|John Sheridan, in the uniform of the
First Regiment Rhode Island Cavalry.
What gallant battalions came forth for the right,
Their carbines and sabres reflecting the light
As flame-lances boreal flash on the night;
‘Neath guidons and standards, their courage aglow,
With the swiftness of arrows as shot from the bow,
The Steel of our horsemen sped home on the foe;
We dashed o’er the field like the seep of a gale;
We parried their missiles and smote through their mail,
Boasted Ashby and Stuart fall back from the shock
As buffeted surges recoil from a rock.
–Rev. Frederick Denison
All those that make most talk
About our Victories are Yankees
who stay at home. If it was
Nor for the Irish and Germans
The North would have been whipped.
So the Northern army was freed
By emigrants from Europe.
This can’t be denied at all.
-Corporal William E. Walsh,
First Regiment Rhode Island Cavalry.
When Natalie McCaughey was a young girl, she enjoyed going to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Providence. There her father, William Francis McCaughey, would hoist her and her brother up so that they could read the name of their great grand uncle, John Sheridan. John was a hero to his family and our nation.
John Sheridan, like many living in the North End of Providence in 1861, was an Irish immigrant from greater Truagh, the ancient barony of the McKenna, located in the northern two parishes of County Monaghan and just over the border into County Tyrone. Being on the borderland between the lands settled by Scots and English planters and the solidly Irish Catholic south, Truagh had a long history of guerrilla warfare going back to the time of John’s great great grandparents, and continuing to this day.
|Soldiers and Sailors Monument at Kennedy Plaza, formerly Exchange Place.
It is not clear when the Sheridan family first came to Providence, but as early as 1836 there was an Elizabeth Sheridan living in Providence. By 1847, there were Sheridans living on both Federal Hill and in the North End, both Truagh enclaves. Sometime prior to 1861, John, his brother James, and his sister, Catherine, children of Bernard and Mary Sheridan, were living in Providence. Catherine was married to William McCaughey who, like the Sheridans, was a native of County Tyrone.
|Colonel Alfred Napoléon Alexander Duffié,
commander of the Rhode Island First Cavalry.
When war broke out in April 1861, few people thought the war would last long. But with the First Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861, American’s hopes that the war would be a short one were shattered. For Northerners, content in believing that it was inevitable that the South would be suppressed easily, the shocking outcome of Bull Run led to an outpouring of support on behalf of Northern men and, among them, the Irish immigrants who had only recently called America home.
On November 18, John, a tall man at 6’2″, enlisted in the First Regiment Rhode Island Cavalry, Company G.
The history of the First Rhode Island is like so many other Civil War units. In the Spring of 1862, the First lost a great number of men while encamped at Camp Mudd in Virginia. The cause of death: diarrhea. The year saw both great heroism and great loss of life, as they fought in, among other battles, those of Second Bull Run and Fredericksburg.
|Union Troops at Fredericksburg.
Winter brought no relief as the First made camp at Potomac Creek. Corporal William E. Walsh’s memoir of that First recounts how little they had to eat that winter. “We knew what hunger was. Living on 10 small hard tack per day.” He goes on to write that ” …many men deserted and the men was discharged, for disability, brought on by hunger.”
Eighteen Sixty Three was no better for the poor men of the First. In May, the men saw action at the battle of Chancellorsville and at Brandy Station.
|Wounded soldiers following the Battle of Chancellorsville.
And then on June 17, while on reconnaissance deep within enemy territory, they encountered heavy attack. Completely routed, six were killed, twenty four were wounded and one hundred seventy were taken prisoner. Included in the group of captives was John Sheridan.
Those soldiers were then marched over seven days of hell, to Staunton, about 140 miles away. Long days of walking with little food or water, sapped whatever strength the men had from them. Upon reaching Staunton, they were put on a train and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond.
Eventually John was part of a prisoner exchange, and on January 5, 1864, he was re-mustered as a Veteran Volunteer. The bonus for re-enlisting could be as high as $800. This was a significant amount for poor Irish families, and would certainly come in handy for the his wife, Mary Ann Kelly, whom he had married while on leave.
By this time, John Sheridan must have been a very war-weary man.
And thus it was, that on July 28, 1864, during the battle of Deep Bottom, John was fatally wounded. Four three weeks prior to the battle, John’s unit had rested. But on the 26th of July, they were again on the march.
|John’s handgun, made by Savage Arms Co., Middletown, CT, copywright 1856.
Reverend Frederick Denison, army chaplain and author of Sabers and Spurs, described the night this way. “Our route led mostly through the woods on a narrow road skirted by tall Southern pines. Says Sargent: ‘The night was dark as Egypt. The boys were sleepy. They nod in their saddles. Our band strikes up Lanergan’s Ball (a traditional Irish folk song), the audience coming in on the chorus. Fine effect. Grand encore. Lanergan’s Ball played out. The boys enjoy another nap. They wake up, and wonder if they are gong to run this machine all night?’ ”
At two p.m., they dismounted and built an enormous fire to give the enemy the impression that “a large force was in motion.” The men slept with the reins of their saddled horses in their hands or tied to their legs.
|The crossing at Deep Bottom.
At sunrise they were on the march again, crossing the James River at Deep Bottom and continuing on toward Malvern Hill, taking prisoners along the way. That night they camped about ten miles from Richmond.
The next day, July 28th, all hell broke loose. The rebels attacked in what Frederick Denison called “heavy force.” “The fighting was smart, and continued several hours.” When it was over, two hundred rebels had been captured, along with two battle flags. The loss to the Union was heavy. One hundred and sixty men had been killed, wounded, or missing. Soldiers sent to count the enemy dead found one hundred and twenty nine corpses. “Our regiment had but one man injured. John Sheridan (Troop G), who received a musket ball in his thigh, grazing the femur.” That the Union soldiers had breech loading carbines and the Confederates only muzzle-loading guns was noted in Saber and Spurs as a key to their victory.
A wound that today would be survivable, if not pleasant, meant nearly a guarantee of death in 1864. In the case of John Sheridan, a young man with his whole life before him, it was his demise.
John’s widow and family must have been brokenhearted. When you look into the eyes of John you see a young man full of promise. The trials he faced in Truagh, both the sectarian violence and starvation, were behind them. The heartbreak at the center of America he could not avoid.
John was not the only one that the Sheridan family sacrificed to the gods of war.
His brother, James, was a member of the Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment, Company I. Like John McKenna’s unit, K, Company I was heavily Irish. Irish units, like Black units, were considered safest when segregated from native-born soldiers.
|The Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment,
at Fort Pulasky, 1863.
James was wounded at the Battle of Secessionville, James Island, South Carolina and seemingly never returned to Rhode Island. His sister held his one hundred dollars in mustering-out pay for a long time before using it to by a grand piano.
Like so many other families, both of immigrants and yankees, the Sheridans sacrificed so much to the war.
The Sheridan family’s solace is in remembering, until this day, John’s and James’ great sacrifice to the ending of slavery and to the survival of our Union.
|Young soldiers who got to be old men.
Denison, Rev. Frederick, Sabres and Spurs: The First Regiment Rhode Island Cavalry in the Civil War, 1861-1865.
Denison, Rev. Frederic , A. M. Chaplain. Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment 1861-1865., Providence: J. A. & R. Reid, 1879.
Walsh, William E., Diary of Corporal William E. Walsh: First Rhode Island Cavalry, 1861-5.
An exchange of emails with Natalie McCaughey McKenna (not a relative, but would make a great one!), beginning in April 2011 and continuing to this day.