UTICA NY GIFTS A HERO TO CHICAGO
by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian
On 31 May 1885 a monument was unveiled at Calvary cemetery in Chicago to honor the memory of Colonel Jamdes A. Mulligan, the hero of Lexington, Missouri. He was born 30 June 1830 in Utica, New York to Irish immigrant parents. When his father died, his mother remarried and moved the family to Chicago, Illinois. James studied law there, supported local Catholic activities and joined a military company in Chicago named The Shields Guards and reached the rank of Captain. The Shield Guards were formed in 1854 in honor of Irish-born James Shields, a veteran of the Black Hawk War, a breveted Major General in the Mexican War and Brigadier General in the eastern theater of the Civil War; he was also the only man to serve as Senator from three states (but that’s another story).
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Mulligan raised the 23rd Illinois Infantry Regiment, known locally as the Chicago Irish Brigade, which included the Shield Guards. The term Brigade was used by many Irish units of less than Brigade strength in memory of Ireland’s Wild Geese forced into exile to become the Irish Brigades in European armies after the faithless 1691 Treaty of Limerick.
In September 1861, Mulligan led his troops to Lexington, Missouri, as that vital river town faced attack by the Confederate army under Gen. Sterling Price. In one of those brother vs brother moments, Price’s forces included Kelly’s Irish Brigade, a St. Louis-based Irish militia unit whose colors proclaimed ‘What Washington did for America – We will do for Ireland.’ On 13 September, Price’s army of approximately 18,000 men began an all-out assault on Mulligan’s 3,500-man command. Mulligan and his men held their own against the overwhelming odds, even pushing Price’s force back once. Confederate cannon fire rained down for seven days during ‘attack and defend’ battles. However, by 2PM on the 20th, Mulligan had no choice but to surrender when no relief arrived and his men ran out of ammunition. General Price was so impressed by Mulligan’s courage and conduct during and after the battle that he offered his own horse and carriage and ordered him safely escorted back to Union lines with his Brigade’s colors: a green flag with a golden harp in the center.
His men were exchanged later and continued to distinguish themselves in battle. In 1864, around Leetown, Virginia, during the Second Shenandoah Valley Campaign, they faced Confederate General Jubal Early. Federal troops were retreating in the face of Early’s relentless advance down the Shenandoah Valley. Hoping to buy time to concentrate Union forces and supplies, Union Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel ordered Mulligan to hold at Leestown for as long as possible to allow other Union forces to safely withdraw. Being vastly outnumbered by the Confederates again, Mulligan bought them the valuable time needed, but on 24 July, he was mortally wounded. When his men attempted to carry him from the battlefield he ordered, “Boys, don’t lose the colors of the Irish Brigade”; as they tried to lift him he said, “Lay me down and save the flag”. They regretfully did as he ordered and Mulligan was captured by General Early’s forces, he died from his wounds two days later.
Twenty-one years later, Chicago’s Daily Inter Ocean newspaper for 31 May 1885 reported that several hundred mourners were carried by special train to Calvary Cemetery in Chicago to see the dedication of a monument to the courageous Irish-American from Utica, NY. It was erected, they reported, ‘by the people, for the preservation of whose liberties he fought and yielded up his life.’ As the train arrived, a procession formed up led by the Hibernian Rifles of the AOH followed by 40 members of his old regiment wearing black and silver badges provided by Mrs. Mulligan, delegates from the Mulligan Post of the Grand Army of the Republic and Sons of Veterans Chicago Post Number One, all behind a Brass Band playing a dirge as they marched to the monument situated just inside the Main Gate. The monument was described as ‘richly carved of eastern granite and in design is modern gothic. It comprises a massive base nine feet square from which arises four sides. On one face is a fine likeness in bold relief of Colonel Mulligan, two other faces have raised laurel wreaths; on the west face is carved, ‘This monument has been erected by the State of Illinois and the citizens of Chicago, July 26, 1884.’ A 35-foot column rises from the base surmounted by a richly molded Celtic Cross.’ Just west of the monument a platform was erected for the dignitaries and Mrs. Marian Mulligan, their three daughters and other family members. The ceremony included many remembrances of Col Mulligan and ended with a song written for the occasion entitled Lay me down and save the Flag! The newspaper article concluded with the editorial comment that, ‘His Brigade proved that the Irish were as ready to fight and die, if necessary, for their adopted country as the native-born citizens were. Colonel Mulligan’s chief idea was to raise an Irish Division commanded by an Irish general. He said, “Give Shields a Division, make it Irish and Fontenoy will live again.” It was men like Colonel Mulligan that defeated the biased treatment of Irish immigrants in early America – and that was their greatest victory!
Thanks to Paul Winslow, Historian of AOH Father Tim Dempsey Div 1, St. Louis, MO, for some of the information in this story.