“Foreigners, chiefly Irish”: Deserters from Savannah

Before dawn on November 9, 1863, a small boat passed down the Savannah River to Fort Pulaski, where it’s crew surrendered to the Federals.  Lieutenant-Commander Andrew W. Johnson of the USS Unadilla reported:

This morning, about 3 a.m., the crew of a boat belonging to the rebel ram Savannah, doing picket duty near the obstructions in that river, succeeded in securing as prisoner an acting master’s made (Samuel A. Brockington, of Georgia), in charge of the boat, and effecting their escape to Fort Pulaski, where they have been cared for by the commanding officer, and will be sent tomorrow to the provost-marshal of the detachment.  Their names are Robert Andrews, of Greenock, Scotland; Richard May, of Providence, R.I.; Thomas Brandt, of … Denmark; Robert Conner, of Belfast, Ireland….

Johnson went  on to provide details gleaned from interrogation of these deserters about the Confederate warships in Savannah.  In addition the deserters mentioned “the great destitution of the people remaining in Savannah (of whom a number are foreign residents).” Johnson also noted, “They also testify to the existence of a Union sentiment among the working classes, which they dare not express in public.”

Five days later, Lieutenant-Commander Stephen B. Luce, of the USS Nantucket, picked up four deserters in the Wilmington River, southeast of Savannah.  The deserters were from the Confederate battery at Thunderbolt, just upstream. Commander Aaron K. Hughes, the senior officer on the blockade of Savannah, reported:

Their names are John Vine and Asa Draper, natives of the State of New York; Lewis A. Dreyer, a native of Maryland; and Matthais Popper, a native of Bohemia.

Likewise, the deserters offered information about the Rebel ironclads defending Savannah, and more about the fortifications.

Normally I’d focus on the details of the ironclads and the forts, as the deserters mention specific caliber guns and other particulars. But in this case, consider the origin of these men.  All are either foreign born or from northern states.  Robert Conner, who deserted on November 8, originally enlisted in Company C, 22nd Georgia Heavy Artillery Battalion.  According to his accession card, Conner enlisted on May 14, 1862:

Robert_Conner_Page 8

A year later, he transferred to the Confederate Navy.  Records indicated only days before he deserted, he’d received $5.84 in clothing, $1.70 in sundries, and $6 in cash.  He left his mark – a small “x” – on his combined October – November issue receipt.

Robert_Conner_Page 61

Note the label “Deserted” on the upper right.

Confederate officials focused their inquires at the causes for these desertions.  The inquires cleared Brockington of complicity with the November 8 desertions, blaming it on “foreigners, chiefly Irish.” Flag-Officer William Hunter went on to complain about the use of foreign sailors in general:

I find that no reliance whatever can be placed on the shipped men of foreign birth who are in this squadron.  Without an exception, all the men who have been and are being tried by the naval court-martial here for mutinous conduct are Irish and English.  As I feel assured that these men would prove very detrimental and dangerous to our cause, either in the squadron or at large, I deem this fact is worthy the consideration of the revising power when the record of their cases is presented.

Moving forward, Confederate authorities vowed to use caution with the selection of men and officers posted to picket duty in the Savannah area.  Of course, desertions were not unique to that area… nor to one particular side in the war.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15 pages 105, 108, and 112)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on ““Foreigners, chiefly Irish”: Deserters from Savannah

  1. Craig, as you know, both sides retained large numbers of so-called “foreigners” in their ranks, and thousands of Irish, German, French and English troops died in combat fighting for their new country. That reality noted, it was both inaccurate and ungracious of any officer, North or South, to charge that because men were born in another country, they were deemed less than trustworthy. Ranking commanders, in fact, did not do nearly enough to condemn widespread prejudice against foreign-born soldiers. General Alfred Pleasonton so hated foreign-born soldiers, for example, that he sacrificed an entire regiment (1st Rhode Island cavalry) in order to at last torpedo its French-born leader. And yet the “Knight of Romance” was never called to account for that premeditated crime by any superior commander.

    The very best point man I knew in Vietnam was a Kiwi from New Zealand–who died gallantly for his country: The United States of America.

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