Artillery specialist P.J. Kelly had ten years of experience, serving His Royal Majesty. When Kelly arrived in Iowa, he probably never imagined he would serve both sides in a civil war.
In 1859, young Iowa men had a “martial spirit” and formed paramilitary companies in many towns. Besides practicing drills, the companies formed a social group that gave balls, held exhibition drills, and marched in parades.
In 1859, Kelly became captain of the Iowa City Artillery. The next year, he left (or lost) his job as a postal clerk.[i]
At that time, Iowa was still struggling under the lingering financial Panic of 1857. In contrast, Memphis, Tennessee, had bounced back rather quickly.
Kelly moved to job-plentiful Memphis in late 1860 with his wife and their one-year-old son. Shortly afterwards, voters elected Republican Abraham Lincoln as President. [ii]
Voices in the Cotton South and even the Upper South expressed concern and outrage about the “Black Republican” (supposedly abolitionist) President-Elect Lincoln.
In response, Iowans gradually became more determined to preserve the Union, according to historian Charles Ray Aurner. Residents of Johnson County, Iowa, frowned “upon any attempts of sympathizers with the South to express themselves.”[iii]
When Southern troops fired upon Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861, Iowans responded with outrage and condemnation. The next day, President Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to put down the rebellion.
“An Iowa Renegade” ?
Border-state Southerners were alarmed that Union troops would likely cross their states to reach the Confederacy. A week later, the Dubuque Daily Times (a Republican paper) quoted the Memphis Daily Argus that P.J. Kelly, “late Captain of the Iowa City Artillery,” was raising troops for the “Southern Rights Home Guard.”
Kelly placed a notice calling for every native Irishman in Tennessee to stand “against the attacks of the Black Republican despot of the North!” He explained:
The Irishman is celebrated for his devotion and loyalty to whatever flag he fights under. If we are called to defend our newborn and infant flag, let us show ourselves no less patriotic and faithful than the Irish at Bunker Hill.
The Constitution, according to Kelly, ” has been usurped and overthrown by the black-hearted infidels of the North.” He called for his “fellow countrymen in free States not to take up arms to aid Lincoln and his black-hearted band to lay waste a fair country, and murder a liberal and generous people.”
With a nod to the Know-Nothing roots of many Republicans, Kelly claimed that Lincoln “stands at the head of a political party whose history is full of the grossest hostility to Irish adopted citizens in particular.[iv]
Making enemies in Iowa
In early June 1861, Kelly became 1st Lieutenant of Artillery, basically serving as a recruiting and mustering officer. He enlisted as many as 50 men a day.[v]
He later wrote:
This made more enemies for me in the north, so much so, that they erected a Gallows, for me in Iowa City, to give to the first Regiment who left there for the South & ordered them when they arrived in Memphis to hang me … They had another at Cairo, & detained several men of my name there for many days, thinking they might get me.
Perhaps Kelly had only heard a rumor of a gallows in Iowa City. Nonetheless, it still reflects the emotional tenor in Iowa.
On August 5, 1861, Lt. Kelly enlisted in Co. K, 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery, commanded by Capt. Andrew Jackson Jr.[vi]
A month later, Kelly had a serious run-in with Captain Jackson, so Kelly wrote their commanding General Leonidas Polk:
I would like to see Jackson [Kelly’s superior officer] come out nobly & acknowledge his very ungentlemanly conduct towards me … I am disgraced in the eyes of the people …
I would put a stain upon my honor, my position & my character, to remain quietly in the same command with a man that greatly insulted my Person, character & worth in the most debasing & scandalous manner. I would feel thankful to him if he shot me thro the heart at once.
Kelly floated the possibility of resigning and being reinstated at a different command.”[vii]
Waiting in limbo
In late October 1861, Lt. Kelly moved to Fort Pillow, Tennessee, waiting for Captain Jackson to apologize or be rebuked.[viii] Nothing happened, and Kelly submitted his resignation in March 1862.
While Kelly waited to hear that he was out of the Confederate Army, he groused to General Polk:
I am being sick in body and mind to think after raising so many soldiers in Memphis, I had not the happiness of being present with them at any of our engagements … God will, I hope, attend to those who are wrongfully oppressed. I consider myself one of this number …
I have a family to support. All I have in the world is gone in defense of this country. I am only 18 months in the South.[ix]
Within a month, Kelly left the Confederate Army, blaming his troubles on “a few petty enemies,” but he wanted another commission. General Polk observed, “He [Kelly] was in my command, has no special merit as an officer.”
Kelly told a staff officer, “It seems that my services are not needed in this country … Should the Yankees find me here, I will be badly off as I am only 16 months out of their service.”[x]
On July 13, 1862, the New York Times reported that Union authorities were organizing an artillery company in Memphis. The authorities planned to raise 15,000 troops in Tennessee to suppress “guerrillas and home traitors.”
The Times noted, “Several of the most powerful and experienced men in the state are at the head of this most excellent movement … Capt. P.J. Kelly has also been commissioned to raise an Artillery Company.”
Kelly explained his new job in the Union service:
I accept the above appointment that I may have an opportunity of wiping out the stain that lies on my very soul in taking part in this unholy rebellion … Every one remembers the horrible treatment I received from Jailor JACKSON and his mob on the public streets of Memphis … No man, poor or rich, but will acknowledge that I have been badly treated for no reason whatever.
I call upon all oppressed to rally to the support of that Government which always protects its subjects alike, let them be poor or rich, of native or foreign birth; let us return to our allegiance with a determination never to wrong, by word or deed, that noble country, which is now like a kind and indulgent parent, with hands stretched forth to receive and forgive his offending children.[xi]
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[i] John E. Briggs, “Enlistment of Iowa Troops During the Civil War,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 15. P. 333; Charles Ray Aurner, “Johnson County in the Civil War,” Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa, History, Vol. I (Cedar Rapids: 1912), 507; 1860 U.S. Census, Iowa City, Iowa.
[ii] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 9/6/1861, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.
[iii] Charles Ray Aurner, “Johnson County in the Civil War,” Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa, History, Vol. I (Cedar Rapids: 1912), 507.
[iv] “An Iowa Renegade,” Dubuque Daily Times, 5/7/1861, drawing upon Memphis Daily Argus, 4/22/1861.
[v] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 4/11/1862, Compiled Confederate Service Records, National Archives.
[vi] P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.
[vii] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 9/6/1861, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.
[viii] P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.
[ix] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 4/11/1862, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.
[x] P.J. Kelly to George Williamson, 5/16/1862, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records
[xi] “Recruiting for the National Service,” the New York Times, 7/13/1862.