‘Should this Book Be Ever Found on My Dead Body’: A POW’s Fate and a Letter to Ireland

On the 27th January 1865 a Union prisoner of war was found dead in the yard of Salisbury Prison, North Carolina. The soldier, recently transferred from Libby Prison in Richmond, appeared to have died from a combination of exposure and disease. He apparently had no close friends to look out for him, so fellow prisoners searched his remains hoping to find some clue as to his identity. On his body they found two photographs of a woman, some correspondence from Ireland, and a Bible. Inside the Bible they found a message:

‘Miss Helen Mitchell, Care of Mrs. Greeley- 19 South High St. Baltimore, Maryland. Should this Book be ever found on my dead body let the party know of the above address, who will acquaint my wife & family with my fate. Colin Cairns.’ (1)

Union Prisoners at Salisbury, North Carolina in 1863. By the time Colin was transferred here shortages and overcrowding had meant scenes such as this were a thing of the past (Library of Congress)

Union Prisoners at Salisbury, North Carolina in 1863. By the time Colin was transferred here shortages and overcrowding had meant scenes such as this were a thing of the past (Library of Congress)

Some weeks later the men who had found Colin’s body arranged for a visitor to call at Mrs. Greeley’s and fulfil the dead soldier’s wishes. Helen Mitchell was the unfortunate man’s sister-in-law. She now had the unpleasant task of relaying the news to her sister, Colin’s wife, then in Co. Kerry:

To: Mrs. Anne Cairns, Tralee, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

St. Patrick’s Day, 1865, 19 South High Street, Baltimore, Md. 

My dear Sister,

It gives me great pain to have to communicate the sad news of Cairns’s death. You have already heard that he was taken prisoner by the Rebels and confined in Libby Prison, Richmond. How long he is dead or how he died we have not yet learned. He was removed from there to Salisbury, North Carolina where he died. What he died of I don’t know. The party who brought us word did not know anything merely that he was desired to call to say he was dead and brought some papers that were found on his person. After his death there were two likenesses of yours and a couple of certificates which you had sent. The gentleman told us he was found in the yard of the prison dead. We all think it was from the bad treatment he got in prison. They are treated worse than dogs. I am going to write to the party in N. Hampshire who sent the papers and learn more about him. 

Dear Sister I know it is sad news for you but try and bear up with it patiently. I trust God has shown mercy to him. Oh if he had any one belonging to him in his dying hour to give him some consolation but far away from home and friends it is really awful. But dear Anne don’t grieve for not coming you could not see him even if you were here nor hear from. I only had one note since he had been taken prisoner. I guess he was not allowed to write. Confinement in those Southern prisons is slow death. He [sic] think he had a hard time of it ever since he joined the army. As soon as I hear anything more I will send you word. Aunt Collins is no better. All the rest of us are well. How are all at home. I hope poor Cairns is in a better world than this for indeed it has been a dreary one with many of us. With fond love to all at home and accept the same from your fond Sister.

Ellen. Love to the children. (2)

Libby Prison, Richmond in 1865. Colin was imprisoned here prior to his transfer to Salisbury (Library of Congress)

Libby Prison, Richmond in 1865. Colin was imprisoned here prior to his transfer to Salisbury (Library of Congress)

Colin Cairns had been born in Perth, Scotland around 1828. In the 1850s he had been living in Dublin, where he worked as a draper and resided at 71 Summer Hill. It was while in Ireland that he met comb-maker’s daughter Anne Mitchell, who lived at 17 Bedford Street in the city. The two hit it off, and on 7th July 1856 were married in St. George’s Church. The following year they celebrated the birth of their first child Mary Ann, born on 31st October 1857 and baptised in St. Michan’s Church on North Anne Street. On 15th May 1859 their second daughter, Jane Isabella, arrived, to be baptised in St. Paul’s Church on Arran Quay. (3)

Colin and Anne’s youngest daughter was not even six months old when he decided to try his luck in America. It is not clear why he left, but it seems likely that it was for financial reasons. Returning to Scotland, he took passage from Glasgow aboard the United Kingdom and arrived in New York on 21st December 1859. Colin seems to have taken little interest in the Civil War during its early years and was instead focused on trying to earn a living, probably sending a portion of his wages back to Ireland for his wife and children. He is almost certainly the same Colin Cairnes who was working as a Salesman and living at 9 Jay Street in New York in June 1863, when he was recorded as part of the draft registration. In the end, Colin decided not to wait to be drafted, instead choosing to enter the army as a substitute. (4)

Rations being distributed at Andersonville, Georgia, 1864. This scene is perhaps closer to the type of experience Colin had at Salisbury and Libby (Library of Congress)

Rations being distributed at Andersonville, Georgia, 1864. This scene is perhaps closer to the type of experience Colin had at Salisbury and Libby (Library of Congress)

On the 11th August 1863 Colin Cairns enlisted in Company D of the 10th New Hampshire Infantry, presumably gaining a considerable financial windfall in the process. From there he was transferred to Company A of the 2nd New Hampshire Infantry and joined up with his unit in time for the Overland Campaign. It was during the Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road, Virginia, on the 27th and 28th October 1864 that fate took a hand in Colin’s future. His commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Joab N. Patterson, remembered that on the 27th the 2nd New Hampshire and the brigade of which it was part had orders to advance along the Williamsburg Road, deploying to the right of the road in the late afternoon. Colin and his comrades found themselves deep in the woods, where they began to take artillery fire. When night came on the brigade was ordered to retire, and fifty men of the 2nd New Hampshire were selected as part of a picket to hold the line while the rest of the army withdrew. It seems probable that Colin was part of this party; the confusion of darkness combined with the dense undergrowth was a perfect recipe for disorientation – the Scotsman became one of nine men from the regiment reported as captured or missing during the engagement. (5)

Colin Cairns decision to travel to the United States ultimately proved to be a fatal mistake. The consequences it had for Anne and her children go unrecorded. She eventually received a U.S. military pension in Dublin for herself and her young children. Anne may have regretted not travelling to the United States to try to see her husband, but ultimately her destiny did take her far from Ireland. She died on 18th April 1893 on the other side of the world, in Inverell, New South Wales, Australia. The last correspondence in Colin Cairns’s widow’s pension file relates to the girl who was only a baby when her father went to America- Jane Isabella. Now the couple’s only surviving child, in 1893 she attempted to secure payment of the pension that had resulted from the service of a father she had never known. It would appear that her efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful. (6)

General Butler and his staff observing the action on 27th October 1864, the day Private Colin Cairns was captured (Library of Congress)

General Butler and his staff observing the action on 27th October 1864, the day Private Colin Cairns was captured (Library of Congress)

(1) Colin Cairns Widow’s Pension File; (2) Ibid.; (3) Ibid.; (4) New York Passenger Lists, Civil War Draft Registration (5) New Hampshire AG 1895: 521, Official Records: 806, Official Records: 151; (6) Colin Cairns Widow’s Pension File;

References

Colin Cairns Widow’s Pension File WC112001.

New Hampshire Adjutant General 1895. Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1866. 

New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.

Official Records Series 1, Volume 42, Part 1. Return of the Casualties in the Union Forces. Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road, Va., October 27-28, 1864.

Official Records Series 1, Volume 42, Part 1. Report of Lieut. Col. Joab N. Patterson, Second New Hampshire Infantry, commanding Third Brigade, of operations October 26-28.

US Civil War Draft Registration Records, 1863-1865.

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Categories: Dublin, Kerry

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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