On 3rd September 1863 Private John Shea of the 1st Kansas Infantry, Company B, died of Chronic Diarrhoea at Natchez General Hospital in Mississippi, having fallen sick just over a week before. The pension file his mother subsequently claimed based on his death centres around a series of letters written home to Ireland by John during the war, which proved her financial dependence on him. These letters provide fascinating insight into Irish emigrant life, particularly the sense of duty that many of the Irish in America felt toward those they had left behind. The file also has a very rare inclusion– a letter written to America from Ireland– which describes a premonition of John’s death. (1)
When John’s 60-year-old mother Mary applied for her pension in Worcester, Massachusetts on 22nd January 1864, she recalled that she had been married to Dennis Shea in Caherciveen, Co. Kerry around the year 1833. The couple had seven children, but by 1864 only one was left alive. That child’s name was also Mary, who had been born on Christmas Day, 1846. John’s mother had no certificate to prove her marriage, but as was typical for Irish applicants, she was able to draw on a close network of Kerry relatives and friends in America to assist her. Both Dennis Shea and Dennis Murphy accompanied her that January, to swear that they had attended her wedding ceremony back in Ireland. (2)
Though there is no detailed affidavit from Mary Shea in the file, the letters of her son sufficed to prove her entitlement to a pension. John had enlisted in Leavenworth City, Kansas, on 3rd June 1861. His mother was still in Caherciveen at the time, and the letters he wrote to her travelled across the Atlantic. There are three contained in the application; the first written from Tipton, Kansas on 6th October 1861, the second from Memphis, Tennessee on 11th January 1863 and the third from Louisiana on 20th April 1863. Rather than look at the letters in chronological order, I decided to instead explore a number of themes within them. (3)
Communications & Remittance
It is apparent from the letters that the extended Shea family were spread out across both the United States and Ireland. Based on Mary’s 1864 application, it seems probable that a group of the Caherciveen emigrants were based in Massachusetts, while John, and perhaps others, were as far west as Kansas. At least some of John’s letters home to Ireland relied on this network, as he sent and received letters from his mother through a U.S. based relative who was in a more permanent address. This is evidenced a number of times. In his October 1861 letter John asked his mother to:
…excuse me for not writing to you before now the reason why I did not write is that I was not in anny perminant place that I might expect an answer from you…
The fact that he was not communicating directly with her is again highlighted in his January 1863 letter, when he indicated he had sent money through a relative, who was in turn to send it to her:
…I did not get any money in a long time. The last money I got I sint it to Ann Donely’s husband for him to sind to you…
Ann Donnelly appears to have been a cousin, and was evidently a vital link in John’s chain of remitting money to Ireland. John was later able to confirm to his mother that:
…Ann Donely’s husband wrote to me and he told me that you received the money he sint to you…
Just as John was often on the move, his mother also seems to have moved around in Kerry– again clearly suggesting his letters home were being passed through intermediaries who had more up-to-date information as to addresses. In October 1861 he asked his mother to:
…Let me know who you are stopping with now and how you are doing…
Similarly, his mother served as a hub of information about the whereabouts of other family members, some of them likely in the United States. In his April 1863 letter John reminded his mother:
…dont forget to send me my brother Patrick’s adress…
Among his siblings, John had apparently taken on most of the major burden of financially providing for his mother (and sister). Much of what he wrote illustrates just how responsible he felt for her, despite a distance over 4,000 miles. It is also apparent that he felt others in the family could contribute more to her support, particularly “Tom”, who seems to have been another brother. From his October 1861 letter:
…let me know whether Tom wrote any letter to you of late (I could do better for you if Tom helped me). Let me know if Patrick find’s you anny money or not…
The erratic nature of payment in the army during the Civil War played havoc with many men’s efforts to send money home, and it was not always possible for them to do so. In April 1863, while in Louisiana, John had to apologise for the lack of funds he was remitting:
…I hope you will excuse me I am doing my best and if I could do more I would do it…
John’s disappointment with Tom had not dissipated by January 1863, when John wrote from Memphis:
Dear Mother I received two letter of yours some time ago. One of them was the letter you told me sind to Tom. I sint him the letter but he did not answer it. There is no uce in you to sind his letter to me because he wonte answer them. I did not hear from him since last Summer so I dont know where he is…
While clearly nonplussed with Tom’s lack of commitment to his family, John was keen to help another of his siblings– his sister Mary– who was still with her mother in Kerry. In his 1861 letter he declared his intention to help her emigrate, a pattern of chain-migration that was typical of Irish emigrants:
…keep my sister to school and if I can I will soon sind for her…Let me know whether you let my sister come or not, as I donte want to be sinding for her if you donte let her come… (4)
Faith & Family
Perhaps the most common theme in emigrants letters relates to family; be it relating news about fellow family emigrants or seeking details about those at home. In 1861 John asked his mother to:
…let me know how are all the friends and acquaintances. Dinnis Shea got married and his wife died last September, Ann Shea got married I mean Michael Shea’s daughter. Catherine Shea is in good health and is living with her daughter Ann Donnely.
Despite the fact that so few Irish emigrants ever returned home, many retained a deep interest in the goings on in their homeland, particularly at a local level. In his 1861 letter, John sought to find out how things were around Caherciveen:
…Let me know how times are in the old Country at present…
Many letters of Roman Catholic Irish emigrants make reference to their religious faith, and in the case of Irish soldiers the devotional objects they wore. These were sometimes handed out to the men by chaplains, but were more commonly sent from home. They usually took the form of either Scapulars or Agnus Dei, and many thousands of Irish soldiers in the American Civil War wore then around their neck. In January 1863 John told his mother that:
…The Agnes dia you sint me I got and I think a good deal of it… (5)
John’s letters provide a clear indication of the toll the war took on the enthusiasm of volunteers as the conflict dragged on. His October 1861 letter from Tipton spoke of how happy he was with his situation, comparing the American service favourably with that of the British military. In what was an almost universal staple of letters home written before the summer of 1862, he predicted the war would soon be over:
…I listed last may and I like it well. Sogers in this Country has good terms. I only joined for 3 years or during the war. I expect the war wonte last more than a year at most.
By 11th January 1863 in Memphis his view had changed. The hard campaigning of 1862 had made it apparent that there were many tough days still to come:
The war still holdes out as hard as it ever did and god only knows when it will end. There is hardly a day but there is a big battle fought and thousands killed and wonded. We whiped the enemy in two big battles lately and if we only could whip them in a couple of other fights I think that we would have peace… (6)
A Letter from Ireland
John’s letter of 20th April 1863 from Louisiana was the last prior to his death the following September. The final letter in the file was written that November, from Caherciveen, Co. Kerry. The author was a cousin of the Shea family, Daniel Clifford. It is unusual to find contemporary correspondence written from Ireland to America in the files (the more usual occurrence would be letters from Civil War soldiers to relatives in Ireland). It is difficult to piece together the sequence of events described in the letter; neither is it apparent if the letter was written to John’s mother or sister, but the latter is perhaps more likely. What the letter does ably demonstrate is how convoluted the process of written communication could be. As we saw earlier, the Sheas relied on a network of linked individuals in order to correspond with each other, and here it seems to have broken down. From the tenet of the letter, it seems that Mary was waiting to sail to the United States, perhaps to join John, but did not receive word of his death before her departure, though she apparently should have.
Aside from highlighting the often intricate network of individuals on which family communications relied, the letter also provides further evidence of how the American Civil War impacted Ireland. It was through the letter home of Kean [Cian] Mahony, a native of nearby Valentia Island, that news of John’s death reached Kerry. When one considers that both men were serving in a non-ethnic Irish unit, organised far beyond the densely Irish-populated hubs of the east, it gives a measure of how familiar both emigration and the war were to people in this part of the country, and how keenly the loss of those who died was felt there. The letter also has a fascinating reference to a premonition of misfortune that Daniel Clifford experienced, in a dream where the ghost of Mary’s father appeared “in great grief.” (7)
Caherciveen Nov 8th 1863
The pleasure which we experienced on receiving your welcome letter of the 1st last is beyond my power to describe.
I hope you will hold me excused when I state the circumstances under which I have incurred so much of your blame. The letter which you sent John Bourke for Cathy Coffey was missed by him in consequence of him not knowing who Cathy Coffey was but on further enquiry after the lapse of a fortnight’s he on discovering who Miss Coffey was gave her the letter which you ordered to be transmitted to her. We had afterwards some delay in getting it from her after she examining its details, so that the result proved that you were after sailing before we got any account of your letter. The only means we had to appeal to in order to respond to your calling was to enclose a note to you in a letter which was sent to Dan Shea by his brother Larry, we having placed implicite confidence in him to execute the desired duty was utterly disappointed at finding that he did not enclose the note in his brother’s letter.
I intended to let you know several things in this letter but the grief with which I am overburdened on hearing of John Shea’s death causes me to remain silent for the present a comrade of John Shea’s a young man named Kean Mahony of Valentia mentions in a letter that he died about a month ago. He also states that he sent 30 dollars to his mother, and he says that there are about 30 dollars more of his money on another man’s hand, which he says will soon be sent to here. This Kean Mahony’s address is
Kean Mahony, First Regiment
Kansas Vol Co. B
via Mimphis Tennisee
Write immediately to Kean Mahony and if you get no satisfactory account from him write soon to me and let me know all about it. There were £8 came to a woman named Mary Shea in the top of the street of Caherciveen but there was no writing[?] came with it but we claimed it as being sent to Mary Shea my sister in law.
We have not words sufficient to express our grief on this melancholy occasion.
About a month ago I was forewarned by a dream I had about your father that there was something the matter. He appeared to me as it were in great grief. The only inference I drew therefrom was that your mother was dead or that there was something the matter.
Our friend Dan Sullivan John Sullivan’s son of Garranebawn died about 2 months ago you would not easily conceive the sadness which was caused by his death
We all join in sending you all our best love and blessing which we have at all times manifested and with which we shall ever remain dear Mary
You affectionate friend and cousin
Daniel Clifford. (8)
The letters of John Shea and Daniel Clifford are a fine example of what such correspondence can tell us abut the networks of communication that Irish emigrants maintained with different members of their extended families, both in Ireland and America. They also offer a range of brief insights into other aspects of the Irish emigrant experience, from chain migration, to religion, to superstition. As it would appear from subsequent events, John’s death had a major impact on his mother and sister, both of whom ultimately left Kerry for the United States. I hope in the future to bring many of these pension files letters together for a major analytical study of their content, to discover what more they can teach us about the Irish emigrant experience in the 19th century.
* 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) John Shea Pension File; (2) Ibid. (3) Ibid. (4) Ibid. (5) Ibid. (6) Ibid. (7) Ibid. (8) Ibid.
Dependent Mother’s Pension File for John Shea, WC 15721.