Written by Russ W. Wylie, Past President
St. Clair Augustin Mulholland, who would become the President of The Hibernian Society (with which The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick amalgamated in 1792) from 1892 to 1894, was born in Lisburn, County Antrim, Ireland and emigrated with his parents as an eleven year old boy to Philadelphia. He became active in the ranks of the militia in his late teens.
As a result of the first year of bloody Civil War battles including First Bull Run, Shiloh, and the battles on the Virginia Peninsula, the Union Army had experienced severe losses and was in need of more troops. On July 1, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 more volunteers. During the summer of 1862, the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry filled its ranks drawing largely from the Irish population in Philadelphia, but also contained many Germans from rural farming regions outside Philadelphia. The unit was mustered into service and was ordered to report to Washington, D.C. with Dennis Heenan commissioned as its Colonel and commander, and St. Clair A. Mulholland as its Lieutenant Colonel on September 1, 1862. The 116th Pennsylvania stayed in or near the Washington, D.C. area until it traveled by train to Harper’s Ferry, Jefferson County, Virginia, where on October 9, 1862 it was brigaded becoming part of the famous Irish Brigade commanded by General Thomas Francis Meagher.
Lieutenant Colonel Mulholland, who felt honored to join the Irish Brigade, wrote: “The brigade to which the regiment had been assigned was a celebrated one, renowned for hard fighting and famous fun… The very name of this brigade was redolent of dash and gallantry, of precision of evolution and promptness of action; [it] was often referred to as Meagher’s Brigade.” The 116th Pennsylvania helped to bolster the ranks of the Irish Brigade, which had suffered devastating losses at the forefront of major Civil War battles up to that point in time. It was only a month before the 116th Pennsylvania joined the Irish Brigade, that the Irish soldiers of the Brigade followed General Meagher to assail the Confederate troops in the Bloody Lane at Antietam loosing 540 killed, wounded, and missing after just fifteen minutes of bloody combat. Although the soldiers of the 116th Pennsylvania had no combat experience, they were welcomed warmly by the men of the Brigade who were grateful for the reinforcements. Lieutenant Colonel Mulholland recalled that General Meagher passed around a canteen filled with whiskey when the 116th Pennsylvania arrived in camp.
The bravery and sacrifice in the heat of battle of the soldiers of the Irish Brigade developed a great sense of pride in the Irish immigrant communities in the Northeast and a more favorable image within the Union Army as well as in Washington, D.C. President Lincoln while meeting with Union generals at Harrison’s Landing one week following the Battle of Malvern Hill was observed to have been seen grasping the banner of the 69th New York. A Union officer reported that President Lincoln said, “God Bless the Irish flag,” and then he kissed that green flag.
President Lincoln relieved General McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac on November 5, 1862, replacing him with General Ambrose Burnside. The following month General Burnside, the new commander, led the Union force to the shores of the Rappahannock preparing to attack the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. On December 12, the Irish Brigade crossed the Rappahannock and bivouacked in the town of Fredericksburg. Before they marched out of Fredericksburg the next morning, General Thomas Meagher had the soldiers insert a sprig of green boxwood into their hatbands as an insignia to identify the Irish Brigade before battle. The brigades of Brigadier General William H. French and Major General Winfield S. Hancock made up the first wave of Union troops to attack the strongly fortified Confederate defensive position just west of the city known as Marye’s Heights. Both brigades where cut to ribbons leaving half their men dead, wounded and dying on the battlefield.
While leading the men of the 116th Pennsylvania toward the front, Colonel Heenan’s left hand was severely wounded by an artillery burst, however he remained at his post after his hand was bandaged. The Irish Brigade began their advance toward Marye’s Heights and faced a withering hail of deadly fire from the Confederate position. A few minutes after General Meagher gave the command, “Load and fire at will,” he was carried off the battlefield after being severely wounded in the thigh by a cannonball. Most of the officers of the Irish Brigade were either killed or wounded including Colonel Heenan and Lieutenant Colonel Mulholland, who were both taken off the field. The Irish Brigade lost half their men and the remaining soldiers retreated from the field. Division after division of Union soldiers were thrown against the enemy’s artillery and infantry fire leaving thousands of dead and wounded strewn across the battlefield. The Battle of Fredericksburg stood as the bloodiest single day of the Irish Brigade. The 116th Pennsylvania lost so many men that it was consolidated under the command of Mulholland into a battalion of four companies. He accepted a reduction in rank to major when his regiment was reduced to a battalion. As a result of General Burnside’s failure to call an early halt to the slaughter of the Union troops assailing the heavily fortified high ground of Marye’s Heights and a failed second offensive against General Lee in early January, he was replaced as commander of the Army of the Potomac by Major General Joseph Hooker on January 26,1863. On this same date, Colonel Dennis Heenan was honorably discharged from the Union Army.
The Battle of Chancellorsville, Major General Hooker’s spring offensive campaign of 1863 in Virginia, was a crushing defeat for the Army of the Potomac. Major Mulholland distinguished himself during the battle by leading the 116th Pennsylvania in rescuing the abandoned guns of the 5th Maine Battery from capture by the enemy. Major General Winfield Hancock gave Mulholland command of the picket line to cover the retreat of the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock River. He would later be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on March 26, 1895 for which the citation read: “In command of the picket line, held the enemy in check all night to cover the retreat of the Army.”
The war-weary General Thomas Meagher resigned his command of the once mighty Irish Brigade on May 8, 1863, whose ranks had been decimated to less than 400 soldiers following Chancellorsville, because “the Irish Brigade no longer exists.” He left Colonel Patrick Kelly in charge of what little remained of the Irish Brigade. At this time, the 116th Pennsylvania had been reduced to a total of only 66 soldiers making it the smallest unit of the Irish Brigade. The much reduced Brigade continued to fight with the Army of the Potomac, now under the command of Major General George Meade, who had replaced Major General Joseph Hooker.
The Army of the Potomac girded itself for an epic battle with the Army of Northern Virginia led by General Robert E. Lee, whose goal was to score a major victory north of the Mason/Dixon line that would put pressure on the Lincoln administration to sign a treaty with the Confederacy and might even result in Britain or France entering the war on the side of the South. On July 1, 1863, the soldiers of the Brigade (at that time numbering 530 men) took a defensive position along Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg. Early on July 2, Father William Corby dramatically stood atop a rocky outcropping and bestowed general absolution on hundreds of kneeling Irish soldiers. Late that afternoon, the Irish Brigade and the other three brigades of General Caldwell’s Division were suddenly ordered to take possession of the Wheat Field to confront the Confederate troops that were surging eastward toward Cemetery Ridge after breaking through General Dan Sickles’ Third Corps and capturing the Peach Orchard. The emerald green flags of Ireland led the charge through the Wheat Field and up to the high ground of Stony Hill where the Union soldiers fought a bitter close-range struggle to successfully push back two regiments of veteran South Carolina troops. The victory was short-lived as reinforcement Georgian troops pushed the Union soldiers back from their defensive position established west of Stony Hill, but this action led by the men of the Irish Brigade brought important time needed for additional Union troops to reinforce the battered left of the Army of the Potomac. It was not without a severe cost to the Irish Brigade that suffered a loss of 202 men in the Battle of the Wheatfield. On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Irish Brigade was assigned to support a Union artillery battery position and was spared the heavy fighting as the men of Pickett’s Charge were decimated by the Army of the Potomac, along their defensive position on the high ground of Cemetery Ridge. The Battle of Gettysburg was the high-water mark for the Confederacy and marked the turning point of the Civil War in favor of the Union.
Active recruiting in early 1864 brought the units of the Irish Brigade back up to strength, and as a result of recruiting six new companies the 116th Pennsylvania regained Regimental status led by the newly promoted Colonel St. Clair Mulholland. Command of the revitalized Irish Brigade, with a total strength of more than 2,000 soldiers, was given to Colonel Thomas A. Smyth. President Abraham Lincoln on March 12, 1864 appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General in Chief of All United States Armies. General Grant stated that his goal was to use the Union’s superior number of troops and supplies in a war of attrition to “hammer continuously against the armed force of the enemy and his resources” and give the Confederacy no other option than surrender. Grant led the Army of the Potomac against the Army of Northern Virginia on May 4-5, 1864 in the Battle of the Wilderness, during which Colonel Mulholland was wounded a second time. On May 10, 1864, at the Battle of the Po [River] during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse Colonel Mulholland was wounded a third time, but he remained in the hospital only ten days. Upon the resumption of his command, Mulholland was dangerously wounded again on May 31, 1864 at the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek during the Battle of Cold Harbor. Following a rapid recovery, Colonel Mulholland commanded the 116th Pennsylvania in all actions around Petersburg. On October 28, 1864, he distinguished himself by commanding the storming of a fort on the Boydton Plank Road resulting in the capture of four Confederate officers and forty rebel soldiers.
On April 9, 1865, near the town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Mulholland was mustered out of the volunteer service on July 3, 1865. President Andrew Johnson nominated Mulholland on May 4, 1866 for the brevet grade of brigadier general of volunteers to rank from March 13, 1865 for his conduct at the Battle of the Wilderness and the U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment on May 18, 1866. President Johnson nominated Mulholland on January 13, 1869 for appointment to the brevet grade of major general of volunteers to rank from March 13, 1865 for his actions on the Boydton Plank Road and on February 16, 1869 the Senate confirmed the appointment. The brevet, which was the last brevet of major general issued for service during the Civil War, was issued February 20, 1869.
Brevet Major General St. Clair A. Mulholland became the first Irish born Police Chief in any major American city when he served as Chief of Police in Philadelphia from 1869 to 1872. His administration as Philadelphia Chief of Police was signalized by the good order in which he kept both the force and the city. Mulholland studied art for two years in Europe in the early 1880s and won notice for his watercolor paintings.
The 121st annual dinner of the Hibernian Society, held March 17, 1892, at the Continental Hotel, marked the elevation of Brevet Major General St. Clair A. Mulholland to President of the Society. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland appointed him United States Pension Agent in Philadelphia, and he was continued in this office by Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. On the evening of March 18, 1895, The Hibernian Society celebrated its 124th anniversary at a banquet in the Continental Hotel. The chief guest of honor was Hon. Hilary A. Herbert, Secretary of the Navy. Hon. Edwin S. Stuart, President of the Society, presided. Brevet Major General St. Clair A. Mulholland presented a handsome portrait of Commodore Barry to Society President Stuart in his capacity as Mayor of Philadelphia. Mulholland expressed The Hibernian Society’s wishes for the portrait with the request, “We ask that this portrait be placed in Independence Hall, the birthplace of liberty, and may I add, the cradle of the Hibernian Society, for no one can read the history of the Continental Congress without feeling how closely connected this society was with that body, and hence with Independence Hall.”
On March 16, 1907, some 15,000 spectators witnessed the unveiling of a Statue of Commodore John Barry which was presented to the City of Philadelphia as a gift from the Society. The Statue, located adjacent to Independence Hall, was the work of Philadelphia native Samuel Murray also a member of the Friendly Sons and a student of Philadelphia’s greatest artist, Thomas Eakins. The unveiling ceremony took place between 2:10 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. and was led by Philadelphia Mayor John Weaver and included a who’s who of Philadelphia and Washington dignitaries such as Brevet Major General St. Clair A. Mulholland, Medal of Honor Recipient and Union General of the Civil War; Rear Admiral George Melville; Barry biographer, Martin I.J. Griffin; Samuel Murray, sculptor of the statue; noted lawyer and Barry speaker, Michael J. Ryan; Adjutant General Thomas J. Stewart, President of the Friendly Sons; and, numerous other representatives of the military and political scene. There were 350 sailors present from the ships USS Washington and USS Tennessee, and a detachment of Marines from League Island. At the conclusion of the ceremonies, hundreds of persons made a pilgrimage to St. Mary’s Church, Fourth Street between Spruce and Walnut, to visit the tomb of Commodore Barry, which stands in the rear of the edifice. Upon the marble slab is inscribed an epitaph, outlining the life and virtues of the hero. A wreath also lay upon the tomb, a tribute from the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. Brevet Major General Mulholland, Chairman of the committee appointed to erect the memorial, in making the reports of the committee, referred to Commodore Barry as an early member of the Society, whose name would go down to future generations as a brilliant son of Ireland and a great and true American. The March 16, 1907 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer described the “First Commodore of the United States Navy, whose statue is unveiled today by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick” [as] “an intrepid soul, in the field of business, as in the field of war, he fought to win, & ‘he was a true Philadelphian always in feeling and character.’ ”
At the quarterly meeting of the Society, December 17, 1907, Brevet Major General St. Clair A. Mulholland, Chairman, submitted the final report of the Barry Statue Committee in which he stated: “The memorial to the great sailor has been erected in accordance with the wishes of the members of the Society. The total cost of the structure was Ten Thousand Three Hundred ($10,300) Dollars. It is not only a memorial to the father of the American Navy, but a monument to the ancient and honorable Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick as well, and will be, in all the centuries to come, a lasting honor to the Society as also to the great son of Ireland, the founder of our navy which, from its first inception to the present day, has furnished glowing pages to our country’s history.”
Brevet Major St. Clair A. Mulholland wrote on the Civil War and lectured on art. In Catholic affairs of Philadelphia, he was always active and a leader among the best known laymen. He died on February 17, 1910 and was buried at Old Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia. Brevet Major General St. Clair A. Mulholland was survived by his widow, Mary Josephine Heenan Mulholland (daughter of Colonel Dennis Heenan), and five daughters: Agnes, Frances, Mary St. Clair, Genevieve, and Claire.