Fightin’ Tom Sweeny, a US Army General and Fenian, was born in Dunmanway town on Christmas Day two centuries ago. He now lies in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Pauline Murphy shares her research on the extraordinary life of this born survivor .
Thomas William Sweeny was born in The Green Dunmanway on Christmas Day in 1820 to Honora and William Sweeny. The cherubic baby would grow up to become known as ‘Fightin’ Tom’, a name he certainly lived up to by evading death multiple times during his eventful life.
When he was seven-years-old, Thomas’ father died and five years later the family emigrated for the United States. During the treacherous crossing, young Sweeny was thrown overboard by a violent wave. The 12-year-old fought for 30 minutes to get back on board – an early indication of his fighting spirit!
On arriving in New York City Sweeny found work as an apprentice in the book printers Gould & Banks before joining a local militia, The Baxter Blues, as soon as he was old enough.
During the Mexico War The Baxter Blues was mustered in with the New York Volunteers.
Sweeny took part in the Siege of Vera Cruz and in 1847 was shot in his right arm during the Battle of Churubusco; the musket ball did so much damage that the arm needed amputation.
Sweeny was honoured by the Governor of New York, who bestowed him with the brevet of Captain and a commission in the 2nd US Infantry, which sent Sweeny to California where he was based at Fort Yuma from 1851 to 1856. While fighting Native Americans there he took an arrow in the neck, an injury from which he also recovered.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Sweeny became Brigade General of the Missouri Volunteers, who he led at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, where he was again hit with a musket ball – this time in the leg.
Sweeny was back in action in 1862 as Colonel of the 52nd Illinois. At the Battle of Shiloh his brigade suffered many casualties and Sweeney himself was wounded when a bullet pierced his remaining arm and another bullet lodged in his leg.
During this convalescence, Sweeny’s courage was acknowledged when officers of the 52nd Illinois presented him with a sword as a token of their respect.
However, Sweeny was not done yet; he next led a division in the Atlanta campaign but found himself at odds with General Grenville Dodge following the Battle of Atlanta. The two men ended up brawling, for which Sweeny was arrested and courtmartialed but acquitted on account of his service and bravery on the battlefield.
In April 1865 Thomas Sweeny was a member of the guard of honour in charge of President Lincoln’s body as he lay-in-state in New York. In August of the same year he mustered out of service and joined the Fenian Brotherhood, where he was selected as its Secretary of War.
Sweeny was at the forefront of the Fenian plans for invading Canada in 1866. The plan was to hold Canada, a British dominion, hostage in exchange for the freedom of Ireland.
Sweeny procured a large cache of US Army surplus weapons and the force he was to lead was called The Irish Republican Army. The invasion began in June 1866 but soon fell apart. Sweeny was arrested but later released and reinstated to the US army as a Brigadier General.
During his action-packed life Thomas Sweeny also found time to marry, twice. He married his first wife Eleanor Clark of Brooklyn in 1848 but illness claimed her life in 1860. Seven years later he married Eugenia Regan of Georgia, with whom he had three daughters and three sons.
Fightin’ Tom retired in 1870 to Long Island where he died on April 10, 1892 at the age of 72. He was buried with military honours at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.