“Colonel Timothy O’Meara: An Unknown Hero of the War.”

Those words title a memorial volume to Col. O’Meara, published in Brooklyn, in 1914. That title seems as fitting today as it did a century ago, for you don’t hear much about O’Meara in modern Civil War discourse.

 

 

Which is a bit surprising, given how Irish-centric we are these days. The Irish story is at once both romantic and tragic, a story of exile; but thanks to that exile, America is chock-full of Irish descendants. Once despised as immigrants, now St. Patrick’s Day parades are celebrated in cities across the country.

The Civil War community is no exception. We do love our Irishmen, in both blue and gray. The Irish Brigade, Philip Sheridan, or – arguably one of the two most famous Confederates outside of Virginia – Patrick Cleburne; all draw tremendous attention. And, as Cleburne’s story suggests, we love them even more when they are tragically struck down in battle. Colonel Patrick O’Rorke (or O’Rourke, it seems to be spelled both ways) of the 140th New York, whose shiny-nosed monument crowns Little Round Top at Gettysburg, is further proof.

A portrait of Colonel Timothy J. O’Meara, below:

So who is Colonel O’Meara?

The short answer is: he was the commanding officer of the 90th Illinois Infantry – Chicago’s Irish Legion – and he was mortally wounded at the foot of Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863. He died early in the morning of November 26th.

He was only 27 at the time of his end. Born in County Tipperary, Ireland on August 15, 1836, he left Ireland at age 17, emigrating to New York City. Shortly thereafter he enlisted in the United States Army, serving in the Regiment of Mounted Rifles, which was on active service in New Mexico. In 1860, O’Meara translated those martial skills into a commission with Benito Juarez’s Liberal Army, in Mexico; which was in the throes of a civil war since 1857. O’Meara served as a major of cavalry.

His service under Juarez suggests something of his politics, since Juarez’s liberal reform government was fiercely opposed by the existing conservative aristocracy, the Catholic Church, and the Mexican Army – all of whom saw their influence waning under Juarez’s reforms. That struggle ended in December 1860, with Juarez successful; just in time for O’Meara to head back to New York. Another civil war was brewing.

He enlisted as a Private in the Tammany Regiment – 42nd New York Infantry – but by dint of his professional experience, soon rose to captain of Company E. He was involved in the disaster at Ball’s Bluff, where he distinguished himself, but where he was also captured. He would spend the next ten months in Rebel prison camps.

Exchanged in August 1862, he traveled to Chicago, where a number of fellow Irishmen hoped he would take command of the then-forming 90th Illinois Infantry. Though he was an outsider, his combat experience and the recommendation of Brigadier General Michael Corcoran – one of the most influential Irishmen then serving – won him a Colonel’s Eagles and command of the Irish Legion.

Once equipped and sworn into Federal Service, the 90th was sent to join Grant’s army in Mississippi, where they participated in the Vicksburg Campaign and fighting around Jackson. In the fall of 1863, their division was one of the four selected by Grant to be sent to Chattanooga. They and their fellows toiled across Northern Alabama. On November 22, the 90th reached Chattanooga, going into a concealed camp on the north bank of the Tennessee River opposite the city.

Though the “siege” of Chattanooga had already been broken at the end of October with the opening of the Cracker Line, Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army still occupied the surrounding heights of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Determined to smash Bragg, Grant intended a full-scale assault. His chosen troops? The four divisions from his own Army of the Tennessee, of course, now commanded by William Sherman. The Chicago Irish would play a lead role in that fight.

O’Meara and the 90th belonged to Colonel John M. Loomis’s 1st Brigade, 4th Division, XV Army Corps; commanded by Sherman’s brother-in-law, Brigadier General Hugh Ewing. Grant originally intended to attack on November 23, but complications delayed the assault to the next day.

At dawn on November 24, Sherman initiated a surprise crossing of the Tennessee, debauching at the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek, catching Bragg unawares. What should have developed into an attack on the north end of Bragg’s position on Missionary Ridge, however, came to naught. Sherman, overly cautious, stumbled badly; never even reaching Missionary Ridge. Late in the day he was shocked to discover that he was atop another hill, well short of his intended objective, and he had barely come to grips with any Confederates. Only Joe Hooker, leading a scratch force assaulting Lookout Mountain, and very much an afterthought, achieved anything approaching success, in a fight that became known – inaccurately – as the Battle Above the Clouds.

Still, Grant persevered. Sherman would continue his attack – everyone else remained secondary. By taking Tunnel Hill (so named for the railroad tunnel that pierced Missionary Ridge here) Sherman would turn Bragg’s position, threaten Bragg’s rail connection to James Longstreet, besieging Knoxville, and drive the Rebels back into Georgia.

Again, Sherman stumbled. He commanded 4 divisions of some 20,000 men; and could call on the support of the Union XI Corps, another 5,000 or so troops. Of this force, his first attack was launched by part of one brigade – less than 1,000 bayonets. When it failed, Sherman sent another brigade in.

Sherman’s entire effort that day came to naught, a series of halfhearted probes by individual regiments and brigades that accomplished nothing but add to the Union casualty figures.

The 90th Illlinois and 100th Indiana assaulting Missionary Ridge

 

 

the 90th’s turn came at about 10:30 a.m., when Sherman, via General Ewing, sent Loomis’s men to support another assault on the ridge from the west. With the 90th leading, Loomis’s brigade moved in an arc around to the western face, reaching the Glass farmstead, some 200 yards north of the railroad tunnel.

O”Meara certainly drew the eye. He wore his best uniform, as well as an officer’s sash, which everyone else believed made him a conspicuous target. Despite his service in Mexico under Juarez, he remained faithful to the church: When Loomis urged O’Meara to at least rid himself of the sash, O’Meara indicated an image of the Virgin Mary which he wore on a chain around his neck. “They cannot hurt me while I have this.”

 

The regiment had to cross near half a mile of open ground before reaching the Glass farm. Lieutenant Colonel Owen Stuart was hit while crossing this expanse, and then, near the farmyard, O”Meara’s horse was shot out from under him. He grabbed a musket and kept going, but not for long. “Whilst in the act of charging up the ridge in front of the heaviest fire . . . our brave Colonel fell, mortally wounded.” Waving off help, O’Meara lay exposed for the rest of the day’s action.

Loomis’s attack faltered badly here. Suffering heavy losses, the brigade went to cover and spent most of the rest of the day pinned down by Rebel fire. The 90th suffered 94 casualties, including four of ten company commanders and the regimental Sergeant Major. Only the subsequent successful storming of Missionary Ridge by George Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland redeemed the day, forcing the Rebels holding Tunnel Hill to retreat and allowing the battered 90th to recover their dead and wounded comrades. O’Meara was still breathing, but died in the early hours of the morning.

In death, O’Meara was praised by Loomis, by Ewing, and even by Grant, who arranged that the Colonel’s body be transported as far as Nashville at army expense, and from where family & friends in New York could bring him the rest of the way home. Tributes appeared in the Chicago newspapers, as well as other cities with large Irish populations, such as Boston and New York. Private Hugh O’Neal of Company C was detailed to escort the coffin, O’Meara’s personal effects, and his surviving horses. The entourage arrived in New York on December 15, where after a requiem Mass at St. Mary’s Church he was buried at Calvary Cemetery, Queens, on December 19.

Colonel Loomis wrote that O’Meara’s death was “a severe loss to his country, to his companions, and to his command. The illuminated memory of a brave man and gallant soldier remains.”

 

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3 Responses to ““Colonel Timothy O’Meara: An Unknown Hero of the War.””

  1. Richard Manion Says:

    I went to Mass at Old St. Patrick’s, on Adams Street. The priest there during the war, Father Dunn played a big role in raising the 90th.

  2. suzy92447 Says:

    My great grandfather was the Hugh O’Neil who served as O’Meara’s aide and escorted his body back to New York.

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