Fleeting Fame: Union Colonel John Fitzroy De Courcy


It is not unusual for the commander of a defeated force to get sacked. Nor is it unusual for such a commander to suffer additional consequences, if that defeat is particularly egregious, or seems to involve an overly ripe degree of blundering.

Defeat at Ball’s Bluff sent Union Colonel Charles P. Stone to a Federal prison for six months, despite the lack of a trial or even having charges filed against him. The fall of New Orleans so tainted Confederate General Mansfield Lovell’s career that he never held a major command again, despite the fact that his court of inquiry cleared him of blame.

When Colonel Dixon Miles surrendered Harpers Ferry in September 1862, the fact that he was mortally wounded by an artillery shell on the very day he decided to capitulate didn’t stop the United States Government from launching a formal Court of Inquiry into the sorry affair. Nor did Miles’s demise absolve him from the court’s blame-laying. He was posthumously condemned for “incapacity, almost amounting to imbecility.”

Brigadier General John W. Frazer likely would have faced a similar court for his decision to surrender his small garrison of Confederates at Cumberland Gap in September 1863 had he not spent the rest of the war a Union prisoner. There was certainly anger enough. Confederate President Davis denounced Frazer in a public oration. Frazer’s commission, a provisional appointment that required congressional confirmation that fall, was subsequently given the thumbs-down by all 18 sitting Confederate Senators. He was also neither paroled or exchanged, which was unusual for a general officer at that stage of the war.

All of the examples above are at least understandable, if not excusable: losing has consequences.

But what of winning?

For it was not just Frazer who faced censure with the capture of the Gap. On September 9, 1863, The Union brigade commander who received Frazer’s surrender, Colonel John F. De Courcy, was also placed under arrest for his conduct at Cumberland Gap.

Colonel De Courcy  is one of those odd characters that seem to populate the more obscure corners of the American Civil War. He was a professional British soldier who was drawn to the U.S. by the war. A member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, De Courcy joined the 47th Regiment of foot as an ensign in 1838, at the age of 17. His military experience seems to have been fairly typical for a mid-Nineteenth Century British soldier serving the empire. He spent considerable time in the West Indies. His most significant combat experience came in the Crimea, leading Turkish auxiliary troops against the Russians. In 1861 he traveled to the United States, and soon wrangled a commission as colonel of the 16th Ohio Infantry.

He proved himself a capable regimental commander, though his notion of discipline conflicted with that of the men now serving under him. Initially they thought him “cruel” – later revising that assessment to “cruel but fair.” Assigned to the Army of the Ohio in late 1861, the 16th accompanied Union General George W. Morgan in seizing the Cumberland Gap from Rebel control. In the Confederate counter-stroke that resulted in the Kentucky Campaign, Morgan’s garrison conducted an epic march to escape the Gap just ahead of converging Rebel columns. Then Morgan, the 16th, and Colonel De Courcy – now a brigade commander – all traveled west to take part in William T. Sherman’s disastrous Chickasaw Bluffs assault outside Vicksburg. De Courcy’s brigade spearheaded that assault, which resulted in heavy losses. Either annoyed with what he viewed as blundering or just in poor health, De Courcy took a leave of absence in the spring of 1863.

Thus De Courcy was available to again take the field in Kentucky that summer, when Union General Ambrose Burnside organized his effort to invade East Tennessee. Burnside intended to invade East Tennessee with the IX and XXIII Corps, five divisions in all, entering the region south of Knoxville and then turning northeast. Frazer’s Confederates now held Cumberland Gap, and in order to seal off their escape route to the north (and to prevent any raids against Burnside’s supply depots at Nicholasville and Crab Orchard) Burnside needed a force to approach the gap from the north.

For this task he chose De Courcy, assigning the Englishman two green regiments of infantry, the 86th and 129th Ohio, one battery of artillery; and a mixed battalion of East Tennessee cavalry recruits, drawn from the 8th, 9th and 11th Tennessee Cavalry Regiments – something like 2,700 men in all. The command was provisional, belonging to neither the IX nor the XXIII Corps, meaning that it was an afterthought in all aspects, especially in regard to supply. The distance from Crab Orchard to the north side of Cumberland Gap was roughly 100 miles, all of it through rugged, sparsely settled terrain. De Courcy and his troops needed to be at the Gap by the end of the first week in September in order to co-ordinate their efforts with Burnside’s main body, coming up from the south, though communication between the two columns would be extremely limited.

A modern view of Cumberland Gap
A modern view of Cumberland Gap

Though the mission was daunting, De Courcy at least knew the terrain. He complained bitterly about the lack of adequate supply, charging at one point that all of the quartermasters tasked with provisioning him were nothing but drunks, but he was in place right on time. Union Brigadier General James M. Shackelford appeared on the south side of the Gap on September 7, while De Courcy’s column did the same from the north end on the afternoon of the 8th. Both Shackelford and De Courcy sent in demands for Frazer’s surrender, which were rejected. Frazer was playing for time, and hoping the Federals were not strong enough to overwhelm his defenses. That hope died for good the next morning when Burnside himself arrived, bringing up Union reinforcements. Frazier surrendered on the afternoon of September 9th.

De Courcy made strenuous efforts to inflate his numbers in the mind of his opponent. Though he had only two infantry regiments, his men industriously swapped each other’s brass regimental numbers so as to, in the words of Private J. N. Ashburn of the 86th,  “lead the enemy’s spies to conclude that there were as many regiments as there were different numbers on [our] caps.” The ruse worked. Confederate Major B. G. McDowell of the 62nd North Carolina, one of the few Rebels to evade capture, recorded a week after the surrender that “the number of [De Courcy’s] forces could not be ascertained, though it was said to be sixteen regiments.” De Courcy maintained the illusion by adopting a bellicose front on September 8th and 9th, threatening to storm Frazer’s works at any moment. When Frazer finally agreed to yield, it was De Courcy’s men who first marched into the Rebel lines to accept their surrender.

Almost immediately thereafter, Burnside placed De Courcy under arrest.
The reason, averred Burnside, was for insubordination. When the English-born officer reached the north side of the Gap, he established tenuous contact with Brigadier General Shackelford, on the south end, and became subject to the latter’s orders. Shackelford ordered De Courcy to make sure he covered the Harlan Road, lest the Rebels escape. De Courcy apparently found this dispatch insulting. The Englishman’s reply reflected his wounded pride:

  “I am fully acquainted with all the roads and localities on both sides of the gap, and further, that I have been in the military profession almost continuously ever since my sixteenth year. For the above reasons I was chosen, I believe, by General Burnside, and appointed to this independent command, receiving directly from him verbal, but not detailed, instructions, as I believe he trusted to my experience and local knowledge.”

Some Rebels did in fact escape via the Harlan Road (no more than a hundred, including Major McDowell) prompting Shackelford, smarting from De Courcy’s rebuff, to complain to Burnside and furnish the commanding general with a copy of the offending reply.

Members of the Ohio 86th and 129th were sure that De Courcy’s arrest could be explained by a baser motive: Jealousy – De Courcy, after all, was first into the gap, receiving the surrender that Shackelford or perhaps even Burnside felt belonged to themselves.

The incident came to nothing. De Courcy never stood before a court, and Burnside let the matter quietly drop. De Courcy, probably disgusted with Americans and their irritating ways, never returned to command. He again took leave, mustering out in March of 1864 when the 16th Ohio’s original enlistment expired, and left the country thereafter. He returned to British service, this time as a colonial administrator.

De Courcy did all right in the end, however. In 1875, John Fitzroy De Courcy became the 35th Baron Kingsale (the largest peerage in Ireland) after two of his cousins died without issue; a seat he held until his own death in 1890. He apparently left no written account of his three years in Union blue.






9 Responses to Fleeting Fame: Union Colonel John Fitzroy De Courcy

  1. Very interesting–I did not know about this drama. My great-great-grandfather, Lieut. Marion Passmore, was among the 62nd North Carolina captured that day. He spent the rest of the war at Johnson’s Island, Ohio.

  2. Major De Courcy was the Stipendiary Magistrate representing England on San Juan Island in the 1859 showdown known as the “Pig War”. Representing the United States on the island – one Captain George Pickett. Must have been an interesting story in how De Courcy came to the US afterwards. I read also where De Coucry may have gone to serve with Maximillian after resigning from Federal service.

    1. Mark,

      Very cool. I would love to know more about all of that. Do you remember where you read it? I have had little luck in tracking down much about the man.

      1. The national park service website detailing the great pig war on san Juan has great info; as well as numerous links.

  3. Very interesting account. A typical response from a family of antagonist. A World on
    Fire provides a great description Col. DeCourcy’s exploits. The saber presented to the colonel upon his departure from the regiment is at the Wooster Historical Society.

  4. A bit late in seeing this post (which is very good), but do you have a specific source for the details surrounding Burnside’s arrest of De Courcy?

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