On 10th December 1864, Michael Dougherty made the following entry in his diary: I feel no better. My diary is full; it is too bad, but cannot get any more. Good bye all; I did not think it would hold out so long when I commenced. Yours sufferingly, Michael Dougherty, Co. B, 13th Pa. Volunteer Cavalry. The fact that Dougherty had no further means of keeping his diary was the least of his worries. Not only was he sick, he was also confined in a Confederate prison, with little prospect of release or exchange. (1)
Michael Dougherty was born on 10th May 1844 in Falcarragh, Co. Donegal, emigrating to the United States in 1859. At the age of 18 he decided to enlist, and on the 8th August 1862 he mustered into the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry for three years service. It is no surprise that Dougherty chose this unit to serve in, as it had a distinct Irish character; indeed it had initially been intended to serve as a squadron with the Irish Brigade. The unit was to be known as the ‘Irish Dragoons’ when it was formed by James A. Gallagher of Philadelphia in September 1861. Further authority was received to increase its size beyond that of a squadron, and it became the 117th Regiment (13th Cavalry) with Gallagher becoming its first Colonel. (2)
The capture that led to Dougherty’s 1864 diary entry was not his first taste of life in Confederate prison. On 26th February 1863 his regiment was based in the Shenandoah Valley at Winchester, Virginia, when they were ordered to engage what appeared to be some Confederate foragers. They secured a number of the enemy and drove the remainder into the camp of the 11th Virginia at Woodstock, some twenty miles away from their base. With their horses exhausted they turned for home, but as they approached Fisher’s Hill they were engaged by a body of Rebels, who were positioned on both of their flanks. After a fight which lasted for half an hour the 13th Pennsylvania had lost 108 men killed, wounded and captured. The Donegal man was among the latter, and he was taken to Libby Prison in Richmond. Dougherty was exchanged on 26th May 1863 and was able to rejoin his comrades at Winchester; his first experience as a guest of the Confederacy had been mercifully brief. (3)
As 1863 continued the Irishman was quickly becoming a veteran, and he was engaged in his first major battle at Second Winchester that June. During the fighting Dougherty was responsible for carrying dispatches, a role he executed so well that he was presented with a gold medal for bravery by Co. Wexford native Colonel Michael Kerwin. Kerwin had succeeded to command of the 13th Pennsylvania shortly after the battle, replacing Colonel Gallagher. Following Second Winchester the regiment became part of the Army of the Potomac, joining the 2nd Brigade of Brigadier-General David McMurtrie Gregg’s 2nd Division. On 12th October of that year the 13th Pennsylvania was on picket duty at Jefferson, Virginia, on the south side of the Rappahannock opposite Sulphur Springs. At about 6 o’clock that morning the Confederates attacked their positions, driving in the unit’s pickets. Heavy skirmishing continued throughout the day, and the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry moved up to support their comrades from the Keystone State. During this fighting the young Donegal native once again showed his worth when he dashed across an open field at the head of some men from his company, forcing the Confederates to abandon one of their positions in an unoccupied house. Michael and his comrades then took possession of the building themselves, and fought off repeated attacks against it for a number of hours. The Rebels were not finished, however, and that afternoon they attacked the cavalrymen’s positions with increased force. By 5 o’clock the 13th and 4th had been driven back, but many men were cut off and could not escape across the river. The 13th Pennsylvania lost 163 men killed, wounded and captured, the vast majority being forced to surrender. Once again Private Michael Dougherty found himself a prisoner, and this time it would be for the remainder of the war. (4)
From 12th October 1863 to 12th April 1865 Dougherty was to spend his time in Confederate prisons. Throughout this time he kept a diary charting his experiences in prisons such as Libby, Pemberton and Belle Isle in and around Richmond, with a recurring theme being the constant hope and endless rumours regarding prisoner exchange. On 8th February 1864 he boarded a train away from Richmond with 600 others, but it was not for the purpose of his release. The train travelled south to Georgia and arrived at its destination, Camp Sumter, on the 15th February. This was a new prison, and it would soon be known by another name, one that still conjures images of death, suffering and cruelty- Andersonville. Of the 45,000 Union prisoners held there during the 14 months of its existence, 13,000 of them would never leave. (5)
Michael tried to occupy himself by visiting the different parts of the camp and recording any events in his diary. It is a stark record of the human misery he and others experienced during his time in the exposed 26 1/2 acre compound. Unsurprisingly, the main topics include new prisoners, the deaths of comrades, and rations:
18th April 1864: About five hundred more prisoners came in to-day from Cahaba, Alabama. Bernard Tolen, Co. D, died to-day.
15th May 1864: We can see wagons haul away bodies from the dead-house, like so much dirt; as many as twenty bodies piled on one wagon. Upwards of fifteen hundred men have died since we came here.
20th July 1864: One hundred and thirty prisoners died yesterday; it is so hot we are almost roasted. There were 127 of my regiment captured the day I was, and of that number eighty-one have since died, and the rest are more dead than alive; exposure and long confinement is doing its work among us.
Dougherty makes reference to an interesting incident from an Irish perspective on the 13th November 1864: All the Irish who could walk were called to the gate this afternoon by a Col. McNeill of the 10th Tennessee (rebel) regiment, to see if any of them would take the oath to join the rebel service. Not an Irishman enlisted, but two Yankees did, one from Connecticut and the other from a New York regiment; so you see the Irish are the most loyal. The following day Dougherty added: Webb called on me to-day; we had a talk over the excitement caused by the appeal to the Irish; he says McNeill is no true Irishman or he would not try to degrade Ireland and her people by making such a proposition. The 10th Tennessee had been formed of Irishmen from Nashville in 1861, and ‘Col. McNeill’ was in fact Colonel John G. O’Neill. The remnants of the unit surrendered with the Army of Tennessee in 1865 following its defeat at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina. (6)
Michael Dougherty’s visit to the Andersonville hospital in late 1864 should have been fatal, but he somehow managed to survive. Incredibly, having experienced the American Civil War and the worst prison conditions in the nation’s history his tribulations were still not at an end. On 23rd April 1865 at Vicksburg, Mississippi, he boarded a ship called the ‘Sultana’ along with between 2,200 and 2,400 others, many also former Andersonville prisoners. They were steaming up the Mississippi for St. Louis, Missouri, and had arrived in Memphis, Tennessee on 26th April. Early in the morning of 27th April one of the boilers on the vessel exploded, enveloping the boat in flames. Some 1,800 of the passengers lost their lives, in what remains the worst maritime disaster in United States history. (7)
The Irishman had again beaten the odds and survived. He returned to Bristol, Pennsylvania and his mother and sisters on 27th June 1865. He would go on to marry Rose Magee with whom he had 12 children. In the post war years he worked at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia and served as a Bristol Council Member between 1880 and 1882, as well as being an active member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Michael Dougherty was awarded the Medal of Honor on 23rd January 1897 for his actions on the day of his capture on 12th October 1863. His citation read: ‘At the head of a detachment of his company dashed across an open field, exposed to a deadly fire from the enemy, and succeeded in dislodging them from an unoccupied house, which he and his comrades defended for several hours against repeated attacks, thus preventing the enemy from flanking the position of the Union forces.’ The Falcarragh native published his prison diary in 1908, providing an invaluable insight into the terrible conditions experienced by Union troops in Andersonville. Having survived such trials in early life, Michael Dougherty went on to live well into his 80s. He died on 19th February 1930, and is buried in Saint Marks Roman Catholic Churchyard in Bristol, Pennsylvania. (8)
(1) Dougherty 1908: 66; (2) AOH Bristol, Bates 1870: 1267 & 1306, Taylor 1913: 172; (3) Dougherty 1908: (i)- (ii), 1; (4) Taylor 1913: 172, Bates 1870: 1269, Dougherty 1908: 72; (5) Dougherty 1908: 1-28, Andersonville National Park Service Website; (6) Dougherty 1908: 40, 43, 54, 65; (7) Dougherty 1908: 68-71; (8) Dougherty 1908: 71, AOH Bristol, Medal of Honor Society, Broadwater 2007: 64-65;
References & Further Reading
Bates, Samuel Penniman 1870. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-5 Volume 3
Broadwater, Robert P. 2007. Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients: A Complete Illustrated Record
Dougherty, Michael (edited by James T. Navary) 2009. The Prison Diary of Michael Dougherty: Union Survivor of Two Years Confinement in Confederate Prisons (1st Edition 1908)
Hand, Harold 2000. One Good Regiment: The Thirteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry (117th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment) 1861-1865
Taylor, Frank Hamilton 1913. Philadelphia in the Civil War 1861- 1865