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
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,
I am sorry I can not send anything? 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)
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.;
John O’Brien Widow’s Pension File WC129249
New York Adjutant General Report 18th New York Cavalry Roster