The Fighting McMahons


Captain McMahon is the son of a soldier and belongs to a military family. His father, Colonel John E. McMahon, was colonel of the 155th and afterwards of the 164th N.Y.V., and died in command of his regiment in the third year of the Civil War. Admiral Ramsay, who married his father’s eldest sister, served with distinction during the Civil War, and is now represented in the service of his country by his son, Martin McMahon Ramsay, U.S.N. An uncle, Colonel James Powers McMahon, who had just been admitted to the bar at the outbreak of the war, joined his eldest brother as lieutenant-colonel of the I55th, and succeeded him in the command of the 164th. He led the Corcoran Legion at the battle of Cold Harbor, and after the wounding of General Tyler, while planting his flag on the enemy’s works, fell riddled with bullets. The death of the gallant officer is thus described in a long poem by David Gray, called “How the Young Colonel Died,” from which we give the following extracts:

You want to hear me tell how the young colonel died?
God help me! memory will not fail on that, nor tongue be tied;
Ay! write it down and print it in your biggest types of gold,
For sure a braver heart than his no mortal breast could hold.

We charged at dawn; the colonel led green Erin’s old brigade;
‘Twas Longstreet’s blazing cannon behind their breast-works played;
We charged till, full in front, we felt their fiery breaker-swell
A sea of rattling muskets in a storm of grape and shell!

The colonel led in fire and smoke his sword would wave and shine,
And still the brave sound of his voice led on the struggling line;
As o’er the surf at Wicklow I’ve seen the sea-gull fly,
His voice sailed e’en above the storm and sounded clear and high.

Then all at once our colors sank, I saw them reel and nod;
The colonel sprang and took them before they touched the sod.
Another spring, and with a shout the Rebs will mind it well
He stood alone upon their works, waved the old flag and fell!
‘Twas vain to stand up longer; what could they do but yield?
Our broken remnant melted back across the bloody field.
I stayed to help the colonel, and crept to where he lay;
A smile came tender o’er his face, but he motioned me away.

“I’m torn to pieces, George,” he said. “Go, save yourself, good-night!”
As tender as my mother’s that smile came up and shone
Once more upon his marble face, and the gallant soul was gone!

Another uncle, General Martin T. McMahon, now judge of the Court of General Sessions, served to the end of the war in the Sixth Corps. A brother officer describing his own mess, of which the judge was a member, says: “McMahon soon became my idol. Born of Irish ancestry, and wonderfully educated by the Jesuits, of high and chivalrous aims, he was the Chevalier Bayard of the corps, and wherever one of the Sixth Corps dwells, does he not remember and love McMahon?”

The three brothers were educated with the Jesuits. Captain McMahon also had the benefit of their training; he was sent by his uncle, the judge, to St. John’s, Fordham, where he kept up the family reputation for manliness and scholarship, being one of the best base-ball players and the leader in his classes, winning at graduation the gold medal for the best essay. He displayed at an early age, together with the tastes of a student, a fondness for military life which was a great grief to his mother, for he was her only son and she was a widow. In vain did she keep his father’s sword and all his military relics concealed from him, hoping he might be persuaded to follow the more peaceful, or rather less dangerous, profession of law. At twelve his favorite book was Casey’s Tactics, and he commanded as captain a very creditable company which he raised among his playmates.

His uncle’s friend, General Anson G. McCook, one of the “fighting McCooks,” gave him a West Point appointment. The year of his graduation he was within one of “the first five ” in his class when an accident in the riding hall sent him to the hospital, and caused him to drop to No. II. After graduation he was assigned to the Fourth Artillery, .at Fort Adams, Newport, R. I. Here he married Miss Caroline Bache, daughter of Dr. Dallas Bache, U.S.A., a lineal descendant of Benjamin Franklin. His next station was Fortress Monroe; from here he went to West Point as instructor in Spanish and French. From West Point he was transferred to the department of Arizona, where he served four years on the staff of General Alexander McDowell McCook.

At the outbreak of the war he was at Fortress Monroe preparing guns for active service. Hearing that his battery was not going to the front, he succeeded in having himself transferred to one of the volunteer regiments preparing to embark for Santiago. He was appointed captain and assistant adjutant-general, and served with General Carpenter. When the general was ordered to Cuba after the war in command of the First Cavalry Brigade, and made military governor of the province of Puerto Principe, he asked for Captain McMahon again, and he is now serving at Puerto Principe as adjutant-general and military secretary of the governor. The governor, being a non-Catholic, does not, like his predecessors, go in state to Mass on Sunday. Captain McMahon, however, is regarded in the church as his representative and occupies on feast days, according to the custom of the country, a post of honor in the sanctuary. He has always been most popular at all his posts, and has the record of great fidelity to his duties and an exemplary Catholic.

The Catholic World, Vol. LXIX, No. 408 (April 1899): 129-132.

John McMahon served through the First World War, retiring from the United States Army as a Major General.

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