Who were the Sarsfield Guards?

I wrote about the Sarsfield Guards here. They were a newly formed militia, created in New Orleans for the expected war with the United States. Their captain was James O’Hara, a painter. He apparently had a difficult life after the war. The Sarsfield Guards changed their name a few times, finally entering the civil war as the Pelican Guards. With a name like “Sarsfield,” their allegiance to Ireland is apparent. The Guards included many Irish immigrants. Who were those new U.S., now C.S.A. citizens? They did not leave any memoirs or letters. But, we can find some hints about them from public records. Their Confederate States of American service record provides some clues. The rest of the information comes form various sources.

The Pelican Guards were not assigned to a regiment. That was unusual. They were an independent company. That may explain why they were posted to a floating barge at the Battle of Island No. 10 in April,1862. The Confederates lost a quick battle that day The Federals managed to get behind the Confederates and cut them off. As will be seen below, a few of the Pelican Guards evaded capture, but most ended up as Federal prisoners. See more about the Battle of Island No. 10 here. For the Pelican Guards, the real story may be more about what they did after the battle than what they did during the battle.

Peter O’Neil

Peter O’Neil enlisted Oct. 26, 1861 in New Orleans. He was court martialed for assault and battery. He struck a hospital steward. He was sentenced to ten days guard duty. He was also required to walk up and down to the upper deck of their ship for four hours with a placard on his chest and back that said “drunk.” Like the rest of the Pelican Guards (Co. B, apparently not assigned to a regiment) was captured at the Battle of Island No. 10 in Kentucky on April 8, 1862. He managed to escape from his captors. The Pelican Guards were assigned to a barge mounted with artillery guns. It was known as the “floating battery.”

There were two Peter O’Neils before the war, both 31 years old and both living in the Third Ward, close to where Capt. O’Hara likely recruited his company. One Peter O’Neill was married with three children. The married Peter was a laborer who claimed $150 in personal possessions. The mother or aunt of the married Peter lived with the family. The small family lived in their own apartment. The unmarried Peter worked as an “Ostler, “usually spelled as “Hostler” in the U.S. A hostler was a stable groom. The unmarried Peter lived and worked at the Jacob M. French livery located at 98 Dryades. The unmarried Peter O’Neill lived with a dozen other Hostlers, of all nationalities. The Hostler Peter claimed no real estate or personal estate in the 1860 census.

James O’Rourke

James O’Rourke enlisted in New Orleans, but transferred to the 11th La. Regt of Infantry December 31, 1861. There were only two James O’Rourkes in the 1860 census who were of military age. And, only one was near the part of town where Capt. O’Hara raised his company. That James O’Rourke lived in a boarding house in the Third Ward. The boarding house James O’Rourke was a laborer, 22 years old in 1861. He claimed no personal estate and no real estate. The 15 other boarders were also largely Irish. James was one of thousands of nameless, unknown Irish in the largest city on the South.

Patrick McGovern

Patrick McGovern also lived in New Orleans’ Third Ward. Patrick lived at Poydras and Preyer when he enlisted. His service record is also very brief, indicating he did not serve after the capture in 1862. Pat McGovern was 31 in 1861. He lived in the Third Ward. Pat was a cab driver with a wife and two little girls. He was born in Ireland. In New Orleans, the Irish immigrants had largely taken over the cab driving work from the free blacks. Pat had done relatively well compared to other immigrants. He and his family lived in their own apartment and claimed $500 in personal possessions.

R. Downey

R. Downey was a Sergeant in Capt. O’Hara’s company. He enlisted on Oct. 26, 1861, well after the initial war euphoria. Sgt. Downey may have been Robert Downey, a bricklayer before the war, who lived at 211 Common Street. He was born in Ireland in 1835.

James and Thomas Kennedy

One pair brothers or cousins joined the Pelican Guards. James and Thomas Kennedy, living at the corner of Circus (changed to Rampart in 1852) and Girod Streets joined on Oct. 26, 1861. There was a James Kennedy, a screwman, who lived in the First Ward. The 1860 census does not show a brother named Thomas. In the 1861 City Directory, James the screwman was living on Rampart Street in the Third Ward. This James was the only James Kennedy who lived close enough to Capt. O’Hara to have been involved in his company. James, the screwman, was 23 in 1861 and had been born in Ireland. A screwman was considered a skilled trade at the time. It was the screwman’s job to screw down the cotton bales, so the shippers could squeeze as many bales as possible in the cargo hold. That was very desirable blue collar job in 1861. Thomas Kennedy may have been a recent arrival. There is no Thomas Kennedy living close enough to Capt. O’Hara to be involved in the Sarsfield Guards.

            For 90% of the Irish immigrants before 1860, the skilled trades were the top of the food chain. Screwmen, bricklayers and painters represented Irish immigrant success. One or two were laborers, but the rest worked as skilled tradesmen. None of the Sarsfield Guards appear to have continued their service after the battle in April, 1862. Perhaps they had enough. Or, perhaps, the strain of acting as an independent company, with minimal support, dissuaded then from further military service.

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