Henry Sweeney: From Dublin to the U.S. Army and Into the Cauldron of Civil War

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Henry Sweeney served as a Hospital Steward during the first two years of the Civil War. This photo shows Union stewards at Petersburg.

When Fort Sumter was attacked in 1861 and young volunteers flooded into the Union Army to put down the “Rebellion,” Henry Sweeney was already in his seventh year as a soldier. The Irish immigrant who would later play an important role in protecting the embattled rights of African Americans after Emancipation had enlisted in the Regular Army in 1854.1

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Sweeney, born in November of 1833 in Dublin, had joined the army at a time when the anti-immigrant Know Nothings were calling for a ban on immigrants in the military. The bravery and self-sacrifice of the foreign-born soldiers was to be cast aside in the service of the bigotry of the nativists. In spite of the evidence to the contrary, the Know Nothings believed that, in the words of one of their leaders, European immigrants “renounce their foreign allegiance but not their foreign feelings. They will not coalesce with American citizens nor cherish American principles.”  The demanded that the army “Put None But Americans On Guard.”2

The army’s generals knew that if that happened, nearly half the soldiers would have to be discharged. Immigrants made up one-seventh of the population, but more than four out of ten American soldiers were foreign-born. This was a case of immigrants being willing to take on a task that American-born men did not want to do. Being a professional soldier, or “Regular” in the language of the day, was considered work beneath the honor of most native-born Americans. Soldiers led highly regulated lives in which they were not free to come and go as they pleased. They had to maintain tight standards of discipline under the threat of physical punishment for infractions. They were not free to take advantage of economic opportunities that might arise during their five-year terms of service. In other words, they were closer in status to slaves than to free men.3

Modern reenactors portraying United States Army dragoons a decade before the Civil War.

Henry Sweeney had enlisted as a soldier in the 2nd Dragoons when he was 21 years old. The dragoons were a tough and well-trained force of cavalry trained to fight either mounted on horseback or on foot using carbines. Sweeney was posted to dangerous frontier outposts throughout the 1850s and in 1858 he was part of an expedition to Utah sent to halt attacks on non-Mormons moving through that territory.4

The Mormons had been a persecuted religious sect when they had lived in the east. After their founder and prophet Joseph Smith was killed by a mob in 1844, Mormon leader Brigham Young led a mass migration of his followers to Utah beginning in 1847. Mormon support for polygamy and slavery made them anathema to many Protestant Americans and Young believed that his flock could not coexist with the non-believers in the East. Utah in 1847 was a contested borderland that was technically under Mexican sovereignty, but largely unoccupied by European-Americans. Its isolation was its main appeal.5

The triumph of the United States in the 1847-1848 Mexican War and the subsequent annexation of the West made Utah a route of passage for wagon trains to California and Oregon. United States officials were sent to Salt Lake City to establish Federal control of the new territory. These “outsiders” reported being harassed by the Mormon majority, sometimes violently. By 1857 the situation became so conflictive that President James Buchanan believed that Brigham Young was preparing a revolt against the government.6

The Mountain Meadows Massacre in September 1857 demonstrated the willingness of the Mormon militia to use violence to keep other Americans out of their theocratic republic. A wagon train was attacked by the militia and every man and woman in it was killed. Even some children were murdered. In all, the militia killed approximately 120 people. Henry Sweeney was part of the army expedition that marched across the Great Plains and over the Rocky Mountains into Utah in what was called the Mormon War.7

Dragoons in snow in the Rockies.

After the Mormon War, Henry Sweeney was promoted to the rank of Hospital Steward, one of the most important jobs that could be held by someone without an officer’s commission. Each army hospital had one steward. He was a combination pharmacist and hospital administrator. Dr. J.J. Woodward in his 1862 Manual for Hospital Stewards described the medical requirements of the job. The steward: “must have…sufficient knowledge of…pharmacy to take charge of the dispensary, acquainted with minor surgery, …application of bandages and dressings, extraction of teeth, application of cups and leeches, …knowledge of cooking.” The steward was also expected to keep hospital records and manage its funds. The Hospital Steward was considered equal in rank to the Ordnance Sergeant according to Woodward. 8

Robert E. Lee was among the United States Army officers who resigned their commissions at the start of the Civil War to join the rebellion. According to the Civil War Trust; “Of the roughly 820 West Point graduates on active duty at the outbreak of the war, 184 enlisted in Confederate service.” Lee became commander of the largest Confederate army.

When the Civil War began and so many native-born men in the army were resigning or deserting to head South to join the rebellion, Henry Sweeney, like nearly all of the supposedly disloyal immigrant Regulars, stayed on to defend his adopted country.9

As the army expanded from only 16,000 at the start of the war to many times that size by the end of 1861, Sweeney mixed his service as a steward with his relentless pursuit of an officer’s commission. Promotion to 2nd Lieutenant would put his hard-earned military talents to their best use, more than double his pay, and give the immigrant recognition as a gentleman.10

Apparently, a lot of the officers who knew Henry Sweeney agreed that he would make a good officer. His army file is filled with letters from them calling for his promotion. A Nov. 9, 1861 letter from a major in the 6th US Infantry Regiment said that Henry “conducted himself with sobriety and zeal” in his work. Ten other officers signed a joint letter in support of Sweeny being commissioned. An assistant surgeon wrote to Washington that Sweeny had a “large experience in the field and practical acquaintance with military matters.” The surgeon described him as “well educated and possessing a gentlemanly bearing.”11

According to William T. Campbell writing for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine; “After reviewing the primary sources it is obvious that the roles and responsibilities of the Hospital Steward far exceeded those that Woodward penned in his official manual. It could be that an individual overstepped his role, but yet some of the same themes appear from different Stewards. The reader sees mention of diagnosis, treatments, prescribing medications, administering vaccinations, performing minor surgery and suturing, and administering anesthesia. The most important repeated theme is autonomy or practicing independently.”

Perhaps concerned that Sweeney’s foreign birth might be retarding his promotion, in a July 19, 1862 letter of recommendation from another officer, Sweeney was described as “an Irishman by birth and an American by adoption and a warm friend of our institutions.” In a December 5, 1862 letter, Sweeney referred to the United States as “the country I love” and he wrote that “I am an American heart, soul, and body and am willing to lay down my life for the glorious United States.” Twenty-seven days later, President Abraham Lincoln would take a step that would open the door for Sweeney’s rise.12

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 he not only legally freed the slaves in the Confederacy, he also authorized the enlistment of African American men in the Union Army. Previously blacks had been barred from serving. In all, 180,000 African Americans would enter the army in the segregated regiments of the “United States Colored Troops.” Nearly all of their officers would be white. Henry Sweeney saw the opportunity for promotion by leading black soldiers and he seized it.13

Sources: (I will post all sources by April 15, 2018)

  1. That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003); Pension Records of Henry Sweeney National Archives.

2. The Origin, Principles and Purposes of the American Party by Henry Winter Davis (1855) pp. 24-25; That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003)

3. That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003)

4. Dragoon Soldier-Historical Background by National Park Service; The Regular Army Before the Civil War by Claton R. Newall published by the Center of Military History of the United States Army (2014); That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003)

5. That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003)

6. That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003)

7. That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003)

8. The Hospital Steward’s Manual: For the Instruction of Hospital Stewards, Ward Masters, and Attendants in their Several Duties by J.J. Woodward published by Lippincott (1862); Meet the Hospital Steward: His Role & Responsibilities Including His Relationship to Nursing by William T. Campbell published by National Museum of Civil War Medicine (2014)

9. That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003)

10. That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003)

11. That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003)

12. That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003)

13. That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and The Civil War In The West by Mark W.Johnson published by DaCapo Press (2003)

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