Officers of 69th N.Y. Inf. at Fort Corcoran, VA. with Col. Michael Corcoran.Public Domain

Last weekend in Ballymote, County Sligo, a monument to the Irish who fought and died in the American Civil War was unveiled. Ballymote is the home place of General Michael Corcoran a hero of that war.

The event itself was disrupted by protesters and anti-American slogans and banners were heard. One wonders what General Corcoran would have made of the hubbub.

Within his lifetime, the Sligo Man became a close confidant of Abraham Lincoln. He was a hero to the Irish soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies.

The Sligo Champion newspaper remembered him in a recent article, excerpts of which can be read here:

His life was a classic hero’s quest, but like countless others, that of a man not a myth.

Michael Corcoran was born on September 21, 1827 in Carrowkeel, Co Sligo. In August 1845 his father died and Michael had to find work that paid enough to support his mother. 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. He was assigned to serve at the depot in Creeslough, Donegal, at a salary of one shilling and threepence per day and walked miles daily to disrupt distilling operations.


Michael was promoted to private first class at the end of the year when the potato crop had rotted again. The winter of 1846-1847 was fiercely cold and snowy, and disease and starvation escalated.

Some of the revenue police reacted covertly with either violent or nonviolent 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 August 30, 1849.

There is inconclusive evidence that he was on the run.

He 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 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.

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 such as Thomas Francis Meagher and John Mitchell.

Gen. Michael Corcoran. Image: Public Domain.

Gen. Michael Corcoran. Image: Public Domain.


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 that Corcoran did and he was a natural leader.

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 organization. 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. In late 1860, the nineteen-year-old Prince of Wales visited New York City during a tour of Canada and the US. 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.

He also refused to order his men to parade in honor of the prince because they had voted not to, with his approval. 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.

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.

Camp of 17th N.Y. Inf. at Fort Corcoran, Va. with Col. Michael Corcoran. Image: Public Domain.

Camp of 17th N.Y. Inf. at Fort Corcoran, Va. with Col. Michael Corcoran. Image: Public Domain.


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 and wrote a letter to the regiment assuring the men that his active duty would be good practice for the liberation of Ireland. After a short stay in Annapolis, Maryland, the 69th went to Washington and encamped and commenced training on the Georgetown University campus.

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 day long 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.

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.

Solitary confinement

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 to recover.

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. 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.

 Father Thomas Mooney conducting mass for the 69th New York State Militia (69th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, later the 69th U.S. Regiment) encamped at Fort Corcoran, Washington, D.C., June 1, 1861. Colonel Michael Corcoran stands at Fr. Mooney's right. Image: Public Domain.

Father Thomas Mooney conducting mass for the 69th New York State Militia (69th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, later the 69th U.S. Regiment) encamped at Fort Corcoran, Washington, D.C., June 1, 1861. Colonel Michael Corcoran stands at Fr. Mooney's right. Image: Public Domain.

Great celebrations greeted the exchanged prisoners when they arrived in Washington 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 Washington, called upon President Lincoln and asked to be transferred to a combat zone. 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. 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 theater.


One day, after adjusting the picket lines along the railroad, Corcoran turned back towards 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 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 December 22, 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 – 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.

- courtesy of the Sligo Champion