When the words “Irish” and “Confederate general” are spoken most students of the war immediately think of Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, the “Stonewall of the West” who was killed in action at the Battle of Franklin in November 1864.
There were other Irishmen who rose to prominence in the military of the Confederate States of America. Florida, the third state to secede and the smallest in population size, boasts a native of Eire in its military pantheon.
Joseph Finegan (Finnegan) was born in Clones, County Monaghan, Ireland on November 17, 1814 and two decades later ventured to sunny Florida to set-up a sawmill in Jacksonville. He later moved a short distance up the eastern seaboard and began a law practice in Fernandina. During the time spent there he met David Levy Yulee, who would become a Confederate senator for the state, and the two gentlemen became business partners, helping to establish the Florida Railroad.
Continuing his upward rise in the state, Finegan married Rebecca Smith Travers on July 28, 1842. It was the bride’s second marriage but she was well-connected; her sister being married to the former territorial Florida governor Robert Raymond Reid.
By the 1860s, Finegan had constructed a 40-room dwelling in Fernandina and was elected to represent Nassau County in Florida’s Secession Convention. With the outbreak of war, Finegan cast his lot with the military of the fledgling Confederacy and was put in charge of the military affairs for the state by Governor John Milton. On April 5, 1862, Finegan was commissioned a brigadier general in the service of the Confederate States of America with assignment as commander of the District of Middle and East Florida.
He would remain in this district command until the largest land battle in the state of Florida erupted on February 20, 1864. Called the Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond), Confederate forces turned back the Union advance under Brigadier General Truman Seymour. Finegan, with the assistance and battlefield command under Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt, the South repulsed the Union advance toward the critical Suwannee River and the state capital of Tallahassee. Casualties numbered close to 3,000 combined out of approximately 10,000 combatants.
Finegan’s role in that engagement, the subsequent aftermath, and his removal from command of Florida troops in which Major General James Patton Anderson have been used by his detractors since the guns fell silent on February 20. At least on that last point, that change was necessary, as on May 16, 1864, Anderson, who had assumed command of the Military District of Florida in the preceding time, was ordered to send “one good brigade of infantry” north to join the Army of Northern Virginia. Finegan was tapped to lead this infantry reinforcement, which all but left Florida bereft of infantry to fight any Union incursions.
The Floridians would play a major role in the fighting at Cold Harbor in June and continue to see service with the Army of Northern Virginia until the close of the war. However, shortly before the final campaign to Appomattox, Finegan was recalled for duty in the state of Florida on March 20, 1865.
With the fall of the Confederacy and the end of the conflict, Finegan served a year in the Florida Senate and then became a cotton broker. He spent a number of years in Savannah, which has a large Irish population. Finegan returned to his adopted homeland, settling in Orange County, Florida where he oversaw a large orange grove. On October 29, 185, at the age of 70, Finegan succumbed to a “severe cold, inducing chills…after a brief illness” reported the Florida Times Union, in Rutledge, Florida. He was laid to rest in Old City Cemetery in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Florida Union Times also reported that Finegan was a “hearty, unaffected, jovial, clear-headed, and keen-witted” individual. A true Irishman!
*Finegan and the Battle of Olustee will be the focus of one of the talks at this year’s Emerging Civil War Symposium, held August 2nd through 4th at Stevenson Ridge, in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. For more information about that weekend, click here.*