An Irishman's Diary

Fri, Oct 3, 2008, 01:00

A MAN called John P. McNally (no relation) has written to me from Minnesota asking for help in tracing information about his grandfather, James Philip McNally, who was born in Kildare circa 1847.

This sort of thing would not normally fall under the Diary's public service remit. But my interest was piqued by two of the known facts of McNally Snr's life, namely: (1) he served under his fellow-Irishman, Capt Walter Myles Keogh, at the Battle of Little Big Horn; and (2) he lived to tell the tale.

As the debate over what constitutes an Irish soldier rumbles on elsewhere on this page (with a temporary ceasefire today, to facilitate the exchange of prisoners), the story of Carlow man Keogh is worth revisiting.

A US general would later say of him that he was "born a soldier", which is probably an exaggeration. At any rate, he lost no time in becoming one. But fate decreed that, as an ardent nationalist in 19th-century Ireland, he would spend his military career fighting other people's wars.

Keogh may have been exaggerating when he claimed on his US army application that he had joined the French Foreign Legion during a trip to Europe aged 16 and served in Algeria.

But by 1860, aged 20, he had certainly answered the call of another European army - the Vatican's - in its attempt to defend the Papal states from Garibaldi. Keogh's valour in that doomed cause earned two papal medals; and Pius IX also rewarded him with a commission in the Papal Guard - a cushy number, had the Irishman been so inclined.

Peace-time service was not to Keogh's taste, however. When civil war broke out in the US and the Union side scoured Europe for officer material, he leapt at the chance. He crossed the Atlantic in 1862 and, within three months, led a patrol that almost captured the confederate general Stonewall Jackson at Shenandoah. He went on to serve with distinction at Gettysburgh, earning promotion to major.

His good looks and sharp dressing did not always endear him to colleagues. "We did not like the style of Captain Myles Keogh," admitted a fellow officer years later. "There was altogether too much style. He was as handsome a young man as I ever saw. His uniform was spotless and fitted him like the skin on a sausage." But everyone agreed that he carried the style with him in battle. "He is unsurpassed in dash," a general wrote after the civil war.

Keogh's military career had probably peaked by then. In 1866, he was appointed to lead Company I of the newly formed US 7th Cavalry. But after the glories of his earlier campaigns he found the "Indian wars" frustrating. Other things took a toll too. An unnamed love of his life died young. He drank too much and battled depression.

Although still only in his mid-30s, he embarked on the 1876 campaign with some foreboding, buying a $10,000 insurance policy and leaving copies of his will with colleagues. "We leave Monday on an Indian expedition," he wrote to friends, " if I ever return I will go on and see you all. I have requested to be packed up and shipped to Auburn in case I am killed, and I desire to be buried there."

Keogh seems to have mounted his own last stand at Little Bighorn. His remains were later found at the centre of a group of soldiers, including a trumpeter and a standard bearer. The body had been stripped but not mutilated - a fact variously credited to the papal medal found on his body (and the attackers' reluctance to tamper with such white man's magic), or to his conspicuous bravery in death. A later photograph of Chief Sitting Bull shows him apparently wearing the medal, although details are disputed.

Keogh's horse Commanche is believed to have been the only survivor - with two legs or four - from the five companies that perished with Custer. Although probably shot by the same bullet that shattered Keogh's kneecap, he was later nursed back to health, and became a regimental mascot. His stuffed body is now displayed at the University of Kansas.

In the magnificent "Soldiers and Chiefs", an exhibition of 450 years of Irish military history at Collins Barracks, Dublin, Keogh is the deserving subject of a small exhibit of his own. Memorabilia includes his helmet from the Pope's campaign, his sword from the US army, and his 7th Cavalry epaulettes. There is also a replica of the papal medal he may or may not have been wearing at Little Big Horn.

It was Custer's decision to divide his forces on the fateful day that probably ensured his defeat. But among those who benefited was James P. McNally. He was ordered for duty with the regimental pack train, and so was not with Keogh and Custer when they met their ends.

According to his grandson, McNally did take part in what is known as the "hill-top fight", one of the three engagements on that day, but emerged uninjured. He lived to marry a Bridget White from Galway, fathering four children and working on the railroad in St Paul until his death from TB, aged 46.

John McNally doesn't know where exactly in Kildare his grandfather originated, and spent several days poring over parish records in the National Library last year, with no success. He hopes there might be people out there who know more. Anyone with information is asked to contact him at croix357@yahoo.com.