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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Lieutenant John Sweeney's Demons

by Gordon Thorsby

(unknown Confederate soldier (LOC)

The Memorial Meeting of the Irish Volunteers was called to Order on Oct. 10, 1877. The usual Flowery speeches of bravery, battle and the "cause" from Gettysburg to Florida filled the air. Other Veteran organizations South and North did this for years as they memorialized those alive and gone. When D. John Sweeney’s name was called out on that October day, the response from those present was unknown.

John Sweeney joined McCreary’s Infantry of K Company of the 1st South Carolina Infantry as 1st Sergeant in January 1861 at the age of eighteen. He committed to help South Carolina secede from the United States and though so young received a first sergeant's stripes. The regiment’s first months were at Charleston and the fights around the city until mid-1862.

The First South Carolina Infantry fought in the maelstrom of Sharpsburg and America’s worst day. Now Major McCreary ordered three companies to refuse the line that included now 2nd Lt. Sweeney “Co. K who immediately opened fire on the incoming lines of Federal troops. The fire from my regiment was rapid, and ammunition commenced to fail and the charges to clog in the rifles. In some instances the men were obliged to use stones to hammer the charges down.”

In the fighting at Sharpsburg 165 men went into the fight on the 17th. One officer and fifteen men reported for duty the next morning. The rest were killed or wounded and John Sweeney counted amongst the wounded though slightly. At Chancellorsville, the 1st South Carolina with 300 men entered the fight in Jackson’s end run and suffered 100 casualties. In the nine-month nightmare of Petersburg, Sweeney was wounded again and more seriously. Sweeney surrendered with the army and Appomattox and the war was over.

He was put away for thirty years and for all that time he still survived, some good days and many bad. The demons always returned and the condition worsened. He was moved from asylum to asylum who might be able to care best and facilities that had funds or space. In 1915, the “inmate” as he was described at the time, was sent to the White State Hospital for the Insane in Columbia, SC. His watch was constant but the monitor left for a few minutes at five o’clock in the morning of July 21. When the man returned, D. John Sweeney, was suspended “by the neck, with an improvised rope made of strips torn from his night robe dead.

“He had been making threats against his own life.”

The coroner wrote out a Death certificate and decided "an inquest was unnecessary."

-His Father and mother were once known by many but in 1915 disappeared and unknown.

-John's place of residence? White Asylum.

-His wife and child? The 1900 census indicated their existence but in the passage of time to his death in 1915, the records show no existence, disappeared.

Proof of the man's existence was only a record in a cemetery. D. John Sweeney simply disappeared.

While the authorities attempted to prevent a possible suicide attempt, they did not, could not or would not attempt to treat the problem.


Meeting of the Irish Volunteers, Genealogy

Source: Official Records Series I. Vol. 25. Part I, Reports. Serial No. 39

Columbia Herald, July 23, 1915.

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