We have a tendency to view the American Civil War as a conflict that impacted only the United States and only people who lived there. This was not always true. The long arm of war could be felt with violent effect across oceans and continents. Some of those who had their lives changed utterly by the struggle between blue and gray had never even set foot on American soil. Such was the case with Maria Ridgway, who spent the vast majority of her life living in the city of Dublin- thousands of miles from the seat of the ‘War of 1861.’
Maria McDonald was born in Athlone around the year 1840, the daughter of Edward McDonald, a soldier in the British Army. When she was still a child her family moved to Dublin where they were stationed at Beggar’s Bush Barracks in the city. It was here that a young Maria first met Corporal George Ridgway of the 30th Regiment of Foot. Born in Shropshire, England, George was a career soldier. The couple hit it off and were married in St. Peter’s Church of Ireland parish church, Aungier Street, Dublin on 30th February 1859. (1)
The couple did not have to wait long for their first child. Maria Honora was born on the 22nd November 1859; a son Joseph George followed on the 3rd March 1862. Both children were baptised as Roman Catholics in St. James’ Parish Church, Dublin. By the time of their son’s birth George had been sent to Canada with his unit. The war raging south of the Canadian border seemed to offer promising prospects for someone of George’s expertise and presented a potential way for the family to improve their fortunes. Baby Joseph was not yet 6 months old when George deserted his unit and crossed the border, heading for the United States.* (2)
George did not enlist straight away; perhaps he was looking explore his options before fixing on a return to a military life. He eventually decided on a career in the 1st United States Cavalry, joining on 24th February 1863. Mustering in as a Private in Company L, he headed to Virginia, embarking on a path that he no doubt hoped would bring economic security for him and his young family. That June, Maria received a letter through the U.S. Consul in Dublin:
Washington D.C. U.S.A.
June 25th 1863
Mrs. Maria Ridgway
It has become my mournful duty to inform you of the decease [sic.] of your husband George Ridgway U.S. Cavalry 1st Regt. Co. L. He was brought to this hospital from hospital at Aquia Creek very sick of chronic diarrhea on the 15th instant and died on the 19th inst. Was extremely feeble able to say but little. His last words were of you and his children. Tell my wife I die believing in the Lord Jesus. I hope the Lord will be a husband to her. Give my love to my wife and children. He had good care. Died in one of our best hospitals. Religious services were performed by the Chaplain in a grave in the hospital ground. At his burial an escort followed the body which was buried in the National Cemetery provided for soldiers and his graves [sic.] is carefully preserved having an inscribed and numbered head-board so that it can be identified at any future day. May God in his love and mercy minister to you and your children large consolations in Christ Jesus giving you beauty as ashes, the oil of joy for mourning and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaveness. Please accept my very sincere condolence in Christ.
Joseph M. Driver
Chaplain Columbian Hospital
Washington D.C. U.S.A. (3)
George’s American military career had lasted less than four months. He was buried at what is now the US Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery where his grave can still be seen. Maria was still only in her early twenties. Now a widow, she applied and received a U.S. military pension. It started in 1865 at $8 a month, a sum she collected from her home in Goldenbridge, Dublin. This was later increased to take account of her daughter and son, with the additional monies to be paid until they reached the age of 16. The young woman and her children had never been to the United States, and most likely had never journeyed outside Ireland. Despite this, their entire lives had been turned upside down by the American Civil War. The conflict and her husband’s part in it would continue to be a central element of Maria’s life for decades to come. (4)
As the years passed and Maria grew older she continued to receive a U.S. pension and rely on the income it provided. Then, in 1893, a change to the pension system meant that her income stream suddenly came under threat. She was now required to show that her husband had been a naturalised citizen of the United States at the time of his death, something that was virtually impossible for Maria to demonstrate. If she failed to do so her pension might be terminated. Maria decided to embark on a letter writing campaign, first addressing the U.S. Pension Agent:
To the U.S. Pension Agent
Most Honourable Sir,
This humble petition of Maria Ridgway, widow of George Ridgway Pvt. U.S. Cavalry who is interred in the Soldiers burying ground in Washington D.C. with an inscribed and numbered headboard, the Reverend Joshua M. Driver Chaplain to the U.S. Soldiers kindly sent me and my children my husbands dying words and where I could see his grave at any future time. Not having received my pension voucher No. 57226 to sign for the next quarter 4th September I have taken the liberty in addressing you and I knowing how good the Government has been to me all these years, in giving me means to live since the death of my husband who died fighting for them. I am sure so good a Government would not leave the widows of their soldiers dying in a Workhouse. I am now old and unable to earn my bread, with bad eyes and in a very delicate state of health, hoping the U.S. Government would kindly take my case into their kind consideration and grant me for the short time I expect to be in the world what would keep me from the Workhouse. By so doing I shall always think myself as duty bound to pray for my kind benefactors. Sir I have the honour to remain your most humble and obedient servant,
163 Gt. Britain Street [now Parnell St.]
or U.S. Consul
Great Brunswick St.
Just in case this letter did not work, Maria also took the precaution of writing directly to the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland:
To the President of the United States
Most Honourable Sir,
The humble petition of Maria Ridgway widow of George Ridgway who was a private in the 1 U.S. Cavalry and fought under the American Stars and Stripes for the American cause he is buried in the Soldiers burying ground Washington D.C. I his widow and two children was granted a pension on Certificate 57226, Act July 14- 1862 and in March 19-1886 through the goodness of the American Government at which time I think you were President [Cleveland had been serving his first term as President in 1886] I got my increase to 12 dollars per month. Now through an Act of Congress July 1-1893, I am deprived of any means of support in my old age when I am feeble and not able to do anything for myself through rheumatism. Most Honourable Sir through your goodness of heart, should you take my declining years into your kind consideration and grant me a little to keep an American Widow from dying in a Workhouse, and my two orphans shall always think it our duty to pray for you. I have the honour to be Sir your most faithful servant,
c/o Mrs. Alford [her daughter's married name]
6 Florinda Place, North Circular Road,
5th March 1894. (6)
In other correspondence relating to the suspension of her pension, Maria argued that she did not know if her husband George had been a naturalized citizen of the United States. She explained that in 1863 ‘he wrote to me and said if he got safe through the war America was to be our home, but God had it otherwise.’ Maria then claimed that prior to her husband emigrating in 1862 he had already spent 11 years in the United States, at which time he may well have become a citizen. She enlisted the help of her local priest, Father Bernard Emmett O’Mahony, who wrote to the American authorities on her behalf, asking: ‘Is there any hope that this harsh if not unjust statute will be repealed?’ Maria’s determined efforts eventually paid off, and her pension was reinstated on 4th March 1895. (7)
Despite Maria’s concerns that she may not have had long left to live in the 1890s, she survived well into the 20th century. In 1911 she was still living at 163 Great Britain Street with her son Joseph, who had become a hairdresser, his wife Elizabeth and their eight children. Her daughter Maria had married Cattle Dealer John Alford and they and their nine children were living on Henrietta Street- Maria was now grandmother to a total of 17. (8)
Maria Ridgway’s health finally began to fail in December 1918, with things taking a turn for the worse the following March. She passed away on the afternoon of 8th July 1919 at the home of her daughter, in No.2 Synnott Place, Dublin. The official cause of death was cancer of the liver. Her entire effects, which consisted of ‘a few pieces of old furniture and old clothes’ were left to her daughter. The American Civil War widow’s funeral mass was held at St. Joseph’s Church on Berkeley Road before her remains were laid to rest in St. Bridget’s Section of Prospect Cemetery, Glasnevin, Co. Dublin. In April 1920, almost 57 years after Private George Ridgway’s death in Washington D.C., the U.S. Government made its final pension payment to the Dublin family, when it contributed towards the expenses of Maria’s funeral. (9)
*Originally I had thought that George had left the British Army in Ireland and emigrated via ship to the United States (a George Ridgway is to be found making a crossing at this time). Special thanks to Carol Mitchell and her family, descendants of George and Maria, who provided the information that George had in fact deserted from his unit while stationed in Canada.
(1) George Ridgway Widow’s Pension File; (2) Ibid.; (3) George Ridgway Widow Pension File; (4) Ibid., Find A Grave Memorial; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid.; (8) 1911 Census of Ireland; (9) George Ridgway Widow’s Pension File.
George Ridgway Widow’s Pension File WC57226