150 Years Ago: The Human Cost of Chancellorsville for two Irish Women

On 2nd May 1863, 150 years ago, hordes of Confederate troops appeared as if from nowhere and descended on the unsuspecting Yankees of the Eleventh Corps in the Virginia Wilderness. The blow Stonewall Jackson’s Rebels delivered to the Federal flank during the Battle of Chancellorsville is remembered as one of the most famous and brilliant actions of the war. But the reality of the grand havoc of battle is very different for those individuals affected by it. For Susan Gallagher and Mary O’Neill, the 2nd May 1863 became memorable for all the wrong reasons.

The Battle of Chancellorsville (Kurz and Allison)

The Battle of Chancellorsville (Kurz and Allison)

The 31st January 1852 had been a happy day in the village of Knocklong, in the east of Co. Limerick. That was the day local priest Father McGrath presided over the wedding of Maria Heaphy and Richard O’Neill. Maria’s relative Thomas Heaphy and Joanna Connery acted as the couple’s witnesses. The two had not wed in the first flush of youth- Richard was around 30 years of age at the time- and they perhaps seemed unlikely candidates to strike out for a new life in America. However, sometime after 1852 Richard and Mary (as everyone called Maria) decided to move to New York, where they settled in the city of Schenectady. By the time war broke out the O’Neills had no children (or at least none who survived). Richard, now 40 years old, decided to enlist in the 154th New York Infantry, mustering into Company F of the regiment on 25th September 1862. (1)

The marriage of James and Susan Gallagher had also taken place in Ireland, but it had occurred long before Richard and Mary’s ceremony, and at the other end of the country. They were from Co. Derry, and had been married there on 10th May 1834 by the Reverend McLoughlin. Like the O’Neill’s they were in their thirties when they decided to tie the knot. James had been born around 1798 and Susan around 1803, so by the time they emigrated to New York they had already spent many years in Ireland. When the American Civil War arrived the couple were getting on in years, and James in particular began to physically struggle. Sometime around 1860 he was no longer able to properly provide for his family. By April of 1861 the family physician, Felix O’Neill, realised that old age and rheumatism would keep the Derry native permanently out of the workforce. It now fell on the couple’s young bachelor son, Edward, to support his parents. He turned 18 in 1862, and decided that the best way to offer regular financial support for his parents was to enlist. He mustered into Company A of the 119th New York Infantry on 4th September 1862. (2)

Given the circumstances of both Richard O’Neill and Edward Gallagher, it would seem that financial security was a major factor in determining their enlistment. Indeed by May 1863 Edward had already sent $75 home to his mother on 38th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues in New York. This enabled her to pay the rent and buy necessaries for herself and her husband. Certainly neither of the men would have been expecting the chaotic scenes they witnessed on 2nd May 1863. Both suddenly found themselves in the midst of a cauldron of death, as Jackson’s imperious Rebels barreled into the positions of the unsuspecting men of the Eleventh Corps. (3)

Caught utterly unawares by the surprise Confederate attack, line after line of Eleventh Corps defenders were turned and routed in turn. Private Edward Gallagher and his comrades in the largely German 119th New York took up position on the Orange Plank Road to try to stem the Rebel tide. Their attempts proved futile. Nine of the twelve men in the regiment’s Color Guard were shot down, and their Colonel, Elias Peissner, killed. The line eventually collapsed and the survivors joined the rout. Edward was one of the men who got away, but he was not one of the unscathed- during the fighting he had taken a bullet in his right arm. (4)

Private Richard O’Neill and the men of the 154th New York went into action soon afterwards. In one of the last lines of defence to be organised, they formed part of a line of some 4,000 men who hoped to stem the Rebel tide in the vicinity of Dowdall’s Tavern. The victorious Confederates emerged into a wall of Federal fire. O’Neill and his comrades ‘would mow a road through them every time but they would close up with a yell…’ but once again the Rebels were able to flank the Yankee line. Having sustained 40% casualties, the 154th New York joined the retreat. Richard O’Neill was not among the lucky few. The Limerick man had been shot in the head, and lay seriously injured on the field. (5)

Neither Edward Gallagher or Richard O’Neill died on the battlefield of Chancellorsville. Edward’s right arm could not be saved, and he suffered amputation. He was sent to the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, where he died from his wounds on 20th June 1863. By that date Richard O’Neill was already dead. Like Edward he lingered for a long time after the end of the battle; he passed away at Brooks Station, Virginia on 22nd May. (6)

The death of men like Richard O’Neill and Edward Gallagher are the real face of grand strategic strokes such as Jackson’s brilliant attack at Chancellorsville. Their long, lingering death was only the beginning of the suffering for Susan and Mary. Left with no means of support for her and her husband, the elderly Susan Gallagher was left to rely on charity for succour until she was assisted in 1865 by the U.S. Sanitary Commission who helped her secure a pension for herself and her husband in their twilight years. Richard’s death left Mary O’Neill on her own. The final entry in her pension file dates from 23rd November 1885. She hadn’t been heard from since 1883, with her last known address being 35 Hill Street, in Troy, New York. The postmaster was asked to inform the Department of the Interior of her whereabouts. His reply regarding the Limerick woman’s demise was brief:

‘Am unable to find the exact date of death of Mary O’Neill but am informed it was about two and one half years ago.’ (7)

(1) Richard O’Neill Widow’s Pension, NY Adjutant General; (2) Edward Gallagher Widow’s Pension, NY Adjutant General; (3) Ibid. (4) Sears 1996: 276-77, Edward Gallagher Widow’s Pension; (5) Sears 1996: 280, Richard O’Neill Widow’s Pension; (6) Edward Gallagher Widow’s Pension, Richard O’Neill Widow’s Pension; (7)Richard O’Neill Widow’s Pension;

References & Further Reading

Richard O’Neill’s Widow’s Pension File WC36780

Edward Gallagher’s Widow’s Pension File WC87365

Sears, Stephen W. 1996. Chancellorsville

Annual Reports of the Adjutant General for the State of New York

Civil War Trust Battle of Chancellorsville Page

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

About these ads

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: Battle of Chancellorsville, Derry, Limerick

Author:Damian Shiels

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

Follow Irish in the American Civil War

Follow Irish in the American Civil War via Social Media

6 Comments on “150 Years Ago: The Human Cost of Chancellorsville for two Irish Women”

  1. May 2, 2013 at 11:19 pm #

    Really like the way you wrote this Damian, great story, if a sad one. Well done on all your research and delivery!

  2. Patty Murphy-Medlin
    May 3, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    How heartbreaking. But I love the fact that these two men and their families are remembered because of you. So often their sacrifices are all just statistics these many years later. Thank you for this!

    • May 3, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

      Thanks Patty, I really appreciate it. Their’s is a heartbreaking story, one of unfortunately far too many.

  3. May 3, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    It’s important to remember that with every celebrated battle there were usually thousands who never returned, and many thousands more who lost husbands, fathers and sons, and whose lives were inexorably altered.

    • May 3, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

      Absolutely, it is the human story of the war that we can most relate to, and which brings us closest to appreciating the horrors many people experienced.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,091 other followers

%d bloggers like this: