Diasporational Part Sixteen : “Captain Brevet”, the Fenian who fought at Gettysburg


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By Niall McArdle

Gettysburg. July 2nd 1863. A young Union soldier is waiting with other members of the company for the battle to commence.

While we are waiting, some of us are writing letters to our loved ones, which might be found in our haversacks if we lose our lives in this coming battle. I am making little pencil sketches and jotting down notes of my feelings. The clouds are scarcely yet lifted from the mountains, but already puffs of smoke issue from the windows of any house in the town which is advantageously placed for sharpshooters. Our line is fast extending to the left, where all attention seems at the present to be directed. In our front we can see the enemy’s skirmishers descend the slope of Seminary Ridge and advance out to the middle of the valley, where there is a slight rise of ground. Our skirmishers receive them with a warm fire, which they return. And so it goes on towards noon, as the fighting to our left becomes hot.

The diarist, who goes on to describe how the fire “goes from warm to hot,” and how he spent that night listening to “the crack of rifle, the boom of cannon, along with the singing of bullets and the roar of shells passing over one’s head like a train of cars crossing a bridge” was Thomas Galwey, a London-Irish seventeen year-old sergeant in the Hibernian Guards, who kept a meticulous diary for three years during the United States Civil War.

Thomas Francis De Burgh Galwey was born in London in 1846. It’s not known when his parents left Galway, but with a famine back home, there was no chance of returning. The family left London and moved to Cleveland in 1851.

On Sunday, April 14th, 1861, fifteen year old Galwey was returning from Mass when he saw bulletins reporting the bombardment of Fort Sumter. He enlisted the next day, becoming the first name entered on the roll of the Hibernian Guards.

The Hibernian Guards were at first issued no weapons; they drilled with wooden guns and wooden swords, and they marched an awful lot and bedded down in open fields as they at first had no tents. The Guards were officially “Company B, 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry”. Galwey advanced quickly in the ranks, going from private to sergeant in only two months. Eventually he would rise to First Lieutenant and commanded his regiment. Before being promoted to captain, he was mustered out of the army: he was thereafter known as “Captain Brevet” – “Brevet” is an honorary title given to veterans who commanded units higher than they ought, but who did not receive commission.

Galwey’s account is a fascinating glimpse of a typical civil war soldier’s life, its privations, its tedium, its terror. He writes of how for most soldiers, the larger plans of war and battle-plans remain a mystery held by officers.

To him, his regiment or at least his brigade, is the whole army. And generally he cannot see far even when he has time to look. He fights in a cornfield where the tall stalks wave above, or where hedge fences and clumps of trees, houses, barns, and even chicken coops limit his view. He has no opportunity to go to some high ground where he can take in the whole field at a glance.

St. Patrick's Day celebrations of the Irish Brigade, 1863
St. Patrick’s Day celebrations of the Irish Brigade, 1863

Galwey’s account of his experience has curious Irish content. The Irish Brigade – led by General Thomas Meagher “conspicuous in his Irish sporting gentleman’s dress” – celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in as much style as they could muster in the midst of war. The camp was decorated in green; soliders of all ranks mixed, drank whiskey, held horse-races, mule races, sack-races, and, er, pig chases. Galwey writes that one of the jockeys competing was a former Austrian Cavalry officer, Capt. Jack Gossin. The Irish Brigade seems to have been replete with Irish and non-Irish soldiers of fortune like Gossin, country-sporty horsey types who were always well turned out and who carried “a heavy dog whip, with the air of one used to the sport.”

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Like many other Irish immigrants in America, Galwey was a member of the Fenian Brotherhood. The Fenian get-togethers always included at least one Irish speaker. They held monthly meetings in the hospital marquee of the Irish Brigade, war or no war, and the accounts of them are bizarrely quaint, as they invariably included alcohol, “original poems” (one shudders at the thought), storytelling and teary reminiscences of the old country – “the Old Dart” as they called it. They drank “milk-punch”, a mixture of homemade whiskey, milk and nutmeg brewed in a hospital dish.

There were Fenians fighting on both sides of the war, and if a matter was deemed important enough to overshadow the present conflict, an accommodation was reached. Once, Galwey escorted an emissary sent from Ireland by James Stephens to a joint meeting held “in a ravine not far from Falmouth. A sentry was posted at either end of the opening and the two delegations, one in grey and one in blue, after swearing an oath before entering not to discuss the American Civil War, met in the center. They silently shook hands and the Irish emissary discussed the various points at which the vast Fenian Army, made up of Confederate and Union Fenians, would later strike against England.”

Fenian Banner LC

Three months before Gettysburg, Galwey watched as Abraham Lincoln reviewed a parade of sixty thousand, now in their third year of the long war, and even though the uniforms were smart and “the horses are prancing, the guns shining,’ Galwey notes that most were now weary of war. “We were all out – horse, foot and artillery. But there was little of the old enthusiasm.” Lincoln was probably just as weary.

The poor man looked very wan and pale, and cut an outrageously awkward figure on horseback, with his stovepipe hat and his elbows stuck out keeping time to the motion of the horse, while his chin seemed almost buried between the knees of his long bony legs. To make it worse, he rode alongside of General Hooker, our new commander, who is remarkably handsome and rides his horse like a centaur.

Galwey’s account of the aftermath of Gettysburg is chilling, as he describes the entire field resembling a hospital, and that “we have been picking up such of our dead as we could recognize. The bodies, which are black as ink and bloated from exposure to the sun are placed in the shallow ditch and quickly covered with dirt.”

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He also describes a ghoulish scene where civilian souvenir hunters “gaze with ludicrous horror at the black and mutilated dead who are strewn everywhere.” They moved among the bodies “picking up relics of the battle. Most of them have come from a good distance at the news of the battle, and have gained permission to journey to the field by representing themselves as volunteer nurses for the wounded.”

Chaplains of the Irish Brigade
Chaplains of the Irish Brigade

After the war Galwey completed his education, becoming proficient in many languages. He was the editor of a newspaper in Galveston, Texas, then Professor of logic and French literature at Manhattan College, and finally an attorney for the City. He and his family settled in Harlem, where he became something of a local character. He hosted Fenian meetings at his house. He “mediated” local disputes; once, an Italian and a Greek were threatening each other with knives. Galwey shouted at each in his native tongue, starling them, before drawing his own sword (he carried a sword cane). He would loudly translate Egyptian hieroglyphics on the tombs at the Metropolitan Art Museum On Sundays in the summer he would take his children to visit Grant’s Tomb, as a fellow Hibernian Guardsman, Jim Butler, was a custodian.

Thomas Galwey died in 1913.

The Valiant Hours: An Irishman in the Civil War. Thomas Francis Galwey. Pubd. 1961.

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