Sgt. Thomas Horan, Union Army

Editor’s note: This is the second piece on Sgt. Thomas Horan. The first piece was published on April 27.

Finding this Medal of Honor winner’s past, my resources had taken me back to the Irish Potato Famine, 1845 to 1852. The blight infected the majority of Ireland’s potato crop. Ireland was the country in which one third of its population relied on the potato crop.

When this blight hit, a mass starvation was seen in over 30 percent of the country’s population. With the potato fields infected with a massive disease and with no crop harvest, many families whose lives depended on the potato harvest were forced to make decisions which led most to move and start their life elsewhere.

Early Dunkirk census records show that an Irish family named Horan, whose surname most often is associated with Galway and Mayo, may have hailed from Connacht. The Horans had chosen the city of Dunkirk to call home.

In the 1848-era census I viewed, a Michael Horan was listed. He named Ireland as his birthplace in the year 1810. His wife Mary also listed her birth place as Ireland, and her birthdate as the year 1820. The census also showed they had immigrated, stating “Blight” as the reason for their immigration to the United States. The census listed their family as three sons: Michael, Patrick and Thomas. All their sons also listed Ireland as the place of birth. The youngest son, Thomas, showed his birth date as 1839. Little did that census enumerator in 1848 know that this 9-year-old son of the Horan family, born in Ireland, would become a Medal of Honor winner 15 years down the road.

Little is known about Thomas Horan’s early life, only that he remained in the Dunkirk area until he was an adult. In his Army enlistment, he listed his occupation as a general laborer. Basically, he would work as a helper whenever he could find work. Early history revealed that at times, it was hard for men with Irish backgrounds to land work. At age 21, being an adult, Tom Horan went to Dunkirk’s 31st District office building and enlisted in the Union Army of the United States.

Enlisting in the Union’s Army in Dunkirk meant you would be with the 72nd Infantry New York Regiment, also know as the Excelsior Brigade. The normal enlistment was for three years because the U.S. was not officially at war. For this young Irish immigrant, advancement came fast. Within one month, Tom Horan was promoted to corporal.

Five months later, Tom was sewing on his sergeant stripes. July 2, 1863, Sgt. Horan was now leading his regiment on the second day of battle in what was to be called the Battle of Gettysburg. The Union forces of New York’s 72nd Regiment Infantry were in the heat of the battle. Facing a large advancement of Confederate forces, the 72nd was forced to withdraw. In the withdrawal, the 72nd Regiment lost 35 percent of its men in casualties.

Along with losing one third of his regiment, Sgt. Horan also saw major losses in the unit’s artillery cannons, along with large amounts of ammunition which were left on the battlefield while his regiment was withdrawing to regroup. Second division commander Gen. Humphries started rallying parts of the Excelsior Regiment and ordered a charge back across the battlefield to regain ground they had previously withdrawn from.

In this advancement, the 72nd Regiment recaptured all their cannons, ammunition and supplies which were left in the earlier withdrawal. They also picked up a number of rebel soldiers staggering from the Florida’s 8th Infantry Regiment of Confederate States. In this recent charge back, while pushing his forces, Sgt. Horan displayed conspicuous bravery. He rushed forward, and while in the heat of battle, was able by himself to capture the regimental flag of Florida’s 8th Regiment.

Once the members of the Florida’s 8th Regiment saw that their flag was now in the hands of a Union soldier, the Florida’s 8th turned and left the battlefield in disarray. With a regimental flag in his hand, Union Soldier Horan turned and started toward his regimental headquarters area. He quietly handed the captured regimental flag to Gen. Humphries. After handing the captured flag to his commander, each soldier returned salutes. Sgt. Horan simply made an about-face and double-timed back to his regiment to continue fighting.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, Sgt. Horan continued to serve through the remainder of the war. On May 17, 1864, while engaged in the Battle of the Wilderness, facing a large Confederate force, Sgt. Horan was wounded. He spent time in a Union hospital. After his release, he remained with the unit until the end the war.

With the Civil War over, records show that Sgt. Horan, along with fellow soldiers of the 72nd Regiment, Excelsior Brigade, all grouped together. The majority actually walked back to Dunkirk. In this group, Sgt. Horan, along with other members of his regiment, helped bring back wounded soldiers who had lost arms or legs and many who had come down with sickness and were extremely ill from being imprisoned. Records also show that Sgt. Horan personally helped bring back one of the regimental captains who actually lost part of his leg in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Sgt. Horan returned back to his home in Dunkirk. He did not come back as a Medal of Honor winner. There were no trips to the White House, no big promotion, no parade down Central Avenue. Sgt. Horan came back as most did from the bloodiest war in U.S. history. They had all put the war behind them. Returning to their loved ones and family members was the best return one could want. For the wounds to his leg that caused a limp, Sgt. Horan qualified for – and after an extensive medical examination was granted – a Civil War Compensation which consisted of a yearly award of $12.

With the end of the Civil War and the return of all of the area men who had fought and survived, the city of Dunkirk still had no records of a Medal of Honor winner being among them. There had yet to be an award or announcement. Life went on, and if the name “Tom Horan” came up, one would guess that after he served, he became a laborer.

It was believed that somewhere around 1867 or 1868 that Horan moved to Illinois. Records show that on March 10, 1870, Thomas Horan of 3230 Ashland Ave., Chicago, Ill., married Amelia Holman. Searching internet files, and with information I received from the National Archives in Washington D.C., it was clear to me that Amelia Holman – and even her husband-to-be Tom – had no idea that she was marrying a not-yet awarded Medal of Honor winner. It took this country and the Department of the Army 20 years from that wedding day and 35 years from the actual date that the medal was earned at the Battle of Gettysburg before the first official announcement and the actual award of this medal.

It wasn’t until April 5, 1898 that the Department of the Army sent a certified letter addressed to Mr. Thomas Horan, 3230 Ashland Ave. Chicago, Ill. The letter stated, “1-Medal of Honor, & 1-Ribbon will be sent to you, registered mail, on or about March 22nd, 1898. Upon receipt, please advise you have received such medal.” A few days later, additional paperwork had come requesting information on his wife and family.

This was the official awarding of the Medal of Honor for Sgt. Horan. It took 35 years for our country to give this brave soldier the recognition he had clearly deserved.

Officially now a Medal of Honor winner, Horan’s service to our country is officially in the history books.

It’s sad for me that this award was officially awarded to a soldier 35 years after he earned it! A soldier who only lived four years after receiving the official award in 1898. He passed away at age 63.

There were no parades, no brass bands, no trips to see the president, just a certified letter requesting that after the medal and ribbon arrive that he please contact them and confirm that he had received it.