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John Fay - Confederate States Navy

Today, October 13, 2011 marks the 91st anniversary of the death of John Fay. Fay, buried in Confederate Field here at the State Cemetery, died at the Confederate Men’s Home here in Austin 91 years ago. His death serves as a reminder of the Irish experience in the South and the immigrant experience during the American Civil War. Fay volunteered for service during the war as an infantryman with the Louisiana Tiger Rifles, a fairly famous Confederate unit known for its high proportion of Irish Americans and Irish immigrants.

When most historians speak of the Irish military experience during the Civil War, they are referring to the 69th New York Infantry, better known as the Irish Brigade. The 69th are the much better studied and documented Irish unit during the Civil War. Many Irish fought for the Union because they came from the great Northern port cities of the United States; New York was one of course, but so were Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Many immigrants settled in the same city as they arrived in.

New Orleans was the second largest port city in the United States at the time and had a large immigrant community. The South is not known for its immigrant population, mostly because immigrants competed for the same jobs that slaves performed. But New Orleans was a special case, like it has been for most of its history.

New Orleans had the largest immigrant population of any Southern city in the mid-19th Century. Just like their Northern cousins, when the Civil War broke out, the New Orleans Irish joined up and fought for their new country. John Fay was just one of thousands to do so.

Fay left his native country in 1850, presumably fleeing the Great Famine or the Irish Potato Famine, an absolutely nightmarish time for poor subsistence farmers of Ireland. Though it was a combination of many things, including the dangers of monocropping, the result of the Famine was what is known as the Irish Diaspora. The Irish Diaspora was a huge movement of population from Ireland to places all over the world. Though many of the immigrants went to the United States, the Irish went to Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Bermuda, Canada and even England. Fay was one of the many who came to the United Sates.

Fay’s personal story is that he joined the Tiger Rifles, but was only with them for a short time before he was transferred to the Confederate Navy. He was assigned to the ill-fated CSS Louisiana, an ironclad that barely had a career as a Confederate States Navy ship before it was scuttled by her own crew. The ship was ordered to Fort St. Phillip on the Mississippi River when a detachment of United States Navy ships threatened St. Philip and Fort Jackson. The Louisiana could have done with more time in the ship yard, because she was plagued with engine trouble, gun trouble, steering trouble and other problems that led her to being lashed to a wharf and used as a floating battery. When the US Navy forces moved past, Confederate commanders feared a Union Army attack from land and set fire to the Louisiana which exploded when the fire reached her powder magazine. The Louisiana can still be found today though it lay under a considerable amount of mud.

The failure of the Confederate forces to stay the Union Navy led to the capture of New Orleans, a major turning point in the war. Fay was captured and later paroled by General Benjamin Franklin Butler, the Union commander of New Orleans. He likely remained in occupied New Orleans for a time, but claimed service on a Confederate blockade runner run out of a town called Bagdad on the Florida/Alabama border.

After the war, he moved to Dallas and worked as a laborer until medical concerns led him to apply for a Confederate pension. By that time, Fay considered himself an American even though he went to live in the Confederate Men’s Home in Austin and still spoke with an Irish accent. Fay died there about a year after he was accepted and given a burial plot at the State Cemetery.

-Will Erwin