Newsletter Archive

The Thompson Rifles

Published in the interest of the personnel of the Ancient Order of Hibernians – Gen. William Thompson Division

March 16, 2014 5:32 pm  •  By Joseph Cress, The Sentinel

There was more than just luck on the side of Scotch-Irish settlers who helped to tame the wilds of what became Cumberland County.

Coping with adversity in the Old World made these early immigrants to Pennsylvania perfectly suited for the difficult challenge.

“They were a tough stock,” said Tom Kane, president of a Carlisle-based chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. “They were people who knew how to deal with the savagery of the country.”

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday to celebrate all things Irish. But beyond the parades, the green beer and excuse to party is a heritage that played an important role in shaping not just local history, but the founding of the nation.

Taking its name from Hibernia, the Roman word for Ireland, the Ancient Order is an Irish Catholic fraternal organization that can trace its roots to the persecution of Irish clergy by the English government of Oliver Cromwell and Queen Elizabeth I, Kane said.

In America, the Order started around 1836 in New York City and Philadelphia as a response to the anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment common at that time, Kane said.

Closer to home, the Carlisle-based chapter of the Order split from a chapter based in New Cumberland in 1999 and quickly took as its namesake an Irishman named William Thompson.

“He was one of the first to map and chart the area,” Kane said of Thompson. “He was one of the main developers and starters of Cumberland County.”

Born in County Meath, Ireland, Thompson served as a cavalry officer in the French and Indian War and was a personal friend of George Washington, said Bill Irwin, secretary of the local chapter.

Like Washington, Thompson worked as a surveyor until the Revolutionary War when he recognized the need for expert marksmen in the Continental Army, Irwin said. A Carlisle resident, Thompson formed a unit of riflemen made up primarily of Irishmen from the Midstate.

“He led both Catholics and Protestants in the common cause of liberty,” Kane said. “He was the first commissioned colonel in the U.S. Army. In the defense of New York, Thompson covered the retreat that allowed Washington to live to fight another day. With Benedict Arnold, Thompson led an ill-fated campaign into Canada where he ended up walking into the hands of the enemy.”

As a prisoner-of-war, Thompson was treated harshly by his captors, Kane said. “Being of Irish descent did not help him.” While the British refused to parole Thompson, Congress was reluctant to negotiate his release. That led Thompson to feel bitterness toward the lawmakers who later charged him with contempt after he criticized them for their inaction.

Thompson was released in 1789 and died within a year of being paroled. He is buried in the Old Graveyard in Carlisle. Every September, members of the local AOH chapter gather at his grave to pay homage to their namesake and his contributions to history.

Known as “The Irish Line,” Thompson’s riflemen became the 1st Pennsylvania Militia and the 1st Continental Rifles, Irwin said. “They fought valiantly throughout the Revolutionary War in almost every major engagement always led by Irish generals.” The vast majority of its soldiers were men of Irish descent and it is said the shot that ended the war was fired by one of the Pennsylvania riflemen.

But there is more to Gaelic history in Cumberland County. Another Carlisle resident named William Irvine was born of Irish parents in Fermanaugh, Ireland, and served the Royal Navy as surgeon during the Seven Year’s War — known in America as the French and Indian War.

“Irvine settled in Carlisle in 1764 to practice medicine,” Irwin said. “When the Revolutionary War broke out, he raised the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment and participated in the invasion of Canada where he was captured at Trois Rivere.”

Unlike Thompson, Irvine was exchanged in 1778 and fought at the Battle of Monmouth where, according to legend, Molly Pitcher took over firing cannon from her wounded husband. She is also buried in the Old Graveyard.

Following the war, Irvine represented Cumberland County in the U.S. Congress and commanded the Pennsylvania troops Washington had mustered in Carlisle for the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, Irwin said. Later, Irvine became one of nine charter trustees of a school in Carlisle that became Dickinson College.

In 1912, a Native American named Jim Thorpe captured Olympic gold in both the decathlon and pentathlon at the Stockholm games. Locally, he was best known as a champion football player on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School team.

While Thorpe’s mother was from the Oklahoma Indian Territory, his father was an Irish trader who conducted business on the reservations, Irwin said. That made Jim Thorpe an Irishman by birth.

Known in the AOH as Cumberland County Division Two, the Carlisle-based chapter draws members from adjoining counties to its monthly meetings and community and civic activities that include raising money for cancer victims, preserving the Irish Cemetery in New Buffalo State Park and tending to the monuments of Irish war dead at Gettysburg.

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