My work on the widows and dependent pension files of American Civil War soldiers has revealed many hundreds of letters relating to Irish emigrants in the Union military. During the course of my research I have also come across files relating to other immigrant groups. Among them are many Scottish soldiers, whose dependents– like those of their Irish counterparts– often included letters written by their loved ones from the front in their pension applications. In future I hope to occasionally explore the stories of some of these non-Irish immigrants on the site. The first is the revealing and heartfelt correspondence of Corporal Frank Stewart Graham, written to his wife Maggie in 1863.
On 9th June 1854 Frank Stewart Graham and Maggie Smith were married in the parish church of Helensburgh– a town on the north shore of the Firth of Clyde in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. The couple made their home at 39 High Street in Ayr, where Frank worked as a painter. On 28th October 1855 the Grahams celebrated the birth of their first child, Martha, who was baptised in Ayr’s Trinity Episcopal Church on 6th January 1856. Shortly thereafter, for reasons unknown, the young family determined to emigrate to the United States. There they settled in Harlem– specifically in the 3rd District of the 12th Ward. Before long their first son, William, arrived, born in New York in the Autumn of 1859. The 1860 Census found 26-year-old Frank still following his trade as a painter, with a personal estate worth $100. A second boy, Robert, was born later the same year. Interestingly, unlike their sister, both boys were baptised in a Roman Catholic Church, namely St. Andrew’s on Manhattan. (1)
On 25th July 1862 Frank took the decision to enlist in the Union army, becoming a member of the 165th New York Infantry. Initially a member of Company B, he was transferred to Company E in December and would stay with them for the remainder of his service. Interestingly another Graham, 18-year-old Hugh, also joined Company B of the regiment. His birthplace was recorded as Glasgow, and it may well be that they were relatives, perhaps even brothers. When Frank eventually marched off to war he certainly looked the part. The 165th were intended to be a 2nd Battalion of Duryée’s Zouaves (the 1st Battalion being the famed 5th New York Infantry). They wore striking blue and red uniforms, adorned with sashes and topped off with blue-tasseled fezzes. Frank and his comrades left New York on 2nd December 1862 bound for the New Orleans and the Department of the Gulf, where they would serve as part of Brigadier-General Thomas Sherman’s division. It was from here that Francis would write home. (2)
Frank was stationed in Camp Parapet just outside New Orleans, when he wrote the first letter. In a theme common to many Civil War soldiers, he was impatient to receive letters from home, and was not shy in saying so. What is striking is Frank’s above average writing ability; he is particularly eloquent when expressing his affection for his wife and how much he wishes he could kiss her once more. Equally notable is Frank’s fervent support for the Union war effort, and contempt for those who were not giving their all at the front. Not only was Frank fighting for Union, he indicates that he was also fighting to advance the cause of emancipation. Strong support for the Union is a common theme throughout many immigrant soldier’s letters, even where, like Frank, they had only been in North America for a short period of time. In most instances, they had committed to their new home, and this was now their “Country.” Frank’s letter also provides an interesting description of New Orleans, and of his treatment by Confederate women– evidence of how strong support for the war effort was on the Home Front at this time. (3)
Near New Orleans
12 March 1863
My Own Dearest Maggie
The mail steamer which left New York on the 26th February and by which I expected a letter from you has arrived- and brought letters to Gelston- Owens- Tower and Baldwin, but none for me. What Maggie can be your reason for this long silence I am at a loss to conceive as since I left New York I have received but one from you and that was written on the 2nd Feby, just one month and ten days ago. I would liked to have known whether you received the $45-00 I sent you or not. Gelstons and Baldwins wives have received their they say- and surely to God you have received yours- If you have why not write me to make my mind easy, as you must know I do feel very uneasy until I am certain whether or not. Gelstons wife mention in her letter that you had written and sent your portrait. If so, I have not received it yet but perhaps it missed the last mail and will arrive with the next. I hope it may, and that it may be a good one, so that when I feel weary and drooping in spirits I can take it out of my bosom and press it to my lips, and think it is my own dear wife I am kissing. Oh Maggie how much would I give this moment to press you in my arms and imprint one kiss on your lips- but it cannot be until we have conquered the foe, which I hope to God will not be long. If once Vicksburg and Charleston was ours then the day would be won, but until then you need not believe any stories you hear about us coming home in May, or that peace will be proclaimed- it is all nonsense, started by cowardly hearted cravens who after 3 or four months soldiering would like to get home, and blow about being soldiers, instead of fighting as men and soldiers until the rebellion is put down once and forever, and then returning home as soldiers and heros with the conscious pride of having fought their country’s battles and conquered their country’s foes. I tell you Maggie from the depth of my heart, that if I was offered my discharge today I would not accept it, nor ever will until the rebellion is put down, no matter when that may be. Since I have enlisted in the cause of freedom I will stay until that cause is triumphant.
On last Tuesday the 10th we marched to New Orleans 8 miles and paraded the City and were received my Major General Sherman and returned in the evening, having marched about 20 miles. You will scarce believe me when I tell you that as passed along the streets and square the ladies closed their window blinds to show their spite. In front of one house where we rested for a few minets, they actually locked the gate to keep us from geting water to drink, and the sun raging high and hot. But our Col. got and give each man to drink a half gill of good whiskey, and then we did not care a fig for their water. I forgot to mention in my last 2 letters that I had been promoted to be color Corporal, that is to form one of the colour Guard composed of 8 corporal and 2 Sergts, whose only duty is to defend and protect the colours- it is no more extra pay, but only a little honour.
In the meantime Maggie I must close by wishing you good night. I hope Martha is a good girl and the 2 little fellows good boys to their Ma. I hope you make them say their prayers for their Father every night.
Your Affectionate Husband,
Frank S. Graham. (4)
Frank’s promotion to Color Corporal was an honour, but would also place him in one of the most dangerous parts of the field during any future assault. Of the soldiers Frank mentions in his letter, Samuel Gelston was a 27-year-old Philadelphia bricklayer who was transferred to the navy in 1864, while William Baldwin was a 35-year-old New York carpenter who mustered out with the unit in 1865. The next letter in the file was written just over two months later, from the Levee Steam Cotton Press building in New Orleans. Again, Frank expresses his dedication to the war effort, but also his love, care and desire to support his family. As he wrote, he witnessed a squad going to collect one of the regiment who had died of typhoid fever. His letter also captures a moment that would have long-term consequences for the 165th, and for Frank. Hastily scribbled in pencil is a postscript, dated 6 o’clock on 19th May 1863. Frank records that the regiment has just been ordered up the Mississippi, to join in the major efforts to secure Port Hudson. (5)
Levee Steam Cotton Press
Sunday 17 May 1863
My Dear Maggie,
My last letter written on the 10th was No 8. I forgot to number it. In your letters always mention the number of the last letter you received. Last Thursday I received your letter of the 26 April with the fifty cents inclosed. It was a glad sight, I had just been out marching and was pretty well worn out, with the sweat pouring down in streams when I opened the letter and seen it. I can assure you I was not long in getting the Captain to pass me out the gate, where I soon found means to get a rousing glass of good whiskey which done me a deal of good. Nor did I forget to wish you long life and many happy days for your thoughtfulness in sending it. I now receive all your letter and papers regularly and it gives me a great deal of pleasure when I now am certain of having a letter every week, so that I know how matters are get on with you and the children. I hope by this time you have received the eighteen dollars I sent by the Express to you on the 29 of last month, you say in your last for me not to be angry with you for spending the money, I sent it to you for to keep yourself and the children comfortable and I want you to do it, but Maggie I not want you to be noble hearted but I want you to keep yourself and the children as comfortable as possible until my return. I am enjoying as good health as I ever done in all my life. The weather is now geting pretty warm, but our barracks are nice and shady and cool. We are now geting better and more food than we have ever got since we left Staten Island- Frank Gray is cook again so I fare pretty well, but indeed we have all more than we can eat and plenty to spare.
Dear Maggie, there is a great many rumors around camp every day- some may be true but the most are lies. One day, Col. Hull is going to take command, another day the Secretary of War has ordered all the old 5th men shall be sent on to New York to join the regiment and go to Verginy, another day the regiment is going to be joined in with some other regiment, and all the Corporals and Sergants that pleases can go home for good and be mustered out the service, and every other sort of rumor. If you hear any such news in Harlem you will know what they are worth- nothing.
I can tell you Maggie when we will be home, just when the war is over, not a day sooner, and for my part I do not want to go to the old 5th [5th New York Infantry] over to Virginny either. I am perfectly satisfied and happy where I am, and proud of the regiment for it is the best drilled and disciplined regiment in the Deparment of the Gulph, and the healthest, although Maggie we have deaths occasionally from typhod fever. Just as I am writing this a squad is marching out of the gate for the Hospital to get the remains of their comrade who died last night, to lay him this morning in his narrow bed, over two thousand miles away from his home and friends- poor fellow. his marching days are over. He belonged to Co. B.
The Steamer that sailed from New York on the 6th with mails for here has not yet arrived, although the one that left on the 7th has arrived 3 days ago. We are afraid something has happened her. With the mail I send you a newspaper. It contains some very fine poetry- which I am sure you will admire- the one “After Taps” where at night in his tent, he thinks on his wife at home with the little one on her knee, and little Willie his 2nd oldest by at her side. I like it very much, and I sure you will, you will make Martha learn it. I hope she is still a good girl– she will soon get her necklace. Tell Sonney I want him to be a good boy and keep out of the mud, and when I come home I will drill him for to be a soldier, if ever war should break out again, so that he can go with his father the next time. And the little fellow, God bless him, I hope his little jolly face will always keep his mother’s heart glad until his father returns. I hope they will all have luck with their eggs, although I think you should not have let them until you moved into your new house. On the 10th I sent a letter to the Mercury, on the 21st I will send another so look out.[in pencil]
Tuesday evening 6 o clock 19th May
My Own Dear Maggie,
We have received orders to go up the river to the battle field where General Banks is playing hell with the rebels- may God bless and protect you and the children- pray for my safety
God watch over you is my prayer,
your affectionate husband,
Frank S. Graham
The men are all in good spirits[ in pen] All the Harlem men are well Billy Wheat has sent some newspapers and 2 letters. James Riley has written 1 letter, indeed they have all written with this mail. The next one sails on the 29th, 8 days from now. (6)
Again, Frank mentions a number of soldiers in his letter. Frank Gray (Grey) was a 39-year-old Rensselaer County carpenter. He would be captured in 1864 but was exchanged and mustered out in 1865. Billy Wheat was a 28-year-old New York painter who was wounded, but would survive the war. James Riley (Reilly) was a 21-year-old Irish plumber who was wounded and captured in 1864, but survived to be discharged. (7)
Frank mentions writing letters to the Mercury, a New York newspaper (it would be interesting to discover if these letters were ever printed). Evidently he had been greatly taken by the poem “After Taps” which he had sent to his wife. He clearly felt the soldier in the verse was someone he could identify with, and it impressed him so greatly that he instructed Maggie to have their daughter learn it by heart. The poem was written by Union soldier Colonel H.B. Sargent, and was published in The Atlantic Monthly in May 1863. It is here reproduced in full:
TRAMP! Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!
As I lay with my blanket on,
By the dim fire-light, in the moonlit night,
When the skirmishing fight was done.
The measured beat of the sentry’s feet,
With the jingling scabbard’s ring!
Tramp! Tramp! in my meadow-camp
By the Shenandoah’s spring.
The moonlight seems to shed cold beams
On a row of pale gravestones:
Give the bugle breath, and that image of Death
Will fly from the reveille’s tones.
By each tented roof, a charger’s hoof
Makes the frosty hill-side ring:
Give the bugle breath, and a spirit of Death
To each horse’s girth will spring.
Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!
The sentry, before my tent,
Guards, in gloom, his chief, for whom
Its shelter to-night is lent.
I am not there. On the hill-side bare
I think of the ghost within;
Of the brave who died at my sword-hand side,
To-day, ‘mid the horrible din
Of shot and shell and the infantry yell,
As we charged with the sabre drawn.
To my heart I said, “Who shall be the dead
In my tent, at another dawn?”
I thought of a blossoming almond-tree,
The stateliest tree that I know;
Of a golden bowl; of a parted soul;
And a lamp that is burning low.
Oh, thoughts that kill! I thought of the hill
In the far-off Jura chain;
Of the two, the three, o’er the wide salt sea,
Whose hearts would break with pain;
Of my pride and joy, – my eldest boy;
Of my darling, the second– in years;
Of Willie, whose face, with its pure, mild grace,
Melts memory into tears;
Of their mother, my bride, by the Alpine lake’s side,
And the angel asleep in her arms;
Love, Beauty, and Truth, which she brought to my youth,
In that sweet April day of her charms.
“HALT! Who comes there?`’ The cold midnight air
And the challenging word chill me through.
The ghost of a fear whispers, close to my ear,
“Is peril, love, coming to you?”
The hoarse answer, “RELIEF,” makes the shade of a grief
Die away, with the step on the sod.
A kiss melts in air, while a tear and a prayer
Confide my beloved to God.
Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!
With a solemn, pendulum-swing!
Though I slumber all night, the fire burns bright,
And my sentinels’ scabbards ring.
“Boot and saddle!” is sounding. Our pulses are bounding.
“To horse!” And I touch with my heel
Black Gray in the flanks, and ride down the ranks,
With my heart, like my sabre, of steel. (8)
The final line of Frank’s letter was written on 21st May. Six days later, on 27th May, the Union military launched a frontal assault against Port Hudson’s Confederate works. A member of the 165th described the attack:
Early in the morning we were informed that there was to be an assault on the works…[that afternoon] our regiment…was designated to lead the brigade in the assault; as we advanced through the woods, coming to a clearing, we found trees for several hundred feet felled in all manner of directions; as we emerged from the woods the enemy opened on us with infantry and artillery; we manage to get through the fallen timber, but hardly a man had a decent pair of pants on him; our Colonel formed in division front on color division; this was done under constant fire; as soon as we formed the men were ordered to lie down in their positions, waiting for the rest of the brigade to come up; they did not get up to our line, so the Colonel ordered the charge; when about 150 yards from the works the enemy gave us grape and canister at short range; I never saw anything like it; our men were mowed down; the firing was terrific…the men by natural instinct deployed as skirmishers taking to whatever protection they could; we finally fell back the best we could. Such a sight; the dead and wounded lay thick; the wounded groaning and calling for water (of which we had little to give) and calling upon us not to desert them…(9)
Among the dead was Frank Graham. The following year his widow Maggie, now living at 8 Mulberry Street in the notorious Five Points district of Manhattan, successfully applied for a widows pension for herself and her three small children. It is not known what became of her two boys, but when she was again in correspondence with the pension bureau in April 1867, neither of them were mentioned as minor dependents. By then Maggie had moved again, this time to 89 Cliff Street in Manhattan. Whether her two sons had died may be unknown, but the fate of the Grahams eldest daughter was recorded. Martha died on 11th October 1867, just two weeks short of her twelfth birthday. The Graham family futures had all been irrevocably altered by the decision to emigrate, and by Frank’s death at Port Hudson. His letters are just one of many Scottish examples in the files, which offer us an insight into what life was like for these Scots immigrants. On the occasion of the 41st anniversary of the 165th New York’s fateful assault, Joseph Mills Hanson, a nephew of one of the regiment’s officers, wrote a poem about the attack. One of the verses (Verse 17) mentions Frank Graham by name, and stands as a lasting memorial to his death, given for a cause in which he fervently believed.
Dedicated to the Veterans of the One Hundred and Sixty-Fifth Regiment New York Volunteers (2d Duryee Zouaves) on the Forty-First Anniversary of Their Assault upon the Intrenchments of Port Hudson, La., May 27th, 1863.
Ho! comrades, drain a bumper and fling the cups away!
We drink to long-past glories; to buried friends to-day;
And, as those friends were gallant, those glories dearly gained,
See that the cup be brimming, the last red drop be drained!
Our ranks are sadly broken since forty years ago–
When, dressed in full battalion front, we marched to meet the foe.
From some, old age and illness have claimed the mortal price,
But the bullets of the Southron reaped the richest sacrifice.
Let’s roll the dead years back to-night and stand with them again
Upon the field where last we met, the living and the slain,
While mem’ry conjures up once more that bloody morn in May,
When grim Port Hudson’s booming guns announced the coming fray.
Far roll the lines of battle, o’er swamp and vale and height,
And, far and near, the battle-flags toss in the morning light;
A brave array is spread to-day to joust with waiting Death
And fan the face of Destiny with sacrificial breath!
For there is stretching, wide and deep, across our chosen way,
With giant trunk and pointed branch, the tangled abatis,
And reared beyond like headlands that guard a rock-fanged coast,
The heaving, yellow earthworks where waits the rebel host.
All silent lie those earthworks, as our futile field-guns play
Upon their mightly ramparts of stiff, unyielding clay;
But we know the siege-guns lurking in the redoubt’s curtained slits
And well we know the Enfields that will greet us from the pits!
But, hark! The cannon-fire is slacking to its close,
As down our serried columns, the word of caution goes.
Are any here to falter? Are there any laggards now,
Who tramped the long, forced, midnight march with Nickerson and Dow?
Come breathe a prayer to Heaven; cast terror to the wind,
For Sherman’s galloped out in front, with all his staff behind!
Our gallant Colonel’s in the van; his sword points out the way
Duryee’s Zouaves must follow in Glory’s path to-day!
Forward! The brazen bugle its stirring challenge flings
And forth into the open the line of battle swings;
Straight forth into the open, with measured tread and slow,
The Stars and Stripes above us, the burnished steel below;
Six hundred forms that stride as one, six hundred guns that shine,
Six hundred faces sternly set toward the far rebel line,
And, right and left, the regiments, steady as on parade,
That march with us to hazard the deadly escalade.
One moment yet, in silence redoubt and fieldtrench bide,
As if the foe gaze, spell-bound, upon the coming tide,
Then, like the livid lightning that frees the storm-cloud’s ire,
All down the close-embrasured line, leaps forth the siege-gun’s fire!
Have you heard the wind’s wild clamor when the midnight typhoon broke?
Have you timed the lightning’s measure as it rends the forest oak?
Such sounds will seem but music, sleep-wooing to your bed,
When you’ve harked to the yell of the ten-inch shell as it hurtles overhead?
They come, those sightless reapers; front, flank and rear they strike,
With sickening thud and spirting blood, smite high and low alike;
But our steady ranks close smoothly o’er each ragged fissure torn,
As the sea fills up the furrow that the passing prow has shorn.
We leave the open cornfields; unbroken, hold our way
Till we breast the leveled timber of the bristling abatis;
And, though the files break distance in the labyrinthian net,
There is neither halt nor tremor; we are rolling forward yet!
But see! along the trenches, below the foeman’s guns,
Yellow and swift and spiteful, a line of fire runs!
And, e’en as we hear the volley and the storm of rebel yells,
The abatis breaks forth in flame, lit by the bursting shells!
Come, cheer, Zouaves! No fear, Zouaves! We’re leading the brigade!
The men who fall but bid us all press onward, undismayed.
The men who fall! Dear God above, have pity on their souls!
They fall amid the burning trees, in pits of glowing coals!
Fosdick is down– the gallant lad whose guidon led the right;
No more we’ll see his brave young face, flushed with the battle-light.
Carville and Gatz and Graham are numbered with the slain
And D’Eschambault has fallen, never to rise again.
Yet still, unchecked unconquered, the Zouaves strain ahead
With muskets clutched in bleeding hands, leaving a trail of dead.
While higher still the choking flames, roll like a furnace blast,
And, fast blown, with whirr and moan, the bullets whistle past!
More loudly swells the tumult; across the quaking plain,
Smoke-wreathed the tossing battle-flags rise, sink and rise again;
While, northward, crash the volleys, lashed out by shrapnel’s goad,
Of Augur’s fiery Irishmen, sweeping the Plain’s Store Road.
Inwood, the dashing captain, reels with a bitter wound;
Torn by an iron fragment, Vance totters to the ground;
But, Agnus, strong and eager, holds still the desperate path.
With Morris, French and Hoffman, on, on, through the gates of wrath!
Our shatter ranks are pausing upon the brink of doom;
Can human courage win to where those thund’ring breastworks loom?
See! far ahead, the flashing blade of Abel Smith still shines
And onward waves to soldiers’ graves or through the rebel lines!
One moment more his falchion its dauntless sign proclaims;
One moment more his Zouaves follow through shot and flames,
Then, like some forest monarch, crushed down before the storm,
With bleeding breast and nerveless hand, sinks that heroic form!
Ah, grim-faced War, one victim more your authors must atone!
Ah, Freedom, weep! Your wound is deep, for Abel Smith lies prone!
‘Reft of our chief, our columns pause in the scathing fire,
As paused the marching waters before the walls of Tyre.
The pause; then, slow, reluctant to quit the fatal spot,
With many a short-lived rally and many a backward shot,
The riven ranks, the tattered flags, the wounded and the whole
Back from that pit of Hades in sullen billows roll.
Crippled but not defeated; checked– but with bosoms steeled
To vengeance for the comrades lost upon that bloody field.
Ere cease the foeman’s volleys; ere yet the silence falls
The regiments are rearing the breaching-batteries’ walls.
‘Tis past and gone long years ago; we boys in blue to-day
Give cordial hands, not bullets, to the men who wore the gray;
To-day, across the pastures where we charged on that May morn,
The summer breezes whisper through ranks of growing corn.
The blackbird whistles from the fence, the sweet clematis vine
Tangles the earth where stretched but now the smoking fieldtrench line;
And o’er the fragrant grass-lands stand shocks of new-mown hay,
Where swept the Zouaves, cheering, through the burning abatis.
One starry banner flutters from Georgia’s storied ground
To where the snow-capped Cascades stand guard o’er Puget Sound;
Reared by the hands of heroes; guarded by freemen’s shields;
Saved by the men who perished on Southern battle-fields.
To-night, a grizzled remnant of those gallant hosts, we stand,
Dreaming old battles o’er again amid a peaceful land;
Proud that we once were of them; glad that our toil and pain
Helped to restore that banner, undimmed, to it’s place again.
But the thought most proud and tender is of those who have gone before,
And we trust to the Lord Jehovah, who rules both peace and war,
That again we may meet comrades, when, too, we are called away,
Who fell before Port Hudson’s guns, that bloody morn in May.
So drink the bumper roundly and toss the glasses clear!
To comrades sleeping soundly who would bid us drink in cheer,
As they, smiling, went from battle to the judgement of their God,
Let us, smiling, pledge their slumbers in their tents beneath the sod! (10)
* 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) Francis Graham Widow’s Pension File, 1860 Federal Census; (2) Roster of the 165th New York Infantry, New York Muster Roll Abstracts, New York State Military Museum, Troiani et a. 2002: 34; (3) Francis Graham Widow’s Pension File; (4) Ibid.; (5) New York Muster Roll Abstracts; (6) Francis Graham Widow’s Pension File; (7) New York Muster Roll Abstracts; (8) The Atlantic Monthly May 1863; (9) History of the Second Battalion Duryee Zouaves 1905: 17-18; (10) Ibid., 52-54;
References & Further Reading
Widow’s Certificate 33677 of Margaret Graham, widow of Corporal Francis Stewart Graham, 165th New York Infantry.
1860 U.S. Federal Census.
New York Herald 4th July 1863.
The Atlantic Monthly May 1863. “After Taps.”
New York Muster Roll Abstracts.
Anon,, 1905. History of the Second Battalion Duryee Zouaves: One Hundred and Sixty-fifth Regt. New York Volunteer Infantry.
Anon., 1906. Album of the Second Battalion Duryee Zouaves: One Hundred and Sixty-fifth Regt. New York Volunteer Infantry.
Troiani Don, Coates Earl J., McAfee Michael J. 2002. Don Troiani’s Civil War: Zouaves, Chasseurs, Special Branches & Officers.