JAMES A. MULLIGAN AND THE WESTERN IRISH BRIGADE
OR “Lay me down and save the flag”
by Paul Winslow
I was pleased to learn that Camp #66 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War was raising funds to erect a monument this year, 2008, to honor Col. James A Mulligan and the Union soldiers who defended the U.S. position in the Battle of Lexington, Mo., the Confederate participants having been so honored in 2000. Mulligan, one of the lesser known Irish-American heroes of the Civil War, was finally being recognized. I was familiar with the outline of the battle, having visited the site and also having participated in the last large-scale reenactment of the battle.
I knew Col. Mulligan was famous for organizing a regiment of Irish and Irish-Americans known variously as “The Chicago Irish Brigade”, “The Western Irish Brigade” and “Mulligan’s Irish Brigade”, which was designated the 23rd Illinois Infantry. I also knew that he was forced to surrender at Lexington when no relief arrived, and his men ran out of ammunition, and they and their horses ran out of water.
At Lexington, the Union forces included the Lafayette County (MO) Home Guard, 23rd Illinois (Irish Brigade) Infantry, 1st Illinois Cavalry, 13th Missouri Infantry, 14th Missouri Home Guard Infantry, 27th Missouri Mounted Infantry, and Van Horn’s Battalion, and Berry’s Cavalry Battalion, totaling approximately 2,780 men. As ranking officer, Col. Mulligan was in command, the Irish Brigade having been sent to reinforce the units at Lexington. They were ordered to hold the high ground known as College Hill. Opposing them were the Confederate Missouri State Guard under Gen. Sterling Price of up to 28,000 men and thirteen pieces of artillery. For the first few days, Mulligan and his soldiers held their own against overwhelming odds, even pushing the secessionists back. The arithmetic and their increasingly isolated position soon reduced the fighting to a siege.
Price’s men introduced an innovative tactic which gave the Battle of Lexington its “nom de guerre”, “The Battle of the Hemp Bales”. Hemp, used for making rope, was grown on the plantations along the Missouri River. These plantations were operated on slave labor, and the owners were, to a man, supporters of the South. In a moment that was reminiscent of Andrew Jackson’s requisition of cotton bales to build his ramparts at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, the Confederate troops seized bales of hemp from the fields and warehouses in Lexington. The hemp growers objected, just as the cotton growers did at New Orleans. These bales were round cylinders and man-high. They soaked the bales in the Missouri and used them as movable breastworks, moving closer and closer to Mulligan’s lines. On September 20th, with all hope of relief gone and his soldiers lacking ammunition and water and unable to carry on the fight, Mulligan surrendered. He and his men were paroled only to reenter the War when exchanged.
The Civil War was among the last major conflicts to use parole and exchange. This was an elaborate system where units were paroled, in effect released to be held within their own lines on the promise that the unit would not fight the enemy until arrangements were made for an equivalent enemy unit to be “exchanged”, in other words released from parole. There was a Commission with representatives from the United States and the Confederacy that made the arrangements for exchange.
In one of that anecdotal brother against brother moments the Civil War is known for, the soldiers of Western Irish Brigade defended the Union position while being assaulted by “Kelly’s Irish Brigade” of Price’s Army. Kelly’s unit was the portion of the Washington Blues that went with Price into Confederate service. The Blues were a St. Louis-based “Irish” militia unit whose colors proclaimed “What Washington did for America – We will do for Ireland”. The Union supporters in the Blues formed the nucleus of the 7th Missouri Infantry, known as the “Irish Seventh”.
It was an inauspicious baptism of fire for Mulligan, a man who, up to then, had always found success. Born James Adelbert Mulligan in Utica, NY, in year 1830, he moved to Chicago as a boy. His family prospered, and he became the first graduate of Chicago’s first university, St. Mary’s of the Lake. Admitted to the Bar in 1851, he became involved in Democratic politics and was a close friend and confidant of Stephen Douglas. Being young and adventurous, he joined Stevenson’s expedition to Panama, in the hope of securing the Isthmus for the United States in 1857. An able writer, he was the first editor of the first Catholic paper in Chicago, The Western Tablet. Irish independence was an all-consuming passion, marking him as one of Ireland’s leading advocates in the West.
Like many Irish patriots of the day he joined an “Irish” voluntary militia company “Chicago ‘Shields’ Guard” and was soon elected Captain. The “Shields” was James Shields, Irish-born veteran of the Black Hawk War, a hero of the Mexican War who was brevetted a Major General of Volunteers for his service in that war. Shields was a prominent Democratic politician in Illinois and once challenged Abraham Lincoln to a duel. He was the holder of numerous prestigious political posts including U.S. Senator from Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri. During the Civil War, he held the rank of Brigadier General and fought in the East.
When the War of the Rebellion (the official title of the Civil War) broke out, Mulligan placed an ad in the Chicago Tribune on April 20, 1861, calling for a rally that evening. Hundreds attended. Thirty-two men enlisted, and three days later the Chicago Irish Brigade was 1,000 strong, the number of enlisted men needed to be organized as a regiment.
After the surrender of Mulligan and his men, General John Fremont, the Republican candidate for President in 1856, as commander of the Missouri Department, tried to strip Mulligan of his command and his Irish Brigade of their colors. General George McClellan, with the support and encouragement of President Lincoln, restored the regiment.
While waiting to be exchanged, Mulligan was placed in command of the infamous Camp Douglas, where he and his men worked to improve conditions for the Southern prisoners. He also toured the country and was hailed as a hero by Irish and native citizens alike. Exchanged in June 1862, Mulligan and his men moved to Harper’s Ferry and were involved in numerous battles in the Shenandoah Valley. The Western Irish Brigade then went on to the Siege of Richmond and Petersburg, and finally they were at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered the Army of the Potomac. The unit mustered out at Richmond, Va., on July 24, 1865, and was discharged at Chicago, IL, on July 30. Total losses to combat and disease were 149 officers and men.
Sadly, James Mulligan was not with his beloved Irish Brigade to taste final victory or to realize the sweetest of every soldier’s dreams, coming home.
On September 19, 1864, Jubal Early, commanding Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley, misread the actions of General Phil Sheridan. Sheridan had been ordered by Grant to stay on the defensive until reinforcements sent to Early by Lee had returned to Richmond. Early saw only a reluctance of his opponent to fight. Perhaps “believing his own press releases”, he was known to be an aggressive and hard-hitting General, and he attacked, bringing on the Third Battle on Winchester. Col. James A. Mulligan’s command, a Brigade that included his beloved Irishmen, took the brunt of the attack. The other Regiments in the brigade began to collapse under the pressure of Early’s attack; Mulligan’s Irish Brigade held. Mulligan was wounded and his Irishmen rushed to his side and began moving him to the rear. Mulligan saw that the colors of the 23rd Illinois were about to be captured, and he gave his men an order, “Lay me down, and save the flag”. The colors were saved; Mulligan was captured and soon died of his wounds in Confederate captivity. He rests under a monument crowned by a Celtic cross at the main gate of Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Chicago. He was promoted to Brigadier General of U.S. Volunteers posthumously.
Robert F. McNamara offers a tribute to James Mulligan in Rockwell’s Civil War “Henry”, strangely a book on the development of the Henry Repeating Rifle; he states of Mulligan, “A teetotaler from age eleven, a man of wit and social grace and chivalrous towards women, Col. Mulligan was an exacting charismatic leader of men.”
Paul F. Winslow, Historian
AOH Father Tim Dempsey Div #1
Mi Feabhra 2008
N. B. In addition to recognizing the U.S. units that fought for the Union at Lexington and George Henry Palmer, a Musician with the 1st Illinois Cavalry who won The Medal of Honor for his actions during the fight, the text of the monument at Lexington will read: