Cleveland Comhrá: Irish Bridget
By Bob Carney
An Irish Bridget was the name given to young Irish girls and women who found employment, usually as domestic servants. But the woman that was called this by the men of the First Michigan Calvary during America’s Civil War served in a much different way.
Very little is known about Bridget Diver prior to the war, other than that she was born in Ireland.
When Bridget’s husband joined the First Michigan Calvary, she, like many of the spouses of enlisted men in armies all over the world, went with him, becoming part of the massive support group that kept the men fed, nursed and cared for. With no education (documents show her only able to make her mark), Bridget excelled at all of the tasks she took up.
She was not adverse to picking up a musket when the opportunity presented itself. She had at least two horses shot out from under her in battle and stories of her bravery spread.
The First Michigan Calvary would become part of George Custer’s Michigan Brigade, which were known as “The Wolverines.” Bridget served mostly by washing, cooking and then as a nurse, hospital steward and ward master.
Her heroic actions, combined with the care she gave the men in her unit, made her loved by the men throughout the brigade. It also makes for some muddled history; some stories grew with each retelling by those that admired her.
At the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862, it was told that Bridget, with her flowing red hair tucked into a Union cap, picked up a wounded soldier on the battlfield and half carried and half dragged him back to the regiment. She looked up from attending him, (in some versions the man is her husband) and cried out to the men, “Arrah, go in boys, and bate the bloody spalpeens, and revenge my husband! Go in and God be with ye!,” rallying those around her.
The only problem is, the First Michigan Calvary wasn’t at Fair Oaks, a fact ignored by many authors of civil war books. We do have reputable letters and documents however that are just as impressive.
Charlotte E. McKay was a nurse for the Union Army and recalled meeting Bridget in City Point, Virginia, March 18,1865. “Bridget, or as the men call her, Biddy, has probably seen more of hardship and danger than any other woman during the war. She has been with the calvary all of the time, going out with them on calvary raids, always ready to succor the wounded on the field, often getting men off who, but not for her would be left to die, and fearless of shell or bullet, among the last to leave.”
Woman Heroes of War
Charlotte also related in that letter that Bridget was twenty-six at the time of their meeting and had come from Ireland ten years earlier. Another woman, Rebecca Usher, spoke of Bridget in a letter home that she wrote in April of 1865. “A few days ago I saw Bridget, who came out with the First Michigan Calvary, and has been with the regiment ever since. She had just come in with the body of a captain who was killed in a calvary skirmish.
She had the body lashed to her horse, and carried him fifteen miles, where she procured a coffin, and sent him home. She says this is the hardest battle they have had, and the ground was covered with the wounded. She is brave, heroic and a perfect enthusiast in her work. Bridget said to me, in her earnaest way, “Why don’t you ladies go up there and take care of the wounded men? Why it’s the worst sight you ever saw, the ground is covered with them.”
“We should like to go” I said, “but they won’t let us.” “Well they can’t hinder me,” she said. “Sheridan won’t let them.”
The Michigan Calvary Brigade first gained fame under the newly promoted and very young General George Custer, at Gettysburg. The newly formed brigade was comprised of various Michigan units, including The First Michigan Calvary, and saw it’s first combat action at The Battle of Hanover on June 30, 1863.
Two days later, they were at The Battle of Hunterstown. At The Battle of Gettysburg, Custer split his men up, fighting skirmishes and dividing Lee’s army. His cry of “Come on you wolverines!,” became the battle cry of the brigade. As the Army of Northern Virginia retreated, Custer kept his men engaged with the Confederate Rear Guard across the Potomac and into Virginia.
In 1865, the brigade had suffered through many battles and the remnants of The Michigan Brigade were reformed as the 1st. Michigan Calvary, and sent into the Montana Territory. The men were mustered out in March of 1866, some went home, while others joined Custer’s 7th US Calvary; a few remained to fight in The Battle of Little Big Horn, in June of 1876.
Scholars differ on Bridget’s life after the war, although most believe she followed her husband and Custer’s wolverines west and participated in the “Indian Wars. Fifty years after the conclusion of the war, newspaper columns and publications featuring the involvement of women in the war regularly related Bridget’s story.
They told of her narrow escape of capture by the rebel army at The Battle of Cedar Creek, her rallying of troops that were retreating to return to the battlefield and her loyalty to her men. Once she was given a gift of $500 to spend on her own needs and comfort, but spent it on the men in her regiment instead.
An article written in 1892 about “Michigan Bridget” summed it up the best. “She was Irish, with all the Irish characteristics as to features and forms, and though she had a temper as warm as her hair was red, she was jolly and full of humor, which made her a most acceptable companion at all times.”
Even without the embellishments, Bridget Diver was one of the most notable women to serve on the front during America’s bloodiest war.
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían,and new pup Aisling and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org