The Civil War: Story of a fighting Irishman, Gen. Michael Corcoran

An excellent horseman, Brig. Gen. Corcoran was surprisingly killed by his own horse. Photo: Priest leads services for N.Y. 69th with Gen. Corcoran to his left

VIENNA, Va., August 6, 2013 — When things slowed down militarily during the Civil War and a bunch of young men were just killing time, it figures that some version of sports were to be found whether it was baseball, which had its early roots during the Civil War, or a favorite of West Virginians, road ball. One of the big favorites was horseback riding, which naturally led to competitions.

On one particular occasion, it even led to the death of a relatively well-known leader, Brig. Gen. Michael Corcoran, who headed the famous 69 th Regiment, New York National Guard, known as Corcoran’s Irish Legion.

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Brig. Gen. Michael Corcoran

Corcoran’s story begins in New York City when he was heading up the troops of his militia just before the war and he and his men were ordered to be part of the review parade for the Prince of Wales.

No fan of the Prince due to the starvation of his people back in Ireland, Corcoran refused to lead his troops in the parade. He was chastised for this decision with a warrant of arrest issued for his obstinacy, but about that time the Civil  War loomed large, and so he escaped serious rebuke.

Born in Ireland, Corcoran was 45 at the time of the conflict and was among the first to take up arms on behalf of his adopted country. Not long thereafter, he was captured at the Battle of First Manassas, or Bull Run as the North referred to it. It could not have been a pleasant imprisonment since his status put him at risk of hanging by the Rebel forces for the anticipated execution by the Yankees of Southern pirates.

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However, he was released in 1862 in a prisoner exchange, receiving a conquering hero’s welcome by many of the Northern cities, including New York, and was commissioned as Brigadier General while he was still imprisoned. He then raised a new group of followers and was stationed primarily in the Suffolk, Va. area.

One of his friends was Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, a devoted member of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, who promoted the Irish cause wherever he was, and they returned the favor. His troops charged into battle waving the green, white and orange flag of Ireland. Meagher (pronounced “Mar”) was as fond of hell raising and eating and drinking as he was of fighting.

One of his favorite sports, shared by Corcoran, was  impromptu horse races between the troops, and one famous one, called the Chickahominy Steeplechase, was interrupted by the Rebel forces of General Joseph E. Johnston, who attacked the group at Fair Oaks or Seven Pines. Fortunately for the sporting Irish group, Gen. George “Little Mac” McClellan, commander of the AOP, sent Sumner’s Second Corps to reinforce the Union line, which saved the day.

Corcoran Monument in Ballymote, Ireland

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Yet both men met extremely sad ends. Meagher’s drinking got him in trouble and he left the service, when he was sent orders one day and was found too drunk to be able to read, much less follow them. He had just pushed authority too far.

In a later position in Montana, he traveled to Fort Benton to meet a Missouri steamboat that was bringing cases of rifles. Later he was not found in his berth on the steamboat but was reported missing and the question is still unanswered if he fell off the boat and drowned, committed suicide or was killed. His body was never found.

As for Corcoran, his last command was as head of the “Irish Legion” and in December 22, 1863, he was either in an informal horse race or was simply riding, whether on his own horse or on his friend Meagher’s rather spirited mount. Either way, the pair stumbled and the horse fell on top of him, cracking his skull. The fatal accident occurred near Fairfax Court House, Va. The two riotous, raucous, hard-fighting Irishmen were gone forever.

A large monument was dedicated to Brig. Gen. Corcoran and the Fighting 69th in Ballymote County, Sligo, Ireland near the place of his birth on August 22, 2006.  Representing the United States was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who brought with him a small pot of Virginia grass. 

During the commemoration, one speaker indicated that Corcoran had died of a stroke. If this is correct, it may be that the stroke caused the fall from the horse, though the stroke part is not mentioned in the various historical sources. Corcoran is buried in Calvary Cemetery at Woodside, Queens County, N.Y.

As part of the Sesquicentennial of Fairfax County, an historical marker will be dedicated to Corcoran sometime this fall in Fairfax City where he fell.

Read more of Martha’s columns at The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times. Follow her on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email at   

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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