Searching for the Bodies

After the Civil War, thousands of mostly Southern boys remained unburied. Edmund T. Corley, a farmer in East Texas (Shelby County), contributed four of his five of his sons to the cause. Two sons did not return home. He was 51 years old when the Civil War broke out. His means were modest. He owned one slave, a black girl, aged 13 years. One of the four brothers wrote a poem to his mother a few months before he was killed:

O, Mother, twas hate to leave you in age,

When the winds of winter were chilling your veins,

But, my country, it called me – I hasten away,

From my own native state and its fair verdant plan,


But, O, if we meet not this side of the tomb,

God grant that we meet on the radiant shore,

Where the bells of the great city joyously boom,

A welcome for soldiers where warfare is o’er.

Winslow Corley

Winslow Corley was killed a few months later in 1864 at the Battle of Atlanta. After the war ended, at the age of 56, Edmund went in search of his sons’ bodies. He traveled by horse back for several months. All he found was waste and destruction, and the starving, wounded and maimed of the war. Most Southern boys were not buried. Burying bodies after a battle was a relatively new innovation. In the Civil War, only Northern armies took the time to bury bodies of the fallen. And, even that, the Federals did not do well. Countless Southern families did exactly what Edmund did, they searched the battle fields for the remains of their sons, usually in vain.

PBS, “Finding Your Roots: County Roots,” originally aired Feb. 23, 2021

The Sarsfield Guards Go to War

In the 1861, there were few Irish heroes more well known than Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan. He lead the Wild Geese into France in 1692. He died in France, after being injured in battle. As he lay dying, he said, “Oh, that this was for Ireland.” See more about Patrick Sarsfield here. He was a great Irish hero.

So, it is not surprising that the Irish in New Orleans named their newly formed militia after the famous Irish general. As the Sarsfield Guards, the company acted with other militia companies in New Orleans to accept the surrender of federal property from Gen. Twiggs on Jan. 10, 1861. This surrender occurred just a couple of weeks before the state seceded. The company reported a strength of 16 men that day on Jan. 10. Their commander was James O’Hara, a resident of the Third Ward. The cream of New Orleans militias accepted the surrender. The Washington Artillery participated. As did the Louisiana Guards, the Orleans Cadets, The Crescent City Rifles, and the Second Company of the Chasseurs-á-Pied. The Sarsfield Guards/Rifles were a working class militia, formed specifically for the coming war. For a new militia, they had found themselves among some high-flying company. I previously talked about the militia tradition in New Orleans here.

James O’Hara

Capt. James O’Hara and his wife, Johanna McCarthy, were married at St. John Baptist Catholic church. St. John Baptist served a working class area, composed of many Irish and German immigrants. James and Johanna were both 31 in 1861. But, James could have been 41, depending on which census is accurate. 41 is much older for a soldier about to embark on a major campaign.

Johanna was born in Ireland. The census says James was born in Maine, but a later census will say he was born in Ireland. James and Johanna had two sons, and two daughters. It appears they were living in a boarding house before the war. In 1860, he was a painter, living at 119 Carondelet. James and Johanna had modest means.

The Sarsfield Guards/Rifles apparently became the “Pelican Guards” before deploying to active combat. In fact, the newspaper accounts of the day use either Sarsfield Guards or Sarsfield Rifles, as if they could not decide on a name. Regardless of the name, they had many Irish members.

As the Pelican Guards, the company was assigned to a floating barge on the Mississippi River. Most were captured at the Battle of Island No. 10 in April, 1862. See more here about the Battle of Island No. 10. Capt. O’Hara made his way back to New Orleans that same month, April. In his service record, he claimed he was “recruiting” a new company in the Crescent City. But, of course, by the end of April, 1862, New Orleans was occupied by Federal troops. Whatever recruiting he might have attempted had to be very discreet. And, generally, recruiting was very public affair, with daily ads in the newspapers.

Back Home

Things did not go well for the O’Haras. After the war, he returned to painting. He died sometime between 1880 and 1904. He may indeed have been 41 when he went to war. In 1904, Johanna applied for a Confederate service pension from the state of Louisiana. The Confederate pensions were small. A person had to be quite poor for those small pensions to hold value. The Southern state governments had little money. They would scrutinize applications for pensions. In her letter, Johanna mentioned that when James returned to New Orleans, some personal enemy reported him to the Federal authorities. He was sent to prison in Florida. But, soon after, he was released.

The Board of Confederate Pensions was not impressed. Capt. O’Hara had twice been released by the Federals. He had surely taken the oath of allegiance to the United States. Johanna insisted, no, James had never taken the oath. Gen. Benjamin Butler had released him from the Florida prison because a friend interceded. The Board believed he could only have remained in New Orleans as a Confederate officer if he had taken the oath of allegiance. The Board did not mention Capt. O’Hara’s claim to be “recruiting.” But, it is exceedingly unlikely he was recruiting. This unnecessary lie may have been too much for them. And, after all, he was just a painter. The two other captains of well-known Irish militias had successful businesses. Even if those two other militia captains were Irish, they were a step above the working class Irish. The Board could have been motivated by simple snobbery.

The Little Sisters of the Poor

The Board turned Johanna down. She was then living at the Little Sisters of the Poor on Prytania street.  In 1910, she was still living with the good sisters. She gave her age as 87, meaning she was actually 37 in 1860. That does suggest Capt. O’Hara went to war at the advanced age of 41. He and his wife had come a long way from that day in January, 1861 when they mingled with the City’s elite. Capt. O’Hara may have brought home some injury which limited his ability to work. We will never know. He was, after all, just another working class Irishman.


1861 Gardner’s New Orleans City Directory

Confederate Service records, available at

New Orleans Daily Delta, Jan. 9, 1861, p. 6, col. 2

New Orleans Daily Picayune, May 6, 1861, p. 5, col. 4

New Orleans Daily Crescent, Jan. 15, 1861, p. 1, col. 6

The Montgomery Guards, Blessing of the Flag

Before the War, the New Orleans Daily Delta was not a pro-Irish immigrant newspaper. The Delta had published a series of articles condemning the Irish for causing all sorts of ills in the city. They were forever “kicking up rows and breaking heads,” said the newspaper. Yet, the Daily Delta reported the consecration of the Irish Flag to be borne by the Montgomery Guards. The Montgomery Guards were named for Gen. Richard Montgomery, Irish born, who served in the Continental army during the American Revolution. He had risen through the ranks of the British army, but took up the patriot cause. He fell at Quebec. For the Irish in the 1850’s, he was a great Irish-American hero.       

War Drums

By March, 1861, Louisiana had already seceded. Ft. Sumter and Lincoln’s levy of 75,000 troops had not yet occurred. But, war looked very likely by St. Patrick’s Day, 1861. The Montgomery Guards were the oldest Irish militia in New Orleans. In the 1800’s, militias were more than martial organizations. They served a prominent social role, as well. And, the Montgomery Guards were at the top of the Irish social ladder. Indeed, they had been criticized over the years for the expense of their uniforms. That large expense limited their membership to only the most successful Irish immigrants.

In times like war, the Irish trusted the social norms they had always known. In 1861, the Montgomery Guards celebrated St. Patrick’s Day be seeking the blessing of the church on their flag. The flag was beautiful. It was green with fringe. On one side, there was a wreath of cotton plants, with the words, “Montgomery Guards, organized 8th January, 1861.” On the other side, there was a wreath of cotton plants, with the words, “Louisiana, our home: her cause is ours.”

St. Patrick’s Day

On St. Patrick’s Day, the Guards marched with their flag from their armory in what is now downtown New Orleans to St. Alphonsus church.  St. Alphonsus is uptown in the area now known as the Irish channel. At the church, the esteemed Fr. Duffy blessed their flag. Representatives from other militia units attended. The commander of the Louisiana Greys, Capt. Dean, attended. Sponsors of the flag included two Misses Redmond, Ann Farrell, two Misses O’Neil, Miss O’Shea, Gen. E.L. Tracy, Gen. Denis Cronan, Capt. C.D. Dreux (Orleans Cadets), Capt. C.E. Girardey (Louisiana Guards), and Capt. Dean. Fr. John B. Duffy exhorted the Montgomery Guards that defending their country with the spirit of a Christian soldier was to serve God.

After the blessing, the Guards marched around town and returned to their armory. They held a celebration with including food and drink. The Daily Delta said this was the only St. Patrick’s Day celebration that year.

New Orleans Daily Delta, March 19, 1861, p. 2, col. 6

New Orleans Daily Picayune, March 19, 1861, p. 4, col. 6

Irish Southerners Join the Cause

The Irish in the South flocked to the cause once secession started. In Jackson, Mississippi, Harry McCarthy, a traveling Irish comedian, and excited about Mississippi’s secession, penned three verses of a song soon to be famous as “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” Like most Southerners of the time, Mr. McCarthy believed he was witnessing the birth of a new nation. In New Orleans, the Irish chose St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate their heritage and their devotion to the Southern cause. Prominent at “Southern rights meetings,” the New Orleans Irish impressed at least one former Know-Nothing journalist as “true men of the South.”

In Charleston, the well-known Bishop Lynch changed the name of his newspaper from United States Catholic Miscellany to the Charleston Catholic Miscellany to reflect his new loyalty.

In December, 1860, U.S. troops moved during the night to occupy Ft. Sumter. The South Carolina government tried to negotiate the surrender of the fort. Irish militia at nearby Ft. Moultrie were spoiling for a fight. The Charleston newspaper noted the efficiency and energy of the Irish militia company.

In Mobile, the Irish formed a company known as the Emerald Guards. The Mississippi river towns had many Irish immigrants working the docks and digging canals. In Vicksburg, the Irish formed a company known as the “Sarsfield Southrons,” named after the Irish cavalry commander. The Sarsfield Southrons saw similarities between their cause as southerners and as Irishmen. On one side of the company flag was the newly adopted “Stars and Bars” of the Confederacy. On the other side was a wreath of shamrock with the traditional Irish battle cry “Faugh a Ballagh” (clear the way).

The New Orleans Irish joined in droves. They formed the Sixth Louisiana Brigade, which was largely Irish. The Sixth Louisiana became known as the Irish Brigade. Other Irish companies formed in Richmond; Alexandria, Virginia; Nashville; Georgia; East Texas; and all over the Deep South. It is said by David Gleeson that the Southern Irish joined the military in greater percentages than their counterparts in the North. The Irish, Northern and Southern, were about to demonstrate their patriotism in undeniable ways.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 141-143.

Irish Immigrants and Slaves

How did the Irish get along with slaves in the South? A very few bought slaves. Maunsel White in Plaquemines Parish, near New Orleans, owned four plantations and some 192 slaves. Frederick Stanton, of Natchez made a good living as a cotton factor. By the time of his death in 1859, he owned 333 slaves across sixteen plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. For that time period, to be a planter was the height of society. City Directories in England and Ireland listed the gentry and the local nobility. The gentry and nobility held a special place. They were an economic engine in the old world. Similarly, the City Directories in the Southern cities reserved a special section for planters. Planters were the gentry and nobility of the new world.

But, most Irish who owned slaves owned just a few. In Mississippi, merchants P.H. McGraw and P.J. Noonan each owned one slave in 1860. In New Orleans, Dennis Donovan, drayman, owned three slaves, who probably worked as teamsters for him. Fr. Mullon, the hero to Irish in New Orleans, owned two slaves. I previously wrote about Fr. Mullon here.

Buying Slaves as a Kindness

We do not know now the circumstances of Fr. Mullon owning slaves. It may be that he bought slaves as a kindness. Some slaveowners, such as Thomas Jackson, future Civil War general, purchased slaves to help a particular slave remain near his/her family. This author’s ancestors owned one slave in Louisville, while operating a boarding house. Another Irish ancestor owned a slave also while running a boarding house in New Orleans. At least in the Price family, those instances of slave ownership were brief and did not last longer than a few years. Patrick Murphy came to Natchez to work on construction projects. He saved his money and speculated in slaves. He sold one African-American slave, George, for $1,500 on the eve of the Civil War.

Living in Proximity

The more common experience for most Irish was simply living in close proximity to slaves and freedmen. Mobile’s sixth ward housed Irish immigrants and slaves. It was common for slaves to have some measure of relative freedom in the cities. So, the white establishment saw the closeness between Irish and slaves as a concern. City officials responded by passing laws preventing “illicit” trade between free persons, white and back, and slaves. In Vicksburg, in 1859, John “Red Jack” McGuiggan was convicted of selling forged passes to slaves. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The timing, in 1859, probably contributed to the harsh sentence.

Martha Ann Logan of Mobile, was brought to court for having interracial sexual relationship with a slave named David. A local reporter described the offense as “disgusting,” but what would be described in Boston as “goodly and fashionable.” Catherine Harrington was prosecuted for “trafficking” (i..e., selling liquor) with slaves. Kitty Donigan was prosecuted for “harboring a slave.” Irish saloon keepers throughout the South illegally sold liquor to slaves.

Irish Were not Abolitionists

Of course, the over-arching question in the 1850’s was slavery and the fear of abolitionists. Some Southern leaders saw the Irish as potential abolitionists. But, the Irish fear of evangelical Protestants rendered such a possibility unlikely. Too, there were instances of Irish attacking slaves. Employers of workers on the Brunswick canal had to separate the Irish workers form the slaves, to prevent the attacks by the Irish. Patrick Murphy slapped a slave girl in Natchez for alleged insolence. When the white owner told Murphy he could not strike slaves on his property, Murphy packed up his tools and left. On another occasion when a slave owner let a slave sit at the same table as Murphy, the proud Irishman said he was “not one of them to sit at second or nigroes [sic] table.”

P. Kennedy in Virginia insisted slaves were better fed and clothed than the poor Irish farmers. He complained about Yankees who went to Europe to make money, complain about slavery and stir up English ladies. He said it would be better for the Irish laborer if he was half as well-fed and taken care of as the slaves in whom the owner had an interest. Kennedy was saying the slaves was treated better because his owner had invested money in him. Kennedy allowed there were some bad masters. But, he added, there was no comparison to bad landlords in Ireland. Irish landlords would drive out their tenants to the roadside to starve. He believed no one could justly criticize slavery. We might disagree today, but certainly, the state of the Irish tenant farmer was quite bad at the time.

Like most slavery questions of the time, the Irish interaction with slaves was complicated.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 122-125.