In 1908, a group of Civil War veterans from Kentucky participated in a one-mile “walking contest” in Lexington to raise money for the building of a monument in honor of Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan. The contest was reported on by newspapers throughout the South, and the winner was proudly proclaimed: John A. Geary, who had served in the 11th Mississippi Infantry during the “late unpleasantness.”
News of the contest was carried in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the name of the winner immediately struck a cord with James W. Hale of Rich, Mississippi, who was himself a member of the 11th Mississippi Infantry, serving in Company A, the celebrated “University Greys,” formed from the student body of the University of Mississippi in 1861.
Geary’s name brought back such powerful memories to Hale that he was moved to write his old comrade the following letter:
“Mr. J. A. Geary: Dear Sir: – Seeing your name in the Memphis Commercial Appeal as
John T. Geary of the Eleventh Mississippi regiment, I write to know if you are John A. Geary, of Company A, of the old Eleventh. If so, I ask you to accept the thanks of myself and my good wife and my five sons and five daughters for carrying me off the battle field of Seven Pines on the 13th day of May, 1862, when I was so badly shot, for had I lain on the field that night, I would not be writing this today.”
John Geary received the letter from Hale, and after reading it penned the following response that was published in the Lexington Herald on April 15, 1908:
“Yes, I remember the incident well. Our company was on the left wing, which was repulsed, though the engagement as a whole was a Confederate victory. We had not expected McClellan to get all of his force across the Chickahominy river, and the left wing was not sufficiently strong for the surprise. At the same time I helped Captain William Lowry, of Company A, from the field. Both Hale and I were privates. I got Lowry in an ambulance and put Hale on the train for Richmond, which was only about seven miles away. I never saw or heard of him afterward, and just supposed he had died. I shall answer his letter at once.”
Being an historian, I wanted to see if the service records of Gale and Geary could verify the story as written in the Lexington Herald. I pulled up James W. Gale’s records first, and found that he enlisted in the “University Greys” on April 26, 1861, at Oxford, Mississippi. The one thing I was specifically looking for, evidence that he was wounded during the Battle of Seven Pines, I did not find. The records for the 11th Mississippi from the time period of the battle of Seven Pines are incomplete, however, so its very possible he was wounded and the injury was never recorded. If he was indeed wounded at Seven Pines in late May, it must not have been too serious, as he was back in the ranks by September, in time to fight in the Battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862. In this battle Hale’s service record states that he was wounded in the arm, and was admitted to Chimborazo Hospital at Richmond, Virginia, on October 24, 1862.
I next turned to the service record of John A. Geary to see if it could shed some light on the truthfulness of the story. I found that 18 year old Geary enlisted in the University Greys on April 26, 1861, at Oxford, Mississippi. Again I was frustrated, as the records for the period of the Battle of Seven Pines were absent. I did find, however, that Geary was listed as missing at the Battle of Gaine’s Mill, Virginia, on June 27, 1862, and his service record abruptly ends at that point.
I was able to verify one part of Geary’s story – he mentioned helping Captain William B. Lowry, commander of the University Greys, from the field at Seven Pines. In Lowry’s service record there was a notation in September 1862 that he was “Wounded at Seven Pines, at home on furlough.”
I never found the smoking gun that would allow me to say with 100% certainty that the story of Geary carrying James W. Hale from the Battlefield of Seven Pines is true. But I can also say that I found nothing that would cast doubt on the story, and I can’t think of any reason for the two men to make up such a story.
In doing some background research on John Geary, I found that he had a very interesting
personal history. Born near Newcastle West in County Limerick, Ireland on June 24, 1841, he immigrated to the United States in 1854 at the age of 13, and eventually became a plumber living in Lexington. At some point he must have moved to Mississippi, perhaps as a student at the University of Mississippi, for he joined the University Greys at Oxford in 1861.
Geary retained strong ties to the land of his birth, and like many Irishmen he longed for the day when Ireland would be free of British rule. After the Civil War ended, he decided to take an active role in making this dream a reality. In Volume 4 of The History of Kentucky by William Connelley and Ellis Coulter, the following was written about Geary: “At the conclusion of the great American conflict Captain Geary’s first thought was to give his military experience to aid the liberating movement in the land of his birth. Through his exertions a fine circle of the Fenian Brotherhood was formed in Lexington, Kentucky, and under his direction it became one of the most efficient in the organization.”
Returning to his homeland in late 1865 or late 1866, Geary began actively working to help overthrow British rule in Ireland. Naturally his efforts were not appreciated by the English authorities, who put great efforts into capturing Geary. At one point the former soldier had to shoot an English policeman twice in the shoulder to avoid being arrested. With the British authorities hot on his trail, Geary was forced to don a disguise and slip out of the country, arriving in New York in April 1866.
Still eager to strike a blow against the British, Geary joined with a group of like-minded Irish patriots who were planning a raid into Canada. On June 1, 1866, about 1,000 Fenians, including Geary, crossed into Canada from Buffalo, New York. The next day they met a force of Canadian militia at Ridgeway and after a sharp fight lasting about an hour, the Canadian’s withdrew from the field. The victorious Fenians then crossed back into the United States, where they were promptly arrested by United States authorities.
Eventually released on bond, Geary returned to Lexington, and he was never prosecuted for his part in the raid on Canada. He turned his considerable talents to business, and was one of the early oil pioneers in Kentucky. An article in the Lexington Morning Herald, January 26, 1902, noted that the Somerset Oil Company, which was controlled by Geary, “Has the largest oil production of any company in the state. The company’s No. 5 well is now increasing production and is making 150 barrels a day.”
As he grew older, Geary retained his strong commitment to seeing Ireland free. In the January 5, 1921 edition of the Lexington Herald, the old soldier was listed as the president of the “Friends of Ireland,” which was a group consisting of persons “Interested in the movement for the independence of Ireland.” At a meeting of the group in April, Geary addressed the group and proclaimed “Though I have already seen four score years I hope and believe that I will live to see Ireland free.”
Geary may have lived to see his dream of an independent Ireland come true – the last
trace I have been able to find of him was an article in the Lexington Herald on June 27, 1922, which stated that he was planning a trip to Ireland for late in the year. On December 6, 1922, the Irish Free State was established as a dominion by a treaty between British and Irish authorities. I don’t know for certain what became of Geary, but if I can find any more information about him, I will update this post.