On the 20th July 1864, the 33rd New Jersey Infantry of the Army of the Cumberland found themselves at Peachtree Creek, outside Atlanta. They were gathered on a hill some 300 yards in front of the main Union position acting as an outpost for their brigade. Their divisional commander, John White Geary, thought attack unlikely. He was mistaken. Lieutenant-Colonel Enos Fourat of the 33rd gave his version of what happened next:
…the enemy, advancing in mass through the woods, drove back the skirmishers instantly and rushed down upon us with loud yells, pouring in volley after volley. We were without shelter, but my men kept their ground defiantly and returned the fire with vim. Almost immediately another overwhelming force came down upon our right flank. I threw two companies around to protect that flank. They were too weak, and down they came upon us on the double-quick; at the same time still another column came out upon our left flank. Under these circumstances, with such an overwhelming force against us and on three sides of us, with such a withering fire from front, right, and left, and the enemy rapidly gaining our rear, to stand longer was madness, and I reluctantly gave the order to retire fighting. As the men rose and commenced to retire, with a yell of exultation the enemy rushed upon us with his dense masses and pressed so close that he ordered the surrender of our colors. With this order we could not comply. The fire was terrific; the air was literally full of deadly missiles; men dropped upon all sides; none expected to escape. The bearer of our State colors fell; 1 of the color guard was killed and 1 or 2 missing. The enemy were too close upon us to recover the colors; it was simply impossible, and it is with feelings of the deepest sorrow I am compelled to report that our State colors fell into the hands of the enemy, at the same time we feel it to be no fault of ours…(1)
The veritable destruction of the 33rd New Jersey was one of the major Confederate successes of the Battle of Peachtree Creek. The battle was John Bell Hood’s first as commanding General of the Army of Tennessee, but it ultimately failed to halt the relentless Union drive on Atlanta. A number of men in the unfortunate 33rd that day were Irish. Some would be among the captured, who in the months to come would have to take their chances in the lottery of life and death that was the experience of a being a prisoner of war in the 1864 South. That was not to be the fate of Private Hugh Shields. (2)
Hugh had enlisted in the ranks of the 7th New Jersey Infantry on 2nd September 1861, serving with them in the Army of the Potomac through 1862. His connection with that regiment ended on 26th January 1863, when the rosters show he was discharged for disability. He returned home to Hoboken, New Jersey, where he lived on Court Street, between 2nd and 3rd. The draft registration records for June 1863 show that the 30-year-old laborer was in fact suspected as having deserted from the ranks of the 7th New Jersey. Whatever the reality, on 25th August Hugh decided to go back to war, joining the 33rd on the promise of a bounty of $375. So it was that when the Rebels overran the regiment’s position at Peachtree Creek on 20th July 1864, Hugh Shields was among the Yankees on the exposed hill. He breathed his last there, dying instantly with a bullet wound to the head. Today he rests in Marietta National Cemetery, Grave 7155. (3)
Hugh’s 28-year-old wife Margaret, also from Ireland, was widowed by the Battle of Peachtree Creek. Hugh and Margaret (née Gaffney) had been married at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Hoboken on 23rd September 1858. Within two months of Hugh’s death she was seeking the pension she required to help maintain herself- it was granted in April 1865 at a rate of $8 per month, commencing from the date of her husband’s death. (4)
Margaret spent a little over five years as a widow. Eventually she decided to tie the knot with another member of Hoboken’s Irish-American community; on 4th October 1869 Margaret married Peter Smith, an Irish-born plasterer. Peter and Margaret spent over two decades together, but in the 1890s Margaret would find herself once again turning to her first husband’s wartime service in search of financial support. (5)
It seems that by 1893 the couple, then giving their address as 306 Newark Street in Hoboken, had fallen on hard times. Clearly in need of money, on 8th December 1892 Margaret- now in her fifties- submitted a new pension application based on Hugh’s service. Although her entitlements to a pension had ceased following her remarriage, she claimed in 1892 that she had only received a single payment based on her husband’s service, in the month of April 1865. Margaret stated that she had been ignorant about what she could claim in the 1860s, and as a result had received neither Hugh’s bounty money nor any payments between April 1865 and the time of her remarriage in 1869. The subsequent investigation seems to suggest that Margaret had indeed received Hugh’s bounty money as part of an initial lump sum payment in 1865, which included her deceased husband’s back pay. For whatever reason- perhaps it was ignorance of her entitlements as she claimed- it does appear that she neglected to collect her $8 per month for the next four years. (6)
The Bureau of Pensions decided not to approve payment. Their decision was made easier by a letter they received, dated 25th May 1893:
Hoboken May 25th 1893
Commissioner of Pensions
The claimant Margaret Smith, died suddenly- having no issue- but a husband in destitute circumstances and who had to defray all expense of funeral & c. Please inform who and how the claim when awarded claim can be shown, by whom and what proceedings are required by your department.
Att for claimant (7)
The application was rejected on 8th June 1893. Hugh Shields’s death with the 33rd New Jersey at Peachtree Creek on 20th July 1864 led to the creation of a pension file that allows us to view snippets of his widow’s experiences across the next thirty years. Margaret’s was a life which remained closely tied to Hoboken’s Irish-American community, and one which appears for the most part to have been lived in poverty. The National Archive pension files offer Irish scholars their best opportunity to follow Irish emigrants such as Hugh and Margaret across the Atlantic, as we seek to discover what life held in store for them once they left Ireland for America. For Hugh Shields it was ultimately death; for Margaret Gaffney and Peter Smith it was a tough, hard life among Hoboken’s Irish-American community. (8)
(1) Castel 1992: 373, OR: 225; (2) Hugh Shields Widow’s Pension File, 1860 US Federal Census; (3) Draft Registration Records, New Jersey AG Vol. 1: 338, New Jersey AG Vol. 2: 989; (4) Hugh Shields Widow’s Pension File; (5) Hugh Shields Widow’s Pension File, 1880 US Federal Census; (6) Hugh Shields Widow’s Pension File; (7) Ibid.;
*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
Hugh Shields Widow’s Pension File WC44980.
New Jersey Adjutant General 1876. Record of Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Civil War 1861-1865 Volume 1.
New Jersey Adjutant General 1876. Record of Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Civil War 1861-1865 Volume 2.
Official Records of the War of Rebellion Series 1, Volume 38, Part 2. Lieutenant-Colonel Enos Fourat Report of the Action of 20th July 1864.
US Civil War Draft Registration Records, New Jersey Fifth Congressional District, Volume 2.
US Federal Census 1860, Hudson, Hoboken 2nd Ward.
US Federal Census 1880, Hudson, Hoboken 4th Ward, 7th Assembly District, 2nd District.
Castel, Albert 1992. Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864.