In tracing their Civil War ancestry, some folks discover (to paraphrase the title of Tony Horwitz’s delightful 1998 book) that they have a “Confederate or Yankee in the Attic”: The family’s connection to the Civil War wore Union blue or Confederate gray.A
And then there are the fortunate Civil War descendants, like Elizabeth Kane of Virginia, who can claim a Civil War ancestor clad in blue-and-gray plaid. Elizabeth — or “Beth,” as she prefers to be called — recently shared her ancestral story with Maine at War.
Beth’s tale starts with her great-great grandmother, Frances E. Cowell, born in 1811 — and likely in Ireland. Two American censuses listed her birthplace as England, but “her death certificate says ‘Ireland,’” according to Beth.
According to a Dublin, Ireland, Probate Record and Marriage Licence Index, Cowell married 20-year-old James Irwin in Dublin in 1830. Official records indicate that he sailed from Belfast, Ireland in spring 1836 and arrived at New York City that June 10. Frances arrived at “Passamaquoddy” in eastern Maine in autumn 1837.
She returned to England, where her oldest child, a daughter named Caroline, was born in 1841. While sailing from England to North America, Frances gave birth to a son, William Frederick Irwin, somewhere at sea on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 1842.
The birth may have taken place aboard a ship home-ported in Maine or bound for a Maine port. The 1860 federal census, which found the 17-year-old William Frederick working in Scarborough as a farmer laborer, lists “Maine” as his birthplace.
A brother, George Clayton Irwin, was born in Boston in 1847; a sister, Frances E. “Fannie” Cowell, was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick (then a British colony) in 1849. George, Fannie, and their mother had relocated to Cumberland County by the 1860 census, and “Frances [later] listed her occupation as [a] washerwoman on Essex Street in a Portland, Maine directory,” Beth noted.
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, many German and Irish immigrants — and their first-generation American children, like William Irwin — flocked to the Union standards. Many Irishmen (and their descendants) joined early infantry regiments like the 2nd Maine and the 5th Maine, which counted four “Kelleys” in Co. F.
The 5th Maine Infantry mustered into federal service in Portland in late June 1861; Irwin officially joined Co. G on June 23.
Incorrectly identified as “William Irvin” in the invaluable “History of the Fifth Maine Regiment” (by Rev. George Bicknell), William Irwin marched off to Manassas, Va. with the 3rd Brigade led by Col. Oliver Otis Howard of Leeds. The brigade, which included the 2nd Vermont and the 3rd and 4th Maine, stood and fought (and got shot up) on Chinn Ridge in the closing hours of the Battle of Bull Run.
And here Irwin’s (and hence Beth Kane’s) tale takes a strange twist. Bicknell’s book lists July 27, 1861 as Irwin’s “time of discharge from the regiment.” Maine historian Curt Mildner investigated the mystery as to how William Irwin got out of the Army only 30 days after joining it.
Mildner discovered that Irwin and eight other Co. G boys were listed as deserters on July 27. “After the battle [of Bull Run] there was incredible confusion and many soldiers had trouble finding their regiments and went missing for a while,” Mildner informed Beth Kane.
Many Union soldiers rejoined their regiments within weeks, but William Irwin did not reappear on the 5th Maine rolls until February 1862 (a surprising oversight in Bicknell’s book). Mildner believes that rather than deserting, William Irwin “was captured … and wasn’t exchanged until February.”
In following Irwin’s career, Mildner realized “that William was ‘strong willed,’” as evidenced by his occasional courts martial for relatively “minor offenses.” Mildner determined that the severity of the charges filed against Irwin was “based on the penalties” ($10 fines) assessed against him.
Irwin was discharged from the 5th Maine Infantry on Dec. 28, 1863, another oversight in Bicknell’s regimental history. Irwin likely fought at South Mountain in mid-September 1862 and at the Battle of Salem Church, Va. in early May 1863.
The same day he left the 5th Maine, Irwin “re-mustered as a Veteran Volunteer, Co. G, 5th Maine Infantry under the provisions of G[eneral]. O[rder]. 191 series of 1863 from the War Department,” Beth Kane wrote.
A thorough researcher, Mildner wrote that “money was the primary inducement” for men to rejoin as veteran volunteers. “The amount [of the bounty] must have seemed like an incredible sum for William,” Mildner indicated. “The new commitment as a Veteran Volunteer would have been for the duration of the war.”
Confederates captured Irwin at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 12, 1864, and he “was imprisoned at Salisbury Confederate Prison” in North Carolina, Beth Kane discovered.
The life of William Frederick Irwin would take another strange twist at this hellhole prison as the young combat veteran from Maine made a fateful decision.
Next week: The 5th Maine Infantry’s “galvanized Rebel” — Part II
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.