An Irishman at the Battle of Lynchburg
By Eli Stewart
Despite being a lesser-known engagement, the Battle of Lynchburg acts as a unique tapestry in which an array of notable people from across the East Coast convened in a seemingly insignificant town to fight in the Civil War. Many of these individuals went on to do prominent work after the war while others left a lasting impact before their deaths on the battlefield. This blogpost reflects on the life of Irish-American journalist and Union soldier, Major Charles Halpine. Through his gifts of humor and journalism , Halpine not only grants a unique perspective of America during the 1850’s and 60’s, but also sheds light into the lives of Civil War soldier in compelling way. As historian William Hanchett describes, Halpine “deserves recognition as being one of the major minor figures of American history.”
Charles Graham Halpine was born in Oldcastle, Ireland on November 3, 1825 to his mother, Ann and his father, Nicholas Halpine, who served as a Protestant clergyman. In 1844, he enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin (the alma mater of his father) and pursued a degree in medicine. Dropping out before he graduated, Charles continued his education in London where he studied law and contributed article to English newspapers and magazines. On January 25, 1849, Charles married Margaret G. Milligan while both were only 19 years old. The following year, Charles left his wife and newborn daughter Syble in the care of Margaret’s parents and sailed for America, as many Irishmen did in the years following the historic potato famine.
Initially settling in Boston, Halpine became good friends with Benjamin P. Shillaber, a writer for the Boston Post, and in September, 1850 began printing a weekly paper through their press called the Carpet-Bag. Despite being short-lived, the Carpet-Bag printed a variety of jokes, poetry, stories, essays, and cartoons from across the nation. One notable entry was Mark Twain’s first published story called “The Dandy Frightening the Squatter,” released on May 1, 1852.
In the fall of 1852, Charles moved to Brooklyn, New York to work for the New York Herold as a French translator and then at the New York Times as a correspondent. In 1857, Charles took on a lead editorial role at the New York Leader after purchasing a one-third stock of this declining political journal. During his tenure, Halpine increased the circulation of the Leader and gained status as a political talking-head which would later aid him during the Civil War.
With his wife and children Syble, Lucie, Lonnie, and “Baby” now stateside, Charles once again made the decision to leave his family, this time for the call of duty. Nearly a week after the firing at Fort Sumter, marking the beginning of the Civil War, Halpine enlisted as a ninety-day volunteer for the famous Sixty-Ninth New York Infantry, a regiment of Irishmen. A short time later he met General David Hunter and joined his staff as an aide-de-camp. When his 90 day enlistment expired Halpine left the army. However Hunter wanted Halpine to remain on his staff and convinced him to reenlist now holding the rank as an Assistant Adjutant General.
Halpine accompanied Hunter through a number of assignments in the West as well as in the South. A prominent accomplishment of Halpine during this time was drafting plans for the US Army’s first black regiment, under direction of Hunter while in South Carolina in March, 1862. Although unsuccessful, due to a lack of political support, Hunter and Halpine may have loosened up the status quo. Robert Smalls, a freed slave and Union war hero, soon convinced Lincoln to authorize a black regiment only weeks after Hunter disbanded his Black regiment.
Halpine’s influence through writing did not stop there either, during his time in South Carolina, Halpine also began to write letters, articles, and poems under the pen name Miles O’Reilly, a fictional Irishman who served as a private in the Union Army. Writing under this pseudonym gave Halpine a certain anonymity which allowed him to be a hard critic of Northern generals and politicians he didn't agree with.
O’Reilly first made waves across Northern states when he wrote a radical poem on black soldiers fighting in the war called “Sambo’s Right to be Kilt.” The poem emerged from the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation in early 1863 when many Northerners, especially those of Irish heritage, may have held abolitionist ideals but remained bias against the pursuit of equality, in this case, fighting alongside newly-freed Blacks. What made O’Reilly’s poem so effective was his use of dark humor to “persuade whites to accept blacks as soldiers without in the least disrupting their fundamental prejudices against Negroes.”
In the poem, he makes the argument for allowing black soldiers to fight, but for the sole purpose of taking the bullet thus preserving the lives of white soldiers. Although this can be interpreted as cruel and demeaning today, Mark Meigs, Professor of U.S. History at the University of Paris-Diderot makes it clear that, “in the context of shared white memory of the war…the poem could be read as self-deprecating humor: as ‘the human side,’ which is to say, a momentary lapse from that uniform valor that North and South should share. North and South can now share this human weakness too.” The poem was turned into song and was even dedicated by O’Reilly to General Hunter.
Halpine served under Hunter until July of 1863 when he was relieved of his duties due to his declining eyesight. He pursued work in politics, first in Washington D.C then in New York. However, not even a year after he was discharged, Charles rejoined General Hunter for one final campaign in Virginia, in what became known as “Hunter’s Raid.” While in Lexington, Halpine saw many of the horrors of war. Most notably was Hunter’s command to burn building and private residences, including the Virginia Military Institute and the home of former Virginia Governor John Letcher. On June 12, Charles laments in his journal saying, “my God! How I felt on seeing Gov. Letcher’s family sitting out on the lawn on their trunks and furniture, while their house was on fire beside them…I wish it were over.”
After capturing Lexington, Hunter then proceeded to Lynchburg to capture it too. On the afternoon of June 17th, the Union Army reached Lynchburg’s city limits. Union forces broke through the first line of enemy defenses afterwards encamping on the outskirts of the city. General Hunter commandeered the nearby home of retired Army officer, George C. Hutter for use as his headquarters. Halpine recounted their stay at Hutter’s home, called “Sandusky” in his book, “Baked Meets of the Funeral,” he wrote,