‘Your Likeness Was Buried With Him’: A Letter to An Irish Soldier’s Wife After Gettysburg

The second day of the Battle of Gettysburg was a tough one for New York’s Excelsior Brigade. Although not an ethnic Irish formation, many of the brigade’s regiments- such as the 70th New York Infantry- had large contingents of Irishmen in their ranks. The 2nd July at Gettysburg left many of these men dead. In the days after the fighting, officers and acting officers set about the unpleasant task of informing relatives as to their loved ones’ fate. One of them was Thomas J. Chaffer, who sat down on 10th July to write the following letter to Mary McKenna in New York.

The Excelsior Brigade Monument at Gettysburg (Photo: Cory Hartman)

The Excelsior Brigade Monument at Gettysburg (Photo: Cory Hartman)

July 10th 1863

Mrs. Mc Kenna this letter just reached here and it pains me to write you these few lines but brace yourself for the worst your Husband was killed on the battle feild of Gettyisburgh on the second day of July he died a brave man and was nobly fighting for his country and its rights you must bear up with his loss as well as you can for there is many left in the same way may God guard and protect you and your little ones through this world of battles as I am in command of this company I had to open seven letters so as to see where to direct this letter to you you have my best wishes yours truly,

Lieut. T.J. Chaffer

In the same letter Lieutenant Chaffer also added the following note:

Your likeness was buried with him your husband had nothing with him of any value no money or any such thing and soon as we get into camp I will see that his effects are made out and the papers sent on to you your husband was buried on the battle feild no more

Yours Truly

Lieut Thomas J Chaffer

Co. C 1st Regt

Excelsior Brigade

Washington D.C. (1)

Thomas Chaffer (borne as Chaffee on the roster) had been a First Sergeant in Company C leading up to Gettysburg, where the 70th New York suffered 117 casualties. In 1864 he was officially promoted First Lieutenant and re-enlisted as a veteran volunteer, but appears to have been wounded in the Overland Campaign, which ended his service. The subject of the letter, John McKenna (or McCanna), had originally served in the 2nd New York Infantry. His death in his early thirties at Gettysburg left four children without a father. John’s remains were later re-interred at Gettysburg National Cemetery where they still rest in Section F, Site 54. It is not known if the photo of his wife, originally buried on the field with him, also made the transition. (2)

(1) John McCanna Widow’s Pension File; (2) Ibid; New York Adjutant General Roster of the 70th New York Infantry;

*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.

References & Further Reading

John McCanna Widow’s Pension File WC88061

New York Adjutant General. Roster of the 70th New York Infantry

Gettysburg National Military Park

Civil War Trust Battle of Gettysburg Page

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Categories: Battle of Gettysburg, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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