‘I Hope Soon To Be With You': The Civil War in Texas and Cork, 1866

We tend to view the surrenders of Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston in April 1865 as marking the end of the American Civil War, but for many thousands of volunteer Federal soldiers their time in uniform still had many months to run. Even after the official end of the conflict, death could still find these men at the end of a bullet. Equally, the war retained its potential to alter the course of people’s lives after 1865; thousands of miles away, it even forced some elderly Irish men and women to seek out the emigrant’s boat.

Kennedy and Mary O’Brien had been married in Cork. Two of their children, one son and one daughter, survived to adulthood. Kennedy died in London sometime in the mid-1840s; the family, already poor, now found themselves on the breadline. In the 1850s as their son John grew older he decided to seek out the stability of a military career and joined the British Army. He spent a number of years as a redcoat before the war raging between North and South, which presented a tempting economic opportunity, drew him to America. Stationed in Canada, he and a number of other men decided to desert, joining the Union Army.*(1)

John O’Brien was recorded as enlisting as a Private in the 18th New York Cavalry at Watertown on 1st February 1864. Although listed as 21-years-old, it seems probable he may have been slightly older. Initially assigned to the defences of Washington D.C., John would travel with the regiment to the Department of the Gulf and service in Louisiana as the war drew to a close. It was from here that he wrote home to Ireland in May 1865:

Greenville La. May 18th 1865

Dear Mother,

I write you these few lines hoping you are in good health as this leaves me at present. The war is nearly at a close and we are mounted and waiting orders. We expect it will be for New York as the army is being reduced. I hope our regiment will be one of the lucky ones. I sent you Five Pound English money by Adams Express from New Orleans which I hope you will receive. You will write me and let me know as soon as you receive it and let me know how you are getting along and how Sister is and I could not get the ear-rings but I will recollect her and perhaps bring them to her myself. I will send my own ring in this letter for Sister and she will keep it and remember me. No more at present. I hope soon to be with you by the help of God and be able to do something for you. God help and preserve you is the sincere prayer of your,

Affectionate Son,

John O’Brien

I am sorry I can not send a ring for Mother and Mrs O’Keef but I will try to send in my next letter I have heard nothing of Brother Patrick I got a letter from Cousin Mat he is well and working at harness making in West Troy. As soon as you receive this write as soon as you as can as I will be anxious to know you get it safe. (2)

Union scouts operating in Louisiana in 1864 (Library of Congress)

Union scouts operating in Louisiana in 1864 (Library of Congress)

Two days after John wrote to his mother he was promoted to Sergeant, but his hopes of returning to New York went unfulfilled. The regiment was instead sent to Western Mississippi before being assigned to Texas that November. Texas was a lawless place in the immediate post-war period, with feuds and bands of ‘Jayhawkers’ presenting a constant threat. On 23rd April 1866 Sergeant O’Brien was one of a number of men of the regiment travelling between San Antonio and Yorktown when they were set upon at a place called Kelly’s Station. During the fight that followed, the Corkman was shot and killed- his file records that he was ‘murdered by Jayhawkers.’ Likely candidates for his killers would appear to be the Taylor Gang, pro-Confederates who were operating in the area at this time and who were suspected of shooting a number of soldiers and freedmen that year. (3)

Less than a month after John was killed the 18th New York Cavalry were mustered out of service. Back in Ireland, his mother Mary must have been shocked to learn of his death in combat, so long after the end of the war. She now faced the added prospect of complete destitution, having relied on money from her son for the essentials of life. She successfully received John’s arrears of pay in 1867 following representations to the American consul in Ireland, but in order to secure a permanent pension she decided to make her away across the Atlantic. Her daughter was already in New York, eking out a living with her laborer husband. So it was that at the age of 65 Mary took ship, and in 1868 applied for a dependent mother’s pension. It was granted- she would receive it each month for almost twenty years before her death in 1887. (4)

The experience of the O’Brien’s illustrates the inherent dangers of military service in the 19th century, even after the majority of guns fell silent. John’s mother Mary was far from the only elderly Irish parent who travelled to America in search of financial security following 1865- their’s was a type of emigration forced upon them in the winter of life- a result of the terrible death toll that the American Civil War had exacted.

*Special thanks to Will Hickox for providing information that confirmed John deserted from Canada- Will has also provided some more information on the circumstances behind John’s death, which can be found in the comments section below.

**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) Widow’s Pension File; (2) A-G Report, Widow’s Pension File; (3) Freedman’s Bureau, Widow’s Pension File; (4) Ibid.;

References

John O’Brien Widow’s Pension File WC129249

New York Adjutant General Report 18th New York Cavalry Roster

Freedman’s Bureau Report of Freedmen and Union Men Killed & Outrages Committed in DeWitt Co., Texas Since the Close of Rebellion

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Categories: Cork, Pensioners in Ireland

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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11 Comments on “‘I Hope Soon To Be With You': The Civil War in Texas and Cork, 1866”

  1. Will Hickox
    June 12, 2014 at 9:45 pm #

    I’m from the Watertown area and have done some research on the recruits of the 18th New York Cavalry. O’Brien and his tragic death at the hands of outlaws are mentioned in a memoir by a British soldier who deserted in Canada and joined the 18th. It was reprinted in a privately published book, “Where Brave Men Sleep,” by a late amateur historian in Upstate New York, Charles Shaw.
    Will Hickox

    • June 12, 2014 at 9:52 pm #

      Hi Will, thanks for this- I would love to read that account- is it available online do you know? I wonder if he mentions if O’Brien had also deserted the British Army in Canada- if he did he would be the second Irishman I would have come across recently who did that and left a family to claim a pension in Ireland.

  2. Will Hickox
    June 13, 2014 at 1:41 am #

    As far as I know, the account is only available in “Where Brave Men Sleep” by Charles C. Shaw. Shaw doesn’t indicate where he found the memoir. John Dutton, the author of the account, says he deserted the British Army and crossed into New York State in January 1864 with 12 other men, including John O’Brien. This is what he says about O’Brien’s death:

    p. 104: “While at Clinton five of our company went to guide the paymaster on his way to San Antonio. three of them happened to be in advance of the rest, and when the stage came to Clinton that day, the driver reported finding two men dead by the road. Examination proved that they were the two who went with the paymaster, while in my grief, one of them was O’Brien, one of my comrades, who came from Kingston that winter night so long ago. Men were at once sent for them, and they were brought into camp for burial. It was afterwards discovered they had been killed by the noted guerilla, Buck Taylor. Hearing one night of his being at a dance and desiring revenge, the soldiers surrounded the house in which the dance was held; but he blew out the lights and escaped and even the horses he had taken were never recovered.”

    Dutton’s account should be used cautiously; he claims elsewhere that six of his deserter comrades were killed at the Battle of Gettysburg–six months before they all enlisted.

    • June 13, 2014 at 9:38 am #

      Hi Will,

      This is fantastic many thanks for sharing it- I have updated the piece with the information regarding his desertion from Canada and an acknowledgement to you. I had a look to see if I could pick up Shaw’s book but it dosent seem to be available anymore, so I really appreciate you quoting it here. It is really interesting how often men claim to have fought at Gettysburg (both Northern and Southern), I have come across a couple of Irishmen who said they were there when their units clearly were not- it must have something to do with it becoming the centre of Civil War memory after the conflict. Certainly something I would like to explore further, I must check if anything has been written about it. Thanks again- we are very fortunate that you are from Watertown and had an interest and knowledge of the regiment!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. Will Hickox
    June 13, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

    In my research I’ve also found one Thomas H. Savage, a native of Ireland who enlisted in the 35th New York Infantry in May 1861. He gave his age as 18 but was actually 14. Savage served his 2-year term and reenlisted in Co. M, 18th NY Cavalry and served the regiment’s full term, mustering out in May 1866. Remarkably, he served 5 years, starting as a boy and leaving as a fully grown adult.

    • June 14, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

      Hi Will,

      That is fascinating- I would love to find out more about him do you know where in Ireland he was from? If I can ever tempt you to write a guest post on some of the Irishmen in the 18th NY that you have researched let me know, it seems you have done some great work on them!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

      • Will Hickox
        June 14, 2014 at 8:50 pm #

        I’m compiling 2 databases–one on underage and the other on overage recruits from Jefferson County, New York–as part of my research on military recruitment during the war. My main sources are ancestry.com and a couple of Jefferson County genealogy websites. Can’t say which part of Ireland Savage hailed from; my subscription to Ancestry expired and at the moment I can’t point to my exact sources for Savage, but they were probably the 1860 census and the New York Adjutant General reports. He died in 1872 in Brownville, NY, age 26.

        The databases are about 2/3 complete; I can provide you a list of Irishmen, but it isn’t extensive, as far upstate New York apparently wasn’t a popular destination for them.

      • June 22, 2014 at 9:48 am #

        Hey Will,

        It would be interesting to see the Irishmen you have when you get it finished- how many have you come across in the regiment so far?

        Damian.

      • Will Hickox
        June 15, 2014 at 7:30 am #

        There’s a family tree on Ancestry that includes Thomas Savage. He’s just listed as born in ireland, but his father Thomas came from Longford. It appears Thomas Jr. had 2 brothers also in the service, one of whom died of disease at New Orleans with the 18th cavalry.

      • June 22, 2014 at 9:46 am #

        Hi Will,

        It is incredible the amount of Longford people you come across in the Civil War- I have found quite a few of late in pension files. They really do sound like a fascinating family, thanks again for sharing the details with us.

        Kind Regards,

        Damian.

  4. Dennis
    July 4, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    Yankee army with spoils of war is what it sounds like.

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