Warren F. O'Rourke
December 15, 2010
I. Tom Runs Away
Thomas Francis Meagher O'Rourke was my great-grandfather. (Meagher is pronounced "MAR," not "MEAGER.") In 1862 he ran away from an orphanage in Mobile, Alabama, and tried to join the Confederate Army. But let him tell it:I was a pupil at St. Vincent's Male Orphan Asylum in Mobile, Alabama, where I had been placed in 1857 when I was six years old by Father A.D. Pellicer, the new pastor of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church at Montgomery, Alabama. My father, Owen O'Rourke, had died and left my mother with three children in her care -- my older brother Michael, my younger sister Catherine Christine, and me. The good priest also arranged for my little sister to be placed in the Female Roman Catholic Asylum in Mobile and for my brother Michael to be apprenticed at The Montgomery Advertiser, a newly founded journal in the capital city of Alabama.A Matron of Linens? That means that my great-great-grandmother was the head "Irish washerwoman" at the Ladies Aid Association Hospital. However, Ann O'Rourke was actually considered a skilled worker, much like an electrician or plumber today. She had to know about making her own detergents, dyes, and starches. And she had to have in her "tool kit" all sorts of flat irons in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I don't know how much she was paid, but her deal included a room to sleep in -- a room too small for her to keep her children with her.
Father Pellicer also arranged for my mother, Ann Armstrong O'Rourke, to be employed as the Matron of Linens at the Ladies Aid Association Hospital in Montgomery. It was not a hospital for ladies; it was a hospital funded by the upper-crust socialite ladies of Montgomery as a charity. Once the war started, it became a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers.
And thus it was that I was dwelling in St. Vincent's Orphanage when the tocsin of war sounded in 1861.
Meanwhile, her oldest son Michael was sleeping in a store room at The Advertiser and learning the printing business. In 1860, when he was about 16 years old, Michael joined a group of young fellows who called themselves "The Montgomery True Blues." On borrowed horses and mules, they fancied themselves a cavalry unit and had drills on Sunday afternoons. When the war started in 1861, the new Confederate government took them straight into the Army and sent them off to help General Maury guard Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida.
In 1862 Michael, who was only 60 miles away from Mobile at Pensacola, asked his friend and fellow "True Blue" Sergeant Ross McVeagh to check on Tom and Catherine Christine the next time he was detailed to go over to Mobile on Army business. Here's Tom again:Ross McVeagh was a non-commisioned officer, that is, he had red stripes on his coat sleeves, and his coat was blue. When he called at St. Vincent's to see me, he was taken to the recreation ground where many of the pupils were playing. He created a sensation in his magnificent blue coat and his accoutrements, and that's what roused my patriotism. My small size and my young age in no way way inhibited my growing spirit of seccesion. McVeagh's uniform and equipment, in fact, struck the whole scholarship of St. Vincent's the same way. The seed of rebellion had been planted in the halls of study.
A month showed the growth of that planting. Ross McVeagh had set secession to seething. All the older boys wanted to join the army, and -- notwithstanding age and size -- so did I.
When one of my fellow pupils suggested in the vacation period of 1862 that we run off and join the army, we fled the orphanage. The encourager fled to the country. I fled to the Mobile and Ohio railroad depot at the eastern edge of Mobile, just beside the Mobile River. In the event, that was not far enough to flee.
II. Tom's Mother Finds Her Foolish Child
The depot was crowded -- with soldiers being sent north on out-going trains to the battlefields of northern Mississippi and Tennessee, with wounded soldiers on trains returning from those same battlefields, with strolling food vendors, with wagons bringing military supplies to be sent to the front, with ambulances carrying the wounded soldiers into the city's hospitals, with the carriages of wives and sweethearts bidding their soldiers farewell. Tom ought to have gone un-noticed in the confusion, but he was noticed by the Irish people in and around the crowded depot.
Tom was very small for his age and had a baby face. He had a distinctly Irish accent and occasionally sang songs in Gaelic to earn a few pennies from the crowd. He also tried to panhandle the passers-by with a preposterous story about being an orphan boy searching for his older brother who was in the army. And, after his first day at the depot, he was limping around on an obviously injured foot. (He had gotten his foot caught between the loading dock and one of the box cars while exploring in search of food.) Mr. Dennis Donovan, who ran the express office, noticed him and his damaged foot. Donovan told his wife and she told her friend Mrs. Gibbons who ran an Irish-only boarding house where the Donovans and other Irish folks gathered at night to play cards. Before long the entire Irish immigrant community of Mobile knew about "the poor crippled orphan lad in search of his brother."
After three or four days, Mrs. Donovan felt compelled to visit the depot, and there she found Tom and took him home, gave him a good bath, got a doctor to tend his injured foot, and then set out to find the "brother in the army." But, since Tom persisted in his lies, she had no useful information to go on. The only thing she had right was that the boy's name was Tom.
Meanwhile, the head teacher at St. Vincent's had telegraphed a message about Tom's escapade to Father Pellicer in Montgomery. Pellicer told Ann. Ann immediately struck out for Mobile to find her foolish child. On the train ride to Mobile, she met an Irish Confederate soldier, Captain Owen Finnegan, who by happy coincidence recommended that she stay at Mrs. Gibbons' Irish boarding house while in Mobile. Here's how Tom tells what happened next:At supper on her first night at Mrs. Gibbons' boarding house, my mother had occasion to ask for something to be passed along the table. Her form of speech and her accent attracted Mrs. Gibbons' attention.For my Gentle Readers who are concerned about Catherine Christine, don't worry. She lived to be over 100 years old. She grew up and married a guy named Doyle. One of her grandsons became Mayor Doyle of Mobile. I knew her when she was very old. We called her Aunt Christine. She lived in a house on the western shore of Mobile Bay and, in her dotage, used to take pot shots at sea gulls with a .22 caliber single-shot rifle. In her front yard was an old Confederate artillery emplacement made of oak logs. On her front porch were three cannon balls that came from that old battery. Hurricanes have eradicated that old emplacement, but I remember playing around the place when I was 6 or 7 years old.
Mrs.Gibbons: "You are Dublin?"We were still at the Donovan's breakfast table when my mother and Mrs. Gibbons burst into the room the next morning. I was compelled on the spot to "ate my lies' to the Donovans and was hauled back to the boarding house just in time for Captain Finnegan to gallantly offer to accompany us on the train ride back to Montgomery.
Mrs. O'Rourke: "Nearly. 'Tis Blackrock."
Mrs. Gibbons: "I thought so. Are you come to Mobile to seek service?"
Mrs. O'Rourke: "No. I came looking for a runaway lad."
Mrs. Gibbons: "What is his name? What is he like? How old is he?"
Mrs. O'Rourke: "He's Tom, nor does he look his 12 years."
Mrs. Gibbons: "Rest you easy! Eat your supper, and sleep well. I'll bring you right to the very lad with the morrow. He fell into very good hands. You are blessed with the luck!"
On the ride to Montgomery, and for the rest of her long life, my mother delighted in telling these events to anyone who would listen. . .especially when I was present. She always ended her account by pointing at me and saying: "As a lad, this liar of a boyo here had no more sense than Paddy Ward's goat."
I can't remember after all these years if we visited with Catherine Christine before returning to Montgomery.
If you want to hear the next part of this story, send me an e-mail to email@example.com.