A Soldier’s Thoughts turn to Ireland- Petersburg, Virginia, 1864

In 1864 James McDonnell was a 27-year old Irishman serving in the 5th New Hampshire Infantry. His unit would end the war with the dubious distinction of having suffered more battle fatalities than any other Union regiment. James had not been an early volunteer- financially motivated, he enlisted as a draft substitute on 1st October 1863 in Keene, New Hampshire. By September 1864, having endured the Overland Campaign, James found himself part of the forces surrounding Petersburg. His thoughts turned to Ireland, his inability to get paid, and his hopes for a Democratic election victory. (1)

An unidentified soldier of the 5th New Hampshire Infantry (Library of Congress)

An unidentified soldier of the 5th New Hampshire Infantry (Library of Congress)

Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers

Camp Near Petersburg, Sept. 10th, 1864

To the Editors of the Irish-American:

Gentlemen- Herein you will find inclosed $1.25c. as my subscription for a half year to your paper. It may seem strange to some to see a soldier, whose every moment may be his last, thus contributing for a newspaper as independently as if he possessed a lease of his life; but, gentlemen, I view the matter in a different light; I like to “take time by the forelock,” and while I am alive secure for myself that which I may need shall it be God’s will I should be spared longer; and I know of nothing of which my mind stands more in need while I do live than that paper which furnishes me with news from poor old Ireland- from the land of my birth. Alas! checkered, indeed, has been, and still is, her fate, and it looks almost a mockery to hope for her; but still it may not, with God’s help, be too much for one of her exiles in his sorrow to pray in the fulness of his heart that the dawn of a new era is not far distant, and that he may yet have an opportunity of treading his native hills, free as the sunshine of Heaven which plays upon them, or die struggling to emancipate every blade of grass in his bleeding country to which the tyrant lays claim.

This remittance is not government money; and, I presume, the money which they now hesitate to pay the troops in the field will be turned to good account to pay the expenses of the Fall campaign or hire new recruits in Spring. They give us plenty of time to get slaughtered before they pay us; and if such be the motive, what swindlers they must be. Now, is it right to leave men here six months or more without pay? What right have they to control our money? They make us fulfil, and more than fulfil, our contract with them, and it is, to say the least, and use the mildest term, an injustice to treat us so. Correspondents may tell you the troops are satisfied. I say they are not, and no correspondent knows as well as a private soldier.

The nomination of McClellan is hailed by almost every soldier as the day-star of a glorious peace and prosperity for America; and his election would be in no danger if the votes of the troops could decide it. His name is never out of their mouths, and they trust to the people of the North to unite now and show that no sectional partizan or partizans can lead them on to slaughter and the country to destruction.

I have the honor to remain, gentlemen, your very humble servant,

James McDonnell, Co. B, Fith [sic.] N.H. Vols., 1st Brigade, 1 Division, 2d A.C.

James survived the remainder of the war, and was discharged from service on 2nd June 1865 in Washington D.C. (2)

(1) New York Irish-American, Child 1893: 123; (2) Ibid.

References

New York Irish-American 24th September 1864. Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers

Child, William 1893. A History of the Fifth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the American Civil War.

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Categories: Battle of Petersburg

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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4 Comments on “A Soldier’s Thoughts turn to Ireland- Petersburg, Virginia, 1864”

  1. May 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    Great letter, Damian. I’m always amazed at how literate many common soliders were back then.

    • May 7, 2013 at 10:37 am #

      Many thanks Joe! It’s very true, and in this case he seems to have been a bit of a wordsmith to boot.

  2. May 6, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    It’s interesting not only how literate they were, but how politically atuned they were, as well.

    • May 7, 2013 at 10:37 am #

      Absolutely- he must have been very disappointed with the eventual outcome of the election!

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