David P. Conyngham: Regular U.S. Army Officer?

David P. Conyngyam (1825-1883), A.D.C. of the Union’s famous Irish Brigade (Library of Congress).

While researching for my introduction to an edited edition of David P. Conyngham’s Soldiers of the Cross, I found evidence that “Major Conyngham” briefly considered a career in the regular U.S. Army following the Civil War. Transcribed and annotated below, the letter was sent to the adjutant general of the army, Lorenzo Thomas, along with endorsements from Union generals Joseph Hooker and Henry P. Judah. Unfortunately, Conyngham’s file does not indicate the army’s decision on his application, but given that the army contracted significantly after the war and Conyngham continued to write books and for various New York newspapers until his death in 1883, he almost certainly did not receive the position. The letter helps fill in a few blanks about Conyngham’s Civil War career and I hope it will be of interest to scholars of the Civil War and Irish Catholic America.

Herald Office

New York, July 4th, 1866.

General,—

I have the honor to request that I be appointed Captain in the U.S. Army.[1]

I joined the army early in ’63,[2] as volunteer A.D.C. on the staff of Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher, Commanding Irish Brigade, and was complimented in orders[3] for my services at the battle of Chancellorsville. I also served at Gettysburg and Bristow [sic] Station. [4]

I joined Sherman’s Army in the spring of ’64, as War Correspondent of the N.Y. Herald, and immediately offered my services in a military capacity. I served through the Atlanta campaign as Vol. A.D.C. At the battle of Resaca I carried orders from Gen. [John M.] Schofield to Gen. [Henry P.] Judah, Comg. 2d. Div. 23d A.C., under fire of the enemies [sic] guns when other officers had actually refused the dangerous mission. Though wounded, I succeeded in executing my orders and was specially thanked by Gen. Schofield,[5] and received the enclosed letter from Brig. Gen. Judah on whose staff I served.[6]

I subsequently served in the campaigns through Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas.

On my return to New York, I published a worked entitled “Sherman’s March through the South,” and I have in press, at present, a volume on our campaign in Virginia.[7]

I am now editing a weekly newspaper in this city;[8] but, preferring a military life to any other, I most respectfully request your favorable reception of this application.

I have the honor to be, General, Most Resp’y Your servt.,

David P. Conyngham

The Adjt. General, U.S. Army, Washington, D.C.

 

ALS, “David P. Cunningham” file, Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1866, Record Group 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.


[1] According to historian Lawrence F. Kohl, Conyngham hoped to be appointed a U.S. consul, but first needed to be naturalized. In late 1865, he sought an official appointment to a New York volunteer regiment knowing that wartime officers could use their service to become citizens. Unfortunately, the unit he was assigned to, the 68th NY Infantry, mustered out before he could join it. His efforts in 1866 to get appointed to the U.S. regular army may have been related to this scheme, or they may have reflected his genuine desire for a captain’s salary, which paid $115.50 a month during the war. Conyngham apparently did not receive the position, for he continued to live and work in New York as a journalist and writer for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, with the help of James Kelly, the Irish-born postmaster of New York City, Conyngham became a naturalized American citizen on October 19, 1866.

[2] Although not yet officially a member of Meagher’s staff, Conyngham had earlier joined the Irish Brigade as a war correspondent in time for the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. There the brigade suffered heavy casualties during its assault on the Confederate position at Marye’s Heights. Conyngham later wrote, “It was not a battle. It was a wholesale slaughter of human beings.”

[3] Unfortunately, these orders are not in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. According to the Official Record’s general index, Conyngham is never mentioned by name in this important resource.

[4] The Battle of Bristoe Station took place on October 14, 1863, in Prince William County, Virginia.

[5] Not in Official Records.

[6] In his letter, General Judah wrote to Conyngham, “Your conduct [at Resaca] not only elicited my highest admiration; but confirmed my long cherished opinion that the Irish soldier is the nonpareil of a soldier.” Conyngham also included a July 3, 1866 letter from Major General Joseph Hooker to Major George K. Leet, assistant adjutant general, which confirmed that Conyngham’s “services were so much esteemed that he was mentioned honorably in General Orders.” “He has numerous testimonials in his behalf,” noted Hooker, “and I take great pleasure in adding mine to them.”

[7] This was ultimately Conyngham’s most famous book, The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns (New York: William McSorley & Co., Publishers, 1867).

[8] A New York Fenian newspaper, The Irish People. Conyngham was passionately involved in Irish nationalist movements, both in Ireland and the U.S., throughout his life.