Saturday, February 5, 2011

Captain Thomas K. O'Reilly, Hibernian Guards, Co B., 8th OVI

An Irishman in the American Civil War

By JC Sullivan

James K. O'Reilly was returning from Sunday Mass at Cleveland, Ohio’s St. Edward Church on Woodland Avenue when news posters announced the assault on Ft. Sumter, South Carolina. America's Civil War began on that April day. O'Reilly, born on the Market Square, Longford Town, County Longford in 1838, came to Cleveland in 1858 via New York City. He and his Irish friends James Butler and Thomas Francis Galwey were anxious to join Union forces before the fight was over. They hurried to the armory of the Hibernian Guards and enlisted for three months, officially becoming Co. B, 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. When it was all over, almost five years later, the 8th Ohio would have 97 men present for muster-out out of a total 990 that began the unit.

     Kenneth R. Callahan, an attorney with the Cleveland law firm of Buckley King and most recently a Common Pleas Court Judge in Cuyahoga County, is a direct descendent of Captain O'Reilly, his maternal great-grandfather. He honors the spirit of his colorful and gallant forebear by insuring Americans don't forget the deeds and valor of the 8th Ohio, a unit that fought fiercely in most of the major battles of the Potomac Army. He also wants to insure that history accurately reflects the role they played in turning the famous 'Pickett's Charge' at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in July of 1863.

     By June, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee's rag-tag forces had moved into the farmlands of Pennsylvania, rich in the much-needed resources of food, material and steed.   The march to Gettysburg was brutally hot. Unlike modern armies, neither side at Gettysburg had winter and summer uniforms - only ones made of heavy wool. Some were lucky to have shoes. During the march to Gettysburg it was frightfully hot. O'Reilly suffered sunstroke and went by horse-drawn ambulance there. "When he found out the 8th was positioned outside the Emmitsburg Road," said Callahan, "he left the hospital and ran out and joined the company there."  

     O'Reilly, deathly ill, arrived at Gettysburg after the first day of battle. Colonel Samuel Springs Carroll (of the Maryland Carrolls) ordered the Hibernians immediately into a cornfield between the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge and Confederate lines on Seminary Ridge, with orders were to push rebel sharpshooters back. With this advanced picket line established, O'Reilly's Hibernians spent the night there while the rest of the brigade was pulled out by General Hancock to support other areas. Confederate sharpshooters reminded them of their closeness throughout the evening by shooting at them.

     On the morning of the 3rd, General Lee, believing the center of the Union line to be weakened, opened up his attack with a two-hour artillery barrage. "Nothing more terrific than this story of artillery can be imagined," said Colonel Franklyn Sawyer. "The missiles of both armies passed over our heads. The roar of the guns was deafening, the air was soon clouded with smoke, and the shrieks and the startling crack of the exploding shells above, a round and in our midst; the blowing up of our caissons in our rear; the driving through the air of the fence rails, posts and limbs of trees; the groans of dying men, the neighing of frantic and wounded horses, created a scene of absolute horror."

  General Lee followed this up by sending fifteen thousand gray backs into the fray. The 15O - 18O men of the 8th Ohio poured rifle fire into the left flank of James J. Pettigrew's division. "They moved up splendidly," Sawyer wrote, "deploying into column as they crossed the long, sloping interval between us and their base. At first it looked like they would sweep our position, but as they advanced, their direction lay to our left." 

  "A moan went up from the battlefield distinctly to be heard amid the storm of battle," related survivor Galwey. The surprised Southerners, led by gallant officers on horseback, broke and retreated. "...the first sign of faltering came from Colonel J.M. Brockenbrough's brigade of Virginians who, under Pettigrew, were stationed in the extreme left of the advance, that is, directly in front of the 8th Ohio," Callahan related.

     With Sawyer admitting their 'blood was up', he then turned his men ninety degrees and fired into the flank of Joseph Davis' brigade. When Union commanders saw this development, they sent reinforcements down to turn the attack. The 8th advanced, cutting off three regiments, capturing their colors and many soldiers. Afterwards, an attempt was made to discharge Colonel Sawyer from the service for
it was believed he was drunk...they thought no commander in his right mind would attempt such a maneuver with such a small force.    
      Later that summer, after the battle of Gettysburg, the 8th Ohio was sent to New York City for riot duty. When the draft was instituted, provisions were made for purchasing one's way out through the process of buying a substitute. Naturally, many Irish and other immigrants could not afford to do so and objected to the practice.         

      While there, O'Reilly met his future bride, Susan O'Brien. "The whole thing was a drinking expedition," Callahan said. "Commander Sawyer was telling everybody not to get drunk but about an hour later he was arrested for drunkenness. I think they had a good time in New York City."

     In August, 1865, at the war's end, O'Reilly returned to New York City and married Susan O'Brien at St. Stephen's Parish Church. The couple came to Cleveland and resided at 189 Quincy Ave., where they raised seven children. Part of the time he worked for Thomas Jones & Sons Monument Co., which was located at E. 28th & Prospect Ave. Because of his disability from his Gettysburg sunstroke, however, he was never able to work for long periods of time. He tried to get a pension the rest of his life in a protracted struggle with the War Department, not unlike modern American veterans of other conflicts. His widow Susan was finally awarded one in 1930, thirty years after his death. In 1900, after a funeral Mass at St. Edward's Church, O'Reilly was laid to rest in St. John's cemetery, next to the church. His stone, erected by his daughter, says simply, "Captain J.K. O'Reilly."                               
     Callahan met Captain O'Reilly's daughter, Isabelle, in 1952. She blamed her father for the fact that she never married. "She claimed every time somebody came over to see her he pulled them into the parlor and kept them up until midnight telling stories about the Civil War."

   Callahan is a graduate of Cleveland's St. Ignatius High School and received his undergraduate degree from Cleveland's John Carroll University. He received his law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Additionally, he studied art, history, anthropology and literature at both Trinity and University Colleges, Dublin. Callahan is a published author and a military historian. He and his spouse Martha are parents of Casey and Eoin.

     As of this writing, The Callahan and O'Reilly families of Cleveland have never been in touch with any surviving O'Reilly family in Longford. Although they know chances are slim to non-existent, the families would be delighted to hear from anyone who recognizes a family kinship. Ken Callahan can be reached via e-mail at
   The following letter is Comrade Galwey’s tribute to his friend and Captain, as printed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

New York, May 22nd, 1900

Editor of the Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer


     I desire as a comrade officer of the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry to say through the Plain Dealer (sic) a few words upon the military career of the late Captain J.K. O’Reilly, the news of whose recent death at 189 Quincy Street, Cleveland, has just reached us.

     During the twenty campaigns and more than sixty engagements in which the 8th Infantry gained its fame in the Civil War, O’Reilly’s influence and example, first among its non-commissioned officers and afterwards among its commissioned officers, contributed greatly to its fighting spirit, conduct and methods. He was fearless and quick-witted in the moment of danger or other emergency.

         The two bravest and most brilliant among the many brave and brilliant acts of that regiment were its bayonet charge across the Sunken or Bloody Lane at Antietam at the end of five hours close fighting, and its wheel to the left at Gettysburg, by which it struck the left flank of Pickett’s confederate column, and put it into disorder at that point, at the very moment when the front of that column had crossed the Emmittsburg Road and was shaking its battle flags at the “high water mark of the rebellion.”

            In both of those splendid manoeuvres O’Reilly was very conspicuous, if he was not to some extent the real author of each. He was at first a man of fine physique, and like many others who constantly exposed themselves, escaped almost unharmed by the enemy, but he suffered to the last from a sunstroke that befell him during fearful hot day on the march to Gettysburg, and I understand that this was the chief cause of his death.

     Cleveland is not today the quiet little city it was on the 16th of April, 1861, when, in defence of the Union, O’Reilly enlisted as a private in the Hibernian Guards, which became Company B of the 8th Ohio Infantry. But big and bustling as Cleveland has become, it will not, I imagine, forget the honor done to its name in the Civil War by such a man as O’Reilly.


Thos. F. Galwey
15 West 123rd St.,
New York City

Author’s Note: Both Butler and Galwey relocated to New York City. Butler became keeper of General Grant’s Tomb.


GALWEY, THOMAS FRANCIS,The_Valiant_Hours,_Narrative_of_"Captain Brevet,"_an_Irish-American_in_the_Army_of_the_Potomac. Harrisburg PA., Stackpole Co., 1961. Col. William S. Nye, Editor            

DOWNES, CAPTAIN THOMAS M.F., Co. B. 8th Ohio Infantry (Reenactment)from_a_speech_to_the_Ancient_Order_of Hibernians,_Boland-Berry
Division, Cleveland, Ohio 1989.

CALLAHAN, KENNETH, conversations, 1993 - 2009.

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