I was recently contacted by historian Ed O’Riordan, who a number of years ago saved a remarkable series of letters sent home to Tipperary by an Irish emigrant in America, William Hickey. The letters chart the story of a young man who experienced the loneliness and uncertainty of life in a new country and his search for a place to settle down. That journey seemed fulfilled eight-years after his arrival, when William arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana. It would ultimately draw to a close near a small Tennessee Church, at a place called Shiloh.
In 1853 sixteen-year-old William Hickey left his home in Lisfuncheon, Clogheen, Co. Tipperary for the last time. Travelling first to Liverpool, he boarded a vessel (most probably the Vanguara) which brought him to New York that September. It was at Yarmouth Port in Massachusetts that he wrote his first letter home, on 3rd October:
Dear Father and Mother,
I take the opportunity in writing to you these few lines, hoping to find ye all in good health as this leaves me at present thanks be to God for it. Dear Mother I landed in New York on the 19 September, and since the day I left Liverpool I did not get one hours sickness…Dear brother keep your hilt [health] but I am not sorry for coming and I will have better news to send you in my next letter. (1)
However, despite William’s optimism it seems he struggled in his early days in the United States. He wrote home again from Boston in January of 1854, in a letter which suggests he was having trouble getting work and wanted to return home to Ireland. It also highlights how important it was for emigrants from a particular locality in Ireland to maintain contact in the United States after they arrived:
Dear Father and Mother,
I have to inform you that I received your kind note on the 20th which gave me the greatest pleasure in reading it. and also grieved me very much in your disappointment to me and if you had to send that money in your last letter I would be ready to sail on the 25[th] of this month to old Ireland once more. I have lost in some measure my time and credit, thereby yet my future diligence, I hope to recover both and to convince you that I will pay a strict regard to all your commands which I am bound to do. Dear Father and Mother I submit and give in that I was wrong in my down [doing] so to put you to that trouble but I hope it’s all for the better…This is the only season of the year to go home to Ireland. I can get a passage here in Boston for 12 dollars, when you can’t get in Liverpool for 20 dollars, and as quick as I receive your next letter I will write home the day before sailing, and when I get to Liverpool I will write likewise to you…Dear Father I am in Boston since September, boarding with Michael Keating with the exception of a few weeks. I met with [a] little accidence [accident]. I was to work on board the ship and got my two toes jammed and one almost cut off, but thanks be to god it’s all well now. You must excuse Michael Keating for not sending home some relief to his mother at present, in regard of the summer being bad and winter being likewise, and everything so dear, and he could not afford to send her some relief at present, but still he is not forgetting her, and he is still in the idea of sending for Wm. Keating his brother, and he was much pleased in hearing from all the family. Mick did not hear from Thos. for the last six months, in good health. (2)
Despite this correspondence, William did not return to Lisfuncheon. Instead over the next few months he decided that his future lay out west, in California. In his next letter of June 1854 he related his desire to move on, and also told of the successful arrival of more familiar Tipperary locals in Boston. He also revealed a heart-breaking story of one Irish family’s loss on their passage to America:
My dear Father,
I have to inform you that I am in perfect good health as I hope this will find you and my ever dear Mother, brother Thomas, James and my sister Bridget also. My dear father I am not being possess[ed] of as much as take me to go to California which place I am inclined to go with many others which are determined for the same Country where there is the greatest encouragement for young men if I had as much money as would pay my expenses. Dear Father it would take 8 weeks to take me there which would cost me 20 pounds which would take a long time to earn it here, everything is so dear and all commodities high through means of the Eastern War [Crimean War]. My dear Father and Mother I am much inclined for it. If you would take me into your kind consideration and remit as much money as would take me there. Therefore I will say no more on the subject but leave all to yourselves. So if you comply with my request I will kindly receive it with many thanks, Etc.
My dear Father and Mother I met with Wm. Starkey & family on board the Ship, Meridian at their arrival in Boston immediately at the dock in good health, after a voyage of 29 days without an hours sickness during the voyage. [62 year-old William Starkey had arrived on May 31st 1854 from Liverpool together with Alice (43) and children Richard (11), Peter (7) and Alice (9)]. At same time they have delivered the parcel you sent by them to me. You would not believe how well Wm. Starkey looks after his travels which I am happy to have to inform of. The same evening he arrived he was not two hours here when a Captain of another ship came into John Kelly’s where he stopped ordered on board for Chatham [Chatham, Massachusetts], at which time he and family started without taking the least nourishment but some gin and wine we took with Sister Norry, who kindly treated us. He then went on board and was driven back into Boston on the next morning…
…Dear Father we had Tom Russell with Wm. Starkey on board the same ship in good health. Not a single person died on board but one woman who was wife to John Bourke from Tubrid who went to bed with her husband the first night we went on board in Liverpool and was corpse the next morning at 4 o’clock, and left two young children to deplore her loss. He got only two hours to get her away on his back and have her interred. We lost no other person during the whole voyage. [William is here most likely referring to 30-year-old Michael Bourke, who sailed on the Meridian with Mary (9) and Oliver (1)]. We lost no other person during the whole voyage. Wm. Starkey had the title of being Mayor of the ship. My dear Father and Mother I have spent 6 months at the boot and shoe-making, which business is now rather dull here. I have brought Wm. Starkey to Aunt Norry, and Mickey Keatings and received him most kindly.
Dear Father, California is the West Country. Wm. Starkey says that I am much taller and stouter than my brother Thos. he joined me in love to you all, my mother, Thos., James and sister Bridget, and other inquiring friends, with many ardent wishes of your future prosperity. From your affection son etc.,
Wm. Hickey. (3)
William was clearly not sure what he really wanted to do. He had initially expressed a desire to return to Ireland, then changed his mind and set his sights on California. In the end he did neither. His next letter was dated 8th October 1854 when he was working at ‘Sheepscut Bridge’, most likely Sheepscot Bridge in Maine. Clearly lonely and missing Irish company, his attention was turning to a new potential destination- St. Louis, Missouri:
Dear Father and Mother, Brothers and Sister,
I take the opportunity in writing these few lines to you hoping to find you all in good health, as this leaves me, thanks be to God for it. Dear Mother and Father I have to inform you that I am here in this wilde country alone 200 miles from all friends in America. I was sure that any part I go to, but I would meet Irish, but here where I am now, there is none, but I could do no better and I should come here. I am in the wilde woods of America away from priests and chapel, and if I had as much money as would fetch me to St. Louis, I should have gone there before now, for I am sure it was there that the Ryans would get me a trade. I beg and request of you dear father and mother to send me the sum of six pounds, to as much as that would fetch me to St. Louis, and that’s all that ever I will ask of you, ’till I return you three times the compliment. I never had that cause to make money in this country, only as much as would keep me in clothing. I shed three tears from my eyes in this letter for you, thinking of you and being so lonesome here that I have no one that I would spare a word to but savage Yankees; some of them who [would] sooner see the divel than a Irishman. Michael Keating and his wife is in good health, and Aunt Norry and family likewise…
…Please go to Michael Ryan and he will leave you have the directions of his brother in St. Louis, and send it to me in your next letter. If I get a letter from you I will be in St. Louis before Christmas day, and I will have as much thin [then] as will buy me some clothes, and I can go there respectable. I am here working like a horse from four in the morning till ten at night before I can go to bed, and if I don’t get some supply from you dear Father and Mother, I will be perished going in the woods in the winter time cutting down wood, where there would be six foot of snow; in places fourteen foot of snow. (4)
William presumably received the money he requested from his father and moved to Missouri. However it seems he may have long harboured a desire to return to Ireland. His aunt Ellen Tobin indicated this in a letter to her brother and William’s uncle in Lisfuncheon, Father James Hickey, as late as 1859. Writing from Ware in Massachusetts she asks ‘if William Hickey went home yet.’ William did move on from Missouri but it was not to return home. A letter from March 1861 finds him in New Orleans, Louisiana:
Ever honoured Father and mother, brother and sister. I prefer addressing you these few lines not only to let you know that I am in health, but to present my humble duties and good wishes towards you. Ever wishing you an abundance of felicity and health, wealth and many prosperous days with the like duty and respect and the same good wishes to those that are near and dear to you. Inform you that I am employed in a very respectable Establishment. It is a new shoe factory. I get two dollars per day and very easy clean work. I enjoy the best of health and hope you do the same. You may rest assured that you are all fresh in my memory although not writing to you this many a day, for which I hope you will excuse me. I am sorry to hear of the death of my Venerable Uncle. I was told he died by a young girl of the O’Briens from Shandrahan. May God have mercy on his soul, amen.
Please write at the receipt of this, and let me know how is every member of the family, and all enquiring friends. Direct your letter to William Hickey, New Orleans, Louisiana. (6)
By the time William had written his letter Louisiana had already seceded from the Union. With the firing on Fort Sumter on 12th April 1861 and the outbreak of war, the Tipperary man decided to enlist. On 15th April the then 24-year-old joined up, mustering in to Company G of the 1st Louisiana Infantry Regiment (Strawbridge’s) on the 30th April. He clearly had leadership qualities, as he quickly became a Sergeant. William originally signed up to serve for one year. The beginning of 1862 found him and his regiment serving at Pensacola, Florida. It was here that William agreed to extend his time in the army to two years, making him eligible for a bounty of $50 that was to be paid on 15th April 1862. The early months of 1862 saw a major buildup of Union and Confederate forces in and around Tennessee, and the 1st Louisiana soon found themselves on the move to link up with the main army in the Western Theater. On 6th April 1862 the young man from Lisfuncheon and the Confederate Army of Mississippi advanced to the attack near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. The carnage that ensued across the 6th and 7th April was on a scale never before seen in American history. It became known as the Battle of Shiloh. (7)
The 1st Louisiana and the Confederate army had started their advance early on the morning of the 6th April. William and his comrades struggled forward through difficult wooded terrain and across a stream before they could move up a slight slope towards the first enemy line. They encountered their first taste of major battle at 8.30am, near the Union camps of General Prentiss. As they advanced to within 200 yards of the enemy the Louisianans took heavy fire from the Yankee line, which was supported by artillery and sharpshooters firing from the trees. As the engagement intensified the Rebel brigade commander, Brigadier-General Adley Gladden, was mortally wounded when a cannonball mangled his left arm and shoulder. With the men wavering, Colonel Daniel Adams of the 1st Louisiana (now acting as brigade commander) grasped the flag of his regiment and called on the men to follow him. They did. William and his fellow Rebels charged forward, driving the Union line back through their camp. The Lisfuncheon man had made it through the first encounter of the day. (8)
Despite their early success, there was a long day ahead for the 1st Louisiana Infantry. They eventually reformed on the other side of the captured Union camp, and had to endure artillery fire from nearby guns which were eventually silenced by Confederate fire. Eventually they were ordered forward once more, with the brigade soon losing another commander- Colonel Adams was wounded in the head by a bullet at around 2.30pm. As they drove forward to attack the next organised group of Federals, sometime around 4pm, Sergeant William Hickey was struck in the head and killed. He was one of 232 casualties sustained by the 1st Louisiana over the two days fighting at Shiloh. The young man’s fate was outlined in an 1866 letter written by David Ryan of St. Louis (the same Ryan cousins William had sought out in 1854) to his cousin and William’s uncle, Father James Hickey:
Your nephew William Hickey was a brave-hearted young man, well liked by everyone in St. Louis, and at the breaking out of the war he went to New Orleans where he joined the Confederate Army and was killed at the Battle of Shiloh holding the rank of Lieutenant [it is possible William was acting as a Lieutenant at the time of his death] and was acknowledged to be a brave intrepid commander. (9)
The man who had left home at the age of sixteen to travel to the United States had come to grief on a Tennessee battlefield at the age of only 25. His letters chart the story of a young boy in search of a better life- a boy who clearly had itchy feet, always looking towards the next place to live, the next opportunity. His journeying around America eventually took him to New Orleans, and ultimately the Confederate army. One can imagine the impact news of his death had at home in Lisfuncheon when it came. The Battle of Shiloh, and the American Civil War as a whole, cast a dark shadow that was often felt half a world away.
* I am greatly indebted to Ed O’Riordan who located these letters, which offer a remarkable insight into emigrant life. He also provided me with the transcripts of the letters for use in this post, for which I am most grateful. Thanks are also due to the Hickey family of Lisfuncheon, Clogheen for permission to tell William’s story.
(1) New York Passenger Lists, William Hickey to Parents October 3rd 1853; (2) William Hickey to Parents January 22nd 1854 (erroneously dated 1853); (3) William Hickey to Parents June 1st 1854, Boston Passenger and Crew Lists; (4) William Hickey to Parents October 8th 1854; (5) Ellen Tobin to Father James Hickey February 27th 1859; (6) William Hickey to Family March 4th 1861; (7) William Hickey Confederate Service Record; (8) OR: 536-537, Daniels 1997: 154; (9) OR: 536-537, OR: 538, Daniels 1997: 313, David Ryan to Father James Hickey July 10th 1866;
References & Further Reading
William Hickey Letters.
Boston Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820-1943. Record for Meridian arrived May 31st 1854.
New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957. Record for Vanguara arrived September 7th 1853.
Daniels, Larry 1997. Shiloh: The Battle that Changed the Civil War.
Official Records Series 1, Volume 10 (Part 1). Report of Col. Daniel W. Adams, First Louisiana Infantry, commanding First Brigade pp.536-537.
Official Records Series 1, Volume 10 (Part 1). Report of Col. Z.C. Deas, Twenty-second Alabama Infantry, commanding First brigade. pp. 538- 539.