Indifference to Danger

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXX (6) start of chapter

While the contending armies lay in front of each other in the neighbourhood of Chattanooga, a flag of truce brought together several distinguished officers on both sides; amongst them, General Cleburne and General Sweeney—the former fittingly representing the gallantry of the Southern Irish, the latter as fittingly representing the gallantry of the Northern Irish. Friendly greetings and compliments were interchanged, flasks were emptied, and healths were drunk with great cordiality by those who in a few hours after were to meet in deadly strife. On that occasion General Sweeney, addressing himself to General Cleburne, expressed his regret that his countrymen should be found opposed to each other, and fighting on both sides during the war; but he hoped the time would come when they would all be found united, and standing side by side in the effort to recover the independence of their native land. To this Cleburne replied, that to assist in destroying the independence of one people was rather a poor preparation for the work of restoring the independence of another.

This lingering feeling of irritation is, however, rapidly passing away, owing in a great measure not only to the generous bearing of the Federal Irish while as combatants or conquerors in the South, but to the policy generally held by the Irish in the Northern States as to the read-mission of the seceding States into the Union. But, were that sentiment of irritation stronger than it is, it would be absorbed by one far stronger and more intense—'hatred of the common enemy, love of the common country.' I had rather a strange exhibition of the intensity of this feeling in a city in Alabama.

From this city, in which there is a considerable Irish population, there had gone forth, besides other Irish organisations, several companies, all of which distinguished themselves by the most extraordinary daring and intrepidity. In the very thickest of the deadliest struggle these men fought with a desperation that elicited universal admiration. One of these companies lost four out of every five; either they were killed on the field of battle, or they died in the hospital of their wounds. Of 130 men who from time to time joined that company, but 26 survived; and that gallant remnant of that heroic band limped back to their homes, riddled with shot and shell, and hacked by steel—cripples for life. Those who commanded these heroic men were in every way worthy of those they commanded. Three times this company lost its captain in front of the enemy; and the successor to their honours and responsibilities—an Irishman from Waterford—the fourth who led it into battle—bears on his person terrible evidences of the work in which he had been engaged.

He called on me at my hotel; and the conversation turning on the late civil war, he informed me of many interesting particulars with respect to the part taken in it by Irishmen at both sides. I happened to express a hope that his many wounds, of which I had heard so much from others, did not cause him pain or inconvenience, and my surprise that he survived such grievous injuries in vital parts; when, rather unexpectedly, he said, 'I would like to show you my wounds, if you have no objection; you can then see what narrow escapes I had.' I replied that I could have no objection whatever to behold the marks of a brave man's valour; on which, though not without some difficulty, owing to the helpless condition of one arm, he stripped to the waist. And, poor fellow, he had been riddled and torn indeed. He had been shot through the neck, the ball entering at one side, and going out at the other. Within an inch or two of his spine was a great mark where a rifle bullet had torn through: that bullet, turned by one of those strange eccentric motions which bullets occasionally take, passed out through his side, and shattered his arm. A third had more than grazed the lower stomach—it had literally passed through, leaving its mark of entrance and departure. Then there were scars of minor importance, still eloquent mementos of fierce fights in which he and his noble Irish 'Guard' had taken so conspicuous a part. One arm, as I have mentioned, hung helpless by his side; but I well remember how his eyes sparkled, and his face became suffused with enthusiasm, as, suddenly flinging aloft his other arm, lean and sinewy, he exclaimed in a voice of concentrated passion—'This is the only arm I have left, and, so help me God! I'd give it and every drop of my heart's blood, if I could only strike one blow for Ireland! I'd be satisfied to die of my wounds then, for I'd die happy in her cause.'

I have heard declarations as ardent from Irishmen in other parts of the South—by men who had borne themselves bravely during the war; and though many of them declared their mistrust of certain of the Fenian leaders, and even a dislike to the movement itself, still all expressed themselves in this fashion, 'If I could see my way clearly—if I could only trust the men in New York—if I thought I could do Ireland any good, or give her a chance, I would go in for it at every risk.' Others boasted that they were members of the organisation—that they were ready, at any moment, to unsheath the sword again—that they did not care who or what the leaders were; they were for any organisation that kept alive the national feeling, and prepared Irishmen to avail themselves of the first opportunity for a practical movement in her favour.

So startling and extraordinary were the events in which these men—Northerns and Southerns—were actors, that revolution had become a familiar idea to their minds; and such were the privations and hardships they had endured, such the sacrifices they had made, such the dangers they had gone through almost daily during a protracted war, in sustainment of the cause to which they had been devoted on either side, that the risk of life in the attainment of a great object, or in furtherance of a cherished purpose, is regarded by them as a light matter, if, indeed, it is regarded by them at all. They have been too familiar with Death—have looked the King of Terrors too many times in the face—not to contemplate the possible loss of life with the utmost indifference; added to which, such is the enthusiasm by which they are animated—an enthusiasm at once fierce and exalted, springing from the twofold passion of love and hate, devotion and revenge—that it renders the idea of the sacrifice of life elevating and ennobling rather than discouraging or repelling.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America