‘The Hard Industry of My Own Hands': Three American Civil War Widows in Ireland Struggle to Survive

On the face of things, Irishwomen Honora Cleary, Eleanor Hogg and Maria Sheppel had little in common. For a start, they were from different parts of Ireland; Honora hailed from Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, Eleanor lived in Boyle, Co. Roscommon and Maria had grown up in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway. Neither did the women share the same religion; Honora and Eleanor were Roman Catholic, while Maria was Church of Ireland. What they did share was that all were married with children, all were illiterate, and all were extremely poor. All three were also specifically referred to in correspondence that U.S. Consul William West sent to America in July 1865. The reason for this was that they had all had suffered the same experience; each of their husband’s had died while in Union service on the other side of the Atlantic.

Separation. Many Irish families could not afford to emigrate together. For whatever reason, all three of these women's husbands left their family home for America, never to return (Library of Congress)

Separation. Many Irish families could not afford to emigrate together. For whatever reason, all three of these women’s husbands left their family’s and home for America, never to return (Library of Congress)

 U.S. Consulate Dublin & Galway July 31st 65

The Hon J. H. Barrett

Commr of Pensions

Washington US

Sir

I have the honor to send you herewith the Army Pension Claims of three Widows of our decd soldiers viz Honora Cleary, Eleanor Hogg and Maria Sheppell, none of whom you will perceive can write and being also extremely indigent in fact w.o. be in the Poor House but for the pay due to their husbands which I have obtained & paid to them you can imagine the difficulty in getting the necessary information from such people. I trust therefore you will, if possible, kindly overlook any defects or deficiency in them, which I have done all in my power to avoid, and by advising Mr. Hudson of their rect. You will oblige

yrs Obedly Wm B. West Consul

There is no reason to believe that any of these women ever set foot in the United States. Indeed these Civil War widows were still making their homes in the same localities where they had led most of their lives. Eleanor (née McDonagh) had been the first of the women to marry, when she wed farmer Farrell Hogg of Corskeagh, Co. Sligo at Riverstown Catholic Church on 21st September 1835. Next had been Honora (née Browne) and Francis Michael Cleary, who tied the knot at Cappoquin Catholic Church in Co. Waterford on 21st August 1843. Maria Galvin began her life with whip maker Nicholas Sheppel in the Church of Ireland Church of Ballinasloe, Co. Galway on 5th October 1846.

Not long after their marriages each of the three women had started families. Nicholas and Maria Sheppel had at least six children: Bedelia (1848), Henry (1851), Esther (1854), Catherine (1856), Peter (1858) and Elizabeth (1863). Francis Michael and Honora Cleary had three children who survived infancy: Francis (1844), John (1847) and Thomas (1848). Like the Sheppels, the Hoggs also had six children, although we only have the names of four: Patrick (18??), Catherine (1839), John (1842) and Farrell Jr. (1851).

The Camp of the 6th New York Heavy Artillery at Brandy Station, April 1864. Nicholas Sheppel was in the regiment when this image was exposed (Library of Congress)

The Camp of the 6th New York Heavy Artillery at Brandy Station, April 1864. Nicholas Sheppel was in the regiment when this image was exposed (Library of Congress)

Why did their husband’s leave for America? None of the women claimed that they had been deserted; Eleanor Hogg remarked that she got regular correspondence from her husband, who had journeyed to the United States ‘several years’ before 1862. Although Honora Cleary does not specify the reason behind her husband’s departure, he had emigrated by 1858. The only woman whose husband actually traveled to America during the war was Maria Sheppel; the couple’s last child was born in Galway in 1863. Perhaps her husband Nicholas was seeking to take advantage of the late war enlistment bounties, but it seems likely that all three of the men made their choices for economic reasons, and perhaps were hopeful of sending for their wives later on.

Whatever their initial motivations for emigration, each of the women’s husbands ended up in the Union army. Francis Michael Cleary from Cappoquin had chosen the life of a professional U.S. soldier in 1858- he lost his life on 27th June 1862 while serving in Company G of the 10th United States Infantry at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. He was 44-years-old. Only two days later, on 29th June 1862, Sligo farmer Farrell Hogg fell wounded at the Battle of Savage Station. In October 1861 the 40-year-old had enlisted in what became Company D of the 88th New York Infantry, part of the Irish Brigade. Farrell was taken prisoner, but died on 5th August while on his way from Richmond to Washington D.C. having been exchanged. Nicholas Sheppel was the youngest of the men when the Galway whip maker enlisted in Company F of the 6th New York Heavy Artillery, at the age of 35, on 4th February 1864. He had likely only been in the United States a matter of weeks. His military career lasted barely four months- by the 16th June he was dead, succumbing to chronic dysentry at Stanton General Hospital in Washington D.C.

The skeletal remains of the fallen still litter the battlefield of Gaines' Mill in this image taken later in the war. This was the engagement in which Francis Michael Cleary lost his life (Library of Congress)

The skeletal remains of the fallen still litter the battlefield of Gaines’ Mill in this image taken later in the war. This was the engagement in which Francis Michael Cleary lost his life (Library of Congress)

We are extremely fortunate that a most remarkable letter relating to one of these families survives. It was written to Eleanor Hogg in September 1862 by her nephew in New York. It is reproduced below as it appears in the original, which highlights the haphazard spelling and punctuation of many emigrant letters from the period (see for example ‘two’, used instead of ‘to’). As Eleanor was illiterate, this must have been read out to her at her home in Ireland, perhaps by one of her children. It is hard to imagine what that experience must have been like, as the letter informed her of not one death, but two. As well as providing her with news of her husband’s fate, it also communicated the death of her son Pat:

New york September 12th 1862

Dear Ant i sit down two write these few lines two you Hoping this will Find you and youre Children in good health As this leaves us all at Present thankes be two god for His Kind Blessence two us all

Dear Aunt i have two Inform you aboute the death Of youre Son patt Hogg he is Dead nine month ago he was Abord of one of the northern vesseles going two orleanes And when he Caim achore Heare in newyorke he got His pay and got thirsti I supose and fell down one Of the Hatchweays of the vessel And teaken away two the Hospitle and died soon After wars i heard nothing of His deathe untill last july Untill i went two his bording Hous two enquire of him his Bording mistrees told me that He was dead

Deare ant i have two inform abaute a worst Newes farrell listed in the Irish brigade that is the 88 regiment newyorke Volenteers he got wond on the 29 of june and died of His wound on the 5 of August He was Captured by ther Enemy when he wir wound Sou the got ther liberty and He died on his way Coming Backe two the Capittel of Washington. Deare ant Farrells his Comrearde wrote a letter Two me after he gitting wonded In cease he would die for me two Cleam his money as i was the nearest reletive two him i wint two head quarters and i steated my Cease two A loyer aboute his mone as i was the neares reletive two him It went in the handes of the Courte     Now that the Courte was adgourend unttill i get Answer from this letter

Dear Ant i would have Now delay in getting this money if Patt was living    Sou the are Puting me two greate ——– Aboute it. Deare Ant let me Now two the best of your nolege how longe you are marieed and the priests Neam that maried you and Certifie in your letter whiter i can [end of letter]

By the time Eleanor was seeking the Consul’s assistance in securing a pension, in 1865, she was living in Boyle, Co. Roscommon. Only three of her six children had outlived her husband. Maria Sheppel also appears to have moved, leaving Ballinasloe for Galway city. The U.S. Consul described how Maria was ‘in great poverty with sevl young children I have just received a strong appeal from a Banker at Galway on her behalf.’ Honora Cleary was likewise finding times tough for her family in Cappoquin. She later outlined that ‘all this time I had no resource upon with to support these orphans except the hard industry of my own hands.’

Honora Cleary, Eleanor Hogg and Maria Sheppel all ultimately received a Widow’s Pension from the United States government. Their story is another example of the impact this seemingly far away conflict had on people in Ireland, highlighting the fact that the repercussions of the struggle between North and South were not only felt by those Irish who made their homes in America. Unfortunately the heartbreaking experiences of Irishwomen like Honora, Eleanor and Maria- and thousands like them on both sides of the Atlantic- remain all but forgotten in Ireland today.

'The hard industry of my own hands': Women like Honora Cleary faced a struggle for survival when their husband's died on the other side of the Atlantic (Library of Congress)

‘The hard industry of my own hands': Women like Honora Cleary faced a struggle for survival when their husbands died on the other side of the Atlantic (Library of Congress)

*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

Francis Michael Cleary Widow’s Pension File WC62802

Farrell Hogg Widow’s Pension File WC98727

Nicholas Sheppell Widow’s Pension File WC62799

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Categories: 88th New York, Galway, New York, Pensioners in Ireland, Roscommon, Sligo, Waterford

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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5 Comments on “‘The Hard Industry of My Own Hands': Three American Civil War Widows in Ireland Struggle to Survive”

  1. August 19, 2014 at 11:23 am #

    Gaines’ Mill is just a few miles from where I currently reside. I was just at the adjacent Cold Harbor battleground last week. Stories like this help us appreciate the sacrifice that occurred on these hallowed grounds.

    • August 20, 2014 at 8:44 am #

      Hi Bill,

      I visited the area in June (encountering a few ticks at the Gaines’ Mill battlefield!). It is a region I hope to visit many times again in the very near future. It is hard to believe what is such a beautiful part of the world bore witness to so much death.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. harvestmuse
    August 19, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    Reblogged this on Tales of Love and Light.

  3. September 7, 2014 at 8:54 am #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

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  1. History Carnival #137 | Early Modern Medicine - September 1, 2014

    […] on non-combatants has been discussed at the Irish in the American Civil War blog, with a look at the lives of three Irish war widows, while Kelly and Kamera the remembrance of the Warsaw uprising and its place in Polish heritage has […]

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