From a hedge school in Cappincur to adventures in the American Civil War: the story of Peter Cavanagh. By Michael MacNamara

Offaly Archives received a very interesting donation of manuscripts in recent times. Michael MacNamara, a native of Colehill and long-time resident of County Limerick, donated archives relating to his great grand-father, Peter Cavanagh, who was born in Cappincur in 1824 and ended up as a solider in the US army during the American Civil War.  Before all those adventures, Peter undertook high level tuition from a Mr Patrick Glowry in a hedge-school arrangement through the famine years of 1844-1848.   His copybook survived and is among the items donated to Offaly Archives. Michael MacNamara has spent many years researching Peter Cavanagh and summarised his unusual life and times for an interview in the Midland Tribune in 2005:

Discovering the documents


Peter Cavanagh copybook (6)The Limerick based engineer grew up in Colehill in a house where there was a collection dusty documents from the middle of the nineteenth century.

‘I came across them casually and I was told that they belonged to my great-grandfather, Peter Cavanagh. I wasn’t very interested until some years ago when I took a closer look. There was an old school exercise book of about 100 foolscap pages and a number of documents about his service in the US army. I found a record of schooling during the Famine years. There were also military records that mentioned a number of engagements during the American Civil War. He seemed to have been in the Wild West after the war and then he returned to Ireland in 1867, the year the Fenians rose.’

Mr MacNamara decide to find out more information about the Americian Civil War and wrote to the National Historic Battlefields in connection with some of the locations mentioned in the documents.
Peter Cavanagh, son of Nicholas Cavanagh of Cappincur and Mary McLeroy of Kilbeggan, was born in Cappincur in 1824. There is no record other that of his baptism until he starts tuition with Patrick Glowry from Cloneyglin, Kilbeggan in 1844. The 100 pages or so of the surviving exercise book were written between 1844 and 1849. Unfortunately, there is almost no personal information and after it finishes there is no record of what happened then or for the next 11 years.

Joining the US Army

Mr MacNamara adds: “In 1860, he joined the US army at Newport, Kentucky, a town across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Over the following months a number of others, who were to be his companion for the next seven years, also signed on , and the majority of them was Irish. There was a fellow Offaly man, James Brennan. They became members of Company F of the 2nd Regiment of Light Artillery. Practically every county in Ireland was represented.”

In December 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States and by the time Peter Cavanagh and his comrades headed south to Saint Louis, Missouri in March 1861, most of the southern states had followed South Carolina out of the Union and into the independent Confederate States of America. They were heading into the place where the two opposing sides would face off. Missouri was a very divided state, on the cusp of the two opposing forces.

American Civil War

The war started in April 1861 with the Shelling of Fort Sumter in Charlestown Harbor, Saint Carolina. Conflict soon came to Saint Louis.Missouri was a front line state where both sides were evenly represented. The Governor, Claiborne Jackson, was a secessionist and had organised the state militia at Camp Jackson, just outside Saint Louis. The intention was clear; to use these troops to deliver Missouri to the confederacy. In one of the first actions of the war, Union troops, including Sweeney and his men, captured Camp Jackson on May 10. It was captured without bloodshed, but in later fighting in the city, 28 people died. Two civilians who would later play a major part in the war, witnessed the action as bystanders.These were US Generals Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, both of who wrote of it in their memoirs. It was a minor incident, but had important consequences. It set the scene for the success of the Union forces in the state.

Events then speeded up and the two sides entered into open conflict. Peter Cavanagh and his colleagues were involved in battles across the state, culminating in the epic conflict at Wilson’s Creek in August 1861. They had chased the Governor up the Missouri River and captured the state capital of Jefferson City. A number of minor skirmishes followed until the two substantial armies faced each other in the southwestern corner of the state. At Wilson’s Creek, General Lyons, commander of the Northern forces, became the first general officer to die in the war. Peter was close to him when he was killed, as part of the US Second Regiment of Light Artillery. Wilson’s Creek was a major battle, the biggest in Missouri,on the scale of Bull Run in the north, and they were fought within days of each other and with approximately the same casualties and result. The North lost, but the exhausted Southerners could not take advantage of the victory. On the Southern side that day were men such as Cole Younger, William Quantrill and Jesse and Frank James,later to become famous outlaws, but who fought as irregular troops at Wilson’s Creek and fought throughout the war as guerrillas. Among the many who would achieve fame on the Northern side was Wild Bill Hickock.

In the winter of 1861, this group of men of 2nd Regiment of Light Artillery formed the core of a new regiment. They retreated toward Saint Louis to regroup. They were included in the newly formed Missouri troops that were mustered into supporting the Union cause. They were part of the newly formed Company M of the 1st Regiment of Missouri Light Artillery and would have an illustrious part to play in the years ahead.

During 1862, they were involved in the conflict in Missouri, Mississippi and Alabama. Early in the year, they fought at New Madrid and Island Number 10, in southeastern Missouri on the Mississippi River. They fought in major battles like Iuka and Corinth. In early 1863, they travelled down the Yazoo River to attempt to capture Vicksburg. 

Splitting the Confederacy

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In the following year, 1863, they were part of Grant’s force that set out to split the Confederacy through the capture of Vicksburg. They had tried the years before but had failed in the attempt on the Yazoo Pass Expedition to take the city from the northeast. They had tried to dig canals around it on the west. Now General Grant went down the west bank of the Mississippi, crossed below the city at Bruinsburg, and came in from the southeast to attack the city. 

Company M was part of the force that lay siege to Vicksburg and were near the Shirley House to the east of the city. While under siege, there were a number of bloody and costly attacks on the defenses. When there was no hope of rescue, General Pemberon surrendered the city to Grant, ironically on July 4th, Independence Day. The Confederacy was split in two and, as Grant stated, the Mississippi flowed unmolested to the sea. It was one of the crucial events of the war.

Peter Cavanagh had been promoted to corporal at Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. Now after Vicksburg he was promoted to sergeant. The vacancy arose because the unfortunate Sergeant Silkman was demoted to the ranks for dereliction of duty, being drunk on duty and insulting a superior officer. Clearly, the victory was well celebrated. After this, Peter spent several months on the hospital ship Woodford, on the Mississippi, suffering from miasmatic fever. This was a disease, thought to be caused by breathing the foul air from the marshes. Over the previous 18 months, he had been exposed to life in the swamps of the Mississippi’s delta, that region between the Yazoo and Mississippi north of Vicksburg, during the Yazoo expedition. 

After the victory at Vicksburg they were engaged in mopping up operations in Mississippi, heading eastward to Jackson and Meridian. They then went on the Red River Expedition through Louisiana and almost into Texas. This was not a success, and they returned to Vicksburg. While too much water was the problem on the Yazoo, too little water in the Red River hindered the passage of the boats and they often became stranded.

At this time for some reason, they agitated to be returned to their original company, Company F of the regular army. Several petitions were served on the Missouri Governor and the Secretary of War. After much consideration, it was agreed and they were shipped east and reenlisted in Company F when they reached Georgia. They were now part of Sherman’s attack on Atlanta and his later march through Georgia to the sea. However, before that, Atlanta stood in the way.

As the army approached Atlanta, they fought a major and bloody battle at Kennesaw Mountain and Battery F was part of it. Victory could not be achieved , so Sherman by passed Kennesaw to the south, crossed the Chattahoochee River and laid seige to Atlanta. Major battles were fought around Atlanta. At what is known as the Battle of Atlanta, Battery F was destroyed and its guns captured. There were serious casualties but Peter Cavanagh was unharmed. Close to the spot where Battery F was defeated, General McPherson died during the battle.

After the battle was won, they settled into a siege. As artillery, they had an important role in the siege, as they had at Corinth, Jackson and Vicksburg. The position of the defenders was unsustainable and eventually the city surrendered. Sherman destroyed the city and expelled the entire population. Not a single building remains in Atlanta from this period.

Peter next turned up as part of General Thomas army that defeated the Southerners at Nashville, Tennessee. At this stage, in December 1864, the fate of the South has been determined. It was now only a matter of time until the final surrender at Appromattox Courthouse in Virginia. The war was over and Peter Cavanagh had survived.


Peter Cavanagh discharge 1
Discharge certificate of Peter Cavanagh



The last job Peter was asked to perform was in 1867 when he was ordered to escort a military prisoner from Fort Vancouver to Fort Cape Disappointment. Fort Cape Disappointment is on the Pacific at the northern side of the Columbia River estuary. It is the point where Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific coast in 1805, after the first epic transcontinental crossing. The trip from Vancouver is over 100 miles and was certainly by water. There are few roads today; there was none then. Having safely delivered the prisoner, he then transferred another prisoner across the river to Fort Steevens in Oregon.
In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia. In order to show the flag and to provide fishery protection, Company F was to be sent to Saint Paul’s Island in the Pribilof group in the Bering Straits. This would have been an even greater hardship station. It is one of the most remote parts of the US. It has a very harsh climate, with the islands enveloped in fog for most of the year. On the journey there the Company was ship wrecked on Cook Inlet, Alaska, with the loss of the boat and all property. Peter wasn’t with them on this trip. His tour of duty was over in Vancouver in July and he did not re-enlist. Maybe it was the prospect of Saint Paul’s Island that made up his mind, but in any event, he returned to Ireland immediately.

Return to Ireland

In September 1867, he married Margaret Tiernan from Rahugh near Kilbeggan and went to live in Cappancur. They had two daughters, Margaret and Mary Ann. Peter died in 1871, diagnosed with TB. He is buried in the cemetery, almost across from his house, in Cappincur. He may have survived the Civil War, but he was certainly a casualty. Mary Ann emigrated to the United States. Margaret married Patrick Donohoe of Colehill. Peter’s widow lived with her daughter Margaret in Colehill until her death in 1930.

There is no record of individual actions on the part of Peter Cavanagh during the American Civil War. However, he was constantly involved in combat from the full duration of the war from 1861 to 1865. He saw a great deal of the country and had first hand experience of the two most prominent generals of the war. He may have survived the battles but he was certainly a Civil War casualty. Most deaths of combatants during the war were from disease rather then from battle wounds. His was just delayed a little longer.

There may well be other records to be found that will fill in the gaps. There is a tantalising possibility that there was a Fenian connection. He returned to Ireland in 1867, the year of the rising, and he had been for a long time close to Tom Sweeny. He was in Philadelphia at the end of 1864, at a time when it was the centre of Fenian activity and had met Irish American politicians. However, there is no evidence of Fenian involvement.