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Col. Michael Corcoran, Irish Immigrant
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Col. Michael Corcoran, Irish Immigrant, and the Fighting 69th
In March, the History Channel shows a program about the Irish immigrants in New York City and the growth of St. Patrick's Day festivities, particularly parades. One of the most famous Irishmen in the history of New York City is Michael Corcoran, who was born in 1827 in County Sligo. His father Thomas, ironically enough, was an officer in the British army. His mother was Mary McDonagh. Although County Sligo is in the north of Ireland, it is not part of Ulster, or Northern Ireland (that is, not under British rule as the country was divided in 1922).
Young Michael, at the age of 18, took a position with the Revenue Police, looking for illegal stills and enforcing laws in County Donegal. In 1849, in the heart of the Potato Famine, he emigrated to New York City as did most Irish who could afford, at this time, to get out of Ireland (later starving Irish were herded by British officials onto "coffin ships" for America). As the son of a British soldier, he likely received some education, which may have included a history of vicious English oppression against Ireland that was centuries old. If this was not in his course of instruction, his mother no doubt would have made him familiar with his history.
Michael settled in New York and worked as a clerk for John Heaney, a tavern keeper. The 1850 census of the 14th District of New York City shows Michael actually living with the Heaney family. Four years later he married John's niece, Elizabeth. Coming from an oppressed country where ordinary people, particularly Catholics, were not allowed to own weapons, Irish immigrants appreciated the right to bear arms that was extended to them in America. For purposes of defense (the Irish were not well-received in general in New York), and for social reasons, Irishmen began forming into volunteer military units. Corcoran enlisted as a private in the 69th New York Militia and rose to the rank of Colonel by 1859. Because they were volunteers, most men also held full-time jobs and so Michael Corcoran appears in the 1860 census as the owner of a liquor store in the 14th ward of New York City. He also became politically active.
In 1858, the regiment was called to defend the quarantine hospital on Staten Island from those who blamed immigrants for the outbreak of yellow fever. In 1860, the Prince of Wales (heir to the throne of England) visited New York City, and the "Fighting 69th" was called upon to parade before him. Whoever wrote the web page for "The History of the Fighting 69th - History" got it right when they wrote, "History does not record just who thought is was a good idea to parade 750 armed Irishmen in front of the future King of England." Corcorcan absolutely refused. Subsequently, he was arrested for court-martial but all charges were dropped at the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861.
Because Corcoran had been so instrumental in raising troops in response to President Lincoln's call, he was restored to his former command and, on 23 April 1861, proudly marched out of New York City at the head of his troops.
Corcoran was captured at the First Battle of Bull Run in July, and was slated for execution in retaliation to the Union's declaration that it would execute some captured Confederate privateers. However, he was eventually exchanged in August 1862, at which time he was promoted to brigadier general retroactive to the date of his capture. He fought against Longstreet around Suffolk, VA. He was not court-martialed when he shot and killed Union Lt. Col. Edgar Kimball, but went on to serve until his horse fell on top of him while he was riding near Fairfax, VA, on 22 December 1863. Corcoran died of a crushed skull at the age of 36.