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.

Sources:

1861 Gardner’s New Orleans City Directory

Confederate Service records, available at http://www.fold3.com

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

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