and one half weeks later, and sailed out of Sligo Bay on 30 August 1849.
There is inconclusive evidence that he was on the run.
The passage was quick and uneventful, and he stepped onto South Street in New York City, found work as a clerk-bookkeeper for a Mr. John Heaney, the proprietor of Hibernian House, a tavern at 42 Prince Street, across the street from (Old) St. Patrick’s Cathedral in downtown New York.
Michael lived over the tavern, as did the Heaneys. Corcoran’s mother immigrated to New York a year later. Michael became an American citizen as soon as he was eligible, married Mrs. Heaney’s niece, Elizabeth, and managed Hibernian House for Mrs. Heaney after Mr. Heaney died in 1854. That tragedy was compounded by the death just days later, of Mary McDonagh Corcoran, from cholera, at the Hibernian House where Michael and Elizabeth were caring for her.
Corcoran joined a state militia regiment as required for all able-bodied young men, and there he met several veterans of the 1848 Young Ireland attempt at revolution. Thomas Francis Meagher and John Mitchel also came to New York City after escaping from exile in Tasmania, but Mitchel moved his family to the South, and Meagher had had enough of revolution, and did not get involved. Corcoran did; he embraced it. There was freedom and opportunity in America but also violent, ugly, virulent bigotry directed at immigrants, especially the Irish ones, and Catholics. Both John O’Leary and James Stephens admired him. John O’Mahony, Michael Doheny and John Savage were among his closest friends.
Michael had enlisted as a private in the 69th Regiment; he served in every rank and was promoted to captain within three years. This was a state militia unit composed of citizens, not soldiers. None of them had the military knowledge and experience, with arms, drilling, and protocol, that Corcoran did; and, he was a natural leader.
The first time the 69th was activated, to keep the peace after a riot, the brigade inspector recorded that Captain Corcoran had a “well-known reputation as the best, if not the very best, infantry officer in the 4th Brigade....”
He was a rising star in Democratic politics, that is, Tammany Hall: he could deliver the Irish vote. Before long, “Mike” (as they called him) was the district leader, a member of the judicial nominations committee, an elected school inspector for his ward, and a member of the Fourteenth Ward General Committee. Michael had still another option for his future. In 1858 James Stephens and Thomas Clarke Luby founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Dublin and planned to expand the organisation. Consequently, John O’Mahony founded the Fenian Brotherhood in New York City the following year. Michael Corcoran was the first one, and thus the first American, to be sworn in.
Not long afterward, he was elected colonel of the 69th Regiment as well as military commander of the Fenians. Tammany Hall gave him a patronage job in the post office with the highest salary he ever had. Then it all fell apart.
Just one event put an end to Michael’s easy success and initiated the trials he would have to endure and overcome. In late 1860, the nineteen-year-old Prince of Wales visited New York City during a tour of Canada and the United States. There would be a parade, fireworks, banquets, a ball; society doyennes panted for an invitation to the ball. Colonel and Mrs. Corcoran were invited, as were the colonels of all the local militia regiments. Colonel Corcoran wrote a polite note declining the invitation. One assumes that Mrs. Corcoran was not pleased.
Colonel Corcoran also refused to order his men to parade in honour of the prince because they had voted not to, with his approval. They had lived through a famine during which more than 1 million Irish people emigrated and more than 1.5 million died, many believed from Britain’s tepid concern.
Many New Yorkers were outraged that this ingrate Irish immigrant had the effrontery to insult the royal guest of the city, and demanded that he be removed from his federal job, that his citizenship be revoked, that he be thrown out of the country. Colonel Corcoran was court-martialed.
During the trial: Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States; the southern states (whose economy depended on slavery) began seceding from the Union; the Irish community in San Francisco, California sent Corcoran a one-pound gold medal, and the one in Charleston, South Carolina sent an ornate gold-tipped palmetto cane, both in admiration of his integrity and for backing his men. Michael attended a state Democratic convention in Albany (New York), where he was noted as “one of the prominent Democrats,” but then contracted an illness so debilitating that he was confined to bed for several weeks. Fort Sumter was fired upon in April 1861 and the Civil War began. President Lincoln called for volunteer militia units to defend Washington, D.C., and the 69th Regiment voted to answer the president’s call.
Colonel Corcoran’s court-martial was dropped and the 69th prepared to go to war. At that time, Michael Corcoran was also the acting chieftain of the Fenian Brotherhood because O’Mahony was in Ireland attending a funeral. Corcoran wrote a letter to the regiment assuring the men that this active duty would be good practice for the liberation of Ireland. Flag-waving New Yorkers cheered the regiment as it marched to the transport’s pier; the colonel rode in a carriage because he was still too weak to walk or ride a horse. After a short stay in Annapolis, Maryland the 69th went to Washington, D.C., and encamped and commenced training on the Georgetown University campus.
Captain Thomas Francis Meagher had raised a company, the Irish Zouaves, and soon joined them. The Union army invaded Virginia after that state seceded from the Union in late May, and the regiment occupied Arlington Heights where they built Fort Corcoran in record time. The militia units had been activated for three months’ duty and were within days of returning home in late July when combat exploded near a creek called Bull Run, near the town of Manassas. The weather was stifling hot and so was the daylong battle, which the Confederates won, routing the Yankees and chasing them back to Washington.
Michael Corcoran was wounded in the leg, captured, and imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia with men and officers from his and other regiments. His captors repeatedly offered him parole/release from captivity if he would vow not to take up arms again – but he always refused. Also, he would not leave his men. Several officers and men were transferred to an island prison in Charleston, South Carolina, among them Colonel Corcoran. Michael asked for money in his letters, for his men. Most of them were poor and had no means to buy warm clothing as winter approached. The prisoners of war were moved to an old, damp jail in the city, where one day in November a Confederate officer informed Corcoran that he was now hostage. He would be the first officer hanged in retaliation if the Union hanged some southern privateers the Yankees regarded as pirates.
Michael’s name had been drawn first by lot; other officers in turn would also be hanged if the pirates were executed. Colonel Corcoran was put into solitary confinement in a drafty unheated tower, the cells for condemned prisoners. The sanitary conditions were poor and the nutrition inadequate. Michael, growing more feeble by the day, became deathly ill from typhoid fever and was removed from the tower. He had barely recovered when a raging fire in the city moved toward the jail – which was locked. The guards had been sent to fight the fire. Smoke, ashes, and burning embers swirled around the prisoners, but the fire bypassed the building. Colonel Corcoran did his duty as a prisoner of war: he ordered an escape. The men fashioned a rope from bed ticking eyelets and anchored it at a second floor window. One man went down to test the rope but the others refused to leave until their colonel was out. Michael got down and the next man was starting, when some soldiers came running around the corner and seized them. They thought their prisoners were fleeing only the fire, which destroyed more than a dozen square blocks in the city.
On New Year’s Day, 1862, the captives were sent by train to Columbia, South Carolina, and two months later to a prison in Salisbury, North Carolina. During all that time Corcoran remained a hostage under constant threat of hanging. He heard that his political friends in New York had been lobbying Congress to have him freed in a prisoner exchange, a common procedure that benefited everyone. The South refused. It was learned that the authorities believed that he was as much a hero to the Confederate Army Irish soldiers as he was to the Union Irish soldiers, and they feared that if Corcoran were released, those soldiers would desert the South and follow him north. Finally, in August 1862, Colonel Corcoran was exchanged for a southern colonel.
Great celebrations greeted the exchanged prisoners when they arrived in Washington, D.C. Colonel Corcoran dined with President Lincoln who made him a Brigadier General. He asked Michael if he would prefer to lead an existing, leaderless regiment, or recruit his own. All through his ordeal Corcoran had dreamed of leading his beloved 69th Regiment into battle again, but alas, the 69th was now part of the Irish Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher.
Michael returned to New York to recruit Corcoran’s Irish Legion. On the day of his arrival, the largest crowd ever seen in New York packed the lower part of the city.
When The Irish Legion was sent to Fairfax, Virginia; Corcoran was subordinate to the commander there.Then he received a telegram: his wife had died suddenly. Michael went back to New York for the funeral, returned to Washington, called upon President Lincoln and asked to be transferred to a combat zone. He also learned that the court martial had not been preferred yet because none of the commanders of the districts he had passed through would do so. Lincoln would consider the transfer request. Corcoran wrote Lincoln a gracious thank-you note but waited in vain for a reply. Then one day in camp, he fainted. After fainting again, he requested leave to go back to New York to consult a physician. The doctor said he was debilitated due to the prolonged imprisonment, malnutrition, and exertion; that he needed to rest, eat oatmeal, and drink barley water. Frail and exhausted, Michael got married instead. His bride was John Heaney’s eldest granddaughter. He returned with her to Virginia. The brigadier general in charge was about to leave; Lincoln had made him an ambassador. Brigadier General Michael Corcoran was the new division commander in that theatre.
In November the Fenian Brotherhood held its first national convention, in Chicago. Corcoran did not attend, but as the military commander of the Fenians he was made a member of the five-man central council. Although Thomas Francis Meagher had resigned his commission, he still spent time visiting some of the camps. Michael invited him and Mrs. Meagher to stay with the Legion at Christmas. Corcoran’s new mother-in-law would also come down from New York for the holiday. On the day the ladies were to arrive, Michael woke up feeling unwell. Nonetheless, he went to 6a.m. Mass as usual, had his coffee, and then accompanied his guest to the railroad station. Meagher was going to Washington to meet the ladies and escort them back to camp.
After adjusting the picket lines along the railroad, Corcoran turned back toward camp, riding ahead of his escort party. The men saw him suddenly raise his hand as he rode around a curve in the road, out of their sight. They quickly caught up with him. General Corcoran was lying in a ditch having a violent convulsion; his face was purple. The men commandeered a wagon and rushed him to the doctors at camp. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. The doctors thought a blood vessel had burst in the brain, causing his fall from the horse; there was little they could do.
Michael died at eight o’clock that evening of 22nd December 1863, without regaining consciousness. He was thirty-six years old.
His body was embalmed and arrived back in New York on Christmas Day. He lay in state in the Governor’s Room in City Hall (where other officers – and President Lincoln – would lie). The flags in the city flew at half-staff. After the requiem Mass at (Old) St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street, he was interred in Calvary Cemetery, Long Island City, in Queens County, with his mother and first wife.