Broken Homes: Irish Soldiers’ Attempts to Reunite their Families

Previous posts have looked at the ‘Information Wanted’ ads placed in Irish-American newspapers during the 1860s, where family members sought to discover the fate of soldiers who went missing during the war (see here and here). The conflict split families apart, and papers like the Boston Pilot also carried ads from serving and recently mustered-out soldiers who could not locate their wives and children. For some men, their proximity to death prompted them to try to get in touch with family whom they may not have seen in many years.

A Union Sergeant and his Wife during the American Civil War (Library of Congress)

A Union Sergeant and his Wife during the American Civil War (Library of Congress)

Some soldiers had not communicated with their wives since their enlistment, and sought to re-establish contact on their muster out. Such was the case with Bernard Corrigan, who placed his ad in the Pilot on 12th June 1862:

Information Wanted OF CATHERINE ARMSTRONG (husband’s name Bernard Corrigan), who, when last heard from, nine months ago, was in or about South Margin street, Boston, Mass. Her husband, who had enlisted, is now home again, and wants her to come to him. Any information concerning her will be thankfully received by Bernard Corrigan, Savannah, Carroll county, Ill.

It is not clear if Catherine was alive or dead at the time of the ad, but it seems probable that Bernard was not successful in locating her. By 1870 the then 36-year-old Bernard was farming in Mount Carroll, Illinois and had remarried. His second wife, 22-year-old Mary had borne him two sons, four-year-old James and two-year-old Thomas. (1)

Tipperary native William Welch was about to embark on some tough fighting during the Atlanta Campaign when he decided to launch a concerted effort to contact his siblings, wife and children in 1864. He had enlisted at the age of 32 and was described as 5 feet 4 1/2 inches in height, with dark hair, blue eyes and a light complexion. Perhaps fearing that he might not survive the war, he placed the following two ads in July 1864:

Information Wanted OF MARY ELLEN WELCH, before marriage her name was Ryan, together with her children Hugh Jane [Eugene] Welch, Thomas and Michael Welch; when last heard from they were at Helena, Arkansas, about four years ago. I (William Welch) left them in Green [Greene] county, Illinois; since then I have joined the Army of the Cumberland, and can get no information of them. Mary Ellen Welch is my lawful wife, and the above named children are my lawful heirs. Any information respecting them will be thankfully received by William Welch, Co D, 129th Ill Vols, Inf’y, 1st Brigade, 3d Division, 20th Army Corps, Army of the Cumberland, via Chattanooga.

Information Wanted OF JOHN, Thomas, Mary and Margaret WELCH, who left parish of Killskully [Killoscully], county Tipperary, about nine years ago. Any information will be thankfully received by their brother, William Welch, Co D, 129th Ill Vols, Infantry, 1st Brigade, 3d Division, 20th Army Corps, Army of the Cumberland, via Chattanooga.

Thankfully William survived the war and was reunited with his family. The 1870 Census finds him farming in Greene County with his wife Mary and three sons. In 1880 he received an invalid pension based on his service, and after his death Mary received a widow’s pension. (2)

Other men had clearly been separated from their wives and children for a number of years before the war. William Powers had not seen his wife and child for a nearly a decade when he placed an ad in the Pilot on 2nd August 1862. He was then serving at Hilton Head, South Carolina with the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. Perhaps it was the war itself that prompted him to try to get back in touch:

Information Wanted OF the wife and child of WILLIAM POWERS, who went to Canada West in 1853 from Thorndike, Mass. Her father’s name was John Shannon. Any information will be thankfully received by George Bradshaw, Spraguetown, Connecticut, or her husband, William Powers, Co E, Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, Hilton Head, South Carolina.

William survived the war and lived until 1907, although it is unclear if he ever established contact with his family. (3)

James Reily had married Margaret Thornton in Galway City on 27th May 1844 and later emigrated to the United States. As with William Powers, he had not seen his wife and daughter for a number of years before the war. A butcher by trade, James enlisted in the army at the age of 32 in March 1862. He was described as 5 feet 6 inches in height, with brown hair, hazel eyes and a light complexion. It was while stationed in Corinth, Mississippi with the 12th Illinois Infantry that he made the decision to seek out Margaret and his daughter. His ad appeared on 21st March 1863:

Information Wanted OF Mrs MARGARET REILY, and daughter, Bridget, of the town of Galway, Ireland, and Mrs Mary Anderson and husband; when last heard from, December 5th 1856, were living on corner of F and 23d streets, Washington, District of Columbia. Any information of them will be thankfully received by her husband, James Reily, Company K, 12th Regiment Illinois Infantry, Corinth, Mississippi.

The ad James placed in the Pilot seems to have worked and he got back into contact with Margaret. Two months after his appeal appeared in the newspaper the Galwegian was part of a detachment of the 12th Illinois sent to guard the Tuscumbia Bridge on the Hatchie River. The post was described as ‘swampy and sickly’, and after some weeks James contracted chronic diarrhoea. On the 10th September he was granted a 30 day furlough to travel to Washington D.C. and visit his family for the first time in 6 years. The reunion was shortlived- James Reily died from his illness on 2nd October 1862. (4)

Peter Smith’s wife Dora had accompanied him on his way to enlist in the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery, but before they had an opportunity to say goodbye to each other they became separated in Syracuse. Peter had carried on with his enlistment, but placed his ad in order to find Dora on 1st November 1862. The whole affair must have been very upsetting- Peter went so far as to offer a $10 reward for anyone who could help him find his wife:

$10 Reward

Information Wanted OF Mrs DORA SMITH, wife of Peter Smith. They became separated from each other on the cars of Syracuse, NY, on the 28th of last July. He enlisted in the Second New York Artillery, and is now a paroled prisoner at Annapolis, Md. The above reward will be given for information of where she now is. Address Rev J F Bradley, Annapolis, Md, or Peter Smith, 2nd New York Artillery, Com B, Paroled Camp, near Annapolis, Md.

Peter had been 44-years-old when he had joined up on 28th July. He had been captured at Manassas on 27th August 1862 and was paroled three days later. The Irishman was discharged for disability from Fort Corcoran on 22nd February 1864. Peter’s fate after his discharge and whether or not he found Dora are unknown. (5)

Laurence McKey placed his appeal in the Pilot on 5th December 1863. He had been stationed at Fort Leavenworth with the 2nd Kansas Cavalry when he fell ill. His wife Mary grew increasingly distressed about him and eventually decided to set out for Fort Leavenworth from their home in Kansas City. Three months later Laurence was transferred to Kansas City Hospital, only to find his wife missing:

Information Wanted OF MARY McKEY, wife of Laurence McKey, of the Second Kansas Cavalry. She left her home in Kansas City about three months ago, for Fort Leavenworth, and from there she started for Weston, where she was seen; when she left, she had on a purple colored dress, black silk shawl, and small spotted shaker on her head. She was out of her mind when she left. She is a native of Tahart, county Cavan, and is about the medium size. Her husband, Laurence McKey, has been in Benton Barracks Hospital for 9 months and 18 days, but is now in Kansas City Hospital. Any information concerning her will be thankfully received by Laurence McKey, care of Rev. Bernard Donnolly, Kansas City, Missouri.

I have not been able to trace Laurence or Mary after this date or discover if they were reunited. (6)

There must have been many hundreds of Irish families who were separated by the American Civil War. Some men had served in uniform for the duration of the conflict, surviving years of battle and campaigning to eventually end their service by marching in the Grand Review in Washington, D.C. When these soldiers left the capital to return to their homes it should have heralded the start of a new chapter in their lives. Unfortunately for some men, such as William Murphy, their task was instead to locate their family and try to piece their lives back together. He placed his Information Wanted advertisement in the Pilot of 1st July 1865. As with so many of the others, it is unclear if he was ultimately successful:

Information Wanted OF Mrs ELLEN MURPHY, formerly of Cleveland, Ohio, but who left that city for St Louis six years ago and is now supposed to reside there. Any information of her whereabouts will be thankfully received by her husband, who has served four years and a half in the army and has just returned home. Direct to William Murphy, 23 Hope street, Chicago, Illinois.

(1) 1870 US Census, Information Wanted; (2) Illinois Civil War Descriptive and Muster Rolls, 1870 US Census, William Welch Pension Index Card, Information Wanted; (3) William H. Powers Pension Index Card, Information Wanted; (4) Illinois Civil War Descriptive and Muster Rolls, James Reily Widow’s Pension Index, Information Wanted; (5) New York AG Report: 983, Information Wanted; (6)

References

Boston Pilot Information Wanted Database, Boston College

Illinois Civil War Descriptive and Muster Rolls Database

1870 US Federal Census

James Reily Widow’s Pension File WC110993

William H. Powers Pension Index Card

William Welch Pension Index Card

New York Adjutant General Report 2nd New York Heavy Artillery

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Categories: Women

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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4 Comments on “Broken Homes: Irish Soldiers’ Attempts to Reunite their Families”

  1. Joe Maghe
    October 16, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    A very thought provoking post… things that I had not realized nor considered.

    • October 18, 2013 at 8:16 am #

      Hi Joe,

      Many thanks- the information wanted ads are an amazing resource and bring home just how easy it was to lose contact with friends and loved ones in this period. They are something I think I will be returning to again and again.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. Belinda Evangelista
    April 3, 2014 at 7:34 am #

    SMITH, PETER.—Age, 44 years. Enlisted, July 28, 1862, at Syracuse, N. Y.; mustered in as private, Co. B, July 28, 1862, to serve three years; captured, August 27, 1862, at Manassas, Va.; paroled, August 30,1862; discharged for disability, February 22, 1864, at Fort Corcoran, Va. http://books.google.com/books?id=YWgUAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA983&dq=Peter+smith+2nd+NY+heavy+Artillery+syracuse&hl=en&sa=X&ei=__88U6bDLJW0sQSGtoGgAQ&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Peter%20smith%202nd%20NY%20heavy%20Artillery%20syracuse&f=false

    • April 3, 2014 at 8:36 pm #

      Hi Belinda,

      Thanks for passing on his info! I wonder did he ever find Dora, I would love to find out.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

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