‘It is Colonel Corcoran I Blame': An Unhappy Irishman After Bull Run

The Georgia Daily Constitutionalist received permission in July 1861 to publish a letter received by one of its Irish readers. It was a note from the Georgia Irishman’s brother, who had fought with the 69th New York State Militia at Bull Run and had been wounded in that battle. Although the authenticity, circumstances and motivations behind the letter are open to question given the propaganda efforts of both North and South at the time, it is nonetheless an interesting reminder that not everyone may have been enamoured by their decision to put themselves in harm’s way for the Union.

General Hospital No. 1 (Alms Hospital) in Richmond (Library of Congress)

General Hospital No. 1 (Alms Hospital) in Richmond (Library of Congress)

A LETTER FROM A FEDERAL SOLDIER

A gentleman in this city, a native of Ireland, has received a letter from his brother who was a member of the 69th New York Regiment, under command of Col. Corcoran, was wounded at the battle of Manassas, and is now a prisoner in Richmond. Having been permitted to publish the letter, we append it here, as showing that “humanity is still the guiding star of our Government,” and that “a change has come over the spirit of the dreams” of some of our would-be conquerors. Here is the letter:

New Alms Hospital, 

Richmond, Va., July 30, 1861.

Dear Pat, 

I wrote you a few lines last week which a gentleman either posted or took on with him as he resided near Augusta. I know you were surprised to hear that I was in Richmond wounded; but if we had got our rights I would have been in New York the day the battle was fought, our term of service having expired the day before, but Old Abe or Scott would not let the regiment go home. Well, it served us right, when we were fools enough to fight in such a cause; but I hope the time will come when Irishmen will mind their own business.

Early in the fight, I got a ball in the thigh which broke the bone. I lay on the field 35 hours, a rain falling most of the time, and might have laid there since, if it was not for the kindness of the Southerners- enemies I cannot call them, for they have treated us more like brothers than anything else. I got a hard shaking on the railroad, but now, thank God! I am very comfortable here. I expect to have my leg set today. If it is I hope to recover soon, when I will be a much wiser man. Owing to the great number of wounded I could not be attended sooner: besides the doctor was afraid of mortification; but I think I am now safe, and that, with God’s help, I will have the use of my leg.

Dear Pat, you could not believe the way our soldiers were treated by Scott. There were eight regiments on the field whose time was up, but could not get home. But worse than all, they left the dead and wounded on the field, and never sent a flag of truce in to know how or what would become of us. It is Colonel Corcoran I blame for keeping us; he is now a prisoner here. Many is the heavy curse he got from wounded and dying men. I wish you could send a letter to my wife, poor creature; probably she thinks me dead. She lives at 212, West 26th street. Direct, care of Thos. Kiernan. Tell her I hope to be with her soon; also, that I am well treated; get meat three times a day, and splendid soup at dinner time.

I remain, dear Pat, your affectionate brother,

B.R. 

References

Daily Constitutionalist 6th August 1861: A Letter From a Federal Soldier

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Categories: 69th New York, Battle of Bull Run, Georgia, Michael Corcoran, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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10 Comments on “‘It is Colonel Corcoran I Blame': An Unhappy Irishman After Bull Run”

  1. Brendan
    June 18, 2012 at 8:13 pm #

    That’s fascinating. You’re right, it could easily be propaganda. It would be fun to try to identify the author, if it he was actually a member of the 69th NYSM.

    It’s a weird coincidence, but I was researching a family at that exact same address, 211 West 26th St, just the other day. I haven’t been able to find an Irish “B.R.” there in Trow’s directories or the 1860 Census, but renters tended to move around quite frequently in those days, so who knows. Ancestry.com’s U.S. Civil War Soldier database shows two members of the 69th in 1861 with the initials “B.R.:” Bernard Reilly (pvt, Co. C) and Bernard Reynolds (pvt, Co. A). Reynolds was reported killed at Bull Run in the NY Evening Post, so he is probably the most likely candidate:

    http://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/69thInf/69thInfCWN.htm

  2. Brendan
    June 20, 2012 at 12:10 am #

    On 14 August, 1861, the New York Herald ran a list of wounded Union prisoners from Bull Run reported by Union surgeons released on parole. Among them was Bernard Reynolds of the 69th NYSM. He’s the most likely candidate if “BR” was legit:

    http://fultonhistory.com/Newspaper%2014/New%20York%20NY%20Herald/New%20York%20NY%20Herald%201862/New%20York%20NY%20Herald%201862%20-%201898.pdf#xml=http://fultonhistory.com/dtSearch/dtisapi6.dll?cmd=getpdfhits&u=76a8705c&DocId=3681480&Index=Z%3a\Index%20U-F-P&HitCount=12&hits=120+121+2a4+2a5+34c+34d+ab5+ab6+1427+1428+14c5+14c6+&SearchForm=C%3a\inetpub\wwwroot\Fulton_New_form.html&.pdf

    • June 20, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

      Hi Brendan,

      Bernard Reynolds does sound like a good candidate- I had a look at the census too and could fine no-one with B.R. at that address, but as you say that is not to say they weren’t there (or indeed moved in after the census). It is certainly worth exploring this further to see just became of him and if he is the same man, I will keep looking into it as well and see what we can come up with!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. Brendan
    June 20, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    In the 1856 Trow’s Directory, there’s a Bernard Reynolds, laborer, living at 326 W 27th. A Patrick Reynolds, laborer, lived at nearby 322 W 27th. I tried searching for Patrick Reynolds in US Census records in Georgia. Oddly enough, I only found one between 1860 and 1870. The 1870 Census shows a Patrick Reynolds, stone mason, b. 1830 in Ireland (or b 1823 in the 1880 Census), living in Augusta, Georgia, with Ann (his wife), two teenage Reynolds boys, and four younger Reynolds children. The two older boys were born in 1851 and 1854 in New York, while the younger children were born in Georgia starting in 1863. This could be our “Pat.”

    Bernard is much harder to track down. There’s a pension index record for him. “Invalid” as of 2 Apr 1863, and a “Minor” application for James H. Reynolds (I assume his son) dated 8 May 1876, which I’m guessing means Bernard died about that time. “State from which filed” is blank though, unfortunately.

  4. June 23, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    Brendan,
    The details in the letter might match the chaos of Bull Run. But the tone of the letter – so well written — for a laborer and a private. It’s no wonder it might be suspect. At least it appears polished up for print with perhaps a slant. It’s also an interesting response to Corcoran’s leadership…it’s “his fault” … Yet, when freed Corcoran raises 1000 men to rejoin the fight.
    Ann

  5. Brendan
    June 25, 2012 at 11:34 pm #

    Ann,

    I share your suspicions regarding this letter. You’re right, even if it were based on an authentic doc from a member of the 69th NYSM, it could have been altered for propaganda purposes. I was just curious to see who the real “BR” might have been, and I think Bernard Reynolds is a very likely candidate. I do not think it is correct to assume that an Irish-born laborer could not have been this eloquent. The whole rags to riches theme seems like a cliche, but there really were many immigrants then (as there are today) who started out as common laborers, educated themselves, and clambered their way up the ol’ socio-economic ladder.

    And while it is true that Corcoran was a much-beloved figure in his day, it would be unwise to assume that the New York Irish community was unanimous in their adoration for the man; I would not doubt that their opinions of him were as varied as their feelings about the war itself. That’s what struck me as fascinating about this supposed letter–you do not often get to see this side of soldiers’ views about the Civil War. Bull Run was a grotesquely mismanaged battle, and soldiers on both sides had plenty of reasons to hate their own officers and politicians and question the wisdom of the war in its aftermath.

  6. August 14, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    Going back to Bernard Reilly. I think that’s my great great uncle who was later KIA in the 170th New York, one of Corcoran Irish Legion Regiments. I did a drive by once of that address 211 West 26th Street NYC. I just called my son, who is seating in traffic on the Long island Expressway going to summer camp, at Fort Dix with the 69th New York National Guard. We both found the conection interesting and needing more research. 211 west 26th is now a night club. The 69th NYSM is not the same as the 69th New York (Fighting69th). The 69th New York was formed after it returned from bull run and Meagher took over. Col later General Corcoran being in Richmond. I don’t see much of Corcoran’s name around the Fighting 69th HQ at Lexington & East 26th Street NYC, its all Meagher. We just found where Bernard Reilly body is, having been laid to rest under the wrong spelling and not listed as being in Arlington National at all. My son’s former C.O. walked section 27 (Gen. Robert E. Lee’s estate) and found him in grave 411.

    • August 15, 2012 at 8:57 am #

      Hi Steve,

      If you pass on the details of your Cororcan’s Legion ancestors I can look into a bit more to see if I can find out anything that might be of use to you.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  7. August 18, 2012 at 1:52 am #

    To my Irish Friends: The following is part of a e-mail, that was sent to me, by Mr. John Hallanan. Mr. Hallanan is an Officer, with the 69th New York Veterans Corps (Fighting69th)
    that should put the light of day, on Pvt Bernard Reynolds letter on General’s Scott (Buried at West Point) and Corcoran. Mr. Hallanan is a wealth of knowledge on the 69th New york having served with the Regiment, as my son is now.

    Now Mr Hallanan

    Lincoln requested 75,000 volunteers from each loyal State. He did this on 15 April 1861. Many volunteer units did agree to serve and for the 69th, it left for duty on 23 April 1861. Many soldiers of all different units counted their 90 days starting on the 15th when Lincoln called for them or whatever day after that when they left with their unit. Some volunteers left the field when they thought it appropriate when their 90 days were over and made their way home.

    Here is the military difference. Although the soldiers of the 69th were performing duties of a military nature, they were not “mustered in” until 9 May 1861. I would not like to have been an officer or non-com trying to explain that with a fire fight on the horizon. The 69th was mustered out on 3 August 1861.

    The battle of Bull Run, or Manassas Junction, as the Southerners called it , was a rude awakening for everyone. It would not be quick and it would take more than volunteers.

    • August 26, 2012 at 11:55 am #

      Hi Steve,

      Many thanks for sharing this with us!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

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