In 1832 James Fleming was born to Malcolm and Ann Jane Fleming in Islandbawn, Co. Antrim. The family would later move to nearby Larne when Malcolm established a nursery there, and it was here that James grew up. In 1857 the young man decided to leave Antrim to try his luck in North America. Arriving first in Canada, he eventually made his home in New York. James would go on to serve as an infantry and cavalry officer in the American Civil War- a conflict which ultimately cost him his life. I was recently contacted by one of his descendants, Louise Brown, who has painstakingly transcribed a series of 18 letters written by and regarding James. They offer a remarkable insight into James’s experiences both before and during the war. With Louise’s permission, over the course of the coming a weeks these letters will be shared with you in their entirety.
With the coming of the American Civil War in 1861 26-year-old James Fleming was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the 9th New York Volunteers- Hawkins’ Zouaves. After his two-year term of service expired he was mustered out in May 1863, but he did not spend long out of uniform. On 27th July 1863 James became a First Lieutenant and Quartermaster in the 16th New York Cavalry, subsequently being promoted Captain of Company M. He was killed in action at Fairfax Station, Virginia on 8th August 1864, during an engagement with Mosby’s Rangers. (1)
James Fleming’s demise did not go unnoticed on either side of the Atlantic. New York newspapers, including the New York Irish-American, carried word of his death, as did the Belfast Newsletter. Neither did his family forget him. The family headstone at the now unused Unitarian Meeting House in Antrim Town bears the following inscription:
Erected by Malcolm Fleming of Larne
For Sara Jane who died in America 1835 aged 33 years.
Also his son James Captain in 16th New York Cavalry who was
Killed at Fairfax by a gang of guerillas 8th Aug 1864
Also Malcolm Fleming 13th Feb 1869 aged 86 years
Also wife Ann Jane died 26th Nov 1869 aged 82 years (2)
Later posts will explore James’s war service through the letters he wrote in 1861, 1862 and 1863. This post contains the first letter in the series, written shortly after James arrived in North America. Dated 29th September 1857, he is writing to let his parents know how his voyage went, what life is like in Canada, and to inquire how everyone is at home:
Toronto September 29th/57
I received your long welcome letter on Saturday last it gives me great pleasure to hear of your all being well as this leaves me quite well at present. You say I gave you no news in my last so I must give you them all this time. When I left Belfast Lough on my outward voyage I felt rather lonely but in a few days I became to like it much better. I assisted the Dr in feeling the old womens pulses and cheering the young ones. My possessions lasted for about 5 weeks there was an old man & his son were in the same place with myself & the young chap cooked for me. I gave away a great deal of my bread to them that I thought required it but Lucky Jim never went hungry to bed for that as I got plenty. The long voyage I need scarce tell you any news concerning it as I could fill a newspaper of my adventures on the voyage but I never had one hours sickness & so I looked after them that was sick. When I got into Quebec I sold Bed & bedding for 6/-. I kept my old Rag a trusty friend I think there were about 6 or 7 nights that it was my Bed & Blanket but that was my own fault. I was counting from Quebec to Toronto – up the canal is most beautiful but indeed I was in no way to enjoy it. I had a very good bed and was very comfortable all the voyage. Sometimes I would have got a tumble out of my birth [sic.] but I had not far to fall as I slept on the bottom birth [sic.]. I am thinking long for such another sail I liked it so well. If I sucede [sic.] here I intend paying Mary Ann a visit in the spring & then my next tour will be to Ould Ireland again the spring following as I am determined on this you will have the satisfaction of seeing me in Larne again. I got a situation in a shop a few days after I arrived but did not get much salary it payed my washing and got me a pair of boots – but I have got a better one in the pantichnetcha [?] same as John Smyth [?]. I have £60 & board but expects to get more after a short time its a sorry place this for young men much worse than Belfast. Canada has not been so dull since it quit sucking or the Christening (I am not sure which) plenty going about doing nothing nor cannot get anything to do of any sort but thank goodness I have had my fill of work since I came here. I am in this place a month its a very comfortable place breakfast at ½ past 7 shop at 8 o’clock get tea fresh meat or eggs, dinner at 1 o’clock tea at 7 shop closes. The grub first rate always 3 or 4 dishes at dinner quite different from home always pies or pudding of some sort or other after dinner. I have a very comfortable bed turns in at 10 o’clock out at 7 aint that good hours never had my health as good. I suppose Alex is quit courting in the Evgs or has he fetched Nancy to the Point yet as Henry says he aught give a chap an invitation if not to the wedding he might to the party in the Evg. If I was there I would give him a hand to beat by Dan yet. I had a paper from Mary Ann that is all as yet she must not have got my letter that I wrote or I would have surely got an answer before this. I am very glad to hear of Thos Luceys as to the increase in his family also his crops doing so well & hopes that Nancy is quite well again. Dear mother you must take better care of yourself for you know that you are not so able to stand the fatigue now as what you were a few years ago. I am glad that my father stands it so well as I suppose he will have the nursery a beautiful place when I come over to see it. You tell me you had a great deal of lightening this summer its myself that sees the lightening one incessant flash for hours its awful in a dark night but we have not much thunder but where it does come it shakes the earth. Fires are very plenty here stunners will burn a whole street before they get it stopped we had a first rate one the other night I had a view of it out of my bedroom window in 3 hours burnt down a whole square of houses. You want to know what sort of churches we have the same as home all sorts there are 2 Unitarians in the city I stroll into some of them sometimes. I am very sorry to hear about Jas Cummings but hopes he will get better. I have not no one that I know from the old Country yet I have not went to see Mr Magee as yet but I heard about him he lives some distance out of the city. I called upon Mrs Renford [?] I dined there a few times she tried to get me into a situation but one must try for themselves when they come to this country. I think I have nothing particular to say we have fine weather at present something like our March weather dry & cold rather warm during midday but cold in the mornings & Evgs, we will have such weather as this to December then frost & snow very severe I believe.
Dear mother I hope you will make Henry take care of himself during this winter if he catches a severe cold it will not be well for him but I hope Andy will look to that as he does in times and not let it settle upon him as it done before. I have had a paper from Malcolm I wrote him but hav not got the answer as yet but hopes to get it soon. Dear mother you can give my kind regards to all inquiring friends as if separately mentioned particularly Mrs Rodgers & Mrs Rankin & sister if you see any one ——– long to hear from tell them I will write them in a few days as yours is the first & then comes the rest as I have time. I must finish my bedfellow is just rolled into bed I am writing this in my bedroom after 10 o’clock. I have nothing now particular to say. Kind love to my father & yourself & hopes you will take care & not slave yourself so much. Kind love to Dunadry folks tell Sally if you see her she might write me a few lines as I have nothing particular or I would write her. I will be writing Andy in a few days I got his & Henry’s letter at the same time as yours & Alex few lines tell Alex to write me a long letter when he gets his harvest saved and let me have all the news. Farewell for the present from your
*The next set of letters will catch up with James after his move to New York and enlistment in the 9th New York Infantry in 1861. Note that some punctuation has been added to the letter above for ease of reading. Sincere thanks are due to Louise Brown for sharing these letters with readers of Irish in the American Civil War.
(1) New York Adjutant General; (2) Louise Brown Transcription; (3) Louise Brown Transcription;
New York State Adjutant General. Rosters of the 9th New York Infantry and 16th New York Cavalry.