Saturday, November 19, 2005

234. Uncivil War

A Matthew Brady portrait of Union officers, ca.1862


Massa Robert was on a roll.
His army was invincible
and, yes, by God they knew it!
Time to cross the Potomac.

Lee's Union opponent, Hooker,
was badly confused,
at odds with the War Department
at odds with Honest Abe.

Time to cross the river.

Maryland, Pennsylvania,
untouched peaceful farms,
milk, butter, eggs and beef:
live off their land for a change

(but all paid for in Southern script).

down in Richmond
capital of the CSA
sits wild and beloved Johnny Mitchel.

Who is this man?

Mitchel was England's
worst nightmare, a revolutionary
in control of a Dublin newspaper,
calling for the end of English rule.

Get your fat British behinds
out of Ireland, today and
not tomorrow: this was
the tone and import of the "United Irishman"

The English, as is their wont,
passed a brand new law
ex post facto, a frequent occurrence,
to nail this firebrand nuisance.

................................................................. John Mitchel (1815-1875

So, for his sins, poor John
and Francy Meagher, his friend,
were sentenced to death for treason
but transported to Australia instead.

Out of sight, out of mind.

From Australia they both escaped
(conspiracy theories abound)
and both, separately, made their way
to the USA, safe among Irish friends.

John sailed back to France
(Ireland was unsafe, but France was free)
while Meagher took over the Irish in New York.
Then along came the Civil War.

Francy took command of the Fighting 69th
the best and the worst of the New York Irish
committed to the Union cause.
But Mitchel came out for the South.

Returned to Richmond (running the blockade)
his sons joined Confederate regiments
while Mitchel himself wrote intemperate articles
for the local newspapers.

.................................TF Meagher (seated, centre) with officers of the Fighting 69th

Now Lee crosses the Potomac.

Among the troops under his command
are the veteran First Virginians
with their standard bearer, young Willie,
17-year-old son of John Mitchel.

Hooker gets the push and in comes Meade
(Union generals never lasted long).
The armies march under the summer sun
and make contact in rural Pennsylvania.


Two days of deadly skirmishing:
marches, countermarches,
concentrated cannonades,
savage assaults, grim defences,
until both armies, Union and Confederate,
like bareknuckle boxers
bloodied and exhausted,
stagger, punch drunk, to the mark
and face the third and final day:

July 3, 1863.

Not only the battle
but the outcome of the War
hangs in the balance.

Intense fighting erupted on Culp's Hill at 4 AM on July 3 and by 11 AM Union troops had secured the hill, firmly anchoring the point of the Union 'fishhook' line. With the loss of his advantage at Culp's Hill, Lee decided to alter his strategy. Lee decided to strike what he thought to be a weakened Union center on Cemetery Ridge where he observed few troops and only a handful of artillery batteries. If this section of Meade's line collapsed, it would threaten the Union rear. Lee issued orders for a massive bombardment followed by an assault of 18,000 men, commanded by General James Longstreet. Longstreet's Assault, better known today as "Pickett's Charge" would be Lee's last gamble at Gettysburg.
http:// *

Waiting for orders --
then abruptly hauled into the line
along with so many others
come the First Virginians:
and among them Willie Mitchel.

Wait for it ...
Wait for it ...
Then the air splits with the sound
of high-pitched bugles:
now, boys, now,
now, now, now!
The screaming 'caoine' of the Rebel Yell:

The bullets come sizzling by
whizzing like demented hornets
zzzzzzzzz... then a dull flat 'pok'
when they hit with a puff of dust
and down goes the sergeant
down goes Billy Joe Parker
down goes the Preacher
then red-haired Randy Simmonds
Archie Drummond, poor little
Jimmy Preston, then that bald
old bastard what's-his-name,
then Johnny Belham, Andrew Holland,
"Daddy" Goulder, Snakepit Jones,
Paddy Miles, Dandy Kelleher,
'Arsey' Versey, Jimbo, Davy, Mack,
Pauly O'Brien ... Pascal ... all of them?
"Get your ass up here, Mitchel,
and take this goddam flag!!"
He stumbles, drop his rifle,
hears a sizzling past his ear
and grabs the blood-smeared
wooden pole, the flag little more
than a rag shot through
with holes and he runs
and he runs and he runs
and he ....

Down past Coliso Farm
in the grey morning dawn
come O'Rourke and Timothy Fallon
gaunt-visaged figures in Union blue
with Privates O'Donnell and McCarthy
and with the two corporals
Delaroche and McInteer
to recover the body
of John Mitchel's son.
They carry him away from the field
in a final act of honour
and respect for his patriot father;
the blood-sodden war, for the moment
forgotten, and the next war,
the long hard struggle for Ireland
very much in mind.
* -- for some obscure reason the National Park Service will not always accept a linked post and will flash a Security Violation message: if this happens to you simply copy/paste the URL into a new browser window: http://
First off, this piece says more about Ireland than the American Civil War. Sorry. But people fight in wars (even your own) for different reasons ....

John Mitchel was imprisoned after the Civil War for his unapologetic support of the Confederacy but he managed to make his way back to Ireland where he was elected to the British Parliament in 1874. He refused to take his seat (as elected Sinn Fein candidates in British-controlled Northern Ireland continue to do today) because he would not take an oath of loyalty to the British Crown. The British annulled the election on the grounds that Mitchel was a convicted felon but he won re-election with an even larger majority. Do not mess with the Irish. He died before the Brits could decide what to do next. In the aftermath of the Civil War many ex-soldiers (Confederate and Union alike) took part in the Fenian Rising of 1867 which was brutally suppressed by the British. Jail sentences for the survivors were savage. Out of these hellish prisons came Tom Clarke who helped to set up the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Dublin in the decades before the First World War. On the principle that England's misfortune was Ireland's opportunity the rebels struck during Easter Week of 1916. The rebellion was suppressed and the leaders (including Clarke) summarily executed. But after the Crucifixion came the Resurrection and the modern Irish republic was born out of the anger and disgust with Britain that became a national movement for independence after the events of 1916. Thank You and God Bless You, Michael Collins. I mean that. Without you I'd still be waltzing around the world with a British passport.


In-house Links:

history The Runup to Easter 1916

poem After the Rising

tongue-in-cheek history primer for beginners From the Normans to Michael Collins (1170-1922)

poem Across the Water

history (anger, regret) Armistice Day