‘Good-By, Good-By': Richard Byrnes Writes a Final Letter to His Wife

On 17th May 1864, Colonel Richard Byrnes of the 28th Massachusetts Infantry paid an early morning visit to Father William Corby, Chaplain of the Irish Brigade. A regular army officer before the war, the strict disciplinarian had been appointed to command of the 28th in the autumn of 1862. Now, on the bloody battlefield of Spotsylvania Court House, the Cavan native confided in Corby. The veteran officer was sure this day would be his last. As he put it to the Chaplain, he felt he was about to get his ‘discharge.’ (1)

Colonel Richard Byrnes (Donahoe's Magazine)

Colonel Richard Byrnes (Donahoe’s Magazine)

Richard asked Father Corby to hear his confession, and afterwards handed the priest a slip of paper. It contained instructions on what he wanted done with his effects following his death. He also asked that the following letter be delivered:

May 17, 1864.

My Dear Ellen,

I am well. No fighting yesterday; but we expect some to-day. Put your trust and confidence in God. Ask His Blessing. Kiss my poor little children for me. You must not give up in despair- all will yet be well. My regiment has suffered much in officers and men. I am in good health and spirits. I am content. I fear nothing, thank Heaven, but my sins. Do not let your spirits sink; we will meet again. I will write you soon again; but we are going to move just now. Good-by, good-by; and that a kind and just God may look to you and  your children is my fervent prayer.

Richard. (2)

Richard Byrnes handed the pencil-written letter to Corby, asking him to send to his wife if, as he expected, he fell in the coming battle. But Richard did not die on 17th May. He survived Spotsylvania to take command of the Irish Brigade in time for their next battle, at Cold Harbor, Virginia. Here, just over two weeks after his feeling of impending death, Richard Byrnes was mortally wounded. He was transported to Washington, where Ellen was able to see him before he died a few days later. The correspondence he had handed to Father Corby remained in the Chaplain’s possession- although the foreboding felt by Richard Byrnes had ultimately proved well founded, the need for the letter’s delivery was overtaken by events. (3)

(1) Corby 1893: 237-8 (2) Ibid. (3) Ibid.

References & Further Reading

Corby, William 1893. Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years in the Irish Brigade with the Army of the Potomac

Civil War Trust Battle of Spotsylvania Court House Page

Civil War Trust Battle of Cold Harbor Page

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Categories: 28th Massachusetts, Battle of Cold Harbor, Battle of Spotsylvania, Cavan

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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8 Comments on “‘Good-By, Good-By': Richard Byrnes Writes a Final Letter to His Wife”

  1. April 13, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

    One seldom hears people speak of a “happy death” now, but I am from a generation that was taught to make our preparations, peace with God and to avoid an unprovided for death. Byrnes seems to have had the same beliefs and mindset of generations of Irish both before and after his time-period. A “happy death” means to receive the last sacrament and absolution before departing this life as death is not the end – merely the transition to another life.

    • April 16, 2013 at 9:10 am #

      Hi Patrick,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you, Byrnes’ actions are clearly an attempt to safeguard in so as far as he could for a ‘good death’. Drew Gilpin Faust’s work on this topic is very revealing, well worth reading.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. JoeMaghe
    April 13, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

    Thank you for this.

  3. isw7
    April 13, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

    Incredible. … Thank you for sharing it, Damian.

  4. April 14, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    I really felt for this man… strange how some have an impending sense of their own mortality.

  5. May 14, 2013 at 4:54 am #

    I’m going to share this letter with you and your readers about the wounding of Col Byrnes. It was written by John B. Noyes, an officer in the 28th – either captain or acting captain at this time. Gov. John Andrew appointed him to the 28th in late April, 1863. He joined the regiment in the field at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and immediately took command of one of the companys. Prior to this he had served honorably in the regiment I research – The 13th Mass. Noyes was a graduate of Harvard so he is very articulate. He was present when Col Byrnes was wounded.

    Camp, 28th Mass Vols, near
    Cole Harbor Va. June 5th 1864.
    Dear Father
    In my last letter I believe I had arrived at Cole Harbor where a fierce battle had been fought the day before in which the 6th & 18th

    Corps had been engaged. [Perhaps a couple of hundred prisoners had been taken. [We charged on the 3d of June] We built works on the 2d {of}

    June. Early A.M. on the 3d we formed as a support to a couple of brigades of the Corps who charged the enemy. Perhaps a couple of hundred

    prisoners were taken. We charged over a first range of hills under a very severe fire, then over a lane [sunken road] where we were greatly

    exposed, then over a second range of hills, under a severe cross fire from the right, and musketry from the front. Before us lay the enemy’s

    works on a third range of hills at some 200 yards distance. Thrice the men essayed the charge over the crest of the hill, and thrice appalled

    shrank back to escape utter annihilation. While lying beneath the crest of the hill we were subjected to a heavy fire from the left from one or

    two rebel batteries. Shell and canister came swift dealing death and destruction.
    Lieut. West was mortally wounded while lying beside me. He was hit in the groin by a rifle bullet which injured his intestines. I had

    him taken out, but he died the next morning.
    While lying on this hill I had quite a talk with Col. Byrnes. He said he had been very lucky so far, but expected soon to have his share

    of wounds. He was somewhat nervous and very solicitous for the Brigade. He would not have them fire their pieces for fear of drawing the fire

    of the enemy on the left and was expecting a charge from that direction at any moment. Finally when it was reported that the rebels were

    charging us in our front he ordered the men to give them a good volley and fall back. We might have held the position, I think, though it would

    have cost us dearly. Indeed I doubt if the rebels occupied the position after we retired. He was struck in the back while falling back, his

    spine was injured and back paralyzed. I could not refrain from tears when I saw his body borne past me, albeit he has not befriended me, and I

    was only on the polite terms with him customary between men of the world; thrown together by the force of circumstances. We lost a brave

    officer, and one who, in spite of his peculiarities, his secretiveness, and his inability or want of desire to cultivate the acquaintance of his

    best officers, ardently loved his regiment, and protected it by every means in his power. When he was in command of the Brigade the 28th had a

    show. When he was away too much favoritism was displayed to the other regiments. He is succeeded by the Col. of the 88th who can think of

    nothing but the 63d, 69th, & 88th Regiments.
    No man loved Col. Byrnes, yet every one respected his fearlessness. The men believed in him and had confidence in him. With him they were

    willing to endure all dangers, yet they feared him and had a wholesome dislike towards him. Byrnes made an excellent impression on casual

    acquaintances. I had quite a spat with him only a day or two before he received his wound and used high words. Yet an hour or two after we

    were conversing as though nothing had occurred.
    Col. Byrnes never consulted his officers about promotions. I understand a list of names was sent in a few days ago in which I was

    appointed Captain, but the list was withheld from the Commander of the 28th. I sent in a list to day, myself for Captain via Capt Fitzpatrick

    resigned March 1st. Lieut West, poor fellow died before receiving his commission of Captain which he ardently desired.
    Lieut. Treavor, a fine officer, and Lt. O’Brien were both severely wounded. O’Brien has lost a foot, and the Doctor thinks Treavor must

    loose his also. This makes a loss of 16 officers out of the 28th. Four Captains and one Lieut. Killed, the Major Killed, & Col. mortally

    wounded. The loss of the regiment thus far is 27 Killed, 178 wounded, 40 missing, total 251 enlisted men. Many of the wounded are dead, almost

    none prisoners. Co. C. has lost 9 Killed or died of wounds, thus far 13 wounded, and 3 missing.
    I had a very singular dream the morning of June 3d. I dreamed I was at home in my study. You were sitting in the rocking chair. All

    that I can recollect now is that I looked in the glass at the beaureau & found myself grey headed & bald, my features much resembling yours at

    40 years though appearing somewhat older. I remarked “how grey and bald I have got to be since leaving home, and how much I look like you.”
    I am very glad to hear of Charles’ good fortune in obtaining the Chaplaincy he has been expecting, and hope he will be able to fill the

    place & at the same time his health becomes better. I am sorry to hear of the death of Jack Read and Frank Stimpson. In the midst of life we

    are in death, never more so than now. Many noble men have fallen. Col. McKeen 81th Penn, Col Mulholland 116th Penn, Col Morris & Lt. Col

    Hamill 66th New York, Col. Morris of N.Y. Heavy Artillery and others.
    Will you send me some note paper by mail? By the blessing of Providence I have been spared thus far. The heaviest fighting yet remains

    for us. We were heavily shelled last night. The Rebs attack us every night now. Siege guns are up. We are now on the left of the line. The

    Cavalry connect with us and picket to Bottom’s Bridge. Letters & papers received to day.
    Your Aff. Son
    John B. Noyes.

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