The Old Irish Volunteers at Fort Sumter

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIX (11) start of chapter

Of the various conflicts of which the harbour of Charleston was the scene, that which took place on the 9th of October 1863, when an attack was made on Fort Sumter, then in the possession of the Confederates, may be mentioned, on account of the rather novel mode of defence successfully adopted by a portion of the garrison. The United States troops, under Gilmore, were at Morriss Island, and the celebrated Dahlgren had command of the fleet. Fort Sumter was defended by Major Elliot; the garrison consisting of the Charleston battalion—which was 'pretty much Irish'—with two companies of Artillery.

The Old Irish Volunteers, the representatives of an organisation dating back more than seventy years, were entrusted with the defence of the east wall or rampart. About one o'clock at night the Captain in command of the Irish Volunteers discovered a small boat evidently reconnoitering, and at once gave the alarm. In a few moments after, a large body of Federals, aided by 600 men from the fleet, commenced a vigorous assault. The fort was not taken by surprise, owing to the vigilance of the Irish Captain, whose command faced the channel; and the enemy were fired upon before they could effect a landing. In a short time a brisk attack was made on the southern and eastern face. The southern face was opposite to Morriss Island, and was attacked by the land force. In little more than a quarter of an hour the Federal fire on the east side slackened, while it was sustained with warmth on the south. This cessation of fire on the eastern side excited the renewed suspicion of the Captain in command; and on reconnoitering, it was found that a number of the attacking force had effected a lodgment on, or rather in, the face of the rampart, which in this place had been hollowed out by previous and repeated bombardments. The assailants, who were thus out of the range of fire, and who believed that the fort was almost in their possession, laughed with derisive scorn when called on from above to surrender. Lodged in the very face of the wall or rampart, not only were they thus out of the reach of the guns, but not even a rifle could be conveniently brought to bear against them. What were the defenders to do, in this case? . 'Why, pel them out of that, to be sure.' The men were ordered to lay down their arms, for the moment valueless, and make the best use they could of the fragments of brickwork with which the ramparts were abundantly supplied. The Old Irish Volunteers entered into the fun of the thing amazingly; it was quite an unexpected source of diversion, and so they vigorously proceeded to roll masses of masonry down the face of the rampart, and pelt brickbats at the partly-hidden foe from every possible vantage-ground, while joke and gibe, most galling to the assailants, ran along the line, like a brisk fire of small arms. The amusement was pleasant enough for the gentlemen on the rampart, but not at all so agreeable to their unexpected visitors below; and after enduring the novel species of artillery as long as they possibly could, the latter surrendered. 103 of the enemy, including 10 or 12 officers, yielded to the gentle influence of the brickbats, not being desirous of any longer keeping up the game of 'cock-throw,' of which the fun was altogether one-sided, and against them.

All apprehension of further danger being at an end, the Irishmen made the Federal officers welcome to the best entertainment in their power to afford. But the rough fare did not seem to please the captives, one of whom rather superciliously remarked, that he understood the Southerners had the character of being a hospitable people; but if they treated their guests on other occasions no better than they treated them then, they might possibly forfeit their character for that virtue.

The Irish Captain, after making a punctilious bow, worthy of a Chesterfield, thus replied:—

'Well, sir, I would be sorry that, through me, the State should lose its well-earned reputation for hospitality; but it is usual, even in the South, when visitors, especially a considerable number, as in your case, intend to honour a gentleman by taking up their quarters at his house, that they should give some intimation of their intention; or if they were resolved on making a "surprise party" of it, as was evidently the intention in the present instance, they should provide for themselves.'

The joke was once more against the assailants; but as it was not so bad as the brickbats, it was received in good humour, and captors and captives were soon on the best terms.

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:

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