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.

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