I was recently revisiting Damian Shiels’ article about the amazing stereoview of Thomas Francis Meagher and his Irish Zouaves of Company K, 69th New York State Militia, when I thought I recognized a familiar face among the enlisted “Zou-Zous.” Who could forget the equally captivating mugshot of Fenian convict Denis Francis Burke, the former colonel of the 88th New York Infantry of the famous Irish Brigade (discussed by Damian in this article)? I could swear I was looking at the same man! (1)

Detail from the stereoview of Meagher and members of his Zouave company in 1861. Then-Captain Meagher is seated at right. The private standing at left may be Denis Burke. Left image, J. Paul Getty Trust, right image, New York Public Library.

I scanned through the roster of the 69th Militia, and sure enough, I was able to confirm that Burke was listed as a private in the company. Still not completely convinced, I enlisted the help of Civil War Photo Sleuth’s facial recognition technology. I uploaded the mystery Zouave and two identified images of Burke, and–voila–it came up as a potential match! I’d love to hear if others agree–please feel free to comment here or on Facebook—is Denis Burke the private in the Zouaves photo?

Burke and other prominent officers of the Irish Brigade, photographed in 1865. MOLLUS collection via USHEC.

Denis Burke’s career was a remarkable one–even for an Irish Brigade officer. Starting as a private and ending as a brevet brigadier general, he took part in nearly every major battle of the Army of the Potomac from First Bull Run to Appomattox and was twice wounded in action. Arrested in Ireland as a suspected Fenian, Burke provided his own story of emigration and military service in a letter to the U.S. Consul from Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison on 18 March 1866:

The following is my history, which you asked for in your last letter: I was born in the city of Limerick, April 15, 1840, and emigrated to the United States June 13, 1857. I got my naturalization paper January 20, 1860. Was engaged in commercial business in New York, at the house of Grey & Co., 729 Broadway, New York. At the commencement of the war enlisted as a private in the 69th regiment New York State militia, and participated in the battles of Blackburn’s Ford and Bull Run with it. This regiment having enlisted only for three months, I returned with it to New York July 28, 1861, and, after being mustered out, joined the 88th regiment New York volunteers; was promoted two weeks after to second lieutenant by his excellency Governor Morgan. I proceeded with this corps to Virginia December 13, 1861, and participated with it in the following engagements: 1862, Yorktown, Fair Oaks, June 1; Gaines’s Hill, June 26; Savage’s Station, June 27; Peach Orchard, June 28; Glendale and Charles City Crossroads, June 29; Malvern Hill, July 1: Antietam or Sharpsburgh, September 17; Fredericksburg, December 13, where I was severely wounded through the left arm and side. I was promoted to first lieutenant after Malvern Hill, and captain on the battlefield of Antietam. 1863. I here assumed command of the regiment, the field officers being absent on detached duty, and I may add, was never relieved from that responsibility until mustered out; participated in the battles of Chancellorsville May 2 and 3, (was wounded here on the head by a fragment of a shell;) Gettysburg, July 2, 3, and 4; Falling Waters, July 10; Whopping Heights, July 20; Bristoe Station, September 16; Milne Run, November 23; I was then promoted lieutenant colonel, by recommendation of Generals Hancock and Meade. 1864. Wilderness, May 5, 6, and 7; Tod’s Tavern, May 8; Poe River, May 9 ; Spottsylvania, May 12 and 18; Tolapotamea Creek, May 25; Coal Harbor, June 3 and 4; siege of Petersburg, June 16, 17, and 18, and 22; Deep Bottom / and explosion of mine, July 25 ; Ream’s Station, Weldon railroad, August 26; Boydon Plank Road, September 29; assault on Fort Mahon, October 29. At this assault one hundred of my regiment, under my command, were ordered at 12 o’clock at night to demonstrate on the enemy’s centre, and report whether they were enforcing their right, which was pressed by General Hancock. We advanced and stormed one of their strongest works, taking 60 prisoners and spiking four guns. I was, for this affair, breveted colonel in United States volunteers. March 25, 1865, Lee commences to ford his surplus baggage away, and attacked the second corps d’armé, which repulsed him with great loss; March 30, Haches Run; March 31, Five Forks; April 2, Sunderland Station; April 7, Sailors Creek, capture of Lee’s wagon train; April 9, surrender of the insurgent army under General R. A. Lee.

You can see by this account that I have been engaged in over forty general engagements. I have not counted the minor affairs , as they would fill the whole letter. (2)

Burke was imprisoned at Mountjoy and Kilmainham Gaol for a total of seven months before he was released and allowed to return to New York. An ardent Republican, Burke campaigned for Ulysses S. Grant’s successful bid for U.S. President in 1868. He was also a part owner and assistant editor for both The Emerald and The Irish People, two Irish-American newspapers published in New York City. Burke died in 1893 and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.

Postwar portrait of Denis F. Burke published in Officers of the Army and Navy (Volunteer) who Served in the Civil War, 1893.

References

(1) Shiels, Damian, “Photography Focus: A Rare Image of Thomas Francis Meagher and the Men of Bull Run, Irish in the American Civil War; Shiels, Damian, “Face to Face with the Fenians: Mugshots of American Civil War Veterans, Part 1,” Irish in the American Civil War.

(2) Officers of the Army and Navy (Volunteer) who Served in the Civil War, ed. by William H. Powell; Trial and conviction of American Citizens in Great Britain [for Treason in connection with Fenian movement, 1865. Correspondence].

(3) “Gen. Denis F. Burke Dead,” obituary in New York Tribune, New York, NY, 20 Oct. 1893. “Death of General Denis F. Burke,” obituary in Freeman’s Journal and National Press, Dublin, 3 Nov. 1893.

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