Irish Battles, New Powder

I write these words shortly after returning from a research/vacation trip to Ireland. Along with delving into the Irish National Archives for some interesting information on alleged Union recruiting in the country in 1863 and 1864, I visited the battlefield of Aughrim (pronounced Ock-rim), which has come to be known as "Ireland's Gettysburg."

Not only was Aughrim, fought on July 12, 1691, the biggest battle ever fought in Ireland, it, like Gettysburg, proved, in retrospect, to signal the end of an era. The battle put paid, for a number of generations, to the idea of an independent Ireland. At Aughrim, an uneasy Irish "Jacobite" coalition of Gaelic, Norman and "old English" factions, led by the French General Charles Chalmont, Marquis de St. Ruth, fought, ostensibly, to restore the Catholic Stuart King James to the throne of England. Strange as it might seem, the deposed English king was viewed by his co-religionists in Ireland as their last and best hope for freedom from ever-encroaching English domination.

The Irish army faced the forces of James' usurping Dutch son-in-law, William of Orange. Although fighting for the de-facto king of England, the "Williamite" army, commanded by Dutch General Godert de Ginkel, was a foreign legion composed of English, Protestant Irish, Dutch, German and French Hugenot troops.

More than 40,000 men fought at Aughrim, and as many as 9,000 of them lay dead at the end of the day. Although the previous year's battle of the Boyne is better remembered, it was but a skirmish compared to Aughrim. The Irish lost the battle of Aughrim, but were able to prolong the war for another year by their tenacious and desperate defense of the besieged city of Limerick.

The defenders of Limerick were led by the Irish General Patrick Sarsfield, whose tactical skill in a hopeless cause gained his army an honorable peace treaty. Although the Irish surrendered Limerick to Ginkel, they were permitted to march out of the city with shouldered muskets and flying colors and set sail to France.

In some ways Sarsfield, a hard riding horse solider, could be considered a prefiguration of J. E. B. Stuart. Sarsfield lifted a previous siege of Limerick almost single handed by riding around the Williamite army and destroying its siege train in what one wag remembered as "the biggest explosion ever heard in Ireland."

A brilliant but sometimes erratic general, Sarsfield made less of a mark at Aughrim, where he commanded the Jacobite right. Although the general managed to extract his men when the Irish left collapsed, some felt he could have done more to restore the situation on the battlefield. Many of the command and control problems that day, however, apparently had their origins in the arrogance of General St. Ruth, who neglected to detail his battle plan to any of his subordinates before literally losing his head to an English cannon ball.

If you should travel to Ireland, Aughrim is well worth a visit. The story of the battle is effectively retold at the Irish government's Aughrim Interpretive Center. The Center is manned by curator Susan Finnerty's knowledgeable and friendly staff (Paul Fitzgerald and Olivia Dolan were on duty the day of my visit) and features an interesting sound and light map show, displays of relics recovered from the battlefield and a good selection of books for sale.

Although mostly in private hands, Aughrim battlefield is still farmland, and it is possible to travel along the lines and visualize the ebb and flow of the fight. Considering the American experience with such matters, I would strongly advise the Irish government to buy up what land becomes available - before some developer decides to open "Aughrim Estates Vacation Homes."

Speaking of Irish matters, I recently had the privilege of viewing the original painting of artist Donna Neary's new print "Do Your Duty Boys" at the Irish Green and Union Blue shop in Red Bank, NJ. Ms. Neary's work features General Meagher's address to the men of the 69th New York in the streets of Fredericksburg before the Irish Brigade's heroic and disastrous assault on Marye's Heights. It is a fine piece of art, as well as being meticulously accurate and full of great detail, which sets the scene on the exact city block in Fredericksburg on which it took place.

I may lay claim to helping with a tiny bit of that detail, as Donna called me, as well as others familiar with the history of the brigade, to verify the small arms carried by the 69th that fateful December day. General Meagher preferrred smoothbore muskets over rifle muskets for his men. Through mid-1864, when they were finally issued rifled arms, the New York and Pennsylvania men of the Irish Brigade carried smoothbores.

At the end of the 4th quarter of 1862, following Frederiskcburg, the Union army initiated the policy of requiring quarterly ordnance reports from each regiment. Only one company report from the 69th survives for this quarter, and it lists US Model 1842 muskets. The following quarter, the regiment reported US Model 1816 conversions from flintlock to percussion in all companies.

Ordnance reports should not be taken as gospel, and were subject to error all along the reporting chain, from company to regiment to brigade to division to corps to army to the War Department. Given the preponderance of evidence, I suggested the regiment be portrayeed with 1816s.

"Do Your Duty Boys" also features several portraits of members of the regiment, including Chaplain Ouelette, James Cavanagh, the "little major," and my personal favorite, one-eyed Captain John H. Donavan. Although I'm not a print collector, I generally buy Irish Brigade prints due to my interest in the subject. If I were only able to afford but one out of the current crop, "Do Your Duty Boys" would be it.


Last month I mentioned the new cartridge grade black powder from GOEX. Although I haven't seen any scientific ballistic data on it, I have solicited some anecdotal reports - all of which are very positive. "Red" Meinecke, a noted black powder writer from Cody, Wyoming, informed me: "I've been using it [cartridge grade GOEX] for several months now and am particularly pleased with it. In fact, most everyone I've recommended it to has had nothing but praise for it. Not only is it cleaner and easier to handle, but it shoots cleaner and you can pack more powder by weight in the same volume as FFG. It sure seems to make a difference in sight settings."

Steve Garratano of the 69th New York (N-SSA) loaded up some rounds for his .45-100 Sharps with a magnum primer, 85 grains of the new propellant and a 500 grain bullet. Steve reported that it kicked a bit harder than the same weight charge of FFG, but shot amazingly clean. Other shooters report lower recoil with cartridge grade in their .44-40 Henrys.

I haven't had any detailed reports on Henrys or Spencers with either ball ammo or blanks yet, but have little doubt GOEX cartridge grade will perform well in thsee arms. I hope to be able to record some chronograph velocity readings on cartridge grade powder in a .44-40 Henry in the near future, which I will share with you.

1995, 1998 by Joe Bilby

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