Kevin Murray grew up hearing his grandmother tell of his great-great-grandfather’s valor. But only recently did Murray come to fully appreciate his ancestor’s sacrifice.
Charles Murray emigrated from Ireland’s County Donegal and had been in Indiana just three years when he answered the call to volunteer and fight to preserve the Union in the Civil War. He lost his life in 1863, dying from wounds he received resisting a Confederate charge at the Battle of Stones River in Tennessee.
Kevin Murray, an attorney at Frost Brown Todd LLC in Indianapolis, finds wonder at the core of his research into his great-great grandfather and fellow countrymen who took up the Union cause. “This was a group of people that had just come to this country, and they were willing to die for it,” Murray said.
Murray’s research is compiled in “The 1st Fighting Irish: The 35th Indiana Volunteer Infantry.” It’s a dab of family history and a salute to a largely unsung fighting force also known as the 1st Irish Regiment of Indiana. The book combines records of the unit’s battles with colorful profiles of its leaders and soldiers.
“For some reason, I’ve always had this utter fascination with the Civil War,” Murray said.
The 1st Irish played key roles in major battles in Kentucky and Tennessee that repelled Confederate advances in the early years of the war, Murray explained. Later, the regiment was on the front lines of Union advances that took Atlanta before Sherman’s March crippled the rebellion.
The 1st Irish volunteered even as Irish Catholics faced starvation and oppression in their homeland and institutional discrimination in their adopted country. Murray documents the historical context in the opening chapter, “American Slavery and Irish Hunger.”
Among those Murray writes about is a young drummer whose photograph Murray remembers seeing as a boy on visits to the Civil War museum at Monument Circle in Indianapolis. The drummer turned out to be Abraham Springsteen, who had lied about his age to enlist as the 1st Irish’s drummer boy. He was 11.
Murray said the 1st Irish was distinguished by its green kepis that earned the regiment its nickname, “The Green Caps.” The 35th Indiana’s colors included such Irish-inspired imagery as a shamrock and harp.
Beyond the family oral history, Murray got the first hard information about his ancestor from a monsignor who was able to provide some historical data that Murray compiled into a thin family volume in the 1980s. Even so, precious little exists about Charles Murray beyond what’s available in the National Archives.
“We don’t even know where he’s buried,” Murray said. He believes Charles Murray and some of the other fallen from the 1st Irish likely are in Holy Cross Cemetery on Indianapolis’ near-south side. A fire resulted in the loss of many of the cemetery’s records, Murray explained.
That’s also why Holy Cross was an apt place to raise a memorial to the 35th Indiana. It was erected in the past several years, as more people through genealogical research have discovered connections to the regiment.
“We, as the Irish community, wanted to come together to memorialize the 1st Irish Regiment,” Murray said. A commemoration and wreath-laying will take place March 15 just ahead of St. Patrick’s Day.
Joining Murray there will be a company of re-enactors that organized about 15 years ago years ago as more learned about the role the 1st Irish played in the war.
“The 35th of Indiana really hadn’t been researched until the late 1990s,” said Brian Henry of Frankton, who holds a master’s degree in military history and co-founded the 35th re-enactors group. “Now more is coming out, and especially with Kevin’s book, it’s going to open the door to a lot more people.”
Along with re-enactments, Henry said members also make presentations to historical societies and other groups, “to educate people about the Civil War, especially through the eyes of the Irish.”
During the ongoing sesquicentennial of Civil War events, “There’s been a new resurgence of people wanting to understand who they were and what they did.”
Like Murray, Henry also traces his great-great grandfather, George Carroll, to the 1st Irish. A native of County Wicklow, Ireland, Carroll had settled in Terre Haute before the war and returned to live there until he died in 1900.
Henry also knows what happened at the Battle of Stones River. He describes a unit defending its position on a ridgetop behind the front line. Soldiers of the 1st Irish literally laid in wait.
As Confederates launched an all-out assault on Union forces after days of confused skirmishes, Col. Bernard Mullen commanded his 1st Irish forces to lie down and fix bayonets. On Mullen’s order, the regiment rose as one and opened fire on the advancing rebels in what became fierce, close combat.
Henry said the action surprised the South, and the 1st Irish was able to reload and fire another volley into the side of the Confederate line. But the 1st Irish paid a high cost – nearly a third of the regiment suffered casualties that day before Union artillery overwhelmed and drove back the rebels.
As rebels had pressed the assault, Mullen commanded his forces to retreat. “He said he had the honor of having to give the order twice,” Henry said. “That’s where Kevin Murray’s ancestor was wounded.”
Murray includes in the book Mullen’s account after the war of the 1st Irish’s mettle at Stones River: “Where 272 men stand unflinchingly, for 43 minutes, a combined fire of musketry and artillery at close range, it is certainly hard to give anyone a pre-eminence for gallantry.”
Murray is keeping his ancestor’s memory alive just as his great-grandfather John did when he wrote that Private Charles Murray of the 1st Irish was “enamoured of freedom and opposed to everything that found favor with England.” Murray said Irish fighters in the Civil War aspired to use their experience to liberate their homeland from British rule.
Murray maintains a bungalow home in County Donegal, and family members raise livestock on the rocky, rugged landscape. Murray described his first trip to his ancestral homeland decades back like going home to someplace he’d never been.
His support of Irish-American causes is a tribute to his father, A.F. “Kelly” Murray, to whom “The 1st Fighting Irish” is dedicated. Murray previously wrote a book about his father’s service in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Kelly Murray came home and served as an Indianapolis firefighter, losing his life in 1978 after a heart attack at age 53. In tribute to his dad, Murray wrote that his father told him from his hospital bed to go study for his upcoming bar exam. His father was gone the next morning.
Murray muses about maybe someday writing about his father’s lifesaving work running into burning buildings as a firefighter. Or maybe he’ll write about his grandfather, also named Charles, who was a doughboy in World War I. They’re people with inspiring stories of serving their country – the old one and the new one.
“We accomplished and did well in this country,” he said of Irish-Americans. “But I don’t think we should forget who we are.”•