‘God Help Her': The Emotional Impact of Cold Harbor, 3rd June 1864, On Two Irish Women

150 years ago today one of the bloodiest and costliest assaults of the American Civil War was underway at Cold Harbor. The Union attackers were slaughtered in droves. Few suffered as much as the men of Corcoran’s Irish Legion. Among their brigade were the Zouaves of the 164th New York Infantry, who sustained a staggering 154 casualties on 3rd June. Most of the deaths that day impacted on someone at home. Below are accounts from two Company B survivors of the 164th’s attack, provided to the wives of some of their less fortunate comrades. They bring forcefully home the emotional and social impact of that 3rd June in Virginia, 150 years ago. (1)

The Charge of the 164th New York at Cold Harbor on 3rd June 1864 by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress)

The Charge of the 164th New York at Cold Harbor on 3rd June 1864 by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress)

Robert and Agnes Boyle were married in 1845 by the Reverend Mr. White in the Presbyterian Church at Portadown, Co. Armagh. They emigrated to Lockport, New York, where  on 28th September 1862 Robert, at the age of 38, was enrolled as a First Lieutenant. It was a rank he still held on 3rd June 1864 at Cold Harbor. Agnes received the following letter relating to her husband’s fate on 18th March 1865:

Officer’s Hospital

Annapolis, Md. Mch 18 ’65

Mrs. Lieut Boyle.

Dear Madam,

I have received your letter of the 14th inquiring after your husbands will. In reply I will make the following statement.

Your husband was wounded and taken prisoner with me at Cold Harbor on the morning of the 3rd of June 1864 we were afterwards taken to Libby Prison Hospital in Richmond Va. where he died on the 1st of July 1864. I seen him every day untill he died. When the doctor told me that there was no hope of his recovery I asked him how he intended to dispose of his property. He told me that he had a house and lot in Lockport and that it was yours also what money was due to him. He gave me his watch and told me to give it to you and to tell you that Capt. Burke owed him $5.00 Lieut. Lynch $5.00 and Lieut. Callanan $10.00 all of them belongs to the 164. Regt. N.Y.S.V. he told me how much he owed the sutler of the Regt. I told him not to mind that as the sutler would collect his bill from the War Department.

He said several times God help her (meaning you) I am sorry I have not more to leave her. I sent you his watch by Doctor Regan. If Capt. Murroney’s brother got the Captains watch you will find the key of your husbands watch on the Captains chain. It is a large gold key. He told me he lent it to the Captain before we left Sangsters Station and the Captain didn’t give it back to him. The Lieut. that Capt. Murroney gave his watch to would not give the key to your husband that is the reason you didn’t receive it with the watch.

Lieut. Boyle was severely wounded in the right hip. After he was some days in Hospital he took fever of which he died on the evening of the 1st July 1864. I was by his bedside when he died. He retained his senses to the last and died so quietly that you would think he was going to sleep. A head board marks his grave so that when we take Richmond you can have his remains taken home if you wish to do so.

By writing to these officers whose names I have given I know they will send you what money they owe to your husband and by making application to the War Department you can obtain his back pay also a pension.

Hoping that this statement will be satisfactory and if you wish for further information direct to the Regt. as I intend leaving here in a few days to join my Regt.

I am yours,

most Respectfully,

David J. Beattie

Direct

Capt. David J. Beattie

Co. I 164. N.Y.S.V.

2nd Brig. 2nd Division, 2nd Corps.

Petersburgh, Va. (2)

David Beattie had enlisted as a 27-year-old in August 1862. He had been wounded and captured in action at Cold Harbor on 3rd June 1864 and mustered out with his Company on 15th July 1865. Captain Murroney was William Moroney, who had enlisted aged 27 in September 1862. He was wounded and captured at Cold Harbor on 3rd June 1864, presumably while in possession of Lieutenant Boyle’s watch key. Moroney died of his wounds in Richmond on 20th June 1864. Of the men who owed money to Boyle, Timothy Burke and Stephen Callanan were mustered out with their Companys on 15th July 1865 and John Lynch was dismissed on 12th August 1864. Agnes received a pension for her husband’s sacrifice- she died in 1903. (3)

Patrick Byrne and Catherine Eagan also made their home in Lockport. They met and were married in the town’s Catholic Church by the Reverend McMullen on 6th September 1848. Their first daughter Mary was born on 15th June 1850, followed by Ann on the 27th March 1853, Catherine on the 21st February 1855 and finally John on 4th December 1857. Patrick enlisted on the 29th August 1862 at Lockport. It had initially been thought he had been captured in action on 3rd June, but this statement given by his comrade Daniel Connolly on 16th February 1865 revealed his true fate:

Daniel Connolly of Rochester City Hospital being duly sworn says that he is now an invalid in the said hospital in the City of Rochester N.Y. that this deponent was a Private of Company B of the 164 Regt. of N.Y. Vols at the Battle of Cold Harbor in the State of Virginia on the third day of June in the year 1864, that this deponent was wounded by a shell and lost a leg at said Battle and was compelled to lay upon said battlefield for about eight hours. That this deponent was well acquainted with Patrick Burns or Byrnes who was a Private of Company B of the 155 now 164 Regt N.Y. Vols, and that said Patrick Burns was engaged at said Battle of Cold Harbor and said Burns was wounded at said Battle on said third day of June 1864 and lay but a short distance from this deponent. That this deponent conversed with said Burns on said Battlefield while he was wounded at said Battle. That the said Patrick Burns died on the said third day of June 1864 on said Battlefield. That this deponent saw said Burns after he was dead. That the said Burns died in consequence of a wound received by the enemy at said Battle, and that said Burns was in the line of his duty as a soldier when he was wounded by the enemy as aforesaid. That said Burns was wounded by a rifle ball in the breast. That this deponent has no interest in the application of Mrs. Catherine Burns for a pension on account of the death of her said husband. (4)

Daniel Connolly had enlisted as a 21-year-old on 1st September 1862. A Corporal when he was wounded and captured at Cold Harbor on 3rd June 1864, he was still absent in hospital at the muster out of his company in July 1865. Catherine received her pension for Patrick’s service- she died on 10th September 1904. These are just two of the stories -from a single company- relating to events at Cold Harbor on 3rd June 1864. One North Carolinian who had repulsed the attack of the 164th New York that day remembered that so many had fallen in front of their works ‘that one could have walked on their bodies its whole extent.’ The personal stories behind the majority of these Irishmen will never be known. (5)

*None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

(1) Rhea 2002: 336; (2) Robert Boyle Widow’s Pension File, New York Adjutant General Report; (3) Ibid.; (4) Patrick Byrne’s Widow’s Pension File, New York Adjutant General Report; (5) Ibid.; Rhea 2002: 336;

References & Further Reading

Robert Boyle Widow’s Pension File WC49639

Patrick Byrne Widow’s Pension File WC66941

New York Adjutant General 1893. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General for the State of New York.

Rhea, Gordon 2002. Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee May 26- June 3, 1864.

Richmond National Battlefield Park

Civil War Trust Battle of Cold Harbor Page

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Categories: 164th New York, Armagh, Battle of Cold Harbor, Corcoran's Irish Legion

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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3 Comments on “‘God Help Her': The Emotional Impact of Cold Harbor, 3rd June 1864, On Two Irish Women”

  1. June 4, 2014 at 12:12 am #

    As always, an interesting and detailed post……. such sadness all round. Thank you Damian.

  2. June 11, 2014 at 4:06 am #

    Great job, Damian. Thanks many times over for your fine efforts. Robert Boyle’s image is on file in the New York State Military Museum. Damian, I will post a duplicate of his image on my Facebook page if you would like to see it.

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