Nobody still living quite knows the entire truth about the life and times of John McCafferty, the supposed Confederate Captain who was said to have not only served with one of the most notable "rebel" guerrilla forces of the American Civil War, the notorious Morgan's Raiders, but was also rumoured to have led the Irish Republican Brotherhood's much feared assassination squad, known as the Invincibles, who were held to be responsible for the killing of the British diplomat, Lord Cavendish, in Phoenix Park in 1882. In addition, McCafferty was also known to have masterminded and led a fairly audacious attempted raid on Chester's historic castle complex, in an effort to secure the nine thousand muskets, four thousand swords and nearly a million rounds of ammunition that were being held there, which had the raid been successful, would then have later been used against British troops serving in Ireland.
England's and later Britain's relationship with what is now the Irish Republic was always a troubled one, as one would expect where an indigenous native population struggle to free themselves from what they regard as the oppressive rule of a foreign power. Add into that struggle several hundred years of political intrigues, armed military invasions, widespread social engineering, as well as highly divisive religious fundamentalism; and it is not entirely surprising perhaps that for the best part of eight hundred years the island of Ireland remained a political, social and economic powder keg that would almost regularly explode beneath the generally well ordered British establishment.
However, as one of the most pre-eminent military and economic powers in the world during the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain was both willing and able to confront any sort of challenge to its dominance whether through sheer force of arms, or by economic sanction, whichever proved to be the most effective in the particular circumstance. The fact that by doing so they might alienate a sizeable proportion of the indigenous population and thus breed a bitter underlying public resentment that would subsequently create even more conflict for the Empire, either never occurred to them, or was simply judged to be a price worth paying.
Certainly within specific parts of the indigenous Roman Catholic communities in Ireland the sense of nationalist grievance against Britain and its rule over Ireland was palpable, although with such a huge military and economic power to confront, virtually every attempted rebellion, revolution, or opposition to it ultimately proved to be futile. As a result, those nationalists who were fortunate enough, brave enough, or even wealthy enough to escape what they regarded as the British yoke, began to look elsewhere for a place to live, taking with them the hatred, resentment and the tales of British oppression that some would almost inevitably pass onto their children and grand-children who would be born in these new faraway lands.
And that was thought to be the case with our American Captain, John McCafferty, who was said to have been brought up at his grandfather's knee listening to tales of British imperialism in Ireland, their cruel oppression of the Roman Catholic religion and their suppression of the nationalist cause in the McCafferty family's spiritual homeland. According to some sources, the reason for the young John McCafferty spending so much time with his grandfather and thus being weaned on these tales of British maliciousness was quite simply that he had been orphaned at a relatively young age and had been placed in the care of his grandfather, though no more is known than that.
Quite who the purported grandfather was is unclear, although it has been suggested that the McCafferty surname originates from the northern part of Ireland, possibly from County Fermanagh, or even from Londonderry. Because exact records are unavailable, or incomplete it is almost impossible to know who John McCafferty's grandfather was, although it is known that a labourer called James McCafferty travelled from Ireland to the USA onboard a ship called "The American" destined for New York on the 4th September 1803, whilst a second man called Edward McCafferty travelled from Ireland to the USA onboard a ship called the "Harmony" on the 31st October 1811. Even though it seems highly unlikely that either one of these men were in fact related to our American Captain, it does help to illustrate just how difficult it can sometimes be to keep track on one individual when so many people finally decided to make that journey from their ancestral homes in Ireland, to the unknown future that awaited them in the United States.
What does appear to be a matter of record, or at least accepted as such by most reporters, is that John McCafferty, the subject of this tale, was born in Sandusky, Ohio in 1838, although there is no specific record as to who his parents were, what they did, or how and when they died, assuming of course that they did indeed pre-decease him, thereby leaving him as an orphan to be raised by his grandfather.
Named from the Wyandot word for cold water, Sandusky lies close to Lake Erie and was reportedly established by a plantation owner called Charles Johnson in 1808, after he had purchased the land from its previous owner, John Lynch. Johnson was said to have built his own home on the site in around 1808 and from that point on increasing numbers of properties were thought to have been constructed in the area, mainly by Johnson's business partners and other incoming settlers. From around 1818 onwards, much more large scale building and construction were reported to have been undertaken; and it is perhaps during this period that members of John McCafferty's family first arrived in Sandusky. In 1838, the same year that our subject was said to have been born the Ohio authorities reportedly created Erie County and established Sandusky as the county seat of the new administrative region.
By 1846 several thousand residents were inhabiting the town and due to its close proximity to Lake Erie and the presence of its two railway lines Sandusky was an important economic centre, exporting hundreds of thousands bushels of wheat to the nation and playing host to many thriving businesses, including numerous merchants, fishermen, print shops, banks and forges. It was also during this time that the town was thought to have been an important stopping point on the "Underground Railroad", the trail used by fugitive slaves as they made their way North to freedom in Canada.
Of course, much of John McCafferty's personal history would have been and has been written after many of the reported events associated with him had taken place, which is to be expected, given that most people didn't keep a record, or a diary of their daily lives, as is much more the case nowadays. So apart from having accepted that he was indeed born in Sandusky, Ohio in 1838; and may have been orphaned, then raised by his grandfather who had Irish nationalist tendencies, which he instilled into the young McCafferty, we have very little idea of where he lived or what he did for a living during his formative years, until after the American Civil War had started, been fought and ultimately won by the Union.
It is perhaps worth making the point though that despite the fact that Irish Americans undoubtedly fought for both sides during that bloody conflict, it does seem a little bit odd that MCafferty having presumably been brought up in Sandusky, where anti-slavery sympathies seemed to have been more common than not, why then would he support a pro-slavery administration? Also, for a young Irish nationalist, who one would imagine would be instinctively opposed to any sort of inequality and oppression, let alone the legal ownership of a fellow human being, to then support a government which promoted such things, seems extremely strange, to say the least. But that perhaps is one of the abiding features of Captain John McCafferty's entire story, the seemingly inexplicable occurrences, the glaring omissions and the blinding inconsistencies, which have caused many researchers to seriously question whether he was really called John McCafferty or not?
(To be continued......)