‘O God! What a Sight': Tragedy for an Irish Family at Cedar Creek

The Rebel attack at Cedar Creek on 19th October 1864 was one of the most audacious and finely executed flank attacks of the American Civil War. Jubal Early’s Confederates overran a large part of the Army of the Shenandoah during the battle’s first hours. The surging wave of victorious Southerners forced back dozens of Union regiments, including the 9th New York Heavy Artillery. However, the New Yorker’s retired slowly and put up a stubborn defence. For one of the soldier’s in the unit, this stubbornness came at a terrible personal cost.*

The 9th New York Heavy Artillery (Company M) manning the Washington Defences (Library of Congress)

The 9th New York Heavy Artillery (Company M) manning the Washington Defences (Library of Congress)

In 1899 Alfred Seelye Roe, a veteran of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery, wrote a history of the regiment in which he had served. While retelling the 9th’s part in the Battle of Cedar Creek, he recalled a harrowing story that had stayed with him across the intervening 35 years. The 9th’s withdrawal that day was through a ‘hail of canister, shot and shell’ and air that was ‘boiling and seething with bullets’:

‘Here one of our boys, Anthony Riley, was shot and killed; his father was by his side; the blood and brains of his son covered the face and hands of the father. I never saw a more affecting sight than this; the poor old man kneels over the body of his dead son; his tears mingle with his son’s blood. O God! what a sight; he can stop but a moment , for the rebels are pressing us; he must leave his dying boy in the hands of the devilish foe; he bends over him, kisses his cheek, and with tearful eyes rushes to the fight, determined on revenge for his son.’ (1)

The horror that Anthony’s father must have experienced during these moments is unimaginable. Who were this father and son, and what of their family?

Anthony Riley had enlisted at the age of eighteen on 15th August 1862 in Auburn New York, eventually becoming a Private in Company F of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery. Interestingly his father Charles did not join the regiment at the same time; indeed it was over a year later before the elder Riley donned Union blue. 44-year-old Charles enlisted on 20 December 1863, also at Auburn. It can be no accident that he ended up as a Private in Company F, alongside his son. (2)

The family is not an easy one to trace in the 1860 census. The main reason for this is their listing under the name of O’Riley (which has been erroneously recorded as O’Kiley). On 21 June 1860 Charles was living in the First Ward of the City of Auburn, where he worked as a laborer. His wife Marcella was engaged in housework and looking after the couple’s four children- 15-year-old Anthony, 12-year-old Mary, 6-year-old Ann and 4-year-old Charles. A ten-year old girl, Catherine Doyle, also lived with the family. Both Charles and Marcella had been born in Ireland, but had emigrated to the United States before the mid-1840s, as all their children had been born in New York. Another son, James, would follow in 1861. (3)

When Charles Riley was covered with Anthony’s ‘blood and brains’ at Cedar Creek, it represented the loss of his eldest child. The Irishman survived the battle, which despite the initial Rebel success ultimately ended in Union victory, in what proved to be the decisive action of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Charles is unlikely to have shared in the celebrations that followed. It is easy to picture the middle-aged Irishman retracing his steps across the battlefield to recover his son’s body, in the hope of saying his final goodbyes and ensuring a proper burial. His next task must have been the sombre one of trying to inform his wife in Auburn of the death of her oldest boy. As if this tragedy wasn’t enough, the final months of the American Civil War were to exact yet more suffering on the luckless Riley family.

Charles Riley was still in Company F of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery as 1865 dawned, with the regiment then engaged in the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. Life in the trenches took its toll on many men, and for a soldier well into his forties it must have been a particular struggle. Charles eventually fell ill and was removed to the hospital behind the lines at City Point. Charles Riley died from sickness on 20th March 1865. The Army of Northern Virginia would surrender only days later on 9th April. Barely five months had passed since Anthony’s death; in that time Marcella Riley had lost her eldest son and become a widow. (4)

The effect of  her husband’s death so near to the end of the war must have been horrendous for Marcella. Apart from the extreme sense of loss she and her children must have felt, the death of her husband and eldest son presented the very real prospect of destitution for the remainder of the family. Her eldest surviving child, Mary, who would have been 17 in 1865, offered the best prospect of earning a wage for the household. Of her remaining children, Ann was 11, Charles nine and James just four. (5)

Marcella applied for a widow’s pension following her husband’s death. On it her name is recorded as Margaret O’Reily -it is unclear which of these names she preferred- perhaps one of the two was a middle name. She was granted a pension of $8 per month dating from her husband’s death, and received a further $2 per minor child to commence in July 1866. This additional $2 would continue until each child reached the age of 16, which in the case of Ann was September 1870, Charles October 1872 and James February 1877. (6)

The American Civil War had a devastating impact on the Riley family, that undoubtedly endured for decades after the conclusion of the conflict. The pain and sadness they experienced was worsened by the financial peril that their loss placed them in. One wonders what hopes and dreams Marcella entertained when she left Ireland, travelling to the United States in the hope of a better life. She certainly would not have counted on the loss of her husband and eldest son in a war between the Northern and Southern States. Her’s was a story of sadness that was undoubtedly replicated among many other immigrant families.

(1) Roe 1899: 181-182; (2) New York Adjutant General: 317; (3) 1860 Federal Census, Charles O’Reily Widow’s Pension File; (4) New York Adjutant General: 317; (5) Charles O’Reily Widow’s Pension File; (6) Ibid.

*My attention was drawn to the existence of this account due to a reference to it in Jeffry D. Wert’s excellent history of the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign.

References & Further Reading

Roe, Alfred Seeyle 1899. The Ninth New York Heavy Artillery

Wert, Jeffry 2010. From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864

New York Adjutant General 1897. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1897

1860 US Federal Census

Charles O’Reily Widow’s Pension File

Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Park

Civil War Trust Battle of Cedar Creek Page

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Categories: Battle of Cedar Creek, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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8 Comments on “‘O God! What a Sight': Tragedy for an Irish Family at Cedar Creek”

  1. Patty MM
    October 17, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    What a very sad story. We don’t often hear enough about the personal stories of these soldiers and how their families go on afterwards.

  2. October 17, 2012 at 11:43 pm #

    What a sad story. It appears things did not get much better for poor Marcella. I found this notice in an old Auburn newspaper from 1871. It says her property was seized by order of the county court and was to be auctioned off in December of that year. I’m guessing it was a foreclosure, but the notice does not go into detail. Far right column, “SHERIFF SALE:”
    http://fultonhistory.com/Newpapers Disk2/Auburn NY Bulletin/Auburn NY Daily Bulletin 1871.pdf/Newspaper Auburn NY Daily Bulletin 1871 – 1247.PDF

    Note the original notice is dated 17 Oct, 2 days before the anniversary of her son’s death. This directory listing confirms it’s the same Marcella:

    http://fultonhistory.com/Process%20Small/Fulton%20&%20Oswego%20City%20Directories/Auburn%20NY%20City%20Directory%201862%20-%201877%20x.pdf

    • October 18, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

      Hi Brendan,

      That is a great bit of research- it is surely the same woman. Things certainly do not seem to have improved for her in the intervening years.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. Mike Flynn
    October 18, 2012 at 3:07 am #

    Grief so heavy, it crushes the spirit.

  4. mhkane
    December 15, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    This was one of Sheridan’s greatest victories, saving Lincoln from defeat at the polls.

    • December 17, 2012 at 10:55 am #

      Absolutely. The Confederate flank attack must be one of the most brilliant of the war as well- an intriguing engagement.

  5. nichole ryan staib
    August 4, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    i happen to live less than 15 miles from the cedar creek battlefield. the field is still left as a memorial to the battle. each year a reenactment takes place. it’s one thing to pass a site marker on a regular basis, but quite another to read about the families that were involved. this period of my country’s history has always confused and horrified me. i knew that the irish had made a large impact on the shaping of our history, but i have never “met” them until now. as a person of irish descent, it’s a matter of pride to know that “my” people my have been at this place. thank you for the hard work you’ve done in letting me know them better.

    • August 8, 2013 at 10:13 am #

      Hi Nichole,

      Many thanks for the comment! I would love to visit Cedar Creek. There are some incredible stories of tragedy and bravery associated with sites such as this, which really add to our understanding and appreciation of how important these sites are. Thanks for the kind words!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

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