I have long been fascinated with Thomas William Sweeny (1820-1892), who is interred at Green-Wood in section 163, lot 14257. He was quite a character.
Born in County Cork, Ireland, he came to New York City at the age of 12. Within a few years, he was working there as a printer and had joined the militia. Volunteering for service during the Mexican-American War, Sweeny was elected second lieutenant of Company A of the 2nd New York Volunteers, and was wounded so badly at Churubusco that his right arm had to be amputated. Sweeny’s friend, Phil Kearny, another military man (who later also would serve as a general during the Civil War), lost his left arm in that war. There is a story that they would shop for gloves together, buy one pair, each put on the appropriate glove, then head off to the theater, where they would sit side-by-side, applauding together. That is quite the image! In the 1850’s, serving as a lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Infantry, Sweeny fought Yuma Indians in the Southwest and Sioux warriors on the Great Plains.
When the Civil War began, Lieutenant Sweeny was assigned to St. Louis, Missouri, where he and forty recruits successfully held the United States Arsenal and its 60,000 weapons against a threatened attack by 3000 Confederate sympathizers. In May, 1861, Sweeny resigned from the Regular Army to become a brigadier general of Missouri Volunteers. Within three months he was so severely wounded at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek that he had to be carried from the field. He soon left the Missouri Volunteers to become a colonel of the 52nd Illinois Infantry, which he commanded at Fort Donelson. At Shiloh, Sweeny commanded a brigade, and according to General William Tecumseh Sherman, it was Sweeny who saved the day for Union forces there. Commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers in November, 1862, Sweeny distinguished himself at the Battles of Corinth, Kennesaw Mountain, and Atlanta.
On July 25, 1864, Sweeny, apparently under the influence of alcohol, argued with his commanding officer, called him a “God-damned liar” and a “cowardly son of a bitch,” then hit him and wrestled another general to the ground. Sweeny was immediately arrested, relieved of his command, and charged with conduct unbecoming an officer. Months later he was acquitted, but his combat career was effectively over.
In April, 1865, Sweeny served in the honor guard around the body of President Lincoln when it lay in state in New York’s City Hall. Mustered out of service in August of 1865, Sweeny soon was elected Secretary of War of the Irish Republic by the Fenian Congress. In an effort to force the British to free Ireland, he led a small army of Irish-Americans north to capture Canada. The invasion was a fiasco and for his efforts he was arrested by U.S. officials, but was soon released. Sweeny returned to active duty with the U.S. Army, but his many war wounds forced his retirement as a brigadier general in 1870. He spent the rest of his days in Astoria, Queens. The Army & Navy Journal, looking back on his career, described him as “as gallant, warm-hearted and impulsive an officer as ever wore the uniform.” His last public cause was his effort to build a home for Confederate war veterans in Austin, Texas. An Illinois G.A.R. Post was named in his honor in 1892.
Five years ago, Ben Pietrobono, who lived near Sweeny’s descendants in Queens, donated photographs of Sweeny and a bronze bust of him to The Green-Wood Historic Fund. This is one of my favorite photographs of the thousands I have taken pertaining to Green-Wood: Ben had just retrieved the Sweeny bronze from his home, and is about to donate it to us.
We are very proud to own this wonderful bust by sculptor James E. Kelly (1855-1933). We displayed it at our Brooklyn Public Library exhibition in 2007 and our “Honoring Their Sacrifice” exhibition in our Historic Chapel in 2011. It is on display in our offices. It is a great piece.
And, just in the last few weeks, we’ve added another great Sweeny piece to our collections. We bought this hat–the one that he wore on special occasions after the Civil War–Grand Army of the Republic events and such. In the photograph below, we have united the bronze bust of Sweeny with his hat:
A good fit!